25th February 2021
Lynne Mackie gives her opinion on the portrayal of a person who stammers in the popular Netflix series Bridgerton.
*Warning: this article contains spoilers for the first season of Bridgerton*
Since Bridgerton was released on Netflix over Christmas, it has gone on to become the most-watched series on the platform, with 82 million households watching it over the first month. Set amongst the debutantes of Regency-era London, the series has been praised for its diverse casting. It's also sparked discussion within the stammering community for its portrayal of a person who stammers.
The character in question is Simon Bassett, Duke of Hastings, who returns to London after years of travel and immediately catches society's eye as an eligible match for many of the current debutantes. Simon, however, does not seem interested in finding a wife and his arrogant attitude is clear for everyone to see. However, behind this carefully erected shield, Simon also has a covert stammer, and his avoidance tactics are carefully built into this.
In these moments, we can see a character who has put up a front to hide himself from the world and that his stammer is carefully hidden behind that shield.
Meeting Simon as an adult, we see no indication that he stammers. However, in flashbacks we see that his relationship with his late father was very fraught, with his father rejecting him as a child for having a severe stammer and branding him an 'imbecile'. We then see him go on to learn techniques which allow him to conceal his stammer and appear to speak more fluently, resulting in the adult Simon that returns to London after his father's death to take up the dukedom.
In and of itself, Simon's covert stammer is handled very well in Bridgerton. We see the stammer show itself again during moments of high emotions, such as when he realises that he's fallen in love, and later when he realises that his wife Daphne has betrayed him. We can also observe covert tendencies in the way that he often chooses just to sit and listen when in big groups, such as when he's having dinner with the Bridgertons (a family of 9). Here he only speaks either when spoken to, or one-on-one with the person next to him. In these moments, we can see a character who has put up a front to hide himself from the world and that his stammer is carefully hidden behind that shield.
Realistically, within the time period in which Bridgerton is set, it is unlikely that Simon would be comfortable with stammering openly. It's natural that he would feel like he has to conceal it in order to command respect and maintain his façade, because there would have been no understanding of what stammering was at that time. Even Lady Danbury, a family friend who supports Simon as a child, helps him to 'overcome' rather than to 'accept', based on her own experiences as a prominent woman in society where any perceived weakness could be used to challenge her authority.
However, within the Netflix series, where we do not get this background, the nuance is lost. Instead, we're treated to another 'overcoming' narrative.
In the original books by Julia Quinn, we get to learn more about how Simon crafts his façade. We find out that he would avoid speaking in moments when he knew he would stammer and that he cultivated a small, trusted group of friends, which gained him a reputation for being aloof and selective in his company, therefore garnering more respect. He also employs tactics such as coughing to avoid blocks, which will be familiar to many people with a covert stammer.
The 'overcoming' narrative
However, within the Netflix series, where we do not get this background, the nuance is lost. Instead, we're treated to another 'overcoming' narrative. For people who stammer, it is easy to see Simon’s reluctance to be around people and his tactful silence within big groups as indicative of his covert tendencies, but nothing is done to ensure that non-stammering audiences will also interpret it this way. Instead, almost every 'fluent' person I’ve spoken to about Bridgerton has referred to Simon as someone who 'stammered as a child'.
Ultimately, I'm disappointed that it wasn't properly communicated that Simon has a covert stammer, as this is a representation of stammering which is sorely lacking in media. This representation could have been so much more, and Bridgerton have ultimately done nothing to teach the general public more about stammering.
I'm disappointed that it wasn't properly communicated that Simon has a covert stammer, as this is a representation of stammering which is sorely lacking in media.
As we move into the second season, and Simon becomes more comfortable with his wife Daphne, it would be nice to see his stammer explored in a bit more depth. To see it present in moments where he allows himself to be vulnerable or, if his pride will not allow that, to give Daphne an opportunity to recognise when he's avoiding and let him know that his stammering does not make him lesser in her eyes.
I feel like I'm being picky, because I should in all honesty be happy to see a realistic representation of stammering. However, by its very nature, covert stammering is hidden. And, by not bringing it into the light, Netflix have continued to perpetuate a tired narrative of how people who stammer can 'overcome' their stammers if they 'try really hard'. This also promotes the idea that people who stammer can only be successful if they 'pass as fluent', which may have been true in Regency England, but these are not lessons we want a 21st Century audience to be learning.
We claim Simon as a character who stutters. Hopefully Bridgerton will allow him to be one.
Learn more of my thoughts (with a bit of ranting thrown in) in my YouTube video on the topic below.
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