The wry eye of Bridget Jones’s Diary
First thing’s first, I need to ask you something: please ignore the entirety of the 2001 film adaptation whilst reading this article. The views held in this article are not applicable to the film because the box office hit is so far removed from Fielding’s original text that it becomes a caricature of her original hero. That isn’t to say that I don’t enjoy the film. For all its many faults, who could possibly resist Hugh Grant AND Colin Firth physically fighting over Bridget Jones in the street. It’s one of the greatest scenes in British cinematic history.
Despite the elevating presence of Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, the film has never exactly done Bridget justice. Somehow, they’ve managed to skate over the charming wit and relentlessly dry self-deprecation that really captured the readers’ imagination in the novel. In the film, they portray Bridget as simply a vapid, self-obsessed, boy-obsessed, floozy (I hate the term, but I don’t know how else to describe Zellweger’s characterisation of her).
This isn’t to say that Bridget doesn’t have these aspects to her character in the book – she is only human after all. However, the film cherry-picks only these facets of her personality. It turns the bumbling but brilliant Bridget into the boring Bridget we see on the silver screen. All of the nuance, the wit, the verbosity of Bridget, falls by the wayside.
And that is why I will not be talking about the film, folks (although I’ll admit, I have spent quite a long time so far doing just that). It’s no secret that Bridget Jones’s Diary hasn’t aged massively well over the past twenty-five years. There are people that argue its portrayal of womanhood is outdated, crass, and damaging to the next generation. Bridget’s preoccupation with the opposite gender, the way she gives them permission to shape her life and influence the way she sees herself, is not endearing to audiences in the twenty-first century. Even Helen Fielding herself has said that she “can’t believe the sexism in Bridget’s world” upon rewatching the film. Reams and reams of articles have been written about the unsavoury ways femininity and feminism are portrayed in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
This is evident in the first few pages of the 1996 novel. At the beginning of Fielding’s novel, Bridget makes herself a list of things she will and will not do in the new year. A lot of these things are relatable and appealing, and downright funny too; who hasn’t wasted extortionate amounts of money on a pasta maker, only for it to rot away in the back of that cupboard you never open? This is the magic of Fielding’s prose – she is, I would argue, the forebearer of this strong, humorous, and inherently female, narrative voice we see so often in fiction nowadays. It is that that always keeps me coming back to Bridget.
However, the last thing that Bridget tells herself she will not do is:
“sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without [authors’ emphasis, not mine] boyfriend, as best way of obtaining boyfriend” (BJD, p.2).
This quotation embodies the ‘catch-22’ that exists at the heart of Bridget Jones’s Diary. It betrays Bridget’s obsession with acquiring a boyfriend. Having a boyfriend is, in Bridget’s eyes, the gateway to middle-class success. We find out pretty quickly that, for Bridget, middle-class success consists mostly of babies, mortgages, and dinner parties with “smug Marrieds” (defined in the novel as those who also have partners, babies, and mortgages).
This preoccupation Bridget has with such markers of bourgeois affluence and feminine triumph are as problematic today as they were back in the nineties. Bridget’s desire to settle, both in her romantic and her professional life, is harrowing; especially after women spent the majority of the twentieth century trying to ensure that they would not have to settle for anything.
All of this, shocking to today’s audiences (and, to a lesser extent, audiences at the time of the novels’ publication), is superimposed onto Bridget’s awareness of how problematic her fantasies are. In the above quotation, Bridget shows an extraordinary amount of self-reflexivity.
Despite her engrossment with the men in her office and the men that her mother thrusts her downstream of, she is too all aware that that is not how she is supposed to behave in contemporary society. Bridget has an English degree; she references F.R Leavis (wrongly, but still) and Susan Faludi (although she still has yet to actually read her); she comes from an affluent upper-middle-class background, as does everyone she knows.
There is no excuse to not settle for less. All of the behaviour she has learnt from her mother, to appease and appeal to men unquestioningly, is interspersed with the knowledge that she should have her sights set higher than babies and mortgages and dinner parties. She knows that she should want the confidence and sophistication that she perceives other women, both in the media and in real life, to have.
It is this double-standard that runs like a femoral artery through the novel. It is a source of great comedy and great social commentary. Nevertheless, it is this that some people vehemently dislike about Bridget Jones’s Diary. These people see Bridget Jones as a hypocrite.
They perceive Fielding’s most famous hero as a traitor to the feminist cause. When Bridget manages to convince herself that being nine stone, two pounds means being horrendously “fat”, there are people I know who have thrown the book against the opposite wall. All of this, combined with the groping, the lewd remarks made by her bosses, and the petty scrabbling over men, doesn’t win over fans in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Critics of the book and the film have denounced Bridget Jones’s Diary as distinctly ‘unfeminist.’
Bridget Jones´s Diary: feminist or unfeminist?
These people are missing the point. Whilst you could definitely make a case for the film being unfeminist, I would argue that this tongue-in-cheek attitude towards women in the novel makes it an icon of post-feminist discourse. The layers of irony at work in Bridget Jones’s Diary get mistranslated by those who don’t seem to quite understand that the novel is supposed to be a satire.
Fielding’s characterisation of Bridget Jones is supposed to gesture towards the hypocrisy that women heading into the twenty-first century had to navigate. The reason Bridget is occasionally so unselfconsciously misogynistic, all whilst being so deeply aware of her status as an uncompromising “career girl” (the sexist nature of such a phrase completely lost on her), is because Fielding wants to emphasise the myriad of ways in which the reality of feminism doesn’t match the discourse that surrounds it.
Fielding, in Bridget Jones’ Diary, is attempting to draw attention to the double standard that exists at the heart of society’s attitude towards women. In the novel, you can see how every female character is being pulled in two directions at once, and it doesn’t matter which way they choose, she will always be wrong.
Bridget Jones’s Diary reflects what it means to be a woman, albeit quite a posh white one, at the turn of the twenty-first century. It does so unflinchingly, without worrying about how it might upset feminists and non-feminists alike. Bridget Jones’s Diary casts a wry eye over where feminism has gotten us in the last one hundred years, and how it both helps and hinders women in their quest to simply be themselves. Bridget plucks the stray brow hairs of post-feminist discourse, and it does so rather marvellously.