What is the point of the marriage bed? Can sexual pleasure be intentionally separated from creating new life and still nurture authentic intimacy between spouses? What does making a complete gift of self to one’s spouse mean? These are questions explored in Catholic theology—and in Netflix’s new, popular costume drama Bridgerton. When I sat down to watch Shonda Rhimes’ new show, created by Chris Van Dusen and based on historical fiction by Julia Quinn, I anticipated a Regency-era setting with great ballroom scenes. I wasn’t wrong, but Jane Austen it certainly is not. (In fact, its explicit sexual content is enough to merit caution in whether to view this series at all or to completely avoid it.) What I did not expect was for a soapy TV show—one not marketed for its commitment to traditional sexual morality—to highlight themes of sexual ethics that are so consistent with Church teaching. Intentionally or not, Bridgerton raises thought-provoking questions and stumbles onto truths about marriage and contraception that run on surprisingly Catholic rails.
(Caution: spoilers ahead!) Bridgerton is a romp through early-nineteenth-century London beginning with young Daphne Bridgerton’s presentation to society and her journey to the altar. After dramatic twists and turns, Daphne falls for Simon Basset, the aloof Duke of Hastings, who is determined to never marry. The drama drives the two young people together, and even after the Duke informs Daphne that he cannot sire children, she still decides to marry him, giving up her dreams of being a mother. For several episodes, it’s par for the course for historically inaccurate television drama, but then things get more interesting as the plot raises questions about the significance of marriage, sexual pleasure, and procreation.
On their honeymoon, Daphne is confused to discover that the Duke’s inability to give her children is not—as she anticipated, given his vague explanations of sterility—related to a physical impediment. What she learns only later is that Simon, at his cruel, lineage-obsessed father’s deathbed, had made a vow to himself that the Hasting line would die with him. In contracepting by withdrawal, the Duke intends to keep this vow, separating the young couple’s sexual intimacy from the possibility of new life. Daphne, ignorant of the details of procreation, does not understand that her husband is intentionally preventing her from becoming pregnant. She wistfully closes the door to their estate’s nursery room each time she walks by, grieving the loss of her motherhood and the family life she desired. Once she comes to understand that the sterility of their marriage bed is intentional and rooted in vengeance, she is devastated. She feels robbed of the fullness of married life, and the newlywed’s relationship quickly crumbles. It is not only her sorrow over the lack of much-desired children that grieves her—she had accepted that before their marriage, after all. It is not even her husband’s deception, which, though infuriating, could be forgiven if they could only begin again. What Daphne cannot accept is the fact that the one she loves would continue to refuse to offer the gift of his whole self. “That is not love!” she claims of their faux intimacy.