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The show Bridgerton did give us a peep into British high society, but also mirrored the pressures 21st century Indian women face in the market of arranged marriages.
Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, the hit Netflix series Bridgerton transports its viewers to 19th century Regency London, during a time in high society when young girls from aristocratic society were presented at the royal court.
When I saw the show’s trailer, I instantly knew that I was going to binge-watch the series (a habit I have been trying to shake off). I was right, for when it released in December 2020, I watched it in one night and proceeded to spend the next day online, reading everything I could find about Bridgerton.
The show presents an ethnically diverse monarchy with a black woman who, as queen, paves the way for other black families to enter the ‘ton’, a term commonly used to refer to Britain’s high society. Of this ton, the daughter of the prestigious Bridgerton family, Daphne, receives the Queen’s favour at her society debut. She instantly becomes competition for other girls (and mothers) of high society, for post society debut is the season for girls to secure proposals from eligible bachelors, who must of course be approved by the family.
This season is essentially a series of balls, scandals, gossip and dinners that allow young men and women to catch each other’s eyes, and their parents to work out the details of their engagements.
The show’s dramatic romances and classical music covers of pop songs aren’t all that audiences have got hooked on. What drew them in was also how the show treated themes like race, highlighting its importance but not reducing characters to their racial identities. However, what stayed with me after watching the show was how life for women in Regency London parallels the realities of women in the world I live in.
The world of Bridgerton is male-dominated where women are passed on from the control of their male relatives (usually their father or brothers) to that of their husbands after getting married. Remaining single is seen as a misfortune and is not a viable option for women of any class. Referred to by the derogatory term ‘old maid’, unmarried women have little to no assets and no prospects of being self-sufficient. The goal for women is to get married well and the show reveals all the rules, preparations and anxieties of women who have to bear the burden of the family’s honour. To not get married is detrimental for the family as well as for their younger sibling’s prospects and the social status of the family.
As Daphne once says in the show, “This is all I’ve been raised for. This is all I am. I have no other value. If I am unable to find a husband, I shall be worthless.” Thus, one sees characters being shoved into tight corsets, and girls carefully calculating their moves, eye contact and even breaths to capture the attention of the ‘right’ men. Their words are spoken to be as agreeable as possible, whether they’re honest or not.
Indian women of the 21st century share similar pressures. I think it’s safe to say that we are all acquainted with the practice of arranged marriage. Traditionally, families would write up a resume of their children’s statistics and circulate the list to reach families of prospective partners. Lists can be shared with family, friends, a local priest or even a paid matchmaker. The modern conceptualisation of matchmakers is Sima Taparia from the highly controversial Netflix show, Indian Matchmaking. Other ‘modernisations’ include matrimonial websites.
So what makes an Indian woman a good candidate in the marriage market? The answer is not easy, for there are so many hoops to jump through and impossible standards to meet. While watching Indian Matchmaking, I laughed at how I would have the worst biodata and have already lost without entering this market.
One must be tall, but never taller than the groom, slim but not skinny, and have perfect porcelain skin. This is the only image of beauty, which cannot be questioned, for it is ‘tradition’. Crucial data does not include hopes, dreams, values or one’s favourite movie. More important markers are height, weight, caste, religion, age, and skin complexion. One look at the matrimonial section of a newspaper will reveal how in demand ‘fair and good-looking’ women are.
Next, one must have the skills of a trained chef, which is a basic necessity and not something to truly be proud of – in fact, one must not be too confident at all. While one needs an undergraduate degree for the family to have a padhi-likhi bahu (an educated daughter in law) who can keep up with her husband’s intellect, she must have the degree for show only – not to actually use in conversation, let alone for a career.
A well-known example is a matrimonial ad that explicitly stated that girls from Lady Shri Ram College and Miranda House ‘need not apply’. The bride cannot be more educated and definitely should not earn more than the groom for it is ‘too emasculating’. At one point, Sima Taparia declares that in India, families don’t want a lawyer as a potential bride when they are going for an arranged marriage. After all, a good candidate must know their subservient place, shouldn’t they?
Indian women, like those in Bridgerton, are taught by society and their families how to become the perfect candidate. The priority which shapes a woman’s personality, behaviour, thoughts, and wants is the husband and his family. Love, chemistry or even friendship are definitely not primary concerns, if at all. Constantly women go on extreme diets to lose weight and spend enormously on beauty treatments (this is before the avalanche of expenses for the actual wedding and possible dowry payments).
A quote from Bridgeton captures this requirement, “Titled, chaste, and innocent, this is what they have been raised and trained for since birth.” The process is constructed to be difficult for women and she has to ‘adjust’ at every juncture. Even the hint of independence or out-spokeness are grounds for rejection. Perceived promiscuity is perhaps a candidate’s worst sin. Thus, just like in our world, the girls of Bridgerton are tied to their virginal reputation.
Yet, young girls are rarely empowered to deal with the cold, harsh realities of marriage, which is sold as the ultimate dream. Daphne from the show Bridgerton thus berates her mother for never teaching her about sex or how to deal with arguments while ‘training’ her to secure the perfect match.
Many contemporary Indian youth hold that arranged marriages have transformed in that it’s like being set up by parents after which it is up to the two individuals to decide if they want to get married. However, this isn’t true for a majority of the country and even so, old measures of compatibility – such as caste – still hold primacy.
I often hear the argument that arranged marriages ensure that our culture and traditions are still upholded. Further, because the family is so central in Indian life, it then holds that it is deeply involved in matters of marriage. Yet, when I personally see or hear of women going through undue pressures to morph themselves into unrealistic ideals, or read articles of individuals being brutally (often fatally) persecuted by their families for independently choosing to get married, I cannot help but question these reasons.
The phenomenon of arranged marriage reveals the paradox of Indian social life – despite claims to education and ‘modernity’, the conservative grip of religion, caste and superficial qualities still remains. Indians seem to seamlessly live within such a paradox.
The parallels between the show Bridgerton and the world I live in make me think about the progress women have fought hard for. People claim that the fight has been won, that to be a feminist is now unecessary and only hateful. And yet, women still aren’t allowed to be individuals, flaws and all. I argue that we mustn’t fall into the trap of thinking that the work of feminism is ‘done’. Women are viewed as burdens who have to prove themselves worthy of even basic dignities. How is the fight over when women are expected to live in the shadows of their families?
When women are expected to uphold the family while never being recognised for it, one cannot help but relate to the struggles of fictional characters in a historical drama like Bridgerton. However, with each passing day, I hear of women asserting themselves and combating societal pressures, for themselves and for other women. These are the women I turn to for hope and inspiration when I am surrounded by the same misogynistic values.
While I may be a bad candidate for the marriage market, I am not beat up about it. In fact, I think it’s something to celebrate, don’t you?
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