Helen Fielding's hit novel, Bridget Jones's Diary, and its subsequent film adaptation directed by Sharon Maguire and starring Renée Zellweger are unquestionably popular, with sequels both literary and cinematic extending Bridget almost into a franchise unto herself. Online feminist response to characters like Bridget Jones tends to be divided between fans of romantic comedies and chick lit and detractors who condemn such genres as a priori anti-feminist. The first group points to Bridget's relatability and the flaws and imperfections that nevertheless don't exclude her from the possibility of exciting, sexually satisfying relationships. The second group points to Bridget's preoccupations with her romantic status, weight, and food intake and sees her as self-involved and in thrall to patriarchal social imperatives, while her narrative arc is defined by a modern iteration of the marriage plot.
Both critiques are fair and both are, in a way, correct, but each rests on an assumption that feminism dictates a particular way of being for women, and especially female characters, assumed as role models and mirrors. The contradiction lies in diverging understandings of what feminism means and what it should accomplish, but despite their opposite conclusions, the two viewpoints both suffer from an ideological fallacy.
Champions of Bridget Jones subscribe to a feminist imperative to represent women as 'real people,' that is as flawed people, without punishing them for their imperfections. This means, in practice, that these characters exist in narrative universes that are highly traditional in structure, but in which they do not abide by the traditional standards of femininity. These deviations, however, tend to be superficial and slight, for instance, clumsiness or a habit of saying the wrong thing at the worst moment. The character must be imperfect, but also likable. From this angle, Bridget is feminist because her success, in this case romantic in nature, is not circumscribed by the character traits that mark her as flawed. Her ultimate happiness is a reward for being herself, proof that one needn't be a Barbie doll to get a modern-day incarnation of Mr. Darcy. She is, at base, a nice person, her worst quality arguably flightiness, and this is enough to make her worthy.
Detractors instead subscribe to a feminist imperative to represent women as they should be and the world as it should be. As a result, a feminist character must consciously reject societal expectations of how women ought to behave, feel, and think. A feminist story cannot revolve around men, especially men as romantic partners. From this perspective, Bridget Jones's Diary as a whole is anti-feminist because the narrative traces Bridget's romantic involvement with men and Bridget herself isn't feminist because her ultimate goals - a sexy boyfriend, a thin body, a demeanor that reflects 'inner poise' - are subservient to the larger social expectations that women confront. Instead of declaring and actually believing that she doesn't need a man to be happy, Bridget really does want a relationship and only occasionally expresses feminist beliefs, rarely acted upon.
Both camps share two fundamental problems, though each approaches them from the opposite direction. The first issue is judgment. In both cases, a female character is judged by an imposed standard derived from feminist ideology. But, whether the preference is for representations of (superficially) flawed women who get the guy or liberated women who have no need for men and can take them or leave them, a judgment is made. As soon as that happens, an impulse towards freedom and liberation for all women is confined to a small, special class of women - those who attain success and happiness, whether it involves a man or not. This doctrine is disastrous politically, but not especially insightful as far as literary or film criticism is concerned. If Bridget Jones is going to be held to such high standards, whether getting the guy of her dreams or rejecting the romance she actually wants to prove a political point, then feminism is transformed into yet one more form of oppression for women. Freedom of choice is withheld; feminist credentials are issued or denied according to how well or not a woman has met ideological standards. Judgment is both a dubious critical device and a nasty political one. Since we tend to view characters, rightly or wrongly, as proxies, models, or mirrors, condemning a character for failing to be a feminist is another way of punishing women who don't fall into line.
The second issue is whether or not romantic relationships with men can legitimately be the primary focus of female characters', and by extension women's, lives. This is a very old debate, that can be traced directly back to the earliest feminist discourses, including some materials from the French Revolution. The issue turns on the function of stories and whether one believes they ought to show reality or a projected and hoped-for possible reality. It might be nice to allow for both types of stories and to consider, on an individual basis, whether a given story is depicting one or the other. The truth is that for many women romantic relationships with men are a primary focus for at least a period of their lives. If we punish women for that, we're no better than the billions of men now and throughout history who consider themselves entitled to punish women who don't make those relationships a primary focus. If feminism opens up new doors for women, it's debatable whether it should also close other doors in the process.
In the end, whether one believes Bridget is a feminist character because she's relatable, likable, and romantically triumphant or that Bridget is not a feminist character because her needs and desires are directed principally towards appearing attractive to and attaining a relationship with a man, this sort of evaluation risks creating a parallel set of rigidly enforced standards for women, as suffocating and unyielding as the insidiously evolving standards of patriarchy. Rather than simply checking a box, 'yes' for feminist, 'no' for everything else, feminist criticism ought to be a subtler examination of how and why feminism operates, or fails to operate, in the cultural sphere. If it's merely a matter of sorting the goodies from the baddies, then feminist criticism, far from revolutionary, is following exactly in patriarchy's footsteps.
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