Penelope From Bridgerton Deserved Better

Christopher Rosa
·5 min read

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?

Harriet Cains as Phillipa Featherington; Bessie Carter as Prudence Featherington; and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington
Harriet Cains as Phillipa Featherington; Bessie Carter as Prudence Featherington; and Nicola Coughlan as Penelope Featherington
LIAM DANIEL/NETFLIX

I can only hope Penelope gets her flowers in season two—if there is a season two—but for now I'm disappointed. (I'm basing my opinion on just the show, by the way…not the novels. ) 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.

Bridgerton is boundary-pushing in many ways, especially in its portrayal of 1800s London. We see open marriages, gay sex, and women questioning the rules laid out for them. But when it comes to seeing a a curvy woman sexualized and sought after, we're still in the dark ages. We're “woke,” but not that "woke."

Which is a damn shame—because so many people, myself included, would've benefited from seeing a woman who looks like Penelope treated like Daphne. As an incomparable of the season: sexy, sophisticated, and total marriage material. (I hate putting it in those terms, but I'm playing within the confines of Bridgerton's premise.) Maybe then people with body image issues would stop thinking they have to change to find love. We can't be what we can't see—and save for a few shining examples, non-thin people consume pop-culture and still think something is wrong with them. Just look at the fat jokes made on Emily in Paris or Ellen Pompeo's quote about how Patrick Dempsey couldn't have returned to Grey's Anatomy if he'd gained 80 pounds. “The girls want to see McDreamy being dreamy,” she said.

Why can't Penelope be dreamy, though? The revelation that she's Lady Whistledown certainly opens her storyline for future seasons. I have a feeling if we get to see more, she'll be up front and center. But I don't just want her to have more screen time. I want to see her in pastel dresses and hats with 80 suitors knocking on her door. I want a montage of her bodice-ripping sex scenes set to an orchestral version of Taylor Swift's "Wildest Dreams." There should be a man willing to marry her even though she's carrying a huge secret, like an unplanned pregnancy. Granted, we know from the books that Penelope gets her due, but who's to say the show will follow that? If there's one thing we learned from the Gossip Girl TV adaptation, it's that you can play fast and loose with source material. Let's hope the Bridgerton show doesn't do that.

The fact of the matter is there are more Penelopes in the world than entertainment—Bridgerton season one included—is representing. And we aren't dorky, doormat wallflowers who get drinks spilled on us. We go on dates (lots of them!), have hot sex, and wear chic clothes. We are the incomparables. It's time television started reflecting that.

Christopher Rosa is the entertainment editor at Glamour. Follow him on Twitter @chrisrosa92.

Watch Now: Glamour Video.

Originally Appeared on Glamour