The Quiet Revolution of Nicola Coughlan’s ‘Bridgerton’ Sex Scene

The Quiet Revolution of Nicola Coughlan’s ‘Bridgerton’ Sex Scene

Last month, Bridgerton star Nicola Coughlan went viral with a perfectly cheeky response to a fan who called her “brave” for her filming the show’s steamy love scenes.

“You know, it is hard,” the Netflix star said, baiting her audience, “because I think women with my body type—women with perfect breasts—don’t get to see ourselves on screen enough.”

The crowd cheered as Coughlan carried on with a sly grin on her face. “I’m very proud as a member of the perfect breast community,” she said. “I hope you enjoy seeing them.”

Coughlan did not seem offended by the fan’s comment, which seemed to come from a well-intentioned place. Sadly, even in the Year of Our Lord 2024, the love scenes between Coughlan’s writerly protagonist Penelope and her side-burned crush Colin Bridgerton (Luke Newton) are vanishingly rare. After watching them, I found myself wracking my brain to try and remember even one other intimate scene that’s treated a body like Coughlan’s—which looks a lot like mine and many, many other viewers’—with such erotic admiration. It should embarrass everyone in Hollywood that moments like this are so rare, but here we are.

Nicola Coughlan

Liam Daniel/Netflix

Bridgerton Season 3, which debuted its second half on Thursday, finally makes good on all those longing stares Penelope has thrown Colin’s way since the show began. When these two sweet lovebirds finally hooked up in the back of a carriage in Episode 4—the last from Part One—I practically jumped for joy. (Then I had to take a moment to laugh when I realized that the song playing in the background was from… Pitbull?! Oh, Bridgerton, please never change.) But it’s Episode 5 that delivers on the season’s promise with the show’s most sensual sex scene yet.

The context for this moment is almost as important as the sex itself. The emotional foreplay for this scene begins when Colin defends Penelope from her cruel mother (Polly Walker), who lashes out when she reads the news of their engagement in Lady Whistledown’s (aka, unbeknownst to her, Penelope’s) gossip column. When Colin overhears his betrothed’s mother dressing her down, he leaps to her defense and tells Lady Featherington that he proposed to Penelope out of love—not entrapment, as she suggested.

“Were you not so narrowly concerned with your own standing,” Colin huffs, “you might see that Penelope is the most eligible amonst you.” Um… swoon?!

From there, Colin brings Penelope to their (lavish, gorgeous, huge) future home, where she tells him how much his standing up for her meant. Her voice cracks as she asks him if he’s “sure” of everything he said, at which point he turns her around to face a mirror. He insists that she must see in herself what he sees in her. This is where things start to get very hot.

The magic of this scene is the interplay between Colin’s words and the camera. While he lists all of Penelope’s gorgeous features—her hair, her lips, and, yes, her perfect breasts—the camera follows his gaze. Its lens lingers on her red curls falling down as he unpins them, on her lips as he strokes them, and her gorgeously illuminated shoulders and neck as he caresses her. Colin isn’t the only one murmuring in our ears, telling us how seductive Penelope is; the visuals echo his every word.

True to the Bridgerton formula, we hear Penelope’s every sigh and gasp as Colin undresses her in front of the mirror, exposing her nude body before beckoning her to a chaise longue where they consummate their love for the first time. The lighting is soft, and the textures are luscious. As Coughlan lies in profile, the camera captures her form beautifully. It does not dart around in search of the most “flattering” angles, cowering away from her full form as though it is something to be hidden. Like Colin, the shot composition takes in all of Penelope, reveling in her sexuality.

Nicola Coughlan and Luke Newton hold hands in a still from ‘Bridgerton’

Nicola Coughlan and Luke Newton

Liam Daniel/Netflix

Nothing about this scene should be considered “brave.” Coughlan is stunning, and most women look more like her than the people we usually see having sex on screen. But how many times have we actually seen a scene like this that features a woman who looks like us? Personally, I couldn’t think of any that struck me in quite the same way.

Girls, which premiered in 2012, featured Lena Dunham in plenty of sex scenes, but the show’s gaze was not exactly sensual. Hannah Horvath’s intimate moments, like everyone else’s in the series, were more often meant to amuse than to seduce. While Girls sought to normalize bodies like Dunham’s—much to the chagrin of assholes who bemoaned having to look at her “blobby body”—it also did not exalt in them because, frankly, it just was not that kind of show.

In 2015, Gabourey Sidibe got to have roof sex with a very hot man on Empire, which predictably sparked a lot of cruel “Precious” memes. At the time, Sidibe herself made an astute observation: “It was like they were more comfortable with the rape scene in Precious than the love scene in Empire,” she told BuzzFeed News back then. “People were like, ‘What?!? Fat people have sex? What? Does not compute.’”

Sidibe’s response was one for the books: “‘Yes, idiot. You watch Maury. Get out of here.’” The takeaway, as she put it, was simple.

“I think that people think someone like me sits at home in the shadows crying,” Sidibe said. “And that’s not reality.”

In spite of the body-positivity movement, the needle has not moved much since then. Shrill offered the best example in years with its intimate scenes, but like Girls, it had a more verité style that prevented it from fully reveling in Aidy Bryant’s body in the way that a romance like Bridgerton can. Here, smut is a highly anticipated part of the contract between the series and its viewers—which allows its creators to celebrate Coughlan’s body without making the whole thing feel like a condescending Very Special Moment.

Coughlan herself has expressed how important it was to her to get this scene right. Speaking with Stylist, she said that she specifically requested certain lines and moments.

Nicola Coughlan sits in a window in a still from ‘Bridgerton’

Nicola Coughlan

Laurence Cendrowicz/Netflix

“There’s one scene where I’m very naked on camera, and that was my idea, my choice,” Coughlan said. “It just felt like the biggest ‘fuck you’ to all the conversation surrounding my body; it was amazingly empowering.”

In the moment, she said, she felt beautiful. “I thought: ‘When I’m 80, I want to look back on this and remember how fucking hot I looked!’”

It can feel trite to say that we need more scenes like this on television, but in this case, it’s also true. By treating Coughlan just like every other female protagonist, Bridgerton has actually done something quite radical. Now, we just need Hollywood to realize that scenes like this shouldn’t be such a rare anomaly.

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