In 2020, Netflix released the serial drama Bridgerton, headed by Shonda Rhimes and adapted from a book series by Julia Quinn. This Jane Austen-inspired show applied Rhimes’ color-blind casting approach—not electing a character’s race before choosing the actor to play the role—to Regency-era London. The approach resulted in a colorful ensemble and various multiracial relationships, including between two main characters, Daphne (white) and Simon (Black). In the world of Bridgerton, the deviation from historical accuracy is explained twofold: one, that this King George III fell in love with a Black woman, and her ascendency as Queen Charlotte erased racism; and two, that the real Queen Charlotte is fabled to have had African ancestry. In “the ton,” therefore, lords and ladies comingle with only one mention of race, save for Lady Danbury (Simon’s godmother, of sorts), who says: “We were two separate societies divided by color until a king fell in love with one of us… Love, your grace, conquers all.”
One of the colorblind roles went to mixed race actress Ruby Barker, who plays Marina Thompson. Barker said in a video interview with Daily Mail that, before being cast in Bridgerton, she thought: “I’m probably not gonna be in a period drama, simply because of my race.” While colorblind casting increases opportunities for diverse casts, continued colorblindness after casting can result in the perpetuation of stereotypes, however unintended. In the case of Marina Thompson, her storyline closely mirrors the stereotyped role of the “tragic mulatta,” a popular trope in abolitionist fiction.
The mixed race, often light-skinned tragic mulatta figure was used by white abolitionists such as Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to garner sympathy from white readers. The tragic mulatta—as the name implies—always maintained a suffered existence at the hands of a white master and usually died at a young age. After the abolition of slavery, the trope endured as a way to foster the perceived natural division of the races. In “The Tragic Mulatta Plays the Tragic Muse,” author Kimberly Snyder Manganelli states:
By the late 1850s there was an explosion of abolitionist sensation fiction in which British authors attempted to capitalize on the popularity of Stowe’s novel with their own versions of the Tragic Mulatta narrative. However, in England, the motif shifted more towards sensation fiction as the crucial dynamic became courtship rather than seduction.
Bridgerton, set in 1813, ascribes to Marina a sensationally tragic courtship season, used as a counter to Daphne’s chastity and innocence and as a cautionary tale to the other young debutantes.
Marina Thompson is described as a distant cousin of white Lord and Lady Featherington who comes to stay just as the social season begins. It is implied—though never outright stated—that Mr. Featherington houses Marina in exchange for debts owed to Marina’s father. Thus, the commodification of Marina begins when she first arrives in London. Much like slave women bought on the auction block, nothing is known of Marina’s parentage, except that she grew up on a farm. At the outset, her debut outshines that of Daphne Bridgerton, the eligible daughter of a viscountess. The “ton’s” anonymous gossip columnist, Lady Whistledown, writes: “An even rarer jewel of only the most remarkable brilliance, fire, and luster has been unearthed. Her name, unknown to most, yet soon known to all, is Miss Marina Thompson.”
However, shortly after catching the eye of Daphne’s brother, Marina’s tragic fate is sealed: she has not bled in a month, since before her arrival in London. It is revealed that she had a lover, Sir George Crane, who is now at the frontlines of the war in Spain. As the scholar Heidi M. Hanrahan writes in a 2005 article in The New England Quarterly: “Despite her attempt to be a model woman, the mulatta can never fully succeed.” Marina is removed from society and locked away in a bare bedroom in the Featherington home. One of the Featherington daughters asks, “Why is Miss Thompson to be kept away?” Lady Featherington answers, “Because her condition is catching.”
When Sir George’s love letters cease, Lady Featherington forges a breakup letter. “He pretends there was nothing between us,” a sobbing Marina tells one of Lady Featherington’s daughters, Penelope. “He says he desires nothing more to do with me or our… my situation.” Marina’s love affair with Sir George, who had planned to marry her and run away to the country, seems now to be over. Dashed are her chances at a “love match,” which is the pinnacle of success in Bridgerton.
Hanrahan writes of Harriet Jacobs’ book Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl:
Jacobs invites white female readers to share the mulatta’s pain by invoking the idea of the universal dream of “girlhood”—finding happiness with one’s true love. The mulatta, she wants her audience to know, can never attain that dream.
Hanrahan also writes that “the mulatta herself is rarely granted voice or agency; she is acted upon rather than acting.” Devoid of personal agency, Marina finds she must follow Lady Featherington’s demands against her “revolting recklessness” to secure a husband before she starts to show.
Because Marina’s new chance at marriage must be swift and she must conceal her pregnancy, Lady Featherington pushes her to accept the proposal of Lord Rutledge, a senior man whose countenance and demands resemble that of a slave owner. At a visit to the Featherington home, he says to Marina, “Show me a smile, girl… Your teeth, I want to see them.” To Lady Featherington, he says, “I shall try her out in company, see how she acquits herself.” While this exchange is likely meant to explore the commodification of women during the Regency era, Marina’s olive skin, her lack of agency in London, and the race of those attempting to prescribe her future in “trade” are reminiscent of the slave and master dynamic.
Marina attempts to control her life by securing a proposal from the young Colin Bridgerton, who expressed interest when she first arrived in London. However, Lady Featherington demands: “That boy is barely out of leading strings. He has two older brothers still running from the yoke. You are to cut Colin Bridgerton immediately, or I will lock you in this very room till the day Lord Rutledge makes you his wife.” In order to secure Colin, she must trick him into marrying early and perhaps seduce him before the wedding night. “You will seduce him?” Lady Featherington asks. Marina answers, “I will do as I must.” Marina thus moves from a sexual yet committed woman to a seductress, bringing about the judgment of her confidant, Penelope. Likewise, Manganelli writes that in Charles Kingsley’s novel Two Years Ago, the mixed race, runaway slave Marie’s “mixed inheritance comes to figure a ‘strange double nature…’ Marie is not merely a passive victim.”
Penelope warns, “You can choose anyone but him. He is my friend, Marina. I have known him forever. And I do not want him to be tricked and deceived into a lifelong commitment. You must not do this to a good man.” Marina answers, “Well, should I perhaps entrap a bad man, then? Perhaps you would find it acceptable for me to live my life with a man who treats me like a mere beast?”
In a 1996 article in the journal Legacy, the scholar Kristina Brooks writes:
Not only is the individual woman (more) radically split between a subject-self and an object-self, but this division allows for the possibility of masquerade, or the manipulation of that object-self that meets the public gaze, while it simultaneously circumscribes her agency once her reputation is defined.
Marina thus straddles two selves—the victim who must marry without love, and the seductress who is better able to pursue Colin over Lord Rutledge. Her two selves also merge on more than one occasion; for example, her entreaty to Colin closely mirrors the tragic mulatta’s experience when she says:
I cannot stand it, Colin. My own father does not want me. Even the Featheringtons cannot wait to be rid of me. Fool that I am, I truly thought that with your family, I might finally find acceptance. But it is no use… I wish we could be married this very minute.
However, just as Brooks warns, when Marina’s schemes are revealed through the gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, her victimhood is overshadowed by her masquerade:
The bond between man and bride is private, sacred. But I must tell you, I have learned that a grave fraud is afoot… Miss Marina Thompson is with child… and she has been from the very first day she arrived in our fair city. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, but I would wager many will think her actions beyond the pale. Perhaps she thought it her only option, or perhaps she knows no shame. But I ask you, can the ends ever justify such wretched means?
In traditional tragic mulatta tales, this outage would likely result in Marina’s suicide; in Bridgerton, she attempts to abort her baby with an herbal concoction, and Penelope finds her prostrate on the bedroom floor. Daphne, out of anger at Simon’s deception, comes to Marina’s aid in what can be deemed the role of a white savior:
Why should he [George] be the one to choose your future when he clearly cares not for the outcome? He is at fault here. Perhaps I can make him come back and take responsibility for you and his child. Why should you be left all alone to bear the punishment for his crime?
Through her new status as a Duchess, Daphne is able to send an inquiry through the general, who is currently in London. Marina finds that George has died in battle holding a love letter to her, and his brother desires to marry her out of a sense of duty to George. When she finds her abortion has not been successful, Marina reluctantly agrees. Lady Featherington tells Marina, “You are strong, Miss Thompson. Perhaps even more so than me. You will do well.”
As Hanrahan writes of Jacobs’ book: “In choosing a strategic but loveless relationship, Linda rejects the romantic idealism that often leads to the mulatta’s downfall.” While Hanrahan argues that such endings relieve the mulatta of tragedy, Marina is not afforded the same happy ending as Daphne, who has secured a love match just like her mother before her. By contrast Marina asks Lady Featherington: “How did you do it? How did you endure two and twenty years of marriage without love?” Marina’s story is thus tempered in relation to the white protagonist.
In the Bridgerton book series by Julia Quinn, Marina does not appear until book six, To Sir Phillip, With Love, and then only in the first few pages. Her husband, Phillip, the narrator, describes her thus: “Marina had spent her entire life, or at least the entire life he’d known, melancholy. He wouldn’t remember the sound of her laughter, and in truth, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever known it.” With no dialogue of her own, Marina tries to drown herself in the lake and subsequently dies of a fever. Hanrahan says of the mulatta figure: “Most often, death (frequently by suicide) is the only escape offered.” In the book, Marina is a distant cousin of the Bridgertons, and Marina’s demise sets up the love story between Phillip and Eloise Bridgerton. The series could easily use Marina’s anecdotal tragedy in the second season; however, in doing so, the writers would further entrench Marina in the tragic mulatta trope.
Hanrahan writes that “we cannot ignore the damaging effects of portraying the mulatta as powerless and passive.” Shonda Rhimes’ colorblind casting largely works, but for characters like Marina, as well as the Duke, who has his own tragic mulatto story, reliance on historic tropes diminish their capacity to engage the audience empathically rather than merely sympathetically. Just as fair-skinned Daphne wins the hand of the Duke and secures her “love match,” Marina deserves love too—or at least a role beyond tragedy in the shadows.