Television

Why Bridgerton’s Sex Scenes Are So Unsatisfying

Phoebe Dynevor and Regé-Jean Page hold hands in a ballroom lit by a pink glow.
Snooze. Liam Daniel/Netflix

Over Christmas, Bridgerton set the internet ablaze with its opulent gowns, dashing gentlemen, and, crucially, plenty of sex scenes. The show is an adaptation of The Duke and I, the first novel in Julia Quinn’s swoon-worthy romance series about the Bridgerton family, and many viewers found Bridgerton to be sufficiently sexy, as evidenced by scenes popping up on porn sites and the multiple friends who warned me to watch without my parents around. While bingeing Bridgerton, though, I was reminded less of Austenian confessions of love than of watching Love Island contestants make out: I felt as though I was intruding, and I wished I couldn’t hear the sound of their lips smacking together.

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While not the first romance novel adaptation to hit the small screen—Sweet Magnolias, Virgin River, and Outlander are all based on romance (or at least romantic) series—Bridgerton is the buzziest. It’s the first product of Shonda Rhimes’ Netflix deal, and it’s right at home in this era of horny, sex-positive TV. But as both a romance reader and a fan of sexy TV, I was reluctant to admit that the most salacious parts of Bridgerton made me prefer that Daphne and Simon, this season’s central couple, would shut their bedroom door behind them. Romance novels celebrate female pleasure and wish fulfillment, and I’ll often enjoy a romance even when I find a sex scene to be awkwardly written. My aversion to Bridgerton’s sex scenes, then, seems rooted in issues of genre and adaptation.

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Daphne’s character in the show differs from her character in the books in a way that makes her less sympathetic—and impedes her on-screen chemistry with Simon. While many romance protagonists are perfect in everyone’s eyes but their own, screen Daphne embodies this trope to the extreme: She is the “diamond of the season” and resents settling for less than true love. In the book, she’s already been on the marriage market for two seasons and simply wants a decent husband to start a family with. A major early conflict in Daphne and Simon’s relationship is Daphne’s fear that he only married her to protect her reputation after a scandal. With respect to actress Phoebe Dynevor, watching a tiny, conventionally beautiful woman act stunned by Simon’s wedding-night confession that he “burns” for her left me unmoved. Of course he burned for the season’s It Girl who until recently gave him the cold shoulder! When said It Girl is already desired by everyone else, there is little emotional payoff to Simon’s admission.

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While the show is debaucherous from Episode 1, Daphne and Simon don’t sleep together until Episode 5, on their wedding night, as in the book. The couple argues, each assuming the other resents them. A fraught conversation gives way to the truth, and Simon begins to slowly undress Daphne. The camera lingers on the buttons of her dress, the lacing of her corset, and Simon’s hands, all of which glow in the soft lighting. The scene is soundtracked by a crackling fire and an orchestral cover of “Strange” by Celeste. It begins like a typical Hollywood sex scene—shots of skin and undergarments, heavy breathing, instrumentals—but the temperature progressively rises. The camera focuses on Simon and Daphne’s faces, the closeness suggesting an intimacy between them and us. For good measure, it lingers on Simon’s bare pecs, both their shoulders, and (after Simon drops trou) a very nice butt, which is shown in the foreground as Daphne, in bed and strategically obscured, gazes in amazement at what the audience doesn’t see.

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Amid the couple’s repeated gasps of pleasure and whispered conversations, though, the scene itself is all over the place. The music stops when the couple falls into bed together, leaving us to focus on their panting. The needle drops again right when Simon takes off his pants, an undeniably goofy choice. Simon asks Daphne if she “touched herself, like we talked about,” and I was unfortunately reminded of the earlier montage in which Daphne learns how to masturbate intercut with a scene of Simon cocking an eyebrow at the camera and picking flowers, another unintentionally comic image. Levity during a sex scene can be an effective means of bolstering chemistry, but I couldn’t help but feel that the show wanted me to take this cheesy moment very seriously.

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In Quinn’s novel, Daphne and Simon’s wedding night is stylistically typical of the genre. (To those unfamiliar with romance writing conventions, euphemisms like his “manhood” and her “cradle of femininity” are common, though the word “nipple” is used more times than you might expect.) At one point, Quinn writes, Daphne was “hotter and wetter” than Simon had ever dreamed, so he “slid one long finger inside her, testing her warmth, tickling her sheath.” These explicit moments of intimacy are interspersed with abstractions and glimpses into Daphne’s interiority. Like screen Daphne, book Daphne enters her wedding night tongue-tied, but Quinn’s narration imbues her character with lighthearted self-awareness. After Simon broodily threatens to kill any other man who touches her, Daphne bursts into laughter, saying that it is “perfectly splendidly wonderful to be the object of such irrational jealousy.” The evolving, charged tension of their relationship is continually affirmed through their interactions, even as they’re tearing each other’s clothes off.

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Though Daphne’s ignorance about the practicalities of sex creates issues later in the novel, her lack of knowledge prompts a moment of levity between the couple. As the couple undress, Daphne wishes out loud that she wasn’t “so utterly ignorant,” which makes Simon chuckle. She playfully rebuffs his claims that he’s not laughing at her: “You’re certainly laughing […] and don’t tell me you’re laughing with me, because that excuse never works.” In Simon’s capable hands, this conversation quickly turns to seduction. The reader better understands the couple’s emotional dynamic amidst their foreplay, rather than only gaining a glimpse of what turns them on in bed. On screen, Daphne and Simon’s wedding night is physically sexy, with the requisite nudity and moaning. But it lacks the foundation that makes a romance novel’s sex scenes click.

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Some of that may not be the show’s fault. More than descriptions of manhoods, the most satisfying aspect of reading romance novels is the act of reading itself. Where an author elides details, the reader can fill in the blanks. If a particular description prompts cringes, the reader can simply skim until the next satisfying line. For all their specificity of language, romance novels are a personalized experience, and adapting one fundamentally changes the way the audience interacts with the story. The director has much more control over the audience’s eye than the author does, and the viewer can’t fill in a blank as the reader can. Bridgerton guides the audience’s eye toward plenty of bare flesh, passionate kisses, and panting, but it also fundamentally changes the dynamics between the characters and can’t give us the same interiority. When it comes to conveying sexiness, screen adaptations of the genre are working at a disadvantage—though that’s not to say I won’t be watching Season 2.

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