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11 July 2023

Why literary snobs don’t get Bridget Jones

Moralising critics forget the importance of fiction holding up a mirror to society’s flaws.

By Pravina Rudra

It’s 27 years (25 in the US) since the publication of Bridget Jones’s Diary – the novel by Helen Fielding that spawned Richard Curtis movies starring Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, two further books, and phrases such as “f***wit” and “Smug Marrieds”. A comic hit at the time, the book’s jacket was even adorned with the praise of Salman Rushdie. But since, it has often come under fire – most recently on 30 June when the New York Times published a piece for the US anniversary arguing that we deserved a better heroine than Bridget Jones. Her crimes? Chasing after men, caring too much about her weight and general ditziness.

The NYT critic seemed particularly aggrieved that Bridget moves to a new job after an “offer letter” that “consists of one line: ‘OK, my darling. You’re on.’ No mention of salary, health insurance, vacation time or sick days.” The sneer betrays an American mindset unable to conceive that Bridget has no need for medical insurance thanks to the NHS or that “sick days” that come as standard.

But the writer did have a point. The opening to each of Bridget Jones’s diary entries recorded her weight, and an exhausting compendium of calories consumed. She was romantically obsessed with her boss, Daniel Cleaver, who flung her employment tribunal-worthy missives such as “PS like your tits in that top”. Today, any self-respecting woman would stay away (or at least sleep with him then dump him, in the name of 2020s female empowerment). Any self-respecting man would have the decency to hide his red flags. It doesn’t help, either, that Bridget worked in publishing, owned a flat next to Borough Market in London, and operated in circles of “oh you know, so and so, he’s a top human rights lawyer, he played in your paddling pool as a child”. It is true that Bridget Jones could not be written now.

But there is something greater at stake here. How do we begin to identify, let alone unpick, society’s problematic beliefs when they are not reflected back at us through flawed characters? How can we believe a character who never has a non-woke thought?

If we, say, pretend that no woman has an odd fixation with her weight, how do we begin to ask ourselves why the spectre of “fatness” haunts women in a way it does not men? I wish Bridget Jones had not thought that she was chubby at approximately 9 stone 2lbs (the subject of various memes blaming her for our distorted view of weight). But I also think that in a way, Fielding’s creation took the fall: she sparked conversations about the prevalence of low-key body dysmorphia in women.

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The NYT tells us that “neurotic isn’t cute” and “neither is flustered, madcap, zany, flighty, flaky, harried or hapless”. Which feels a little bit like what a “pick-me girl” – one who distances herself from other women to appeal to men – would say: “Girls, don’t be neurotic! Men HATE that – we mustn’t play into the stereotype.” But also, it sounds like the sentiment of the kind of person who’d ditch her friend for overthinking things and not being able to shut up about losing weight for her wedding.  

Yes, it might be nuts that your friend fancies such a flagrant womaniser as Hugh Grant, sorry, Daniel Cleaver. But also, in my experience, that is exactly what lots of women do. You can’t talk your mates out of it and you can’t block out the realities of female experience just because it feels inconvenient. One day they’ll learn for themselves – as Bridget does when she stands up to Cleaver after he cheats, and she sheds pounds only to realise she looks “tired and flat”. This is the point that so many critics miss about Bridget Jones – there’d be nothing to invest in, no redemptive arc, if she were pure to start with. 

There is so much retrospective literary snobbery around Fielding’s work, but I wonder if today’s “chick-lit” heroines are so different. Protagonists in (brilliant) novels by Raven Leilani, Megan Nolan and Naoise Dolan are flawed too. They pursue men who are emotionally invested in other women; the difference is that the men present themselves as progressive and are quietly emotionally abusive rather than being outright tossers. Similarly, the narrators are self-loathing in more subtle ways – they are tortured by existential angst rather than distress at theatrical mishaps such as cooking their dinner guests blue soup. They are aloof, and do not bubble over and thus embarrass themselves. They relate events in detached, understated prose; you could not conceive of them summarising the month of June with “Hah! Boyfriend” in their diary, or turning up to a respectable garden party with a fluffy bunny tail on because they misapprehended the theme as “tarts and vicars” (although Monica Heisey’s recent novel Really Good, Actually is a rare successor in this sense). 

We are all supposed to be smarter now. Think of the letters exchanged in Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You which contains sentences such as “I know that you personally feel the world ceased to be beautiful after the fall of the Soviet Union”. You could not any more, as Bridget does, practice saying “Isn’t it terrible about Chechnya?” in front of your mirror before a book launch. But part of me misses the idea of a heroine who doesn’t pretend to know it all – because of course, none of us do. 

[See also: The decline of the Literary Bloke]

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