I first read Bridget Jones’ Diary when I was a teenager, marveling over how adult and grown up Bridget’s entire world was. Cigarettes! Drinking! Poor decisions! For a 15-year-old with an untraditional worldview, Bridget’s foibles were aspirational. She was a woman in her thirties, still single, still struggling to make it to work wearing a bra and with both shoes on, still trying to figure out what a happy life meant. Her problems, while abstract, were problems that I saw myself having as I got older. I quietly recognized bits of her in myself, and unknowingly carried that with me as I grew up. Revisiting the book at age 31, I was pleasantly surprised to see that not much had really changed.
Bridget Jones came to be in 1996, a a pioneer in the newly formed genre of chick lit, paving a way for Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, Charlotte and a whole host of new female characters tentatively exploring the territory of being single in their twenties and beyond. Before Bridget, there was a dearth of female-specific narratives that weren’t sweeping Harlequin romances, that fully explored the peaks and valleys of finding your relevance in a world of single women that was rapidly shrinking with each wedding announcement and engagement. Bridget Jones was a stiff breeze, a strong drink, and a bracingly refreshing anti-heroine. We are drawn to Bridget because she is an unflinching mirror into the cobwebby corners of our hearts, where the deep-seated fear of spinsterhood refuses to budge. The fact that Bridget’s issues still resonate is testimony to Helen Fielding creating a character that is universal and deeply personal at the same time. It’s all there on the page, as if yanked from chat logs and text messages exchanged between friends: worries about weight, concerns about career, and the unnerving feeling that we might just die alone, being eaten by a pack of Alsatians.
Fielding changed the narrative about single women by neatly naming the phenomena that were surrounding us — the smug married, the singleton, the emotional fuckwittery that men of a certain age traffic in. She gave agency to a generation of women to embrace their single lives with cautious optimism. Reading this book at an impressionable age meant that these tropes have been etched in my mind as gospel. Revisiting this book in my thirties made me realize just how much of this attitude I internalized. I have a natural disdain for a certain kind of married person, and I am content with being single. Like most women, I dabble in bouts of insecurity and body anxiety, but inevitably cast those worries aside in favor of more wine and another cigarette — and I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t feel bad about not being married, or about where I am in my career. Life after 30 is not a slow decline into irrelevance. It is onward and upward.
The vicissitudes of modern relationships are still there, though the vehicles have changed. With this novel, Bridget Jones gave us a roadmap for being a modern woman. The answer phone services have been replaced by the unreturned text, but the roil of emotions surrounding these events remains the same. In fact, isn’t dating now worse than when Bridget Jones was around? If someone has been out of touch, the massive transparency that social media affords presents us with infinite ways to find out just why you’ve been stood up. A quick scroll thru Instagram is more revealing than the endless analysis of a phone that never rings.
What happens once Bridget finds love? The result was a tepid sequel, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, that doesn’t hit nearly as hard. Bridget’s anxieties that surface out of being in a successful long-term relationship with Mark Darcy are pedestrian. No one really wants to hear the news from the inside of a relationship, because that slice of domesticity, be it pleasant or not, is not nearly as riveting as watching an underdog triumph. There’s less to root for. The involvement that comes from reading about Bridget’s single life is the constant thrum of comparison, of identification and ultimate the wish for her to succeed — to settle into being a single woman happily and without consequence, for her to see that being alone is a manageable feat.
The notion that we need a relationship in order to define us is false. A career, a happy and productive friend group, the health and love of your family — these are the foundations of a successful and happy person. The relationship is merely the icing on the cake. As a reader, it’s frustrating to watch Bridget fret over her lack of a relationship when other aspects of her life are chugging along just fine. Her laser focus on being in a successful relationship is unsettling, but ultimately relatable, because human beings long for companionship in one form or another. The men in Bridget’s life are the fully realized archetypes of the two kinds of men we want and want to avoid — the foppish, dangerous one and the dependable sleeper agent whose charm is only revealed when he comes through in the clutch. What good work Fielding has done! All romantic interests in real life can be neatly categorized with a Tinder swipe into either Darcy or Cleaver territory.
These days, the conversation has changed. Instead of lady blogs berating you for being past your expiration date, we are now urged from every angle to be independent, find our ways, handle our lives and ourselves however we want. The narrative is supportive, instead of instructive, and that is a v.g thing. The massive life timeline that filters in baby photos and wedding pictures and engagement rings is now peppered with proud status updates that trumpet a happy existence as a single woman eating Pringles out of the can and watching Nashville. The pressures to exist as a Smug Married still exists, but it’s tempered with a dose of unrestrained Singleton triumph. As women, we are now a part of a generation being urged to lean in, but we have the choice to just stand up straight and hope that the think pieces quiet down for enough time to catch our breaths. Bridget Jones gave us that possibility.