Here’s my favorite line in the 2001 USA Today review of Bridget Jones’s Diary, describing the film’s most iconic quote: “While the declaration, ‘I like you very much just as you are’ isn't quite as classic as, ‘Here's looking at you, kid,’ it's music to the female ear in these needy, neurotic times.” Written by Susan Wloszczyna, the write-up concluded as most reviews did when the film debuted 15 years ago. Bridget, like its titular character, is “clumsy” and “contradictory” and altogether “too much.” But in the end, it’s just so good — amiright, ladies? There is no defending Bridget Jones’s Diary. Every pleasure in it is guilty. Had the word “problematic” been as prevalent as it is today, oh, the think pieces that might have been. This film is a veritable bouquet of capital-p Problems: the fat jokes, the ass close-ups, the marriage obsession, the dreamy bad boy who breaks her heart, the dreamy rich guy who makes it all better, that part where her whole life almost falls apart because she can’t choose between her own underpants. Every single moment of humor is based upon the ideas that we, as savvy and intelligent feminists, are supposed to reject. Squint as hard as you like, but there is no defending Bridget Jones. That’s why I’m defending her. I first saw this film as a senior in high school, sitting next to my friend Jon (a proud feminist), who scoffed his way through the feature while I giggled into my popcorn. Being 18-year-olds, we were both total idiots and totally confident in our intellectual superiority. As we exited the theater, engrossed in a heated debate of multiplex film theory, he argued that this was a film that hated women. I argued that it was funny. “And, also, I’m a woman. So, I mean...yeah.” Ever since, I’ve been stewing over this argument and the dozen other feminism-focused movie fights we’ve had in the last decade (at least the ones I didn’t win), and only now have I come to what feels like an adult conclusion: We’re both right. Bridget Jones soars and sucks for the exact same reasons. Bridget is a mess. And we could use some messy women.
In decades past, enlightened audiences railed against the predominant female paradigm on screen, and rightfully so. Even as a kid, I was gobsmacked by characters like Scarlett O’Hara, brave and resilient but still clinging to Rhett Butler for dear life. Watching Little Women, I was definitely Team Jo (but when I acted out the movie in my room, it was Beth’s tearful death scene I had memorized). Later, as a film student, my feelings toward these characters bloomed into outrage as I studied films like Imitation of Life, where women (especially women of color) were steamrolled into the flattest archetypes. How far we’ve come, I thought. Thank god. Then I immediately purchased Imitation of Life and watched it again. From then on, a film’s worth depended on how 'feminist' I deemed it. Female director? Ten points. Passes the Bechdel Test? Another ten. Does the female lead get to have sex and not wind up either murdered or married after? TWO THUMBS UP. Yet, if someone suggested Bridget Jones’s Diary for movie night, I readily agreed. I suggested it myself on more than one occasion, just as I did Imitation of Life, Valley of the Dolls, or sure, fuck it, let’s watch The Notebook. It’s not that I secretly enjoyed the marginalization of my gender. But I did secretly enjoy happy endings, toxic love affairs, and burnt out starlets begging for drugs. When Bridget Jones ran out the door in nothing but a thong and sneakers, I smirked. And when Mark Darcy wrapped her up in his coat, I melted. Every. Time. And, every time, I felt like an asshole because of it. It wasn’t until about two years ago that I finally solved my Bridget Jones problem. Or rather, Amy Dunne solved it for me. Once again, I found myself seated next to Jon in a movie theater, preparing my debate points for after the credits rolled. Gone Girl’s own titular character had incited an uprising of feminist ire and with good reason: She was a true villain, wielding sexuality as a weapon, faking a rape, and trapping her (admittedly lousy) husband with a pregnancy. This time, though, things weren’t so cut and dried. I enjoyed the movie, and I disliked Amy. But I was oddly grateful for her.
Outside, Jon and I (now 30-year-olds living in Brooklyn, and possibly just as insufferable as our teenaged selves) began our opening arguments. Parroting dozens of critics, he fairly pointed out that Gone Girl was an anti-feminist nightmare, basically ammo for the MRAs. “Women are carrying their mattresses up at Columbia, and we’re watching this?” He wasn’t wrong. I wasn’t wrong, either: “But, why can’t women be fucked up, too?” Yes, we need strong, aspirational women onscreen. We must have female characters that exist outside the context of their male counterparts: the kind of women we want our girls to become. For that exact same reason, we also need women who are flawed, who stumble, and even those who graze against our worst fears about gender stereotypes. We speak of a need for more dynamic women onscreen, but this necessitates all facets of humanity. If we sneer at Bridget Jones and applaud only the Norma Raes and Karen Silkwoods, then all we’re doing is building a whole new paradigm. In the ’50s, good female characters had to be demure, daffy, man-crazy at the very least; now, they must be unbreakable, doubtless, projecting independence in every frame. In other words, we’re still insisting that women be “good.” We’ve simply redefined the word. Perhaps it’s only my perspective, but it feels as if we’re at a tipping point with feminism, standing right on the precarious edge. Every woman in the public sphere (and increasingly, men, too) is forced to identify as a feminist or risk evisceration. There’s barely room for nuance and dialogue. Use the wrong adjective and we’ll tear you to pieces, then wait for an apology. Refer to childbirth as your proudest moment and sorry, Beyoncé, you’re just not the Beyoncé we thought you were. Get off the pedestal and keep quiet for a while.
Again, maybe it’s just me, but I've never thought feminism was about pedestals. Real-life women have been threatened into this new perfection (good god, look at the hedge-betting I’m doing in my own last sentence), and if we took a step back I think we’d realize no one wants that. But getting perspective in reality is hard. Watching a movie? That’s easy. So, if art and life are as reflective as we claim, then now more than ever, we need Bridget Jones. Just as we need the empowered, we need the awkward. We need to let women stumble — we won’t break. We need to see Bridget fall for the bad boy, cry in the bathtub, and fret over her biological clock. I cringe and laugh watching her wrestle herself into control-top undies because I’ve been there myself! I’d done all those things and I should be allowed to have a bathtub weep without subverting the sisterhood. We all must have the freedom to be our silliest and most pathetic selves without fear of it defining us. We need Bridget Jones running bare-assed through the streets and not apologizing for any of it. That lack of apology: that’s the part that matters. For far less meaningful reasons, Bridget Jones’s Diary is just a highly enjoyable movie. It’s rom-com at its finest, largely thanks to the collaboration of three sincerely brilliant writers: Helen Fielding, Richard Curtis, and Jane bloody Austen. It makes no attempt to stray from its genre, and though it’s utterly formulaic, damn it, the formula works. But looking back on it, 15 years later, what matters most are its capital-p Problems. I think of those early reviews that called it “contradictory,” “clumsy,” and “too much” and yet still, somehow, a good movie. If feminism is about equality, then we who believe in that vital cause are bound to make room for both our honored heroes and our lovelorn, tipsy goofballs. Whether they’re running for president or chain-smoking in the bathtub (again), they are human and have value. Period. It’s simply no one’s business to decide what makes a woman good.