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Netflix’s ‘Bridgerton’ is leading a romance novel renaissance

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By AJ Willingham, CNN
Updated 7:00 AM ET, Sat February 6, 2021

(CNN) — There’s no question that “Bridgerton,” the saucy Regency-era “Netflix” series, has hit iconic status. In a few short weeks since its December 2020 release, it’s become the most popular show in the platform’s history and secured a shoo-in second season. It’s also courted legions of devoted followers who delight in the show’s frothy, yet culturally au courant portrayal of a bygone British era (and abs. They also like the abs).

The show has also been a big boon for romance novel lovers.
“Bridgerton” is based on a series of books by romance author Julia Quinn, and its popularity has rocketed the books back on to bestseller lists, sparking new interest in a complex and extremely influential genre.
Much like Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” inspired more interest in the game of chess, the time seems ripe for a “Bridgerton effect,” a moment that changes the landscape of the romance industry like “The Notebook,” “50 Shades of Gray” and other influential works have done in the past.
    But what it will change, and who will stand to benefit, is a story that’s yet to be written.

    Uncertain times have turned everyone into a romantic

    “Romance is having a moment. It’s trendy to swoon,” Tessa Dare, a bestselling author of historical romance, tells CNN. She says it’s been thrilling to watch “Bridgerton” become a worldwide phenomenon and prove what millions of romance readers already know: These kinds of stories are for everyone.
    “Love, sex, and relationships are universally compelling themes,” Dare says.
    They’re also profitable ones. A spokeswoman from Avon, the imprint that publishes the “Bridgerton” novels, told CNN sales of the original eight “Bridgerton” books “have increased exponentially since the premiere of the show.”
    It’s no surprise that such ultra-romantic, ultra-sensual stuff is topping bestseller lists and breaking streaming records. In fact, it’s just business as usual.
    “Romance is the genre that funds the rest of publishing. That’s the honest truth,” says award- winning contemporary and paranormal romance author Suleikha Snyder. “Romance holds up the rest of the publishing industry while also empowering readers emotionally.”
    Romance sales consistently make up a commanding share of the publishing industry. And during the pandemic, romance e-reader titles have seen a huge boost, probably for the same reason “Bridgerton” has resonated with audiences. When everything is bad and nothing makes sense, it’s nice to be able to bury oneself, ostrich-like, in some good old escapism.
    “The past year has been so difficult for everyone. Collectively, we needed a mass infusion of joy,” Dare says. “If the world can agree on nothing else, at least 63 million households can celebrate the Duke of Hastings’ perfectly arched eyebrow.”

    “Bridgerton” could woo new romance readers

    Despite being a thriving and evolving genre, outsiders often view romance novels with disdain. Every time a series like “Bridgerton” gains a cultural foothold, some of that stigma falls away. The effect can be a win-win, attracting more readers to the romance fold, and emboldening longtime fans, who may have hid their passion, to share more about the genre they love.
    “Growing up, we had that image of cheesy novels you pick up at the grocery store, and people have held on to that idea” says Roni Loren, a bestselling contemporary romance author. “Seeing the popularity of ‘Bridgerton’ legitimizes the genre to some people. It gives people permission to start checking out things in the romance novel section.”
    Why, exactly, romance writers and readers continue to contend with these assumptions is a thorny question.
    “Sexism,” Tessa Dare says, simply. “Society is primed to view anything produced by women for women as lesser, and there’s always been an assumption that romance is frivolous, poorly written, and holds little appeal for men. Bridgerton’s success is proving all those assumptions false.”
    Just like in the books, there are parts of the “Bridgerton” show that are, ahem, spicy to say the least. (Episode 6. It’s Episode 6. You’re welcome.) There’s even some actual bodice-ripping. And much has been written about how the series, like most romance novels, is formed purely from the female gaze: The women are best friends, family, rivals and sharp schemers. The men, though complex in their own way, are everything someone could want in a partner: Caring, witty, respectful, and well, very hot.
    Across social media, people are having fun posting their reactions to some of the steamier scenes — sometimes with nothing more than a knowing face or a few verklempt little noises.
    “I watch ‘Bridgerton’ for the plot,” another popular meme says, followed by various photos of the sexy male leads, labeled: “The plot.”
    How often do women get something like this, of sexual and emotional enjoyment especially tailored for them? Through generations of Playboy covers, Michael Bay movies and male-dominated media, romance novels have provided just that: A haven for women to explore their sexuality, their agency, and what it means to be loved and desired.
    That kind of value can’t be tagged with a dollar sign, and when social media is alight with people joking and sharing their saucy romance opinions, it’s not just boosting a bottom line. It’s revealing the genre’s true impact, and inviting others to bask in the softly-lit glow.

    New eyes on romance puts inclusivity in the spotlight

    However, that glow doesn’t shine evenly on all experiences, and when it comes to inclusivity, “Bridgerton” occupies a curious spot. From the outset, the show captured attention because of its diverse cast, including a Black leading man, a Black queen, and people of color in all kinds of roles, big and small. This is a departure from Quinn’s novels, which give no indication of race and, like so many Regency-era novels, are set against the very white background of 19th century London high society.
    So while “Bridgerton,” the TV series, provides an inclusive experience to its fans, that level of representation doesn’t carry over into the romance world as it stands. While there are sparks of new interest in the industry, writers are hopeful that the show’s success will prompt readers to explore a wider range of romance stories.
    “We welcome new readers via ‘Bridgerton’ with open arms,” Suliekha Snyder says. “But the sticking point with the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ philosophy is that sometimes it only lifts certain boats.”
    “Will these new people only gravitate toward white Regency-era romance? Or will opening a Julia Quinn book and realizing the Duke is actually white make them seek out more diverse and inclusive books, thus widening the net?”
    When Snyder, who is South Asian, got into romance writing, she noticed a lot of books in the genre fetishized and othered South Asian people. That drove her to write stories with characters of South Asian heritage.
    Snyder cautions against viewing this level of “diversity” in publishing as some sort of option, or a way to fill a special bookshelf at the store. It is, she points out, simply reality.
    “Diversity and inclusivity isn’t just an educational tool. It’s our lives. It’s how we love,” she says. “And that’s part of the struggle we’ve had over the past several decades. Just having to remind people that [authors of color] exist and are real and that our books have just as much mass appeal as a white author’s.”
    Speaking of mass appeal, “Bridgerton” the TV show has also raised tantalizing questions about the popularity of inclusive media.
    “I don’t think of it as whether the show helps push the diversity conversation in romance forward,” says author Alyssa Cole. “But whether it wasn’t the other way around”
    Cole, a contemporary, historical and sci-fi romance novelist, has won multiple awards for her books featuring Black, disabled and LGBTQ heros and heroines. Historically, romantic fiction by and featuring people outside of the white, heterosexual, abled populace has been shunned by big publishers. In recent years, even the Romance Writers Association, the genre’s top organization, has been torn apart by accusations of prejudice.
    In short, it has been a common assumption that stories like these don’t sell.
    But, Cole posits, the truth laid out by Bridgerton’s success, and the future it may invite, are more promising.
    “At this point we’ve seen multiple romance adaptations with Black characters and characters of color added—would these shows have been as successful without a diverse cast?” she asks. “And if diversity is integral to an adaptation’s success, why not adapt more books from authors of color?”

    In romance, everyone deserves a happy ending

    If there really is going to be a “Bridgerton effect” in the romance industry, it’s clear it has to be one that boosts writers and readers of all backgrounds. After all, the unifying theme of romance — whether you’re into werewolves, cybersex, Scots in kilts or women in stays — is that everyone deserves a happy ending.
    “I think that’s where the importance of inclusion is, having this space to safely navigate our identities while knowing it will end in a happily-ever-after,” Snyder says. “Queer readers, readers of color … when we’re reflected in the pages, we get to see our happily-ever-afters normalized. And that’s radical. It shouldn’t be. It should be commonplace. But we’re not there yet, unfortunately.”
    These are the things to remember the next time someone dismisses romance as frivolous. Yes, there’s sex. Yes, there is fun and escapism. And those things warrant no apologies.
    But romance means more to people than that.
    “It’s very feminist. In a lot of romances, the woman is saving themselves. It’s so pro consent — it’s our fantasy, that we want to be treated with respect,” Roni Loren says.
    Cole says another big draw is trust. “Characters are often guarded due to past trauma. Part of their story is learning to trust someone, and that trust not being a mistake,” she says.
    “One of the greatest fantasies is that you can show yourself — all of yourself, including the bad stuff — to a partner or friend, and trust that they will still love you. In a romance, that trust is always rewarded at the end.”
      When readers open a romance novel, they trust that something of themselves is going to be reflected in those pages, no matter who they are, who they love, or how they live.
      And if a very sexy, very profitable Netflix show can pave the way for more of these stories to be told, then bring on the love.

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      The third ‘Spider-Man’ film finally has a title

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      By Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
      Updated 6:49 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

      (CNN) — Until Wednesday, rumors about the title of the third Spider-Man film have been a web of lies. But the truth has been revealed.

      Tom Holland will swing into theaters in December in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” Sony and Marvel have confirmed.
      The film will be the third installment of the Holland-led franchise that has also included “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”
      Director Jon Watts, who directed the first two, returns for this film.
        Earlier this week, cast members Holland, Zendaya and Jacob Batalon presented a series of fake titles (like “Spider-Man: Home Slice” and “Spider-Man: Phone Home”) on social media, drumming up speculation that the official title would soon be revealed.
        The film is set to be released December 17, 2021.

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        DWI charges dropped against Bruce Springsteen, who pleads guilty to just drinking in the park

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        By Evan Simko-Bednarski, CNN
        Updated 12:54 PM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

        (CNN) — Bruce Springsteen pleaded guilty Wednesday to charges he imbibed alcohol at New Jersey’s Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, despite knowing it was prohibited.

        “I had two small shots of Tequila,” Springsteen said in a virtual appearance before New Jersey Federal Court.
        The plea came after federal prosecutors agreed to drop charges that Springsteen was operating a vehicle under the influence and driving recklessly, charges Assistant US Attorney Adam Baker said the government would not be able to prove.
        “The evidence we reviewed indicates that after the defendant’s arrest, he submitted to a breath test at the ranger station, and his BAC reading was .02, which as the court is aware is well under the legal limit of .08,” Baker said.
          Noting that the prohibition on alcoholic drinks at Sandy Hook was two years old, and noting Springsteen’s otherwise clean criminal record, Judge Anthony Mautone sentenced The Boss to pay a $500 fine plus $40 in court fees.
          While Springsteen has often sung about driving “suicide machines” down the New Jersey Turnpike, bragged of having his “carburetor, baby, cleaned and checked — with her lines blown out she’s running like a turbo jet,” and sang of being “sprung from cages on Highway 9 — chrome wheeled, fuel injected, and stepping out over the line,” Mautone remarked on the singer’s clean driving record.
          “I have in front of me the driver’s abstract of this defendant, going all the way back to 1973,” Mautone said. “There’s three violations in the whole abstract. In fact, two of them aren’t even violations and the third one is use of a hand-held cell device. Rarely would you see a driver’s abstract so devoid of any entries as I see before me, Mr. Springsteen.”
          Springsteen was arrested at Gateway National Recreation Area on November 14 and charged with DWI, reckless driving and consuming alcohol in a closed area, according to a spokesperson for the National Park Service.
          That night, a source close to the singer said earlier this month, Springsteen took a shot of alcohol with fans in the park after taking a photo with them. The source added that Springsteen is known to take photographs with fans. “That’s typical Bruce,” the source said.
          One officer said they observed Springsteen “consume a shot of Patron tequila and then get on his motorcycle and start the engine,” according to a probable cause statement obtained by CNN.
          Springsteen told the officer he had consumed two shots of tequila in the previous 20 minutes, according to the probable cause statement.
          “SPRINGSTEEN smelt strongly of alcohol coming off his person and had glassy eyes,” the officer said in the statement, adding he “was visibly swaying back and forth while I observed his eyes.”
            Springsteen, according to the officer, took 45 steps during the “walk and turn” test “instead of the instructed 18.”
            Prior to the screening, the officer said he approached Springsteen and informed him alcohol was prohibited in the park and asked whether Springsteen was leaving, to which “he confirmed he was going to drive out of the park,” the statement said.

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            BTS covers Coldplay and more on MTV Unplugged debut

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            By Chloe Melas, CNN
            Updated 10:15 AM ET, Wed February 24, 2021

            (CNN) — BTS made their debut on MTV’s Unplugged Tuesday night and played some of their greatest hits.

            The international K-pop sensation, which is comprised of Jin, Suga, J-Hope, RM, Jimin, V and Jungkook, performed “Telepathy” for the first time live, along with “Blue & Grey” during Tuesday night’s broadcast. BTS, which stands for Beyond The Scene, broadcast live from Seoul, South Korea.

            The group recently told CNN that they felt they needed to give their audience new music amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
            “If everything went according to plan, we’d be on tour right now, but the pandemic has changed everything,” Suga said. “So we thought about what we can do, and what we can do best at this point, in this situation. Everyone is going through such a difficult time, so we wanted to cheer them up.”

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            Taylor Swift’s re-recorded ‘Love Story’ is back on top of the charts

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            By Sandra Gonzalez, CNN
            Updated 9:08 PM ET, Mon February 22, 2021

            (CNN) — Taylor Swift’s re-recording of “Love Story” is now a success story.

            “Love Story (Taylor’s Version)” debuted at No. 1 on this week’s Hot Country Songs chart, according to Billboard.
            The song is shockingly Swift’s first No. 1 debut on that chart. It is also her 8th career No. 1 on the Hot Country Songs chart, the last one being 2012’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.”
            “Love Story” was originally on Swift’s album “Fearless,” which was released in 2008. Swift has been hard at work re-recording that album after losing the rights to her master recordings predating 2019’s “Lover” after they were sold to a company owned by music manager Scooter Braun. (Braun’s company sold them in late 2020.)
              Swift’s re-recording — titled “Fearless (Taylor’s version)” — will be released April 9.

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              Mandy Moore welcomes baby boy with husband Taylor Goldsmith

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              By Marianne Garvey, CNN
              Updated 6:19 PM ET, Tue February 23, 2021

              (CNN) — Mandy Moore has welcomed her first child.

              The “This Is Us” actress took to Instagram on Tuesday to announce that she and her husband Taylor Goldsmith, lead singer of the folk rock band Dawes, are now parents to a baby boy.
              “Gus is here,” Moore captioned a picture of the baby in an adorable blue onesie. “Our sweet boy, August Harrison Goldsmith. He was punctual and arrived right on his due date, much to the delight of his parents. We were prepared to fall in love in all sorts of brand new ways, but it goes beyond anything we could have ever imagined. M + T.”
              In January, Moore told Romper that she had high expectations for her child.
                “I want to raise an intelligent, feminist, loving, compassionate young man, who respects women, and who understands boundaries,” she told the publication.
                  Moore also sang her husband’s praises, saying he was born to be a dad.
                  “I think he’s been suited to be a father pretty much his whole life,” she said. “He’s been gearing up for this. Like in the morning, it’s funny, I’ll reach for my phone and he’ll reach right for whatever baby book he’s reading.”

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