Also Known As: Dear God What Is Feminism?! And Do I Like It?!
Confession time: I can watch either Bridget Jones movie at any time of any day, I’ve read every Bridget Jones book and I sometimes suffer under the delusion that I might be Bridget Jones and Helen Fielding stalks my life. That being said, I had mixed feelings about purchasing Mad About The Boy because I could not get over the blurb on the back.
Bridget appeals to me in the way I assume it appeals to most women: it is about the average woman making her way. Many books try to grab onto this model of heroine but she is dastardly hard to write, and harder to read. I am a long time fanfiction writer (raise the nerd flag) and we like to dub this “Mary Sue Syndrome”. A Mary Sue is a character that is an “average” person thrown into the chaos of the plot because they are secretly special and perfect for the ________________ (fill in plot point here). Though these characters are sold to us as average we are struck by their perfect-averageness. A great example is Bella Swan—happens to look like Stephanie Meyers’ more slender, younger self—she is “plain” (but stunning to Edward Cullen), and there is “nothing special about her” (but, actually, there is). Bella has the potential to annoy readers because it reads like a fantasy—the perfect version of the author living out a fantasy of the author’s.
There is a fine line between Mary Sue and Heroine. After all, Elizabeth Bennett can be read as a Mary Sue and yet she is often heralded as an Average-Woman’s Heroine. The line is a thin and fragile thing—books are naturally products of author fantasy, and surely many characters are idealized versions of their authors (or what their author thinks an ideal person is). How can we punish a Mary Sue when that line is so hazy?
Here’s the thing about this Average-Ava style of Heroine—they need to be fallible or we wind up in Mary Sue land. Not like Bella is clumsy, look how flawed she is. More like Elizabeth Bennett got her wires crossed and told Darcy off when he’s awesome, she’s a bit of an asshole. Elizabeth Bennett acts poorly (like a lot of Austen’s women) but in a way we have all acted—I’ve definitely yelled at someone out of turn and later been embarrassed. I’ve also been clumsy, but it isn’t like I’m clumsy so I fall into the arms of my vampire lover but more like My feet are too damned big so I fell down a flight of stairs in front of the entire class.
Fallible heroines are what make “average women” endearing and believable—they aren’t cats that always find a way to fall on their feet, they aren’t balloons that always rise above. In fact, sometimes they fall hard, say the wrong thing, are dressed poorly, are overweight, curse, hit and get blindingly drunk. See the logical transition to Bridget Jones? Bridget in the first two novels was average—she was in her thirties, not doing well with that transition, going into mini-crisis about it but then getting distracted by shredded cheese and wine, she wanted love and found that the bad boy can’t actually be tamed. Fielding had a heavy-handed Pride and Prejudice influence and it works out—Bridget doesn’t fall over Mark Darcy right away, she actually is dismissive and insulting and sees how wrong she is severely after the fact. She chooses the wrong man, Daniel Cleaver, rather too often for someone who is smart. Oh wait, Bridget isn’t particularly smart and isn’t particularly bothered by that—she is who she is, lives how she lives, and tries to do well and be good. Aren’t all of us like that? Aren’t we all just trying to live how we live, be who we are, while we try to do well and be good?
The first two Bridget books trace her failed and successful relationships with Cleaver and Darcy, her muck up of a good relationship with Darcy and an eventual reconciliation. I’ve done things Bridget has done, and even where the comparisons aren’t 100% dead on, they are scarily similar. There’s a long story about a Valentine’s Day of yesteryear where I bought every Shopaholic book, ate my weight in chocolate, pretended I was a lesbian with the other single girl when our Chinese Food came so we didn’t seem pathetic and alone, and then cried myself to sleep thinking life was always going to be that bad (spoiler alert: life rocks).
So of course now that life is pretty good, I want to re-connect with my buddy Bridget. Surely, we are still going to be two peas in a pod.
In Mad About the Boy Bridget is widowed with two children—Billy and Mabel. Mark Darcy has died tragically but left Bridget and the children wealthy enough that she can afford nannies, cleaning people, private school and never have to worry about working again. She is 51 and trying to get into Twitter, Facebook and navigate the Parents Emails from school while writing a screenplay and losing weight. Against the grain, Bridget actually manages to go from almost 200lbs to 130lbs….and keeps the weight fairly off. She gets a boyfriend who is young enough to be her son and, of course, the smoking hot gym teacher (and former super secret Government Agent) (described, conservatively, as Daniel Craig’s James Bond) falls for her from a distance…and they get miraculously set up because of course they have surprise mutual friends.
Bridget has her ups and downs, and that’s why we like her, but Mad About The Boy took away her reasonable ups and downs and made them all highly unlikely. Bridget was in her fifties and a widowed, single mother—I wanted to see her right after Mark’s death, struggling, finding the silver lining. In fact the book dives into Bridget’s boy-toy Roxster before even acknowledging that Mark is dead….we get one chapter of her going back through “the Dark Times” like a cursory tour of the Dark Ages at a Museum. I have previously adored Bridget because she makes me feel like growing up is like being a kid—it’s ok that not everything went the way you wanted at the time because it is magical the real way things transpire. Bridget always wound up getting what she needed even when what she wanted wasn’t quite lining up—and was always happier for it.
This new Bridget…this new Bridget is terrified of being old, seems way too self-concerned for a single mother (oh wait, we forgot about the nanny that is always there), and in place of Shaz (her chain-smoking, fuck-loving, Debbie Downer friend) there is a fake hair, bad dye job, pricey-dressed cougar who keeps encouraging Bridget to ignore her age.
WHERE IS MY BRIDGET?
Mad About The Boy got mixed reviews—notably Fielding took a bath with her Independent articles (one which suggests Billy isn’t Mark’s son at all but Daniel’s! The horror!). However, there is a real push to embrace this new concept of being a woman over 50. The idea that age does not dictate behavior restrictions is very vogue—with shows like Cougartown, The Cougars and Extreme Cougar Wives this is the era of the cougar. For those wondering what that implies—it is older women who are dating significantly younger guys, these women tend to be fit (either naturally, through the gym, or through plastic surgery), and do not look like they are over 50—their hair is done, their clothes are new and fitted, and they are involved in the same scenes as their 30 year old counterparts. My problem with Bridget at 51 is that she isn’t acting any different than Bridget at 32.
But is this feminism?
Cougars, and Bridget, are refusing to be stereotyped into certain clothes, certain behaviors, or a prescribed dating pool. They are women who are independent, usually wealthy, and are in command of their lives— whether we like or dislike their choices, we cannot deny that these women are in utter command of them. I don’t like how Bridget is commanding herself— but can I deny that the 51 year old Bridget is just as much if not more in command than 32 year old Bridget? I can’t.
I look back at all my beefs with this book and wonder—why do I have them? Bridget is widowed and has the nerve to move on—why does that bother me? It shouldn’t. Bridget shouldn’t be condemned to missing Mark forever because I liked them as a couple—I’d be betraying the part of me that supports female empowerment to insist on her shackles. Bridget becomes financially independent when Mark dies—why should I begrudge her financial freedom? Bridget uses nannies and cleaning services—why should I resent that? Every single person who has children that I know uses nannies sometimes, and most of them splurge on cleaning services. Bridget’s ability to lose weight that suddenly occurs after years of failure on this front bothers me—but I figured out why it works. When Bridget was in her 30s it defied conventional beauty standards to be a bit fluffy; now that she’s in her 50s it defies age standards that she be thin. This defiance in the face of convention is what makes her average (how many times have I refused to be the girl on the cover of this month’s Vogue?) and what makes that average-ness exciting.
Is Fielding Mary Sue-ing with Bridget? Maybe. But is Mary Sue-ing anti-feminist? No. It might be a bit anti-average-heroine but it doesn’t negate that it connects to a feminist standpoint. Women should be the ones who define femininity and establish the boundaries of our sex—the constraints that Bridget is rubbing are all, essentially, media driven. Be thin or be sexy or act your age – Bridget is too busy living her life to care of she meets the standards of Vogue. She dabbles with clothes, cosmetics, plastic surgery, and sex—she dabbles always on her own terms.
So, did I love the book? No. I read it in about two days and didn’t love it the way I loved her earlier works.
But did the book deliver on Bridget? After a moment of thought—yes, absolutely.
Helen Fielding is an English journalist, novelist and screenwriter. She is most well known for the Bridget Jones series, which began as an editorial piece for the Independent and then The Daily Telegraph. Her premier novel, Cause Celeb, didn’t sell as well as Bridget but had some critical success—it centers around celebrities and refugees at a camp in East Africa. Fielding continues to live in the UK.