It’s not even in the shops but critics are already yawning about the new Bridget Jones. I don’t blame them if they recall only the awful simpleton portrayed for Hollywood by Renee Zellwegger in the Bridget Jones “franchise”. The original Bridget Jones who came to life in a weekly column in The Independent back in the mid-90s was a work of art.
I devoured it every Wednesday, astounded and relieved to find I wasn’t the only one with very private neuroses involving being dead for weeks before anyone missed me. It was satire and social commentary as insightful, at least for me then, as Swift.
It picked up on the ways in which women, especially those of us just hitting 30, were expected simultaneously to overcome the obstacles of being taken seriously at work, compete with male counterparts for pay and promotion, yet face constant judgement on our looks and be condemned, like the “leftover women” in China, if we couldn’t bag a desirable man before our biological clocks imploded. We were well-informed about the Middle East, but riddled with insecurities about our thighs or incipient crows feet and yes, we could see how absurd that was.
Helen Fielding’s gift was to exaggerate all this for comic effect and project it on to the backdrop of the news and political obsessions of the early Blair years. Bridget was only 9 stone, for example (not the lump Zellwegger turned her into), but had unconsciously absorbed the stirrings of national panic about “obesity” and acceptable weekly units of alcohol for a woman. When the homely-looking Foreign Secretary of the day dumped his wife at the airport on the orders of Alastair Campbell after the tabloids got wind of an affair, Fielding mused through Bridget’s voice that she was “seeing Robin Cook in a new light today”. Quite.
But by the time Bridget had migrated to global bestseller lists and film stardom she’d become just a slapstick rom-com caricature.
I suspect the original B Jones could only have emerged from a British socio-cultural landscape. After all, the best-selling UK daily newspaper’s main message to young working women for around 20 years has been: assert yourself in the office but you’ll get cancer or alopecia if you become too selfishly career-driven, and then who will want you? And, by the way, there is no point living if you don’t land a husband and become a mother, although don’t expect free childcare when you do.
Little has changed since Bridget first appeared and began holding these pressures to ridicule. The 2011 census figures showed the number of single person households at record levels (nearly a third) and rising. This should be driving new thinking on housing, planning and social provision. Yet the political discourse remains stuck with the kind of coupley, family-centric language that makes the single, divorced or widowed feel like outcasts. Smug marrieds are even to be elevated to moral superiority through the tax system, while the Help to Buy scheme was defended by the Chancellor yesterday as a means for “hard-working couples to get on the housing ladder”.
How perfect that Bridget Jones should return now: a widow, a mother, but single, if not by choice, but circumstance. We’d forgotten how much we needed satirical fictional heroines to cast a cold light on the absurdities of our condition and our debate.
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