Before we get started, since today’s newsletter is so long (sorry y’all)— the fun, short stuff:
What I’ve been watching lately:
Batman. It was so long! Too long, and Selina Kyle was poorly written and a little corny, but the themes felt more authentic to the comics and the detective-spirit and I’m glad I watched it. I want more of Robert Pattinson on screen in roles that he’s actually excited about.
I also recently watched A Personal History of David Copperfield and just loved it so much it made me positively sick with longing. Dev Patel in a waistcoat and puffy sleeves was actually yanked from my most primitive lizard brain, I swear.
What I’ve been listening to lately: Cynthia Erivo narrated Persuasion by Jane Austen on Spotify (for free!) and it’s exactly the kind of therapeutic, warm, easy-to-listen to sort of audiobook that I was looking for as a non-audiobook listener who needs my brain to be occupied with something while I fold laundry.
What I’ve been reading lately: Very little outside of my reading for school, but I did read this incredible journal article about sex robots that I totally recommend. I also read this great interview with Angela Chen in Culture Study, (a favorite newsletter of mine) about broadening our cultural understanding of Ace Identity.
What I’ve been doing lately: I updated folks on TikTok with all the book related things, but outside of that stuff (and an upcoming fun surprise that will probably be announced in a week or two) I’ve been baking these tahini brownies and foisting them onto everyone in my vicinity, to rave reviews, either out of sympathy for my recent baking obsession which has absolutely manifested as a stress coping mechanism or genuine enthusiasm for free food (thank you Emma for recommending the recipe).
Here’s what I’ve been thinking about lately:
The soundtrack for Bridgerton, Season 2, was released recently and received a lot of buzz. The list is good— Harry Styles, Nirvana, Madonna, and Rihanna among others, but the song that really caught my attention was this: “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham,” from the movie of the same name.
For the unaware, Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham (affectionately and concisely referred to as K3G by most) is sort of The Quintessential Bollywood Movie. It’s a marriage plot, a family drama, a dynastic, sweeping, too-long (sorry), musical. It is, unquestionably, a masterpiece of early 2000s Bollywood.
Even for my non-Bollywood-watching friends, I think the importance of this inclusion to the Bridgerton soundtrack is obvious. Kate Sharma, named Kate Sheffield in the books, is South Asian. In the recently released trailer, there are even snippets of a haldi ceremony, which traditionally precedes some Hindu weddings (this varies by region and caste). There is no color-blindness, no happy coincidences in her casting. Her identity as a (maybe?) Indian woman is front and center.
I can talk (and have talked, if we’re being honest) at length about my skepticism about the color-conscious approach to casting that the show has taken. I am, and continue to be, unconvinced of historical romance’s ability to confront the British colonial legacy in satisfying or respectful ways so long as it is written predominantly by white American women. I don’t even know that it’s the genre that should be critically tackling that particular issue, though I leave that to people much smarter than me. I also didn’t love the approach to race taken in season 1, which was, to put it concisely, irritatingly halfhearted. In season 2, even before the show airs, I have some questions about the showrunner’s choice to cast two Tamil women (like me!) and then give them, bafflingly, North Indian last names and a Hindi soundtrack inclusion.
Regardless, the characterization of Kate as an Indian woman, and the layering of Bollywood on Bridgerton unearthed something for me, something that I’ve been dwelling on since I started my (very delayed) Bridgertons Read Along a few weeks ago: historical romance understands something about the immigrant experience— or more accurately, it understood something about mine.
Let’s start with Simon, the Duke of Hastings and protagonist of The Duke and I. He is an oldest (and only) son. He bears the weight of a ducal title. He is traumatized by his father’s desperate desire to preserve their family name, and by the societal standards to which he must limit himself, to the point that he has panic attacks and flashbacks throughout his book. It is precisely this oppressive pressure that make him such good friends with Anthony, Viscount Bridgerton and protagonist of The Viscount Who Loves Me. Anthony, although supported by his family, is traumatized in other ways by his own father’s legacy and struggles throughout the books to meet his own metrics of aristocratic perfection while retaining a sense of self. It’s part of what takes him so long to realize how much he cares for Kate.
The thing that strikes me is that the aristocracy is alive and well for them, a stand-in for intergenerational trauma inherited by sons from fathers. A nebulous form of self-surveillance reinforcing the many ways they will never be adequate and yet must continually strive for perfection, to be everything to everyone— beautifully dressed, sociable, well-liked, masculine, competent, honorable, clever, powerful. It’s stifling to them both, to have inherited something against their will that guides every minute detail of their lives, and yet it is an immovable fact of their existence. The thing that makes Anthony and Simon themselves.
For the first daughters in immigrant households reading this— sound familiar yet?
It bears mentioning that these themes exist outside of Bridgerton as well. Nearly every first son in a historical romance grapples with their cultural inheritance and stifling parental expectations to some degree— Marcus, Lord Westcliff in It Happened One Autumn, by Lisa Kleypas and Ewan, Duke of Marbury in Daring and the Duke by Sarah Maclean come to mind.
The realities for the women in these narratives are different and yet the same, compounded in intersectional analysis. They, too, are privy to a kind of self-surveillance, accompanied by objectification that renders their worth equal to the scale of marital match they make: the more influential the better. They must make the match, and make it while retaining the fragile performance of innocence. They must make it while following every rule, covering every ankle, behaving in the most pristine and unimpeachable way. In The Viscount Who Loved Me, Edwina Sheffield must secure the most profitable match she can, or her entire family’s way of life will be altered forever. Edwina, it should be noted, is still a teenager at the beginning of the book.
I’ve talked about this before as well, about how this is still a truth for most women in this world, if not necessarily white, American women. Marriage is social capital, it is security, and it is a double-edged sword. It demands a kind of restrictively heterosexual femininity and subservience that forces women (both in these books and outside of them) into grayscale versions of themselves. Motherhood, of course, is the ultimate honor. The production of the next generation of aristocrats is the highest and most precious goal. Daphne Bridgerton knew that. Later Bridgerton women do too.
As an Indian woman whose mother is a literal matchmaker, and as someone who fields regular “joking” questions from veritable strangers about when I intend to “settle down” as I approach the ripe old age of 25, the subject matter can become annoyingly personal.
There is more that I find frustratingly familiar. The way that gossip operates in the insular aristocratic community, the ways that older women reinforce patriarchal values like the most vigilant stewards, the ways that everyone’s lives seem so inextricable from one another that personal decisions can never be made without considering every contingency, every implication.
And yet, for all my cynical ranting about immigrant pain, intergenerational trauma, and misogyny, romance is a genre of joy, first and foremost. I find historical romance familiar, also, in the witty dialogue and verbal sparring, the outrageous dresses, the endless excuses to throw a party and be with one another, the enormous warmth of being ensconced in a loud and messy family. I see my life mirrored in the way historical romance authors write song and dance and flowers. I see it in the drama and ceremony and tradition of the haute ton. I find it nostalgic in the way of K3G and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge. I see Rahul and Anjali just as I see Anthony and Kate. Cheeky, loving, spiteful, and happy all at once. Enemies to lovers looks the same from culture to culture, after all.
The film between fiction and reality is becoming increasingly translucent in places where I least expect it. The silhouettes of my childhood loves and my grown-up ones are not so different anymore, just more defined and layered. Maybe my vision is stubborn and myopic and I am seeing connections where I want them, rather than where they exist.
Or maybe they have, somehow, stumbled into something smart and thoughtful in their writing of Kate Sharma, oldest daughter and child of immigrants. Maybe this was exactly the right choice, exactly the right way to pay tribute to her rich, whip-smart character. I guess we’ll see on March 25th.
Hot damn, that was a great read. Thank you.