How Bridgerton turned Penelope into its new leading lady

In the new season of Bridgerton, a supporting character steps into the spotlight.

Rhianna Jones

ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences

Despite, or perhaps because of, Bridgerton’s rather sensational portrayal of courtly love, global audiences cannot resist tuning in.  

In the upcoming third season of the Netflix juggernaut, it is Colin (Luke Newton), the third eldest Bridgerton sibling, who is set to continue the show’s seasonal marriage plot. After gallivanting across Europe on an ambiguous source of income, Colin has returned to London, reuniting with childhood friend Penelope Featherington (Nicola Coughlan), who has secretly loved him since the pilot episode.   
Previously overlooked by high society, in the new season, Penelope is destined to steal the gaze of the entire ton. 

Family ties

Penelope’s sudden change in status is in firm contrast to the restrictions her character has faced previously.  

Yes, Penelope has always been beautiful, and her secret identity as Lady Whistledown means she has always been powerful. But she has not always been granted access to the domain of romantic love, the way other young women in London’s marriage market have been.  

As a Featherington, Penelope has always been repressed by her family’s role as foils for the Bridgertons.  

When it comes to the Bridgertons, viewers never question the logic of Daphne rejecting the proposal of a prince out of desire for the emotionally unavailable Duke of Hastings. Nor do we challenge the lovesick mania of Anthony, who pursues his fiancée’s sister on his wedding day.  

But the show has actively encouraged us to laugh at the awkward romances of the uncouth Featherington sisters and accept the cold, unfeeling way their parents treat them.  

Belonging to the Featherington family has meant that Penelope has never been a serious contender in the domain of romance. This exclusion, and implicit desexualisation has not only been accepted by the ton, but also by the camera itself. Perpetually costumed in garish yellow, Penelope has often been positioned in the background of the frame of familial or romantic spaces, hidden off to the side, and ducking away in corners. 

It is both frustrating and deeply ironic that the most secretly influential figure in all the ton has been denied what she has been able to engineer for others: love.  

How to build a heroine

But Penelope’s fortunes are changing this season. She is finally relinquishing the baggage of being a Featherington, symbolised in her leaving the family home (and potentially adopting a new name through marriage).  

Glimpsed in a scene from the trailer, Penelope commands complete authority as she enters a ball in an alluring costume of emerald green. A contrast to the unflattering yellow that was once her signature colour.  

In this moment, she embodies the remarks of Lady Whistledown (Julie Andrews) in her voiceover: "Diamonds are not the only gems that sparkle". 

It will be satisfying to see her receive the attention she deserves for just being Penelope, her unbound true form, an incredibly powerful character in her own right. 

Love and empowerment

The trailer also suggests that attention from Colin is a side effect of Penelope’s newly acknowledged status. 

After two seasons of following a hopelessly devoted Penelope as she acted as Colin’s moral guide, it only seems fair that Colin is now taking on the role of advisor. Coaching Penelope in the art of flirtation will surely kindle the sexual chemistry between them - the culmination of a friends-to-lovers arc that has been brewing for years.  

But to characterise this third instalment as Colin and Penelope’s love story would be an oversimplification. The power balance between them is yet to reach equilibrium. Colin may be doing Penelope a favour by elevating her marital prospects, but this does not atone for the disparaging remarks he cast towards her at the conclusion of season two. And it certainly does not make reparations for his general lack of appreciation for her. 

Let us not forget that it was Penelope alone who fought to achieve her new state of empowerment, battling against the repression of her family, the perceptions of the ton, and even the gaze of the camera.  

So, how will season three avoid the superficiality of the makeover trope, and ensure that Penelope’s status is not just qualified by the male gaze ’  

How will other characters respond to Penelope’s liberation’  Will Colin finally learn of Penelope’s secret identity and the shame she has brought upon his family name’ 

And will this instalment include more Regency men falling into rivers and emerging in wet shirts’ 

For these answers, dearest gentle reader, we must wait and see.