Poor Bridget Jones.
The new Bridget book, Mad About the Boy, has received some nasty reviews, especially in the U.K. Some of that criticism is valid. The third BJ outing is an uneven affair that can't replicate the zeitgeisty comic perfection of Helen Fielding's 1996 debut, Bridget Jones's Diary.
But a lot of the analysis isn't concerned with Fielding's writing. Many of the complaints are about Bridget herself, almost as if she were a real live person rather than a comically exaggerated fictional character. Critics carp that Bridget is "vapid and self-obsessed," distracted by trivialities like her weight and her appearance, caught up in adolescent dramas of texting men who don't text her back.
According to this hard-line approach, Bridget is a crap female role model. She represents the pop-culture spectacle of "feminism dismantling itself," as one writer suggested after the first book became so successful, with the hard-won political gains of previous decades being frittered away in a flurry of dithering, dieting and Chardonnay.
That's one feminist approach to Bridget Jones.
Here's another: Would any of these letting-the-side-down arguments be made about a male character? Do we ever put this burden on fictional men, demanding that they stand in for their entire sex, that they embody the best ideals of 21st-century manhood? Do we castigate authors when their male protagonists sleep around or sabotage their careers or make poor life choices?
No, we don't. And that's a double standard.
There is no male equivalent to the Bridget Jones backlash. Just look at some of the boys of genre fiction. As Fielding herself has said: "Nobody worries about what Bertie Wooster is saying about masculinity." (And that's a good thing, because the only thing that P.G. Wodehouse's sublime comic creation has to say about anything is "What ho!")
Or take James Bond, another fictional British icon. In the Bond films, he is periodically updated in terms of what he drives and drinks and wears. But has he ever been expected to "grow" as a character? Has he been asked to provide a positive, realistic role model for young men? Nope. As Bridget might say, James looks v.g. in a dinner jacket but he is an emotional f wit. Despite the decades he's had to become a fully evolved human being, 007 remains a commitment-phobic borderline sociopath. (And amen to that, or the movies would be really dull.)
Bridget is not a political leader or an Olympic athlete. She's not Angela Merkel. Hell, she's not even Gwyneth Paltrow. She's a made-up comic character, what Fielding has described as "the ultimate banana-skin girl." Her role is to pratfall through a series of laughable disasters on her way to a happy ending.
So even though we left Bridget at the end of the second book engaged to Mark Darcy, that top barrister who looks a lot like Colin Firth, she does not start the third book settled into contented married life. Bridget is now a single mother, flailing around, blowing business meetings, being late for school pickup (just a little bit late, but motherhood being what it is, that's enough for guilt-inducing fits). She is also reluctantly getting back into dating, which was bad enough when she was in her 30s and is now utterly disastrous.
If she were self-confident, competent and calm, serenely balancing her work, her family and her love life, if she were taking a healthy, balanced approach to eating and exercise and vodka, Bridget would make an excellent feminist exemplar. She would also be a supremely unfunny comic character.
Bridget has changed. She now has two small children in her care, which means her party-girl excesses are confined to those weekend "mini-breaks" she loves. She now frets about whether she can carry off the look of "enormous handbag and sunglasses in manner of a celebrity at airport." She worries over the awkwardness of bringing a 29-year-old date to a friend's 60th birthday party.
Bridget is definitely middle-aged but, according to her critics, she is not middle-aged in the right way. "If we have to deal with her being 50," says one commentator, "we at least want to be rewarded with an Oprah-esque narrative of aging that embraces self-knowledge, self-respect and self-acceptance."
Speak for yourself, sister. Not everyone views "Oprah-esque narratives" as a reward. First off, Oprah is not that funny, especially when she has her "self-care" face on (leaning forward, head tilted to one side). Secondly, Fielding has consistently mocked the whole self-help project. Anyone who bothers to distinguish between Bridget and Fielding's authorial comments on Bridget can see that those constant attempts at self-improvement come in for a lot of affectionate satire.
Bridget devours self-help books, searching for advice on dating (The New Rules, Changing the Rules, Love Has No Rules) and parenting (French Children Don't Throw Food). She adores resolutions and to-do lists and makeovers. None of it works. Bridget dreams about the impossible ideals pictured in women's lifestyle magazines -- "large Italian family having dinner under a tree while children play" -- only to return with a bump to everyday compromises -- kids watching mindless TV while exhausted mother burns the spaghetti Bolognese ("supermarket ready-prepared and possibly containing horse").
One of the recurring notions in the Bridget Jones trilogy is that the (frequent) female obsession with perfection is nonsense. Bridget is kooky and confused and insecure, and that's OK. She's not perfect. She is reassuring proof that perfection isn't necessary.
Maybe there's something feminist in that after all. Maybe it's time to let our female characters -- and ourselves -- be a bit messed up.