Opinion: Thank goodness this season of ‘Bridgerton’ isn’t short on the sex

Editor’s Note: Sara Stewart is a film and culture writer who lives in western Pennsylvania. The views expressed here are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

“Bridgerton” is finally back, and the new season has been infused with a much-needed aphrodisiac.

Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson
Sara Stewart - Todd Thompson

The Netflix adaptation of author Julia Quinn’s series of Regency-era romance novels became the streamer’s biggest-ever hit in its gloriously filthy first season in 2020, then rolled out a second that, for some inexplicable reason, dialed way back on the sex. But season three, which centers on Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan) — a.k.a. the show’s mysterious gossip-columnist narrator, Lady Whistledown — turns up the heat again.

It’s a slow but compelling burn as Penelope’s longtime crush, Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton), returns from his travels abroad looking like he spent most of the time at whatever the Regency version of a gym is. She’s still crushed to have overheard him saying, at the end of season two, that he’d never court her; he tries to get back in her good graces by teaching her some of the flirting skills he’s picked up so she can find a husband.

Cue the rom-com plot about blossoming wallflowers and friends-to-lovers, but Coughlan is such a fantastic actress that even this familiar progression feels new in her capable hands.

Just as it did in previous seasons with leads Regé-Jean Page as Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings and Jonathan Bailey as Viscount Anthony Bridgerton, the show doesn’t have any problem objectifying Newton’s Colin. He’s rocking a very Mr. Darcy aesthetic — but we’d never have gotten to see Darcy in the sweaty aftermath of a threesome with sex workers or in the middle of an erotic dream about his female friend. (Just as we did in season two when his brother Anthony dramatically fell into a lake fully clothed, we did get Colin’s equivalent of the iconic “Pride and Prejudice” adaptation’s wet-shirt scene, which was as close to full-frontal as Jane Austen could reasonably manage.)

Thank goodness someone pointed out to Netflix that sex, not just longing glances, is a big reason many of us show up for the series — and, for that matter, for the enduringly popular genre of all manner of romance fare. Our culture has always been snobby about novels by and for women, especially the romance genre, despite the fact that it’s one of the biggest and most reliable-selling areas in publishing.

Author Nathaniel Hawthorne immortalized this misogynist scorn in his 1855 complaint to his publisher: “America is now wholly given over to a d[amne]d mob of scribbling women, and I should have no chance of success while the public is occupied with their trash.”

And yet despite Hawthorne and the rest of the haters, romances — largely written by women — have always sold. Until recently, they often sold furtively. That’s changed in recent years, with a surge in out-and-proud smut reading thanks in part to BookTok, in part to fatigue with the relentlessly-perilous state of the world and in part to the increasing normalization of women’s sexual desire.

As one author told the Guardian, “Growing up, I definitely remember the overarching messaging around these books to be one of shame. It’s so refreshing to see readers, especially young ones, embrace the genre. We’re moving away from the idea that desires — especially women’s desires — are innately shameful.” It also helps that today’s sexy fare is far more diverse and inclusive; there is truly something out there for every taste.

In recent months, there’s been talk about how sex is returning to movies after a long, dull period of primarily PG-13 fare. Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” with its Zendaya-led tennis trio, really kicked this trend into high gear, along with Emerald Fennell’s soapy, sultry “Saltburn,” as the New York Times recently observed. The same piece quoted actor/screenwriter Glen Powell, star of the upcoming film “Hit Man,” lamenting the lack of well-done love scenes in movies and fondly recalling the burn of earlier erotic thrillers like 1981’s “Body Heat.” That movie, he said, “has a lot of foreplay, which is one reason it feels so intense — steamy, carnal.”

It may not have the zing of a Kathleen Turner/William Hurt pairing (what does?), but this season’s “Bridgerton” is doing a fine job with the foreplay as well, teasing the furtive looks and fantasies of its two leads as well as delving into several other boudoirs. And with the first four episodes already out and four more to come June 13, we’ve still got a lot more to left to see (and feel).

It’s worth noting, and celebrating, the subversive way this season approaches its bookworm-makeover trope, too. Though headlines and trailers have teased a glow-up for Coughlan’s Penelope, she never goes through any radical physical transformation to make her suddenly attractive to Colin; the biggest change seems to be her dress color palette. Rather, the plot hinges on his dawning awareness that Penelope is hot, just as she is.

And bravo to Coughlan, who apparently led the decision to go fully nude in at least one of the season’s steamiest scenes. She lobbied for it, she revealed in a recent interview, specifically as an “f— you” to body-shamers who messaged her after the show first debuted. “People ask ignorant questions like, ‘How do you feel knowing anyone can go on Netflix and see you naked?’ and my answer is I feel great about it, because not only did I consent to it but I drove it,” she said. “There’s a reason this show became a phenomenon: it’s about women feeling desire, owning their sexuality, and driving the charge in those situations rather than just being an object of a man’s affections.”

Really, therein lies the appeal of so much of what is motivating the gargantuan audiences for erotic romances, whether on screens big or small or on the page. You may have heard talk of the massive success of Rebecca Yarros’ adult-fantasy series “Fourth Wing,” or Sarah Maas’ “A Court of Thorns and Roses.”

Colleen Hoover continues to rake it in with her emotion-wringing thriller romances. As a pandemic-era piece observed, “In difficult times, people need a pick-me-up. Romance novels provide the distraction and balm people crave when the world seems to be falling apart — or, in this case, when the whole concept of ‘togetherness’ has become more complicated than a love triangle.”

If the pleasures of “Bridgerton” are somewhat familiar now, they’re no less delightful, and they’re particularly welcome in a year when so much else around us feels fraught and terrible. Escaping into the candy-colored, racially diverse, endlessly horny utopia of Mayfair might just be the perfect balm for the 2024 soul.

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