Blog by Madeline Wahl
Stuttering, according to the Stuttering Foundation, is a communication disorder which affects more than 70 million people worldwide. Sometimes, a person who stutters may repeat a word or phrase, prolong a sound or syllable, or experience internal blocks where it's hard to speak a word. Even though many negative stereotypes and myths about stuttering are still prevalent in the United States, there have been award-winning movies that have shown stuttering in a positive light. “The King's Speech” won multiple Academy Awards in 2011, including Actor in a Leading Role and Best Picture and the short film “Stutterer” won an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short Film in 2016. Recently, “Bridgerton,” the Netflix hit in association with Shondaland based on Julia Quinn’s novel The Duke and I, broke records as people tuned in to watch a sexy duke and a high-profile family find love in gossipy, Regency-era London. But in modern society, would fluent people be open to listening to people who stutter—let alone consider people who stutter attractive?
Looking at Netflix’s viewership numbers alone, it would seem as if fluent people would be open to the idea. According to Netflix, 82 million households worldwide—from the United States and the United Kingdom to France and South Africa—tuned in to watch “Bridgerton” within the first 28 days it was available for viewing. Not only that, but for the first time, Quinn’s The Duke and I became a New York Times best seller, almost two decades after the book was initially published. If nothing else, "Bridgerton" and The Duke and I allow people to become more aware of what stuttering is and how it affects people who stutter in everyday life.
People who stutter in real life face discrimination in the dating world. So, it’s important to show that stuttering does not detract from attractiveness. The media has failed to do this so far. To bridge that gap, the media needs to pull a Quinn and explicitly link stuttering and attractiveness.
However, in the media’s coverage of the romance television show and the sexy Duke that took the world by storm, there seems to be a large part of the conversation that is surprisingly absent: stuttering. And, specifically, viewing people who stutter as attractive. When “Bridgerton” received 12 Emmy awards and nominations including Outstanding Drama Series and Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, there could have been lots of conversation on this topic. This nomination, specifically about actor Regé-Jean Page's portrayal of Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, and a person who stutters, could have been groundbreaking. Instead, there were crickets. When discussing Page's next projects and describing his character, DigitalSpy writes how charming the Duke is but doesn’t mention his stutter: "On Monday (February 7), the streaming platform announced that the British actor—who rose to fame as Simon Basset, the charming Duke of Hastings, in its hugely popular period drama—is set to narrate new nature documentary Surviving Paradise: A Family Tale."
To give a bit of backstory, Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I is a steamy romance set in the Regency period of London, England, and follows the elite social classes. Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings, is a young eligible bachelor who returns to London to settle the accounts of his father, the late Duke of Hastings. Coming to terms with his father’s death is difficult because Simon’s childhood with his father was far from perfect. Simon’s mother died of a hemorrhage in childbirth when Simon was born. His father, after discovering Simon's speech disorder as a young child, said that Simon "was dead to him." This encounter scarred young Simon, who took matters into his own hands and decided not to let his stutter—or his father’s opinions—define him. Simon studied, got accepted into an elite school and university, and then became quite liked among his peers. Early on in the novel, Quinn made sure to convey Simon’s difficulty with his stutter alongside how well-liked he was among his peers:
After Eton, Simon followed the natural progression to Oxford, where he earned the reputations of both scholar and rake. Truth be told, he hadn’t deserved the label of rake any more than most of the young bucks at university, but Simon’s somewhat aloof demeanor somehow fed the persona.
Simon wasn’t exactly certain how it had happened, but gradually he became aware that his peers craved his approval. He was intelligent and athletic, but it seemed his elevated status had more to do with his manner than anything else. Because Simon didn’t speak when words were not necessary, people judged him to be arrogant, just as a future duke should be. Because he preferred to surround himself with only those friends with whom he felt truly comfortable, people decided he was exceptionally discriminating in his choice of companions, just as a future duke should be.
He wasn’t very talkative, but when he did say something, he had a quick and often ironic wit—just the sort of humor that guaranteed that people would hang on his every word. And again, because he didn’t constantly run off at the mouth, as did so many of the ton, people were even more obsessed with what he had to say.
He was called “supremely confident,” “heartstoppingly handsome,” and “the perfect specimen of English manhood.” Men wanted his opinion on any number of topics.
The women swooned at his feet.
Simon worked hard on his stutter, and Quinn does an excellent job of portraying how it feels to stutter in the moment when Simon and his father encounter each other at a London ball: “His tongue felt thick, his mouth felt odd, and it almost seemed as if his stutters had spread from his mouth to his body, for he suddenly didn’t even feel right in his own skin.”
However, stuttering has no cure and stuttering would forever be a part of Simon—especially when matters involving dating and marriage come into the picture.
Daphne Bridgerton, the eldest daughter in the elite Bridgerton family, is ready to find a suitable suitor. During a chance encounter with Simon, Daphne and Simon hatch a plan: they'll pretend to court each other. That way, Daphne will be perceived to be more eligible by other male suitors who actually want to have children—unlike Simon. Likewise, all of the mothers of young eligible women will stop hounding Simon to court their daughters. Their love story blossoms when they do eventually find that their feelings become real, and the truth comes out: after all this time and all of his attempts at controlling his speech, Simon admits he has a stutter. The reason for him not wanting an heir to spite his father pours out of him in a climatic conversation, and in a way, Simon's stutter is first and foremost in this conversation. Something Simon has tried to hide from others is something that is so crucial to his upbringing. This love story featuring an attractive Duke who stutters isn’t only appealing to Daphne, but to the greater Netflix audience, who are all about the steamy romance scenes.
Perhaps it’s not the media’s fault to not have stuttering and attraction grouped together. According to the study, "Stuttering, Attractiveness and Romantic Relationships: The Perception of Adolescents and Young Adults," by authors John Van Borsel, Marie Brepoels, Janne De Coene, "to some extent adolescents and young adults consider peers who stutter less attractive than non-stuttering peers and … are less likely to engage in a romantic relationship with them." However, this perception of people who stutter being viewed as not as attractive as their fluent counterparts is directly challenged in Netflix's television series. Why is there such a disconnect between attraction and stuttering? For example, even though many articles have mentioned the steamy romance and how attractive the Duke is, any mention of the portrayal of stuttering is surprisingly absent.
What does dating in real life look like from a person who stutters? In an article published on The Cut titled, "The Men I’m Most Attracted to Are the Ones Who Ease My Stutter," author Rachel Hoge explains how the men she dates affect her stutter. "What I do know is this: At 25, I’ve finally stopped trying to hide my stutter. It’s been the source of romantic disappointment and difficulty, and I’ve been overlooked and mocked and misjudged because of my speech — but at this point in my life, I’ve also met kind, magnificent people who have helped me accept the way I talk," Hoge writes. "People who make me wish I had a time machine to reenter that coffee shop in my hometown, that Friday night when I was 16, and order a mocha latte no matter how long it takes." Too often, society focuses on dating from the point of view of the person who is fluent, not on the person who stutters.
An interesting highlight of the aforementioned study is the interaction between fluent people and people who stutter: "Non-stutterers are less likely to engage in a romantic relationship with peers who stutter." However, in the end, it matters what the person who stutters thinks and not what someone else thinks. In that study, would the person who stutters even want to date someone who would judge their stutter? Probably not.
In an edited transcript of a 2011 interview with Colin Firth and BSA chief executive Norbert Lieckfeldt, Firth wrote in The Guardian, "I had vocal problems in my 20s. I had an injury on my vocal cord which had to be dealt with surgically. It wasn't a stammer but it meant I couldn't be heard properly. I remember a voice therapist said: 'Don't underestimate how debilitating it is.' People appreciate the problem of blindness and deafness and so on. The psychological damage of not being able to speak properly to people—in the way they expect—is underestimated. I couldn't express myself. My identity was completely stifled." This "stifled identity" is expressed perfectly in The Duke and I and "Bridgerton."
In the prologue of The Duke and I, Quinn describes how Simon works hard on his stutter when he’s a child:
The progress was slow, but Simon's speech did improve. By the time he was six, "d-d-d-d-d-d-d-don't" had turned into "d-d-don't," and by the time he was eight, he was managing entire sentences without faltering. He still ran into trouble when he was upset, and Nurse had to remind him often that he needed to remain calm and collected if he wanted to get the words out in one piece.
But Simon was determined, and Simon was smart, and perhaps most importantly, he was damned stubborn. He learned to take breaths before each sentence, and to think about his words before he attempted to say them. He studied the feel of his mouth when he spoke correctly, and tried to analyze what went wrong when he didn't.
And finally, at the age of eleven, he turned to Nurse Hopkins, paused to collect his thoughts, and said, "I think it is time we went to see my father.”
Simon's father, however, was not impressed with Simon's stutter. When Simon and his Nurse arrived to see Simon’s father, the butler thought that Simon was dead, and then Simon's father said, "Go home. There is no place for you here." Simon was determined to continue living his life, as exemplified in the last paragraphs of the prologue:
Simon felt the duke's rejection in his very bones, felt a peculiar kind of pain enter his body and creep around his heart. And, as hatred flooded his body and poured from his eyes, he made a solemn vow.
If he couldn't be the son his father wanted, then by God, he'd be the exact opposite…
At the climax of Quinn's The Duke and I, Simon and Daphne confront each other about their past. At the beginning of Simon and Daphne's ruse, he said he couldn't have children, which Daphne interpreted as him being impotent. What Simon truly meant was he didn't want to have children because he wanted to spite his father and end the Hastings line. Daphne, through her maturity and sexual awakening, realizes that Simon was physically able to have children, unlike what she previously thought. When Simon and Daphne confront each other, Daphne comes to terms with a few things on her own:
Daphne hugged her knees to her chest, pondering his words. All this time she'd thought he'd abandoned her because he hated her, hated what she'd done, but in truth, the only thing he hated was himself.
She said softly, 'You know I don't think less of you when you stammer.'
This is a crucial moment, because deep in the revealing intimacy of a romantic context, stuttering is brought to light. The best-selling romance book and hit television series shows point-blank that someone can be both attractive and a person who stutters. The Duke and I and “Bridgerton” transforms the entire narrative. After reading the book and watching the television show, it’s hard to separate the Duke from his stutter. Stuttering is such an integral part of his life. This shows that being a person who stutters and being a person who society views as attractive can happen at the same time.
Quinn's writing beautifully shows the compassion that Daphne Bridgerton has for her love, Simon Basset, the Duke of Hastings:
She nodded slowly. Of course he would. He was proud and stubborn, and all the ton looked up to him. Men curried his favor, women flirted like mad. And all the while he'd been terrified every time he'd opened his mouth.
Well, maybe not every time, Daphne thought as she gazed into his face. When they were together, he usually spoke so freely, answered her so quickly that she knew he couldn't possibly be concentrating on every word.
The text then continues to address the horrific father-son dynamic the Duke experienced with his father. Daphne assuages his fears about what it would be like to have a child. Simon’s father was so concerned about having an heir that Simon wanted to put a stop to it. However, Daphne insists that Simon isn't going to be his father. The Duke realizes that by having a child who he will love wholly and completely, he wins.
The story comes full circle when Simon and Daphne seriously discuss toward the end of the novel the idea of having children. Simon addresses his main concern—what if they have a child who has a stutter like him? Daphne, to her credit, isn't worried by that at all:
"If we have a child who stutters," Daphne said carefully, "then I shall love him. And help him. And—" She swallowed convulsively, praying that she was doing the right thing. "And I shall turn to you for advice, because obviously you have learned how to overcome it."
He turned to face her with surprising swiftness. "I don't want my child to suffer as I have suffered."
A strange little smile moved across Daphne's face without her even realizing it, as if her body had realized before her mind that she knew exactly what to say. "But he wouldn't suffer," she said, "because you'll be his father."
Simon's face did not change expression, but his eyes shone with an odd, new, almost hopeful light.
"Would you reject a child who stuttered?" Daphne asked quietly.
Simon's negative reply was strong, swift, and accompanied by just a touch of blasphemy.
She smiled softly. "Then I have no fears for our children."
Simon held still for one moment more, and then in a rush of movement pulled her into his arms, burying his face in the crook of her neck. "I love you," he choked out. "I love you so much."
And Daphne was finally certain that everything was going to be all right.
It is vulnerable to be a person who stutters, and it is vulnerable to live in a world made for people who are fluent. Similar to how Daphne was able to accept all of Simon, including his stutter, so too can fluent people accept people who stutter.
Perhaps like Hoge, a person who stutters, the important thing for fluent people to understand is how people who stutter feel during conversations with those who don’t stutter: “As a teenager and throughout my early 20s, I had naturally gravitated toward men who eased my stutter." Could seeing things from the perspective of a person who stutters help fluent people see their attractiveness? The focus is then on what the person who stutters thinks, and not from the fluent point of view. Like Simon casting away the negative narrative he grew up with from his father and moving toward his new life with Daphne, and a life full of acceptance and love including his stutter, so too can the acceptance toward stuttering in the real world evolve.
Posted March 25, 2022