image: independent.co.uk

Strong Female Characters: Bridget Jones

For those of you that don’t know, Bridget is the main character of Helen Fielding’s series, Bridget Jones’s Diary. Originally starting as a newspaper column and finally ending up as a series of rom-coms, the story centres around Bridget and her slightly desperate attempts to get her life together. Both the books and the films were praised for being an accurate portrayal of the challenges of modern womanhood, as well as being incredibly funny. As for Bridget herself, she has become the patron saint of single women everywhere, and a staple of every girls’ night in.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Most of Bridget’s story centres around her own attempts to get her life into some semblance of order. The plot revolves around her trying to make a better life for herself, whether that’s by giving up smoking, trying to drink less and losing weight or by finding herself a suitable boyfriend. She doesn’t always succeed, but she keeps trying no matter how many setbacks she stumbles into. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t see a lot of Bridget’s hobbies apart from long, boozy dinners with her friends. Her goals, however, are much clearer – they’re literally written out at the start of the book as New Year’s Resolutions. Bridget wants to lose weight, drink less, stop smoking, and find a nice boyfriend. Several other goals pop up along the way – such as finding a better job and, bizarrely, getting out of Thai prison – but as a general rule, she’s always got something that she’s working towards.

Her beliefs are also pretty well-defined too. She’s quite left-wing, which causes a few disagreements between her and her boyfriend, and she really believes in the power of self-help books. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For the most part, Bridget is a very consistent character. She’s well-meaning, slightly incompetent, funny, easy-going and relaxed, but she can be very determined when she wants to be and she’s very prone to temptation.

Usually in the form of this guy. (image: telegraph.co.uk)
Usually in the form of this guy. (image: telegraph.co.uk)

As far as her skills go, we don’t really see a lot of what she’s good at. Instead, we see a lot of what she’s bad at, such as cooking, skiing, public speaking and blending in at a fancy party. Personally, I think this works just as well in terms of Bridget’s character building. Establishing a lack of skills can be just as effective as showing a character with a natural talent, as it adds another layer to their personality and often makes them much more relatable.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A bumbling, incompetent but well-meaning woman tries to turn her life around.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Bridget’s love life is a significant part of both the books and the films, but it isn’t all there is to her. Her story doesn’t just centre around her attempts to get a boyfriend; it also covers her efforts to become a better, healthier person. In both storylines we see Bridget trying to give up bad habits and working towards establishing a career that she finds more fulfilling.

That said, most of Bridget’s storyline does revolve around which charming British actor she wants to kiss. This manifests itself in lots of awkward stuttering, embarrassing moments, makeout sessions and two of the funniest, sweariest fight scenes in cinematic history:

While Bridget’s attempts to find a boyfriend aren’t the only elements to her story, they are pretty central to it. Even though Bridget is trying to fix other areas of her life, it’s made pretty clear that getting herself a boyfriend is the most important one. Bridget – and most of the other characters she comes across – views this as the thing which will fix all the rest of her problems, and even though Bridget doesn’t focus all her attention on this, it’s pretty clear that this is what she’s really worried about. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Bridget does actually develop over the course of the story. She learns to walk away from things – whether that’s a bad relationship or a job she doesn’t like any more – and actually ends up raising her own self-esteem in the process. She doesn’t achieve all the goals she set out to – she still drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney – but in trying to achieve them she has nevertheless grown as a character. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Bridget has plenty of weaknesses. She’s insecure, she’s very quick to judge, she wildly over-estimates her own skills, she doesn’t communicate very clearly and she doesn’t always think things through, leading her to make several very bad decisions.

These weaknesses do actually hold her back through the course of the story, too. Her lack of communication skills creates problems in all her relationships, her quick judgement means she’s completely taken in by charming weasel Daniel Cleaver, and her inability to think things through actually lands her in a Thai prison, when she unknowingly attempts to smuggle drugs through an airport.

But who hasn't? (image: giphy.com)
But who hasn’t? (image: giphy.com)

These are all very well-established weaknesses that don’t just magically disappear when her life is back on track – they’re things she continually has to work to overcome. Full marks here.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Bridget is a real influence on the plot. Her decisions create most of the storyline, whether it’s beginning a disastrous relationship with Daniel Cleaver, finding herself a better job, taking new opportunities to travel or actively trying to repair her mistakes. She does spend a fair amount of time reacting to other people’s decisions too, but that’s not to say she doesn’t make decisions of her own. I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 7.5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

It’s very easy to look at Bridget Jones and see a lot of negative gender stereotypes there. Even though the story is about more than her love life, much of the plot revolves around the belief that a single woman in her thirties has somehow failed at life. It isn’t the fact that Bridget has managed to reach her thirties without learning how to feed herself, resorts to drowning her sorrows in vodka on a monthly basis, and stumbles from one bad decision to the next that marks her out as a failure – it’s the fact that she hasn’t gotten married yet.

Much like Rose Dawson, what makes Bridget Jones such an interesting character is that gender stereotypes are very plainly on show. In Bridget’s case, these take the form of other people’s expectations that she will settle down, get married and start having children. This is a constant feature of Bridget’s story – the question “how’s your love life?” pops up so often it may as well be a part of the drinking game.

Which I feel like Bridget would approve of. (image: popsugar.com)
Which I feel like Bridget would approve of. (image: popsugar.com)

The interesting thing is that whereas Rose was stifled by expectations like this, Bridget doesn’t really seem to mind them. She jokes along with them, but doesn’t really question them, and isn’t really moved by them in any real capacity. This is actually kind of refreshing. We so rarely see a female character who wants fairly traditional things from her life, yet isn’t really bothered by the pressure placed on women that can surround these goals. Bridget knows she wants a fulfilling relationship for her own sake, rather than to meet somebody else’s expectations.

There’s no getting away from the fact Bridget’s singledom is treated like a sign of failure on her part, but personally, I don’t think she’s that bad in terms of gender stereotypes. Yes, she wants fairly traditional things, but she wants them on her own terms. She doesn’t just want any old boyfriend, she wants a man who can live up to – if not surpass – her expectations. She doesn’t just want a boyfriend for the sake of having one, she wants a boyfriend because she knows that a stable, loving relationship will make her happy. What’s more, her relationship never eclipses the other important things in her life, like her family, her friends and her career – it’s all part of a wide range of things that make her happy. I’ll give her half a point, but I can’t help feeling I’m being a little harsh.

SCORE SO FAR: 8

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Bridget has plenty of relationships with other female characters. She has a wide circle of friends who she gets drunk with on a regular basis. She has a number of snooty colleagues she has to deal with – one of which, Perpetua, she actually manages to impress, and the two gain a little more respect for each other. She’s incredibly insecure when confronted with all the intelligent, gorgeous women her number among her love rivals, but she’s never catty about them – they just send her into a panic. One of them, as it turns out, actually fancies Bridget and not her boyfriend, which leads to a certain amount of flattered embarrassment on Bridget’s part.

But Bridget’s most interesting relationship is with her mother, Pamela. Bridget is exasperated by her mother’s constant attempts to match-make her with almost every ‘nice young man’ she sees, but can’t recognise the fact that her mother is unhappy in her own marriage. When she leaves her father it’s a total shock, and she genuinely can’t understand how it could’ve happened. Eventually, Bridget’s parents reunite, but only after Pamela confesses that sometimes she feels pushed out by how close Bridget is with her father, as she is often the butt of their jokes. This is a surprisingly detailed parent-child relationship for what’s billed as a fairly standard rom-com, and really adds a layer to Bridget’s character. I’ll give her the point.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

 

Bridget is a character who’s in control of her own life, has a range of hobbies, goals and beliefs, works against weaknesses that hold her back and develops over the course of her story. Yes, her love life is pretty central to her story, and some of it falls in line with some pretty unfortunate gender stereotypes, but that’s not all there is to her. She’s a developed character with a range of interests outside her relationship, and I’m proud to say she’s passed my test.

That brings the Month of Love to a close, and it’s time to tot up what I’ve learned. Unlike Villain Month, where every character passed my test, it’s been much more of a mixed bag. All the characters I’ve looked at this month have had very different storylines in a range of different settings, much like their evil counterparts, but the pass rate hasn’t been anywhere near as high.

I think this is because whereas villainesses go against the grain and defy what we traditionally expect of women, romantic heroines tend not to. As a general rule female characters are much more likely to be classed as someone’s love interest than to be classed as the villain. My current theory is that it’s harder for villainesses to fall back on traditional gender stereotypes, so they tend to get more development and more of an explanation for why they are the way they are. Romantic heroines, on the other hand, often follow along a much more traditional storyline, and are much more prone to stereotypes dictating their personalities.

Such as this one. (image: giphy.com)
Such as this one. (image: giphy.com)

This is really what let down the two characters who failed my test this month. They didn’t have enough going on that wasn’t related to their love lives. Their stories begun and ended with the fact that they fell in love, but there wasn’t all that much more to them than that. Contrast that with the two who passed, who had clearly been developed as characters without their love lives coming into their development, and it becomes clear which are the more well-written characters.

It’s very easy for a female character’s storyline, development and personality to fall back on stereotypes when she’s cast as the romantic lead. It’s easier for a writer to let the role of ‘The Love Interest’ take over when developing a female character becomes difficult, but the reality is that this really sells love short. If a character’s love life completely eclipses their personality, it’s often incredibly difficult to see what made their partner fall in love with them in the first place. Every relationship is different in its own particular way, and authors falling back on tired old tropes in place of exploring something in more depth does love an injustice.

To my mind, this is the real danger that romance stories present. It is not that falling in love is a step back for female characters – this is simply not true. It’s that romance stories often tend to naturally follow some very old-fashioned gender stereotypes, and it’s very easy for an author to rely on those stereotypes rather than crafting a heroine with a well-developed personality. This is a subject that the romance community at large is trying to address. Many people who know the genre much better than I do have written intelligently and eloquently on the subject, and I strongly advise you to check them out.

Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)
Yay for learning! (image: giphy.com)

But it’s actually very easy for a heroine to be the lead in a romantic novel and still have a well-developed personality with strengths, weaknesses and growth. A little while ago, I was an intern at Mills & Boon – for those of you that don’t know, it’s the UK imprint connected to Harlequin, which often publishes very traditional romances that aren’t always seen as particularly good. I went into my internship expecting to be working with a certain kind of book, but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer range of characters I ended up coming across. They were all leads in fairly traditional romances, but they were also widows, single mothers, doctors, socialites, rape survivors, abuse victims, control freaks, scientists stuck in an Antarctic research station – the list goes on. Their love lives were central to their stories, but it was by no means the only things the characters had going on – before they even met their gorgeous billionaire boyfriends, they were already working towards a goal of their own.

This is the kind of character I’d like to see more of in romance stories. Characters who already lead distinct and interesting lives before they meet the hero – characters with goals, characters with beliefs that drive them through everything they do, characters who have to struggle to work past their own weaknesses and still find love at the end of it all. That’s the kind of romantic lead I can get behind.

Next week, I’ll be looking at His Dark Materials. Lyra, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.

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4 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Bridget Jones”

    1. Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      I actually made the list of ten questions up myself. I tried to come up with a list that would allow me to talk about common problems with female characters. I did read around the subject to help me come up with my questions – as I’m sure you’ve worked out, I got the idea for question ten from the Bechdel test – but most of them are just questions that I find helpful when assessing how well-written any given character is.

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