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Do we still want to keep up with the Joneses?

As Renee Zellweger reprises her role in the new movie two decades after Helen Fielding's heroine was first a hit, Tanya Sweeney asks whether Bridget is still realistic and relevant in 2016?

Published 10/09/2016

Renee Zellweger in the new Bridget Jones movie
Renee Zellweger in the new Bridget Jones movie
Renee with her co-stars Colin Firth and Hugh Grant

History would decree Jane Austen as one of the sharpest social satirists there ever was, but at the time they were published, her books brought her little personal fame and even less acclaim. The same can't be said for Helen Fielding's newspaper column, which was turned into a bestselling novel 20 years ago, this month. Though it was loosely based on Austen's Pride & Prejudice, Bridget Jones' Diary was seismic; the definitive summer read of 1996.

Charting the ruminations of a thirty-something single woman in West London, Bridget laid bare the realities of middle-class urbanites in much the way Austen did: this time around, there were the smug married bankers, the insufferable dinner parties, the toxic bitches at work, the lawyers festooned with social cachet. And there was more, much more, than potshots aimed at people with names like Horatio and Cosima. Bridget was almost scholastic in her Chardonnay drinking, her calorie counting, and her mooning over toxic bachelors.

I was a teenager at the time of the book's release, and the vista of spinsterhood was far, far off in the distance. At that age, Bridget and her neuroses seemed strangely middle-aged, like a sort of cautionary tale. I had no idea what a 'smug married' was.

Still, West London! It seemed so thrillingly sophisticated and adult. I loved her Friends-style urban family. It was amazing to me that Bridget loved sex and simply had sex with people she fancied - seriously groundbreaking. And there was something in Bridget's vulnerability that I warmed to. I began to root for her.

Yet in the years since, Bridget Jones' legacy appears to have diminished, not blossomed. Millennials are likely to dismiss her as a bit naff, a bit old-fashioned. Despite her influence, there has been a bit of a Bridget Backlash. She is a child of 'Cosmopolitan culture', and 'Cosmo', to put it mildly, isn't the cultural behemoth it once was. It also doesn't help that, at last count, Bridget Jones is 51 and struggling with texting and social media. The new movie promo might show that she's retired her diary for an iPad, but is that simply a desperate grab at relevance?

Sure, she blew the doors off the singlehood experience, arguably leading the way for others; chief among them was fellow columnist Candace Bushnell, creator of Sex & The City. In the years after, Bridget made being footloose and fancy-free fashionable, dozens of writers - myself included - were asked to rustle up newspaper columns on single life. Pretty soon, it was vogueish to be retelling this fling and that dalliance, tongue firmly in cheek. Being without a plus-one didn't look so bad.

Yet looking back, this is perhaps why Bridget went out of fashion. Giving voice to a previously unheard demographic was one thing, but there was something so damned needy about Bridget. She was constantly self-flagellating. Bridget was absolutely dying to couple up with someone, to be saved from her singleness.

Marriage was the ultimate goal: oh, and keeping the calorie count to a VG, acceptable level. Even when she does find love, she questions if she has everything she's ever dreamed of. Her neuroses aren't even of the modern-day, fashionable, Amy Schumer or Lena Dunham kind.

Paradoxically, it's the wave of bachelorettes that Fielding blazed a trail for that makes Bridget Jones seem so quaint. Bridget predicted the Age of Oversharing and the writers of Generation Confession - Lena, Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling - are in her debt. They took the baton and raced on further than Bridget could ever have fathomed. And so we bravely entered a milieu of sexting, barhopping and threesomes. A whole host of other female comic writers - Sharon Horgan (creator of Pulling and Catastrophe), Phoebe Waller-Bridget (creator of Fleabag) and Ilana Glazer & Abbi Jacobson (creators of Broad City) - have turned the singleton experience into a delightful playground.

As for waiting to be asked on a weekend away, or daydreaming of a Central Park proposal? Forget it. Freaking out over one's biological clock at 32 doesn't really happen any more, either: instead, lots of thirty-somethings are trying to keep the kidult party going for as long as they can. Sure, there is still vulnerability and fretfulness, but of a different stripe. And being a single woman in the world today is a very different beast to what it was 20 years ago.

It is also a truth universally acknowledged that men writing the same genre of fiction - the comedy of manners, shedding a light on the social mores of its time - is treated very differently. PG Wodehouse, Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby: all of them were venerated for their shrewd observations and held up as giants of literature in a way that Fielding simply wasn't. Rather, Fielding's legacy centres around big knickers and blue soup.

You know what else has changed a lot in 20 years? The movie industry. And in the movie adaptations of the Bridget Jones trilogy - the latest of which, Bridget Jones' Baby, is out on September 16 - Bridget has really fallen from grace. Where once Bridget's pratfalls and cock-ups were endearing, a cinema audience will be pushed to swallow the same clumsy ditz as ever. Bridget's journey towards self-enlightenment has been long and laboured, yet she is still going to Glasto in white jeans and top, tripping over her wheelie suitcase into the mud. It's not just at festivals that Bridget is still hopeless: she's always the one left behind in the spinning class, and she's treated like the work-experience idiot in her workplace (where she has been for almost 15 years).

The truth of the matter is that any woman who has been on her own for any length of time has managed to cultivate a strong sense of independent, canny self. How is it that Bridget Jones has still learned absolutely nothing? Being an overgrown teenager is all well and fine in one's 20s and 30s, but Bridget is in her late 40s now. Perhaps the sad truth is that the elan that made Fielding's heroine so compelling and delightful has simply withered on the vine. There's no doubting that the 1996 tome was a stone-cold classic, but the same cannot be said for 2013's Mad About The Boy.

Whether Fielding will resurrect Bridget for one last hurrah remains to be seen. How the latest Bridget cinematic outing is received, likewise. But for all of Bridget Jones' many flaws, most of us are still grateful to her for breaking that ground 20 years ago. Without her, our favourite female writers and comics would still probably be flailing around in the dark. And for that reason alone, I'm still mad about Bridget. Just as she is.

Bridget Jones's Baby is at cinemas across Northern Ireland from this Friday, September 16

Belfast Telegraph

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