Me and Bridget Jones (20 Years Later)

Erika Thorkelson's "Me and Bridget Jones (20 Years Later)" is one of the essays in Midlife, which is a giveaway right now! Written and published during COVID quarantine, Midlife features the collected works of former members of the Gateway, the student newspaper at the University of Alberta. This crew of 27 writers and creators from the late 1990s/early 2000s now find themselves navigating midlife, and it turns out adulting isn’t necessarily as straightforward as anyone imagined. Enter for a chance to win!

**

The first time I saw Bridget Jones’s Diary, I cried. It was a weekday afternoon sometime after the end of my first year of university, and I’d decided to hide for a couple of hours in the comforting darkness of a mall cinema. I’d chosen a movie that would allow me to check out—I hadn’t expected to like it, let alone be moved to tears.

Twenty years later, I’m still trying to make sense of that over-the-top reaction. Other than us both being blondish, shortish white women, I didn’t have much in common with Jones. She was a 32-year-old Brit with a posh accent and an odd but traditional middle-class family. I was in my early 20s, born on the Canadian Prairies, raised by a single mother. In 2001, I was surviving on student loans and a job making burritos at a hipster fast-food joint called Badass Jack’s, the tangy aroma of barbecue sauce hanging in my hair long after I’d changed and showered. She was desperate to escape singledom—I had extricated myself from a too-young engagement only a year earlier. She seemed content to bumble from one job to the next; I knew exactly what I wanted to be—a writer—but that path seemed impossible.

Yet as our heroine raced through the streets in her skimpy underpants and into the arms of her new beau, the sky-high harmonies of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” ringing through the near-empty theatre, I found myself ugly crying into my popcorn, a nascent feeling of possibility in my heart. There was something familiar about Bridget Jones.

***

Adapted from the book of the same name by Helen Fielding, itself a comedic update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary follows the foibles of an aging Londoner terrified of dying alone. Renée Zellweger, who before this was perhaps best known for her role as the faithful sidekick to Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, plays the titular Jones with such commitment that she earned an Oscar nomination.

The rest of the cast is rounded out with references to Austen adaptations—Colin Firth plays the snooty but sexy Mark Darcy, a callback to his turn in the indelible BBC mini-series of Pride and Prejudice. Hugh Grant, who played the love interest in Emma Thompson’s adaptation of Sense and Sensibility, drips with slime as Bridget’s seductive douchebag boss, Daniel Cleaver. Like Austen’s novels, the movie functions both as a satire and as a template for a certain kind of romance where the heroine resists society’s pressure to settle down just long enough to luck into a match with a man who at first seems remote and haughty but turns out to be perfect for her.

In the years that followed our cathartic first meeting, I resisted Bridget Jones. I went back to her now and then when I needed a break from reality, but I kept my fondness for her mostly a secret. Once, for the university newspaper, I wrote a column about the time my apartment was robbed, declaring my desire to stay independent despite the rattling vulnerability of the experience. It began with the statement, “I am not Bridget Jones.”

In the years that followed our cathartic first meeting, I resisted Bridget Jones. I went back to her now and then when I needed a break from reality, but I kept my fondness for her mostly a secret.

Erika Thorkelson

Back then, my taste in rom-coms didn’t fit with the persona of a serious culture critic I was cultivating. It seemed fine to be drawn to, say, Pedro Almodóvar’s sumptuous melodrama Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, but admitting a fondness for a chick flick, even one written and directed by women, would have meant giving in to a stereotype I actively avoided. Like Bridget, I wasn’t immune to the world’s constant efforts to pigeonhole me. I went to great lengths to appear more confident, tougher, more together than I really believed myself to be. I drank too much—to relax, to cover up social anxiety, to fit in with the older crowd of freelance writers I started hanging out with. Eventually, I sort of forgot about her.

***

Since the pandemic has brought us all indoors, I’ve been spending a lot of time revisiting classics or checking out franchises I’d never thought I’d enjoy. There have been some surprises, like how much fun I had watching The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. And there have been disappointments—I could write a whole other essay about how, in retrospect, I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to watch the movie Cocktail in elementary school.

Just before Christmas, I felt an urge to return to Bridget to see if we still had a connection. As with most movies we consider pop classics, it has certain flaws that have intensified over time. There’s that unforgivably racist running gag about Darcy’s Japanese ex-wife. There’s Bridget’s constant moaning about her fatness—despite the uproar about Zellweger’s weight gain for the role, it’s even clearer today than in the rail-thin days of 2001 that Bridget isn’t fat by any objective standard. And there are Bridget’s office flirtations with her boss, which feel even more icky in this post–Jian Ghomeshi, post–Me Too era. But overall, Bridget Jones’s Diary remains a well-structured rom-com with some great performances. Even my partner, who was skeptical at first, agreed it was a fun watch.

There were no tears this time around, but I did begin to see what had caused them all those years ago. It was the way Bridget talks to herself in her diary—that cruel internal monologue where she imagines dying a spinster and being eaten by dogs. A litany of self-recriminations, interrupted only by the occasional moment of rapturous success where her imagination short-circuits her ability to see the obvious dangers. Highs and lows, nothing in between. That was me not so long ago. Bridget Jones’s Diary, I realized, was a time capsule of a self I’d only recently begun to leave behind.

***

I don’t have a diary from 2001 to refer back to—not something I kept reliably, anyway. In those days, my mind was trained outward, trying to understand the world and people around me, convinced that writing too much about myself would mark me as narcissistic. But I don’t need a record to know I had an internal monologue that sounded a lot like Bridget’s—a constant stream of ways I was letting myself and the people around me down. I worried about being fat—fatter than Bridget, certainly, who danced around the number I’d long considered my goal weight. I worried about whether people liked me, which made me susceptible to unkindness from the Daniel Cleavers of the world, though I believed I was smarter than that. At my darkest moments, I wondered if I’d chosen the wrong life after all, if anyone would ever love me again.

Rewatching Bridget Jones’s Diary at 41, I feel frustrated for her and for my former self. In her constant self-criticism, I see the results of years of pressure to be something she’s not, to fit into a standard that eludes her. But I also recognize her moments of resistance, like the way she rolls her eyes watching Fatal Attraction or the way, after a painful dinner party full of smug married couples, she finally challenges Darcy for his dickish behaviour. I wish the movie had given her more of that—more of a voice to explain how she’d chosen to be where she was, more of a sense of direction that didn’t wind up in the arms of a lover.

I wish the movie had given her more of that—more of a voice to explain how she’d chosen to be where she was, more of a sense of direction that didn’t wind up in the arms of a lover.

Erika Thorkelson

I wish I could go back and tell us both to be kinder to ourselves. I wish I could tell myself it would turn out OK, not because I found the perfect partner (although I found a pretty good one), and not because I found a way to fit in, but because I stuck to my instincts and stayed myself even when there was so much pressure in the other direction. But we can’t change the past—we can only find ways to live with it.

These days, I still catch myself sliding into an occasional Bridget Jones thought spiral, but it happens less often, and I know better how to stop it. As a childless woman in her 40s, as a writer from a background of poverty, I’m still moving through somewhat uncharted waters, but it scares me less. I still have unrealized ambitions, but now I know some of what it will take to achieve them. I no longer have a goal weight to torture myself with. I can be honest with myself without being cruel because having confidence isn’t the same as expecting perfection.

But wasn’t that Bridget’s big lesson, too? Yes, the scene in the film that made me cry ended with a dreamy kiss, but maybe those tears were as much a reaction to the idea of Bridget being loved the way we all deserve to be loved: “just as she is.”

June 14, 2021
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