It’s 25 years since Bridget Jones’s Diary was published in the US and The New York Times is not amused. “Bridget Jones deserved better,” the headline reads. “We all did.” The article, which gives new meaning to the words po-faced, castigates Bridget for her nuttiness and self-loathing, rails against her hapless, flustered flakiness, calls her out for smoking and body shaming and ends with a clarion call for “stories which celebrate progress”. Oh God, must we?
The only thing the author can find to celebrate is the “fun” anachronisms scattered through the book, from answering machines to VCRs. I’m guessing she must have missed the bit about blue soup. And the emergency summits in Café Rouge after work, with Shazzer shouting about f***wittage through a haze of Silk Cut, and Jude bellowing about bastards over a bottle of Chardonnay. Is it possible not to laugh at Bridget’s New Year’s resolution to become “poised and cool ice-queen”, before noting sadly, “First day of New Year has been day of horror”?
Apparently the world has changed out of all recognition since 1998, at least on the other side of the Atlantic. Bridget Jones’s Diary is now not just unfunny, but actively dangerous in its peddling of the outdated stereotype that a woman, any woman, could occasionally be as hapless and neurotic as Bridget. I guess I’m the last one left, then, and every other woman has cracked it. So while we’re in the market for humorless revisionist nonsense, the article revisits a fictional character’s fictional boss with an eye to real-life #MeToo. “Bridget’s professional life makes for a chilling, upsetting read,” it declares. Eye roll. Judge for yourself: “Friday January 6, Daniel Cleaver wants my phone number. Am Marvellous. Am irresistible Sex Goddess. Hurrah!”
While we’re in the market for humorless revisionist nonsense, the article revisits a fictional character’s fictional boss with an eye to real-life #MeToo.
Am I failing as a feminist if I don’t always take life terribly seriously? Am I shaming the sisterhood by laughing along with — but never at — Bridget Jones? I struggle to believe that what young women talk about and worry about has changed all that much since 1998. If they don’t worry about their weight anymore, or agonize about boyfriends, or have inappropriate crushes on terrible men who break their heart, what do they talk to their friends about? Inflation?
I was in my twenties when the book came out in the UK in 1996, so younger than Bridget, who was in her thirties. A boyfriend nevertheless called to ask if I’d dictated my life story to the author, Helen Fielding, but it wasn’t just me. We were all Bridget, starting out in the world, working hard, playing hard and swearing too much. To use a phrase that The New York Times might understand, we felt seen. And Lord was the book funny. I’ve got it in front of me now and it starts with her New Year’s resolutions. They are mostly about cigarettes, calories and alcohol, but broaden out into her general desire for self-improvement. You could argue that in many ways she wasn’t retrograde but ahead of her time. Long before wellness and positive visualization were invented, Bridget vowed to develop “inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance”.
Our heroine, furthermore, “will not have crushes on men but instead form relationships based on mature assessment of character”. I mean, come on. Doesn’t that make you look back on your own romantic misadventures and snort? No? I’m sorry, but we can never be friends. Bridget vows to reduce the circumference of her thighs by three inches, 1.5 inches per thigh, and to eat more pulses. I have a girlfriend who, to this day, when she’s said something particularly profound about pedicures, for example, or eyeliner, will look at me and add, “And Chechnya, obviously,” a reference to Bridget’s doomed attempts to sound up to speed on international relations.
Am I shaming the sisterhood by laughing along with — but never at — Bridget Jones?
Thanks to this book, f***wittage, Smug Marrieds, and the fear of dying alone and being eaten by an Alsatian have all entered the language, and hurrah, as Bridget would say. Who could forget the Smug Marrieds dinner party at Magda and Jeremy’s, which ends with a tearful late-night phone call to Shazzer, who tells her she isn’t married because she’s a singleton. “Singletons!” I shouted happily. “Hurrah for the singletons!” Entries for June are titled “Hah! Boyfriend”.
Look, of course office life has changed massively for the better in many ways since 1996, when the book was published in the UK. No woman, thank heavens, would get an email from their boss saying, “I like your tits in that top.” But it’s worth reminding ourselves here that you’ll find this book in the fiction section, not self-help. I’m not going to argue, any more than I imagine Helen Fielding would, that Bridget Jones’s Diary is up there with Jane Eyre, but that isn’t the test. Not every day is a Jane Eyre day. The test is whether a book resonates, whether it packs an emotional punch. So yes, Bridget Jones is a messed-up fruitloop with a disastrous love life and a lecherous boss, but that’s precisely why you should read it, not why you should avoid it. It’s called a plot. If there’s a central message, it isn’t that she’s “nutty and self-loathing”, it’s that boyfriends come and go, but good friends are forever.
Bridget deserved better, intones the NYT, which says she reads like a relic from another time. Well, some people evidently don’t deserve her at all. The rest of us felt as though we’d hit the jackpot when that book came out. However, in a bid to keep the peace, I have a suggestion. All copies of Bridget Jones’s Diary should in future have prominent trigger warnings as follows. “This book contains scenes of drunkenness, debauchery and emotional f***wittage. There are graphic scenes involving Milk Tray consumption, and chronic abuse of alcohol and cigarettes throughout, all of which are vv bad for you. It will also make you laugh. You may find this distressing.”
Hilary Rose is a longtime columnist at The Times of London and the author of the weekly column How to Get Dressed