Bridget Jones loomed large over my early adolescence, by which I mean that a seven-foot-tall poster of Renée Zellweger in character hung behind my best friend’s bed. Bridget watched over us as we slept back-to-back at sleepovers, analysed whether it was worth spending 10p of precious phone credit replying to an SMS from a boy off the bus and built a brains trust of everything we knew about sex. Plenty has been written about how Helen Fielding’s creation is antifeminist and perpetuates outdated ideas about body image and marriage as the ultimate goal for a woman. But in many ways Bridget was a sound guide through those formative years.
Aged 12 I had already read the book, assuming it – probably not incorrectly – to be a kind of adult version of Adrian Mole. (I felt let down by The Cappuccino Years: Mole cooking offal in some restaurant was much less interesting than measuring his willy with a ruler.) It was rude and funny – I loved it. When the film was announced, I knew some people were annoyed that an American actor had been cast as Bridget but I had no idea who Zellweger was either way so I didn’t care. Plus my beloved Geri Halliwell was on the soundtrack: what could anyone have to complain about? The trailer quickly became a communal classroom obsession, the line “wanton sex goddess with a very bad man between her thighs – mum, hi!” quickly deposing childish Simpsons catchphrases, because pre-teen girls are ardent perverts.
I grew up in Cornwall and had been to London once, for a day. Bridget Jones’s Diary opened up an adult, metropolitan world full of “urban families”, mini breaks to Paris and posh women with names like Perpetua. But Bridget, when she’s not with her cutting, cackling best friends, is always on the outside. She works in publishing but hasn’t mastered the literary bullshitting that fuels the industry. (“Sal-maan!” “Chech-nyaaah”, “the problem with Martin’s definition of the novella …”) She’s just as alienated at her parents’ house, where their chintz is resolutely un-chucked. Bridget’s mother tells her what to wear and parades her around family events like a sullen child while she endures having her bottom pinched. (A disturbingly familiar experience back then.) She was just like a teenage girl.
Seduced by her boss, Daniel Cleaver (a no-flies-on-me Hugh Grant), Bridget attempts to transform herself from chaotic lush to ideal woman. “First, look gorgeous,” Zellweger says in voiceover over a montage of her waxing, wincing, primping and comparing the potential success rates of control pants and a thong. I didn’t see a template, but a warning. If a tense, noir surf riff out of a spy film didn’t emphasise the absurd stealth manoeuvres that underpin female beauty standards, the Spanx wedgie drove home the indignity.
And god, the indignities. Workplace harassment, impromptu public speaking. Even if, aged 12, you had not yet been tricked into dressing as a Playboy bunny for a garden party and subject to the patronising biological clock “tick-tock” of smug marrieds called – sorry, what – Cosmo and Woney (what the hell was going on in London), these horrors resonated in skirts tucked in knickers, in being frogmarched by a teacher to the loos to wipe off what was evidently not a discreet application of mascara. In his original review from 2001, the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says the film makes Bridget “look like the world’s biggest prat, and an egregious emotional imbecile”. To me, she wasn’t an imbecile, but emblematic of these impossible standards, ones that Zellweger bore with painfully apologetic brightness. The endless brilliant comedic set pieces drove home the farce of gendered expectations and made us vigilant against them.
But the film as a cultural entity amplified those impossible standards in a nastier sense. As well as the outrage around a Texan playing our English heroine, I remember endless coverage of Zellweger’s weight gain for the part. This was the ultimate indignity, the press affirmed; though not to worry, an army of professional trainers would help her lose it afterwards. Size 10 at a push, Bridget was described as some kind of repulsive beast, while the film provided handy shots of diary pages detailing her weight so that viewers could make comparisons. It may have been the first time I heard of cellulite. Bradshaw, again: “Her thighs are massively dimpled and her great bottom is stately as a sinking galleon, and it’s always in our face.” When Bridget finds Cleaver’s American girlfriend hiding in his bathroom, the latter remarks: “I thought you said she was thin”, which struck me even then as uncharacteristically cruel for the film. This media obsession found its inverse in sensationalism masked as concern for Halliwell’s newly minuscule figure, a saga that played out as the never-media-shy ex-Spice Girl rode the film’s promotional wave. The effect was unforgettable.
At least Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy, a burning ember of a heartthrob, likes Bridget very much, just the way she is: garrulous, boozy, inappropriate. These are good words to hear when you’re 12, even if later you learn to look beyond male validation. The codes of the grownup world – stiff dinner parties and wanky soirees – turn out to be nonsense; much less fun than getting pissed with the people who know you down to the cobbles outside your flat, who will pretend to enjoy a meal of homemade blue soup, omelette and marmalade at your birthday dinner. That’s the shared language that is important. (“Gravy needs sieving, Pam.” “Surely not, Una, just stir it.”) Their callbacks became ours. “Where the fuck is the fucking tuna?” “Come the fuck on, Bridge.” I’ve watched the film so many times that I can hear the actors reciting the lines as if recalling the chorus of a pop song, though I also hear them in the voice of one of my other best friends.
Almost 20 years later, Bridget Jones’s Diary gives me a huge sense of my own mortality. (And not just because the last time I saw it, prior to this rewatch, was coupled with frozen pizza and salad cream on a decrepit Sunday afternoon in November after a 24-hour clubbing excursion.) Everyone’s so young, yet we’re now their age, with stories of bad boyfriends, horrible bosses and social awkwardness to burn. Imagine owning a flat in Borough Market. It’s a Miramax film – I wonder what of the more bitingly feminist parts of Fielding’s book Harvey Weinstein might have squeezed out. I wonder how many more big-budget comedy films about women there will be after the coronavirus squeeze on cinema. There are comforts among the uncertainties. Those women are still my closest friends. Bridget Jones’s Diary is still funny. The poster is long gone, but the bullshit radar Bridget gave us has been finely honed.