Bridget Jones: how to turn a female character into half a billion dollars

Helen Fielding’s comic creation won women over by oversharing and messing up and despite her advancing years, Hollywood can’t let Bridget Jones grow up

Image Credit: Allstar/Universal
Renée Zellweger returns as the titular klutz in Bridget Jones’s Baby.
Gulf News

If you’ve ever wondered how to make half a billion dollars out of a woman, then this is how it works.

First, take a book that gives life and shape to something millions of young women felt but couldn’t quite put into words. Second, turn it into a film whose lead actress will be asked over and over again about her weight for a decade, thus neatly illustrating why your lead character counts calories obsessively. Third, dull the genuinely acerbic edge of the novels, and defy all attempts to make this female Peter Pan grow up.

And there you have the formula - except if it were that easy, every studio in the world would have grossed $545m to date by churning out Bridget Jones films, the third of which hits British cinemas this Friday.

Few comic characters are embedded deeper in female psyches than Bridget, whose big pants and love of chardonnay are as much a part of British cultural furniture as “Don’t tell ‘em, Pike!” and Victoria Wood’s hostess trolley song. In her time she has inspired everything from PhD theses to a speech by the then shadow pensions minister David Willetts; but back in the 90s, she was simply part of what it meant to be young, female and racketing around the city with no real idea what you were doing.

I was 25 when I first stumbled across her fictional column in the Independent, and what she gave my friends and me was above all a shorthand; a way of describing pivotal moments - mini breaks, the urban family of friends who sustain you when your own family drive you mad - that simply became part of our language. The alien rituals of American dating culture, as immortalised in Sex and the City, fascinated us from a distance but Bridget was messy and real. She took things to absurd extremes, because that’s what made it funny. But it’s also what made her oddly comforting. However badly you screwed up, Bridget was the friend who invariably went one worse.

Yet the prospect of seeing her again after all this time leaves a surprising number of my female contemporaries cold. Like the long-lost friend with whom you arrange a reunion only to find you have nothing in common, we wonder tentatively if it’s best to remember the friendship as it was. “I WILL not sulk about having a boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend.”

There are some jokes that don’t wear thin, and Bridget’s creator, Helen Fielding, wrote her share of them. What she captured so brilliantly were all the paradoxes and contradictions of being young, thrillingly aware of all the choices open to you but confused about which of them you want; torn between a wild independent life and the small anxious voice wondering if it might not actually be nice to settle down. It wasn’t Bridget’s gimlet-eyed pursuit of a mini break but that mix of boldness and fear, of wanting and not wanting something, that rang so true.

“The thing I always felt about my 20s is that I felt bad because I didn’t have a boyfriend, and bad for wanting one,” says Bryony Gordon, the Telegraph columnist and author of a raucous bestselling memoir The Wrong Knickers , invariably touted as a real-life Bridget’s story. “But actually that’s totally normal. There’s nothing to be ashamed of about wanting someone to love.”

Shame and Bridget Jones, however, have always gone hand in hand. Barely had Fielding’s first volume of the diaries hit the bestseller lists before she was dismissed as frothy and forgettable, chick lit for women too lazy to read proper literature. Never mind, as the author Allison Pearson (whose equally iconic novel of working motherhood I Don’t Know How She Does It also began life as a column) argues, that the diaries are arguably part of a deep tradition of telling fiction through newspaper serials that stretches all the way back via Jan Struther’s wartime housewife Mrs Miniver to Charles Dickens’s Pickwick Papers.

Worse, she was judged a lousy feminist. Curiously, while it was always enough for Adrian Mole just to be funny, Bridget had to be a role model for women; created as a comic parody, she was judged like a moral fable, and duly found wanting.

Yet despite it all, the book, and then the 2001 movie, sold and sold and sold. If nothing else, Fielding proved that the stuff of women’s interior lives was worth something, and in doing so she helped popularise an entire genre not just of fiction but of real-life confessional writing from women.

At best, such openness was immensely liberating. “People call it oversharing and confessional and that slightly undermines it as a form of journalism,” says Gordon, who now writes a weekly column about life as a young mother. “I would say this because that’s what I do, but I think there’s great power in it. The moment you write something down or say it out loud it has less power over you.”

But at its worst, it can feel self-destructive - the Mail’s Liz Jones has written bleakly about how mining her life for material destroyed relationships - and self-absorbed. And that’s the flipside of the endearingly self-doubting character Fielding created. Twenty years on, shouldn’t Bridget be thinking about something other than herself?

Fielding has tried, of course, to move her on. The third Bridget Jones novel - Mad About the Boy - saw her at 51 reluctantly single again, having married and had children with Darcy only to lose him to a hero’s death. But the darker, adult themes of midlife loss and grief sat queasily alongside the jolly slapstick; the film rights were not snapped up.

And so it’s back to the tried and trusted formula this week for Bridget Jones’s Baby, based on a Fielding screenplay, which sounds rather more the sort of thing Hollywood wants to hear. Her ageing process miraculously slowed down, Bridget is rewound to a camera-friendly 43, pregnant but unsure who the father is. Offscreen, controversy over the lead actress Renee Zellweger’s weight has been replaced with controversy over how she has or hasn’t aged since the last film 12 years ago - for all the world as if that had nothing to do with Hollywood’s refusal to let the character she plays age naturally, too.

And that’s the thing. If there is a feminist lesson to be drawn here, it’s not from an imaginary woman but from an industry that grew very rich indeed on her coat-tails. As Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the feminist thinktank the Fawcett Society, puts it, what happened to the real actress playing Bridget over the last 15 years is at least as revealing as what happened to the character: “She’s been vilified for changing her appearance, her body, her face - I think it’s appalling, the way she’s been through that. We might have a lot of affection for the character but we’ve treated the actor appallingly.”

Yet tough as it must have been for Zellweger to have her body turned into a public battleground, the weight she gained to play Bridget as a reassuringly normal size 12 in the first film felt genuinely significant at the time. Audiences were so used to tiny, half-starved actresses that we had unthinkingly started accepting them as the norm; her noticeably different Bridget was a wakeup call. How thin must Zellweger have been, if it took months of doughnuts and protein shakes to make her look normal? Watching her shrink and expand, like Alice down the rabbit hole, brought the debate over size-zero culture to life. Ageism in Hollywood now looks ripe for the same treatment. After one critic reviewed the film’s trailers largely by speculating on whether she’d had surgery, Zellweger wrote an angry piece for the Huffington Post attacking what she called the “repellent suggestion that the value of a person and her professional contributions are diminished if she presumably caves to societal pressure about appearance”. Yet it’s not just societal pressure that forces actresses to stay unnaturally young, of course, but an industry refusing to create roles in which they could grow old.

Pearson agrees that there’s an untapped desire to see older women’s lives authentically portrayed in popular culture - one reason she’s currently writing a sequel to I Don’t Know How She Does It, in which her menopausal heroine grapples with teenage kids, ageism in the City, and her husband’s midlife crisis. But as she points out, Kate was always a grown-up, struggling with grown-up issues. Forcing a comic archetype like Bridget to deal with loss, mortality or darker adult themes would, she suggests, “be like giving a Wodehouse character an ugly divorce. If you gave Bertie Wooster a custody battle it’s not going to work, is it? They’re essentially conceived as sunshine, that’s the joke.”

So like James Bond, perhaps Bridget is destined always to be frozen in time, awaiting rediscovery by each new generation of anxiously conflicted young women. But for those who grew up with Bridget, and have now for whatever reason grown beyond her, well, there’s always a nostalgic place for her in our hearts. But if she can’t grow old with us, then perhaps it’s best if we gently let her go.

— guardian.co.uk (c) Guardian News & Media Ltd, 2016

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