On Bridget Jones’ Diary

Bridget Jones’ Diary is hardly a film of female empowerment, as it is innately post-feminism. But then just as I watched Smallville, and Stargate SG-1, which is also not feminist, I find material exhibiting post-feminism to be interesting to view – but still rather unrealistic. According to Pop Culture and Its Discontents‘ post, “Is Bridget Jones a Feminist?“:

Next week the much anticipated third Bridget Jones novel will be available in bookstores and yet again internet and newspapers are infected by a true Bridget-frenzy. Just like in the 1990s, journalists all over the world try to answer the one question: Is Bridget Jones a feminist or the incarnation of a conservative, pre-women’s-rights-movement image of a woman?

The Guardian’s Suzanne Moore told her readers today why she hates Bridget Jones and explains that Bridget Jones is post-feminist and that post-feminism advocates a fiction that argues that feminism is a thing of the past: women celebrate their femininity and their independence by doing what they want, be it drinking, shopping or having sex with strangers. The problem with post-feminism, however, is that it stresses a self-obsessed image of the individual woman. Structural problems such as everyday sexism or rape culture are eclipsed by the individual woman’s right to buy Manolo Blahniks and drink Cosmopolitans.

This view is shared by many critics of the Bridget Jones phenomenon. Nevertheless, they often overlook a crucial feature of Helen Fielding’s novels: In fact, Bridget is not a modern, post-feminist, everyday woman – she is a Victorian.

Bridget Jones has more in common with Jane Austen’s 19th century novel Pride and Prejudice than Mr. Darcy. Bridget struggles with many of the problems of a Victorian twenty-something, the most important one being the hunt for a husband. Although Bridget and her friends established the term “singleton” to refer to the freedom and satisfaction that can be obtained from being single, they also make clear that “singletondom” in fact is a fiction. After all, in her new year’s resolutions, Bridget decides:

“I will not sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without a boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.” (Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2)

While Bridget has probably learned this credo from one of her many self-help books (most likely, The Rules), it could just as likely come from one of the many Victorian conduct manuals for young women, that were available to Jane Austen, her heroines, and her readers. In 1766, John Fordyce wrote in Sermons for Young Women, a book that is explicitly mentioned in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice:

“I know nothing that renders a woman more despicable, than her thinking it essential to happiness to be married. Besides the gross indelicacy of the sentiment, it is a false one, as thousands of women have experienced. But if it was true, the belief that it is so, and the consequent impatience to be married, is the most effectual way to prevent it.” (Fordyce, Sermons to Young Women)

Bridget Jones’s idea of the singleton is not too far away from the Victorian nightmare of spinsterhood. When a Victorian woman could not find a husband, there were basically two options: she could either live off her relatives’ money or she could become a governess (like Jane Eyre). Either way, her status as unmarried woman would suffice to make her an inappropriate member of society. Spinsters were frequently made the object of ridicule and social alienation just as Austen’s Miss Bates, a woman who is repeatedly referred to as old maid and who is described as enjoying “a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman not married” (Austen, Emma, chapter 3).

I am fully aware that things have changed: an unmarried woman today is granted ownership of money and other possessions and the state of “unmarriedness” over the age of 30 is much more common. However, is it more acceptable? I am fairly sure that many single women have experienced similar situations as Bridget Jones: coming to a family gathering and being asked about the still non-existent boyfriend? Having been in a relationship and being asked when it was finally time to get married? Having been married and being asked when it was finally time to have children?

Many Victorian values are still upheld in our contemporary society, which is why feminism is not an issue of the past. While Bridget might be neurotic, self-obsessed, self-destructive in her attempt to balance out her “feminist” values and her want for love and commitment, and sometimes even slightly annoying, I think that many modern critics are too harsh on her. Bridget Jones’s Diary by no means represents a post-feminist manifesto that argues that women now “have it all” and can lead fulfilled lives filled with consumerism and narcissism. To me, the novels are a kind of warning: If a Victorian woman like Bridget Jones can walk the streets of 21th century London without being recognized as such, feminism is still to be called for. If so many readers can identify with a woman who struggles with Victorian gender issues, without realizing the character’s sense of “pastness” and instead mistaking her for “one of them”, a post-feminist society is still a long way to go.

Additionally, according to BJDiary‘s post, “Bridget Jones and the New Post-Feminism“:

Chick lit is hot; a new subgenre of romance literature targeted at women audiences and expected to make men cringe, it has become a media and popular phenomenon characterized by thirty-something single female protagonists living on their own and working in glamorous industries, who flip through glossies, obsess over weight, and turn to consumerist culture in order to snag Mr. Right.

Helen Fielding’s spectacularly successful novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, originally published in the U.K in 1996, is widely regarded as the foundational text of the trend.  It has sold well over ten million copies in more than 30 languages worldwide (Gilbert 51) and inspired a sequel novel and two feature films.

“Bridget Jones” is a household name, and, as Tamsin Todd noted in an early review of the novel, can function as an adjective, noun, or verb all at once—as in “That’s so Bridget Jones,” or “I pulled a Bridget Jones last night” (qtd. in Scott 108).  Additionally, Fielding’s work has inspired a host of labels, such as Singleton lit and Thinnist Lit, a number of slang terms—“singleton, smug-marrieds, emotional fuck-wittage—and countless imitators.

Bridget Jones’s Diary is an excellent example of cultural materialism—both representing and shaping the culture in which it was produced.  But if it symbolizes the feminine Zeitgeist of the 1990’s, then it is important to understand what, exactly, that Zeitgeist is. This paper will discuss chick lit as a reflection of “emerging adulthood” (Arnett, 4) and why it is so crucial to determine whether Bridget Jones’s Diary is an anti-feminist, feminist, or post-feminist text.

I will then argue that Bridget Jones’s Diaryis post-feminist in its simultaneous use of the rhetoric of female empowerment and sociopolitical responsibility and the pursuit of a meaningful heterosexual relationship as the ultimate goal.   Bridget Jones is a new kind of feminist: a woman who grew up on the 70’s ideals of sexual liberation and gender equality and perverted those ideals into a code of “total womanhood,” which masquerades as female empowerment but in reality turns sex and the body into commodities for sale.

Women of the 1990’s wanted the freedom to choose, but their choice was to turn personal agency into unadulterated consumption, sexual behavior and dress, and “continued desire for Darcy” (Whelehan 32).  Bridget Jones can’t quite integrate her feminist rhetoric with her all-consuming desire for a relationship with a hero from a Jane Austen novel (Whelehan).  She is also post-feminist in her indictment of feminism as outmoded, prudish, offensive, and judgmental; after all, “there is nothing so unattractive to a man as strident feminism” (Fielding 20).

Even though it has been derided as inferior, or “non-literary” pulp fiction—and nicknamed “snack-food literature,” year-long beach reading,” and “the treadmill book club”— chick lit is not simply a passing fad—it’s here to stay (Harzewski 31).  Critic Debbie Barham warned prophetically (and quite scathingly) in a 2001 essay, “Mark my words, your local Borders will soon have a section entirely devoted to simpering singleton scribblings: somewhere between Self-Help, Sex Manuals, Diet books, and Autobiographies—Self-Obsessed, Helpless Fathead Fiction” (23).

Even if this hasn’t happened yet, the Pepto-Bismol tidal wave that is chick lit has certainly inundated the shelves with its book covers scrawled on in bouncy, curlicue writing above a cartoonish rendering of a singleton surrounded by shopping bags or other similar products of the magazine culture to which she prescribes.  Why, exactly, has the genre developed and why has it become so popular?  Why has Bridget Jones inspired a cult of women who exuberantly exclaim, “Bridget Jones is me?”

I would argue that the Chick lit genre is new because the phase of life it depicts is new, reflecting what psychologist and f ormer professor at the University of Missouri Jeffrey Jensen Arnett terms “emerging adulthood.”  Emerging Adulthood is a relatively recent phenomenon in identity development, an extended period between adolescence and young adulthood, between the ages 18 and 25, that occurs in modern, industrialized nations.  It is a historically unprecedented period of the life course, neither an extended adolescence because of its freedom from parental control, nor a young adulthood because it hasn’t yet assumed the weight of traditionally “adult” responsibility (Arnett 4).  This pseudo stage is characterized, in part, by identity explorations in love and work as well as self-focus (Arnett 8).

Bridget Jones, despite being 32, is an emerging adult, marked as she is by her unadulterated hedonism and multiple lovers and jobs.  The emerging adult stage allows her a certain immaturity, especially in her relationships to men—instead of addressing conflict with Daniel or Mark Darcy she calls “e m ergency summits” to discuss the problems with her friends—and work—she often finds herself in spectacular messes because she hasn’t taken her tasks seriously.  It also allows her to focus on herself, to put off marriage, family responsibilities, and serious enduring choices about her life.  Women who are in this phase of life identify with Chick lit protagonists who experience the same opportunities, selfishness, and identity explorations.

Hence, chick lit is made expressly for those women.  It is a literature all of their own.  According to Jane D. Brown, an emerging adult’s identity is influenced by the media she attends to (280); therefore, it is crucial to determine who or what Bridget Jones’s Diary is telling woman to be.  If the novel is critical of feminism, it could encourage women to construct identities based solely on physical attractiveness and attaining a heterosexual relationship.

The genre’s glamorization of the single life and “Cosmo culture” could cause women to abandon feminist ideals of equality and liberation and to completely embrace the sexual objectification that is already so pervasive in the media.  The future is bleak for women who view themselves as objects.  However, if the novel encourages a feminist identity, or rather, a post-feminist identity, it means continued hope for the feminist movement and positive female identity formation.

Finally, according to The Guardian‘s article, “Why I hate Bridget Jones“:

Bridget Jones is back. Get out the big knickers and cocktail shaker. She is now more espresso martini than chardonnay. For Bridget is everywoman, after all, isn’t she? Obsessed with three of the most boring things in the entire world: dieting, trying to get a bloke and drinking and feeling bad about it. I thought she had been put out of her misery by marriage but now she is a widow. Well, at least we have bypassed the smug married phase and we can go straight back into looking for lurve. That, dear reader, is Bridget’s raison d’etre, for this is what romance, romcoms or chick lit has to do.

Helen Fielding is a brilliant social observer and preceded the shopping and fucking of Sex and the City by years. She zeited the geist of the mid-90s superbly, but Bridget, never trying be too strident (offputting to men) was for me the epitome of post-feminism – vapid, consumerist and self-obsessed. Bridget’s much-vaunted independence, gained on the back of the feminism of the previous two decades, manifested chiefly as the freedom to get pissed, appreciate her female friends and speak openly of her sexual desires. For that we may be grateful? Many women clearly identified with this.

In 2013 Bridget is a single mum with two kids, she has discovered nits – what took her so long? – and thigh-high boots. Probably the result of the 5:2 diet but I couldn’t care less. The point is that whatever Bridget thinks of herself we must know she is desirable. And lo, she has “a toyboy”.

Who is Fielding writing for now? I am her age, and I can’t work it out. It may be heresy but I just never identified with her heroine in any way. The ditziness, the choice between the good man and the bad boy (Darcy and Cleaver), the overbearing parents all seemed infantilising. As for having kids, I just thought get on with it. Now she is alone again and the internet has been invented, she could have sex any time. But Bridget doesn’t just want sex, does she?

Obviously Darcy had to be killed off even if the fans are upset, because this character is based on lack. The lack of a man. Lack and guilt. Bridget at 51 is more cynical, but without this quest what would her life be? Lunches, Ocado deliveries, chauffeuring children to extra-curricular activities ?

This, you may say, simply reflects real, if real life means you don’t have to earn money. Especially in the movies, the aspirations and class assumptions are not hidden. Clearly, though, the identification with Bridget is the one pimped by so much media aimed at women: self-improvement as self-empowerment. Self is the key word. Go girl, at a time when women actually have less and less.

Of course Bridget can make me laugh but her confusion didn’t. Still doesn’t. The humour that comes from her rhetoric about being a strong independent woman is always undermined by her pseudo neurosis – waiting for the man to ring or, now she has discovered social media, to ping.

What fills the lack is self-indulgence. The promise of post-feminism after all was some Manolo Blahniks, a Mr Big or Darcy, some cracking sex toys, boozy nights out with the girls. And shopping. In the end, liberation is reduced to libido. Hey, I’ve still got it and hey, I am certainly worth it.

Poor Ms Jones, still hiding her cleverness, putting up with crap from Cleaver and worrying about the competitive school run. Sorry, I am not buying this fiction. The fiction is that post-feminism is not in fact anti-feminism.

It is.

The fiction is that self-obsession is funny because collective struggles are a thing of the past. But this is Bridget Jones, not Emma Goldman. It’s not my bag. And guess what? I don’t feel guilty about this in any way.

According to Roger Ebert:

Glory be, they didn’t muck it up. Bridget Jones’s Diary , a beloved book about a heroine both lovable and human, has been made against all odds into a funny and charming movie that understands the charm of the original, and preserves it. The book, a fictional diary of a plump 30-something London office worker, was about a specific person in a specific place. When the role was cast with Renee Zellweger, who is not plump and is from Texas, there was gnashing and wailing. Obviously the Miramax boys would turn London’s pride into a Manhattanite, or worse.

Nothing doing. Zellweger put on 20-some pounds and developed the cutest little would-be double chin, as well as a British accent that sounds reasonable enough to me. (Sight & Sound, the British film magazine, has an ear for nuances and says the accent is “just a little too studiedly posh,” which from them is praise.) As in the book, Bridget arrives at her 32nd birthday determined to take control of her life, which until now has consisted of smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much and not finding the right man, or indeed much of any man. In her nightmares, she dies fat, drunk and lonely and is eaten by Alsatian dogs. She determines to monitor her daily intake of tobacco and alcohol units, and her weight, which she measures in stones. (A stone is 14 pounds; the British not only have pounds along with kilos, but stones on top of pounds, although the other day a London street vendor was arrested for selling bananas by the pound in defiance of the new European marching orders; the next step is obviously for Brussels to impound Bridget’s diary.) Bridget’s campaign proceeds unhappily when her mother (who “comes from the time when pickles on toothpicks were still the height of sophistication”) introduces her to handsome Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), who is at a holiday party against his will and in a bad mood and is overheard (by Bridget) describing her as a “verbally incontinent spinster.” Things go better at work, where she exchanges saucy e-mails with her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). His opener: “You appear to have forgotten your skirt.” They begin an affair, while Darcy circles the outskirts of her consciousness, still looking luscious but acting emotionally constipated.

Zellweger’s Bridget is a reminder of the first time we became really aware of her in a movie, in “Jerry Maguire,” where she was so cute and vulnerable we wanted to tickle and console her at the same time. Her work in “Nurse Betty” (2000) was widely but not sufficiently praised, and now here she is, fully herself and fully Bridget Jones, both at once. A story like this can’t work unless we feel unconditional affection for the heroine, and casting Zellweger achieves that; the only alternate I can think of is Kate Winslet, who comes close but lacks the self-destructive puppy aspects.

The movie has otherwise been cast with dependable (perhaps infallible) British comic actors. The first time Hugh Grant appeared on screen, I chuckled for no good reason at all, just as I always do when I see Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Tim Roth or Jack Nicholson–because I know that whatever the role, they will infuse it with more than the doctor ordered. Grant can play a male Bridget Jones (as he did in “Notting Hill”), but he’s better as a cad, and here he surpasses himself by lying to Bridget about Darcy and then cheating on her with a girl from the New York office. (An “American stick insect,” is what Bridget tells her diary.) It is a universal rule of romantic fiction that all great love stories must be mirrored by their low-comedy counterpoints. Just as Hal woos Katharine, Falstaff trifles with Doll Tearsheet. If Bridget must choose between Mark and Daniel, then her mother (Gemma Jones) must choose between her kindly but easy-chair-loving husband (Jim Broadbent) and a dashing huckster for a TV shopping channel.

The movie strings together one funny set-piece after another, as when Bridget goes in costume to a party where she thought the theme was “Tarts & Vicars.” Or when she stumbles into a job on a TV news show and makes her famous premature entrance down the fire pole. Or when she has to decide at the beginning of an evening whether sexy underwear or tummy-crunching underwear will do her more good in the long run. Bridget charts her own progress along the way, from “tragic spinster” to “wanton sex goddess,” and the movie gives almost unreasonable pleasure as it celebrates her bumpy transition.


One thought on “On Bridget Jones’ Diary

  1. Pingback: On A Christmas Carol | The Progressive Democrat

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