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Netflix Shows Have a Brownwashing Problem (Guest Blog)

By portraying people of color as equal to white in Regency-era Britain, ”Bridgerton“ erases history, Ahmad Rashad Arafa says

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When I first watched the trailer for Netflix’s “Bridgerton,” which reimagines 19th-century Regency-era Britain as a racially equitable society in which people of color possess the same upward social mobility as white Englishmen, my eyes shot out of their sockets. I was both confused and angry, my mind suspended in disbelief.

Much to my chagrin, this seems to be a prevailing theme across several Netflix originals. It seems the streamer believes it can help with ethnic representation in the media by forcefully injecting people of color into rigidly Eurocentric worlds. This is not as grave a mistake as M. Night Shyalaman casting white actors in East Asian and Inuit roles for his adaptation of the “Avatar” animated series, or the problematic casting of a white woman, Scarlett Johansson, as a Japanese cyborg in “Ghost in the Shell.” But it’s still a mess.

Contrary to what “Bridgerton” depicts, white British aristocracy was not having fairytale romances and hot, steamy sex with people of color; they were selling them as branded chattel to slave owners to work on British-owned plantations. Between 1662 and 1807, Britain shipped 3.1 million Africans to the Caribbean, North and South America in what historians call the Transatlantic Slave Trade.

And I am not even going to touch on another Regency era blight — the East India Company.

Glossing over these horrific truths and imagining a parallel universe wherein white Englishmen and people of color were of equal standing in pre-20th century Europe is both insensitive and dangerous. Cinema has always been keen on reminding us of the painful truths of the past, not of contorting them for modern audiences’ self-gratification.

Curiously, few took issue with “Bridgerton’s” glossy reimagining of history in comparison to another Netflix show, “The Witcher,” a medieval fantasy show based on a book series, which caused an outcry over “brownwashing” (of only one character, mind you) in America that was so deafening it caused the showrunner, Lauren Schmidt Hissrich, to quit Twitter.

(Editor’s note: The “Witcher” role at the center of the outcry, Ciri, did go to a white actress and Schmidt Hissrich returned to Twitter. The role of Fringilla, who is depicted as white in source materials, went to Black actress Mimi Ndiweni.)

Yet “Bridgerton,” which “brownwashed” half its cast, caused little commotion stateside. The reason being, I suspect, is that the show allows Americans to have their cake and eat it too; it allows them to freely indulge in their insatiable appetite for British royalty and nobility while also not causing them any kind of mental distress over the fact that the reason why they attained that status was as a result of the exploitation and indentured servitude of those they colonized — people of color.

In sharp contrast to “Bridgerton,” “The Witcher,” and “Shadow & Bone” — a fantasy series inspired by Czarist Russia that wants us to believe that the racist czars appointed Black courtiers — is the vampire animated show, “Castlevania,” based off of the popular video game series of the same name. Set in 15th century Wallachia (now Romania), and centering around Dracula and his minions’ desire to exterminate the human race, “Castlevania” organically places people of color in an ancient European setting by providing them sturdy, credible backstories, so that their inclusion never feels forced.

One character, Isaac (who was white in the video games), is reimagined in the series as a West African Muslim who develops psychopathic traits and joins Dracula’s quest to eradicate humanity after enduring years of physical torture as the slave of cruel crusaders. Another, Greta, is of Carthaginian (modern-day Tunisia) origin and the formidable chief woman of a village of refugees who came from distant lands seeking better, safer lives. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “Castlevania” may not be the first fantasy series to make heartwarming allusions to modern-day humanitarian crises but it’s always a welcome creative addition nonetheless.

Still, the stench of “Bridgerton” — and to a lesser extent “The Witcher” and “Shadow & Bone” — persists and I for one hope that the presenting of counter-narratives rooted not in history but in contemporary Western ideologies will not become common practice.

If Netflix truly wants more ethnic representation in their productions, they can and should seriously consider exploring the many beautiful worlds created by and dominated by people of color. Surely, the streaming giant has the means to do so on a gargantuan scale, much like Coogler’s “Black Panther,” a gorgeous ode to Pan-Africanism, or Disney’s 1998 animated film “Mulan,” which celebrates the majesty of ancient China. In those worlds, people of color were the story; they weren’t relegated to the most dreaded of Hollywood cliches — the main white character’s sidekick.

Ahmad Rashad Arafa is a Palestinian writer who graduated from Minnesota State University, Moorhead where he double majored in Film Production and Cultural Anthropology. He now runs the site, Bollywood Over Hollywood. In 2013, he founded the Palestinian Film Festival - Kuwait.