8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
Laughing with BridgetReviewed by Amina Elbendary
Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding, London: Picador, 1996. pp310
Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Helen Fielding, London: Picador, 1999. pp422
In her two books Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason Helen Fielding has created a modern heroine of apparently almost global appeal. Together, they have caused a cultural sensation, or at least enough of one to warrant a second volume being added to the first in 1999. Even though Helen Fielding's books are not the stuff of "great literature," they are nevertheless best-sellers worldwide and have been translated into several languages, almost becoming popular classics.
Cast in the form of the diaries of a British thirty-something single woman, Bridget Jones, the first book starts with her New Year resolutions, the narrative then following her as she in turn fails and succeeds in achieving them. Most of Bridget's resolutions are all too familiar -- balancing the budget, stopping smoking, being kinder. However, even more important than these is her resolution not to "sulk about having no boyfriend, but [to] develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as a woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend."
If Bridget therefore sometimes sounds like a self-help book, this is because she is the product of a self-help culture and of that of women's magazines. Nevertheless, it is amazing how ubiquitous are women's concerns world-wide, something that explains, perhaps, the wide appeal of such contemporary exercises in the self-help genre as John Gray's Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. We are all familiar with theories about men and caves.
Most of the self-help books that Bridget and her friends refer to have to do with men: What Men Want; How Men Think; What Men Feel; Why Men Feel They Want What They Think They Want. Then there are the more general titles: The Rules; Ignoring the Rules; Not Now, Honey, I'm Watching the Game; How to Seek and Find the Love you Want; How to Find the Love you Want Without Seeking It; How to Find You Want the Love You Didn't Seek. And there are various exercises in consolation: Happy to Be Single; How not to be Single Among Others.
Many of the problems Bridget and her friends Sharon and Jude face with men read like pages out of many women's lives. Their biggest problem with men? Commitment phobia, of course, what else? Vile Richard (vile being the nickname the women have given him -- it is not his first name) had actually broken off with Jude as a result of her asking him if he wanted to go on holiday with her! That apparently was asking too much and pushing their budding relationship too far.
Indeed, Bridget's life as chronicled in both diaries seems to consist first of her struggle to find a boyfriend, and then of her struggle to keep him. Her life seems to be centred around those struggles even as she changes jobs and careers, diets, tries to stop smoking, goes on an adventure holiday and ends up in prison in Thailand. The boyfriend she finally lands, Mark Darcy, is the books' central figure. And, of course, the significance of the name "Darcy" will not be lost on women who grew up on a diet of Jane Austen.
Bridget's Darcy shares some of his literary counterpart's frustrating reserve and apparent indifference to his girlfriend's emotional crises. After a big fight, following which the two do not talk for two days, Bridget finally can't take the deprivation any longer and phones Darcy. He is watching a football game. He barks at her, but then calls back later:
"'Sorry about earlier,' he said. 'I'm just really down about it, aren't you?'
"'I know,' I said tenderly, 'I feel exactly the same.'
"'I just keep thinking: why?'
"'Exactly!' I beamed, huge rush of love and relief waching over me.
"'So stuped and unnecessary,' he said, anguished. 'A pointless outburst with devastating consequences.'
"'I know,' I nodded, thinking, blimey, he's taking it even more dramatically than me.
"'How can a man live with that?'
"'Well, everyone's only human,' I said thoughtfully. 'People have to forgive each other and ...themselves.'
"'Chuh! It's easy to say that,' he said. 'But if he hadn't been sent off we'd never have been subjected to the tyranny of the penalty shoot-out. We fought like kings amongst lions, but it cost us the game!'
"I gave a stranglged cry, mind reeling. Surely it cannot be true that men have football instead of emotions?[...]
"'Bridget, what's the matter? It's only a game. Even I can see that. When you called me during the match I was so caught up in my own feelings that... But it's only a game.'"
Many feminists have criticised Fielding's books for their attitudes, arguing that the important advances women have accomplished since the 1960s are now being eroded by characters like Bridget, who is a fan of popular culture, of television and of women's magazines, a woman who appears superficial and seems willing to put men first under almost any circumstances. Bridget is a woman who measures out her days (and her life) by the weight she has lost or gained, by the number of cigarettes or drinks she has had and by the number of calories she has eaten. Her first concern is how to attract men and how to gain their approval.
However perhaps what has disturbed critics the most is exactly what has made the books so popular worldwide: how true to life Bridget sounds, and how true the books ring. For in her character Bridget Helen Fielding has created a startling parody of the life of a single woman, in this case one living in a big Western city, at the end of the twentieth century. There are many women out there a bit like Bridget. In fact, there may be a Bridget in many of us. It is this which has seemed so alarming to the books' critics.
For despite all the advances that women have made, despite the inroads they have made in many important fields and disciplines, many women apparently do not feel quite "whole." To use Bridget's terminology, they do not feel like "self-assured women of substance." Women are being driven to do more, to be more -- to be smarter, prettier, to get better jobs -- in short, to be perfect. But despite everything that women have accomplished in their own right, many still apparently feel the need to please men and to gain male approval.
Similarly, there are pressures to see people only in terms of ordered, familiar, conventional relationships, pressures Bridget and the girls refer to when talking about "Singletons vs. Smug Marrieds," the latter being those who show off their smug married status and look down on Singletons. With Bridget you feel the Singletons are not single by choice; rather, the whole reason for their existence seems to be to find the perfect match. One wonders if, after dealing with the struggle to find a boyfriend, and then with the struggle to keep him and retrieve him from boyfriend-stealing girlfriends and to put up with the little nuisances of having a man around, Helen Fielding will one day show us Bridget actually married to Mark Darcy and becoming a Smug Married herself.
Reading Bridget one cannot help but laugh, sometimes hysterically, sometimes to tears. Many of the funny and ironic situations she falls into remind one of circumstances from one's own life, or from that of friends. It is strange how men and women are still struggling to understand each other, now apparently more than ever. Published at the turn of the century, Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason show us that men and women are hardly any closer to understanding each other than they ever were. It is therefore easy to identify with Bridget. Perhaps this is why we laugh so hard; laughing at Bridget we are also laughing at ourselves.