• Angad Chowdhry

Demystifying the Popularity of Bridgerton Using Our Culture AI

This time last month we were binge-watching Bridgerton. Some of us finished all eight episodes in one night, while others spaced it out over a week.

The Netflix series, based on Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, has been watched by over 82 million households since its release on 25th December 2020. Created by Chris Van Dusen and produced by Shonda Rhimes, it’s best described as Pride and Prejudice meets Gossip Girl and is Netflix’s most-watched original series debut to date. It has ranked #1 in 76 countries and features in Netflix’s Top 10 list in every country except Japan.

Examining consumer search behavior for terms related to the Bridgerton series:

Within the keyword category of Bridgerton related searches, we analyzed the search behavior of 65 high-volume keywords worldwide, with a combined unique search volume of 1.65 million. Comparing search performance in the third quarter of 2020 versus the fourth quarter of 2020, we see an overall increase of a whopping 748%.

Diving into the sub-categories, we see a sharp increase in searches for the Bridgerton books which the show was based on (at a steep 1030%!).

On this note, examining over 80 keywords related to the regency romance novel genre at large, we see an overall category-level increase of 17%. Within this category, searches for Queer regency romances have increased by 56%.

Why the fuss over Bridgerton?

It’s clear that after a sobering year, people are more than happy to embrace escapist experiences. From digital theme parks and virtual clubbing to flights to nowhere and comfort-viewing of sitcoms like Peep Show and Emily in Paris, Regency romance and period drama are the latest fad.

Here’s what makes Netflix’s Bridgerton so special:

Regency romance with a twist

The Bridgerton TV series is a Regency romance made for modern times.

Adapted primarily from the first book of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, The Duke and I, the story revolves around the Bridgerton family, consisting of eight siblings, and their pursuit for love. The first season of the TV series is focused on Daphne, the eldest daughter, as she enters the marriage market of the time.

We’re soon caught up in the whirlwind romance of Daphne and Simon, the Duke of Hastings. And then, there are the parallel stories related to the other Bridgerton siblings, the Featherington family, and the anonymous writer—Lady Whistledown—who keeps track of everyone’s secrets and scandals and writes about them in her tabloid.

We deployed our Culture AI models to conduct a semiotic analysis on Bridgerton’s IMDb data to understand the general sentiment towards the series and found mostly positive reviews from viewers.

Many of them credit the show for its drool-worthy cast, exceptional storytelling, soothing cinematography, vibrant costumes, and a grand Regency-era set. Who cares if it has a predictable plot and is full of aristocratic matchmaking scenes, it’s got all the ingredients of a feel-good romance and far removed from our current reality.

What makes it even more appealing are the modern touches, such as the music, including covers of Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next”, Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You”, Shawn Mendes’ “In My Blood” and Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” by Vitamin String Quartet (whose music streams soared by +350% since the release of the show’s soundtrack).

Black Joy Matters: Diversity in a period drama

Inclusive casting is another aspect of the show that sets it apart. Few people have seen a Regency-era drama with Black characters, and most viewers found this to be a refreshing change.

It may be historically inaccurate (as the critics are quick to point out!) and misses the complexities of interracial relationships, but it gives a glimpse into what an alternative history could look like, and more importantly, presents a Black lead in a series that is not about race.

Shonda Rhimes has expressed in the past that she likes to experiment with casting and isn’t closed to anything: she looks out for people who’d make interesting characters. The creators have taken full artistic liberties with this work of fiction and viewers seem to be loving it. Some of them even point out that it’s great to see Black people doing silly things in a mainstream sitcom.

Related reading: Building Resistance Online: Experiences of Black Women Now and In the Past

Sensual, scintillating, and silly

The top emotions detected by our Culture AI from the running images of the show are ‘happiness’, ‘affiliation’, ‘sensuality’, ‘creativity’, and ‘joyfulness’.

This is unsurprising, given the feel-good vibe of the series. The close-knit family bonds, village gossip, and garden parties signify affiliation, while the on-screen chemistry between the lead actors and the surprisingly steamy scenes are definitely sensual. The intricate costumes, beautiful set design, and picturesque landscapes denote creativity as the Regency era comes to life, and the series’ subtle humor makes it “frivolous but fulfilling”, as one reviewer put it.

It’s interesting that ‘affection’ features lower down the list, reiterating that Bridgerton isn’t just a sappy romance with poetic proclamations of love. It has numerous sub-plots involving the other siblings and showcases everything from silly sibling banter, friendships, and jealousies, to childhood trauma, sexuality, and the journey from adolescence to adulthood—making it relatable even while being surreal.

Further, it has strong female characters (Eloise Bridgerton, Marina Thompson, Penelope Featherington, Lady Danbury), navigating the world of politeness and prudence, and the dreams and desires of women. According to the creator Christ Van Duson, the lustful scenes in the series are shot through the ‘female gaze’, another refreshing change from period dramas of the past.

Power dressing in the Regency era

The show’s costumes have also grabbed the attention of viewers. Search data from fashion search engine Lyst shows soaring online searches for corsets (+123%), empire line dresses (+93%), pearl and feather headbands (+49%), and long gloves (+23%) since the show’s release.

The empire waist gowns, double-breasted waistcoats, and even the jewelry are a mix of modern and vintage styles, vibrant colors replacing more muted tones, giving 19th-century finery a modern, aspirational look and feel.

The costumes enhance the personality of the characters, be it the top hat and dark and icy colors worn by Lady Danbury, or the dainty gowns and delicate necklaces worn by Daphne. Costume Designer Ellen Mirojnick’s message: don’t follow fashion trends, wear what accentuates your personality.

Escapist trends are here to stay

With movie theatres closed due to the pandemic, people have been glued to streaming platforms. The demand for escapist experiences is here to stay, evident from online searches and the record-breaking popularity of shows like Bridgerton.

The old-newness of the series—a predictable Regency romance that is familiar, heady, and comforting—but comes with modern packaging and unique twists, makes it inviting, relatable, and binge-worthy. It is so far from reality that that’s what makes it great.

What’s our big takeaway? Suspend judgment and have fun.

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