Careful: Major spoilers about Bridgerton ahead.
“Do not forget to bid Prudence, Phillipa, or even Penelope farewell as you go,” Lady Portia Featherington says to a group of male suitors in an early episode of Netflix’s Bridgerton, which tracks the drama, scandal, and intrigue of London’s 19th century marriage market.
The even in Lady Portia’s sentence is a thinly-veiled dig at her daughter, Penelope, and shows just how little she views her—especially in comparison to her other daughters, Prudence and Phillipa. Penelope is the youngest Featherington (presumably, their ages are never specified) and looks different than her sisters. At one point, she’s mocked for being “two-stone heavier” than them. Her skin is criticized. In the middle of a ball, a girl pours a drink on her. The message: It’s not just the Featheringtons who look down on Penelope.
We learn quickly that she’s not like the other girls. While Daphne Bridgerton, Prudence, and Phillipa are presented as beautiful, desirable brides, Penelope is given the bookworm treatment. She’s the kid sister, the quirky best friend, the joke—despite the fact she too is eligible for marriage. Even Eloise Bridgerton, a fellow oddball, gets dolled up in a dress at one point and is told how stunning she looks. Bridgerton almost goes out of its way to present Penelope as the “ugly duckling.”
We eventually learn why. It turns out that—major, major spoiler alert—Penelope is Lady Whistledown, the anonymous scribe who puts everyone’s gossip on blast in the form of a widely-read newsletter. The reveal slightly vindicates her character: All this time she was the most powerful force in London, someone who can change the course of high society with just her quill. She’s the ultimate badass. A boss. The curator of her city’s marriage market.
That’s one way of looking at it—but there’s another, too. As a plus-size person, I found myself angry Bridgerton couldn’t just depict Penelope like the other girls: as beautiful, date-able, and worthy of love. Instead, it made her the outcast: a woman who will never find a proper place in society, so she’s forced to view it from the outside. Is the concept of a non-stick-thin woman finding love that implausible? Really?
I can only hope Penelope gets her flowers in season two—if there is a season two—but for now I’m disappointed. If there had to be an “ugly duckling” on this show, why did it have to be the only character who isn’t rail-thin? Sadly, it shows just how little we’ve come in terms of size diversity and representation. Even on a show like Bridgerton—produced by Shonda Rhimes, a champion of inclusivity—non-thin characters still get the short end of the stick.