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Bridget Jones and the Need to Fail

20 years after her big-screen debut, Renée Zellweger’s heroine in Bridget Jones’s Diary remains one of our most relatable rom-com heroines, and yet it’s hard not to wonder whether this movie would even get made today. Bridget Jones is allowed to be a rom-com protagonist who feels shame and exhibits unhealthy behaviors or thoughts—without being villainized, pathologized, or cured. By celebrating what’s so wrong about Bridget and allowing us to laugh at her, her story encourages us to laugh at ourselves, instead of trying so hard to be right all the time. Here’s our Take on Bridget Jones’s refreshingly clumsy approach to life, and how we can harness the power of failure in our own lives.

TRANSCRIPT

20 years after her big-screen debut, Renee Zellweger’s heroine in Bridget Jones’s Diary remains one of our most relatable rom-com heroines — and yet it’s hard not to wonder whether this movie would even get made today.

The story about a characteristically average woman dissatisfied with her weight, unlucky in love, and not great at her job is (as Hugh Grant told The Guardian) “a sort of celebration of failure.” Bridget Jones is allowed to be a rom-com heroine who feels shame and exhibits unhealthy behaviors or thoughts — without being villainized, pathologized, or cured.

By celebrating what’s so wrong about Bridget and allowing us to laugh at her, her story encourages us to laugh at ourselves, instead of trying so hard to be right all the time. Here’s our Take on Bridget Jones’s refreshingly clumsy approach to life, and how we can harness the power of failure in our own lives.

Resolution #1: Lose Weight

The most turbulent relationship Bridget has throughout the course of her three films is with her own body. At the top of her list of resolutions outlined in her diary is to lose weight, and she measures her overall life progress in pounds. Bridget has internalized the way that the magazines she reads and everyone she’s surrounded by treat being thin as a virtue. She sees herself as not small enough, and therefore, not good enough.

Bridget Jones: “I’d finally die, fat and alone, and be found 3 weeks later, half-eaten by Alsatians.” - Bridget Jones’s Diary

The story divides women into two camps: thin, beautiful, eloquent, successful antagonists… and Bridget. All these threatening, seemingly perfect women in Bridget’s world are manifestations of all the things she feels she will never be — stand-ins for her subconscious challenging her.

Her boss and pseudo-boyfriend Daniel Cleaver cheats on her with the thinner Lara from the New York office — who (at the moment this is revealed) adds insult to injury by deeming Bridget’s appearance unsatisfactory. When he reveals his engagement to Lara, what Bridget hears is that she was too insecure and too old for Daniel to love her.

After Bridget finds her true match with “top barrister” Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy, that anxiety takes human form in Rebecca, Mark’s modelesque, intelligent and amiable colleague. While it’s clear to us that Mark isn’t interested in other women because he genuinely prefers Bridget, she can’t trust this because it doesn’t add up with the negative image she has of herself.

As incredibly relatable and common as Bridget’s mindset is, it’s hard to imagine the Bridget Jones films being written or received the same way in our contemporary culture of body positivity. Today, it’s as if we aggressively need our female role models to be proud of their “imperfections,” and the second they show potential signs of giving into conventional standards, we don’t know how to handle it because we regard them as symbols of our own collective defiance.

There was backlash to the trailer of 2018’s I Feel Pretty because it suggested a woman who’s not model-thin needs a brain injury to feel she’s attractive, or the 2019 film Brittany Runs a Marathon because it featured a main character enjoying the results of losing weight. These stories were trying to explore why our culture makes it so hard for women to feel good about themselves if they’re not a certain weight, as well as how our fixations on our bodies are often about so much more than losing a few pounds.

Demetrius: “You changing your life and wanting to run this marathon was never about your weight. It was about you taking responsibility for yourself.” - Brittany Runs a Marathon

So there can be a sense that today it’s almost impossible to cover these topics “correctly” while telling a complex story. But demanding that both our public figures and fictional characters actively embrace everything about themselves at all times won’t magically guarantee our self-acceptance — just as it doesn’t help to deny that many of us do feel like Bridget a lot of the time.

Bridget’s weight carries much more significance for her than the number on the scale she’s so compulsively monitoring. In her case, there’s a clear correlation between her weight and her anxiety: the more weight she gains, the less in control she feels over her life. When she feels out of control, she also indulges in unhealthy habits like smoking and drinking, which in turn contribute to her weight gain, creating a frustrating, vicious cycle.

Bridget Jones: “Am enjoying a relationship with two men simultaneously. The first called Ben, the other, Jerry.” - Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason

But again, real women can relate to the way that Bridget uses her vices: to have fun and forget her problems in public, and as an emotional crutch to self-soothe and silence the unrelenting mean voice in her head in private.

While Bridget Jones may not have the answer, stories like hers can help us feel better when we not only don’t look perfect but also don’t perfectly love our imperfect selves.

Resolution #2: Find a Boyfriend

Number two on Bridget’s list of resolutions — tied with putting last night’s panties in the laundry basket — is finding a boyfriend. Bridget sees marriage as a tangible marker that her life is going in the right direction. And this is largely because, in Bridget’s world, settling down and having babies are treated not as a choice but as the inevitable destination of a woman’s life. This subtly underlines that modern society isn’t as far removed as we might think from Bridget Jones Diary’s original inspiration, Jane Austen’s 1813 novel Pride and Prejudice, where protagonist Elizabeth Bennet is judged based on her ability to marry well. Since this isn’t happening for Bridget, she’s treated as an anomaly by her overbearing mother, and acquaintances she labels “smug marrieds”. All create an unrelenting pressure that leads Bridget to equate the traditional marriage and family she’s not achieving with happiness.

But like her failure to lose weight, Bridget’s failed relationships are most prominently reflections of her unhealthy or evolving feelings about herself. She goes into her relationship with her boss Daniel Cleaver while simultaneously vowing to herself that she won’t because she already knows what kind of guy he is. So this is essentially a way for her to confirm her poor self-esteem. Her fear of never settling down and her viewing Daniel as out of her league cause her to overlook his eye-roll-inducing pick-up lines, subtle jabs to her confidence, and underlying commitment phobia. But ultimately, the disaster that is her relationship with Daniel is beneficial because it helps Bridget understand that she deserves better.

Daniel Cleaver: “If I can’t make it with you, I can’t make it with anyone.”

Bridget Jones: “That’s not a good enough offer for me.” - Bridget Jones’s Diary

She then does experience a healthy relationship with Mark Darcy, but still, she drives him away because (unlike him) she doesn’t yet see herself as being great just the way she is. When her momentous goal of marriage and babies might be within her grasp, at last, Bridget self-sabotages. She becomes angry and discouraged when Mark doesn’t propose right away, instead of discussing it with him rationally.

In Bridget Jones’s Baby, when Bridget is single again in her forties after reeling from a breakup with Mark five years earlier, she seems to have accepted life as a lonely spinster — even if she’s not 100% thrilled about it. She stops trying to force the image she has in her head of what her life should be and commits to simply having fun with it.

Bridget Jones: “I, Bridget Jones, am done with affairs of the heart. Am dedicating my autumn years to the pursuit of hedonism.” - Bridget Jones’s Baby

She has casual one-night stands with both dreamy billionaire Jack Qwant and her lost love Mark Darcy. After the reunion with Mark, Bridget rather calmly decides to leave, which would be nothing short of blasphemous to the old Bridget Jones. But she’s learned to be content on her own, determined to keep moving forward. This new attitude of letting go eventually leads to her getting everything she always wanted — though, crucially, not in the exact way she pictured it.

After she believes it’s no longer biologically possible, she gets to become a mother, and in true Bridget Jones fashion, finds herself with not one but two potential fathers. Jack again serves as the superficially perfect kind of distraction that Daniel once was — he’s an obscenely rich man who’s totally game to be the father of her child, even when he’s not sure the baby is his. But unlike Daniel, he’s also a decent guy, which reflects that her feelings about herself have evidently improved. And whereas she waited for Daniel to break her heart, this time she realizes on her own that, while Jack is a great catch, he’s not who she wants to be with — just as (earlier in the movie) Mark learns the hard way it doesn’t pay to settle for the perfect-on-paper partner.

The most important takeaway from Bridget’s love life is that she gains something with every relationship failure, mistake, or heartbreak. Each renders her one step closer to understanding the life and love she wants and realizing that yes, she does deserve it. After she, at last, learns to love herself, she and Mark can be together for real, with the blissful family happily-ever-after of their dreams. Still, even if this never happened for her, we really get the sense that it would be okay.

Dr. Rawlings: “You really don’t need them, you know. You’re absolutely capable of doing this on your own.” - Bridget Jones’s Baby

Bridget Jones: Working Woman

It’s in her professional life that Bridget exemplifies the positive power of failure most of all.

Bridget’s career starts out as essentially background noise, while she fixates on her weight and love life. But over time, almost as a byproduct of her failing to perfectly achieve those two things, it takes off, and Bridget surprises herself by evolving into a pretty impressive working woman. In her trademark fashion, she gets there not by having a clear vision and a perfectly polished gameplan, but by (essentially) failing up.

Her professional progress mirrors her trajectory in romantic relationships: she jumps in without thinking things through and fumbles throughout until she eventually finds her voice and what she wants. By repeatedly messing up — sometimes very publicly — Bridget develops a sense of independence and resilience; she gets to know herself and learns to pick herself up after the worst happens

Another wrong thing Bridget does in her career is to consistently muddle her professional and personal lives.

Bridget Jones: “Have been seduced by informality of messaging medium into flirting with office scoundrel.” - Bridget Jones’s Diary

Her workplace romance with Daniel is totally inappropriate, especially by today’s standards. Yet in a way, getting it so wrong helps radically open Bridget’s eyes to how much she’s settling in both spheres. When she stands up to Daniel, demanding more for her personal life, in the same action she starts to take control of her career.

Why does she choose television specifically? She doesn’t know. Still, she makes progress due to her willingness to just keep going, put herself out there, and fake it till she makes it. Even when she’s terrified at her new job, she pushes herself to go outside her comfort zone and makes up for her lack of experience through earnest effort and eagerness to do a good job. When she bombs her first newscast, again failure works for her as the episode goes viral, which gets her more assignments she can carry out with her distinctive boldly haphazard style. By the third film — when she’s no longer distracted by her obsessive pursuit of finding “the one” — Bridget has channeled her diligent work into real success as a lead producer.

Bridget Jones: “I could always take consolation in my job as top news producer.” - Bridget Jones’s Baby

However much she’s grown, though, deep down she’s still the same Bridget. She approaches new challenges like learning about millennials with her signature fumbling optimism. She continues to make the same mistakes, like inappropriately mixing her personal and professional life to intersect when she pries into Jack’s personal life on her show. She experiences major humiliations, while not having time to linger on it because she’s distracted by the men in her life. She’s now entered an era when not just male missteps but also Bridget’s lapses of judgment or impulsive actions are more likely to be held to account. But when she gets fired, she stands up to another boss, and (given what we’ve seen before) we know she’ll pick herself up and figure out what to do next.

CONCLUSION

Bridget Jones’ Diary’s style of getting things wrong and not improving into too much of a role model may have fallen out of fashion. But there are some powerful modern stories that have followed in her footsteps, examining what it’s like not to have the perfect body image, marriage, or career. While it’s normal to want to fix everything that’s wrong with us, we should instead appreciate the things that set us apart. Bridget has compelling gifts that majorly outweigh her flaws: like always being there for her friends and family, speaking up for herself, and knowing how to let loose and have fun. So in order to unlock our deepest powers, we have to learn to get comfortable with messing up from time to time — or a lot of times.

Mark Darcy: “You’ve turned disasters into triumphs with your sheer, joyful, indefatigable, infectious lust for life.” - Bridget Jones’s Baby

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