It’s all too easy to dismiss Bridget Jones as a relic from a bygone age: too desperate, too vulnerable, and altogether too obsessed with finding a man.
But in the era of “casual” relationships and Tinder flings, says Stylist’s Moya Crockett, Bridget’s willingness to wear her heart on her sleeve is something to be admired.
A confession: I never really got Bridget Jones.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked her. I first encountered her aged 13, after my best friend waved a scratched DVD of Bridget Jones’s Diary in my face and said, grinning, “Have you seen this? It’s hilarious.” I liked Bridget’s clumsiness and generosity of spirit at once. I liked the fact that she was close to her lovely dad, and that she wore really big knickers.
But she still struck me as a fundamentally tragic figure, even when she got her happy ending and snogged Colin Firth in the snow in said big knickers. As I watched Bridget fend off moronic questions about her love life and obsess over Daniel Cleaver (verily, Hugh Grant has never been more revolting), 13-year-old me was aghast; appalled by the way so much of her character and story revolved around her status as a Single Woman.
Was that really all I had to look forward to in adulthood? Worrying about whether I had a boyfriend or not?
I’d assumed that a rabid boy-obsession was something adolescent girls grew out of, like playing with Barbies. Yet here was a grown woman, with a cool job and hilarious friends and a groovy little flat next to Borough Market, and all anybody seemed to care about – all she seemed to care about, more importantly – was her love life. Oh, and her calorie intake.
What a thundering disappointment. What a bloody con.
This weekend, Bridget returns to our screens in Bridget Jones’s Baby. It’s been 15 years since the release of Bridget Jones’s Diary, and over two decades since the Independent published the first instalment of Helen Fielding’s Bridget column. And in the interim, our attitudes towards single women have – blessedly – changed.
I am staunch in my belief that Bridget Jones’s Diary would not, could not, be made today. It would be critically decimated, Bridget’s quest for love torn apart as anti-feminist and patronising. Because as Fielding herself recently observed, not being in a heterosexual relationship no longer marks women out as bewildering freaks of nature (as though, to paraphrase Bridget, our entire bodies are covered in scales).
In fact, in 2016, being single is the new normal. According to the Office of National Statistics, the single population in the UK is growing 10 times as fast as the general population. In the US, meanwhile, a recent poll revealed a sharp rise in the percentage of 18- to 29-year-olds defining themselves as single, from 52% in 2004 to 64% in 2014 – and a 2015 survey found that a third of British women would happily stay single forever.
For my part, as a single woman in 2016, the thought of prioritising Finding a Serious Relationship, Bridget-style, fills me with horror. It’s simply not how things are done anymore – at least, not by any women I know.
Rather than obsess over when we’re going to meet the partner of our dreams, the vast majority of single women I know instead engage in a steady stream of epically “casual” relationships. Sometimes these relationships (because they are relationships, of sorts, even if we’d rather chew off our own arms than actually call them that) are facilitated by dating apps like Tinder and Bumble, but not always; friends-of-friends and actual friends are also frequently called upon as sources of companionship, sex and romance.
In this brave new world of acceptable, light-hearted flings, even saying that you’re “seeing someone” can feel a little too intense, ever-so-slightly too intimate. Not for us Bridget’s determined quest for love. If you really want to compare us to a blonde, white, uber-privileged work of fiction, Amy Schumer’s character in Trainwreck seems more apt: a woman who flees from commitment as doggedly as Bridget Jones pursues it.
“No, no, he’s not my boyfriend,” we’ll say. “We’ve only been dating – well, kind of dating, I guess – for like, four or five months or something. But it’s casual. I’m happy.”
And often, it is casual. Often, we are happy.
What’s been termed “hookup culture” does have its benefits, for young women as well as men. It means you can get to know someone before deciding whether you want to actually be with them. It lessens the risk of a relationship sucking up all your time and energy, leaving you free to focus on other things that matter: your career, your friends, going out dancing. It encourages the de-stigmatisation of women engaging in and enjoying casual sex. And, you know, it can be really fun.
But if being single is no longer taboo, that doesn’t mean that modern twentysomethings aren't subject to any kind of stigma surrounding relationships. It just comes at us from a different angle.
Our determined focus on keeping things light can sometimes leave us feeling like we’re not entitled to feel anything at all; as though our emotions are somehow illegitimate, invalid, wrong. I’ve lost count of the number of friends I’ve heard say, as they discuss their latest romantic entanglement, “I mean, I know I’m not really allowed to be sad/angry/excited”, as though they’ve somehow let themselves down by “catching feelings”. I've done it myself, many, many times.
And the least risky recourse, in these emotionally exposing times? Put on a brave face, shrug, and pretend it never meant that much anyway.
To her credit, that’s something Bridget Jones never does.
She throws herself headfirst into romance. She doesn’t fret about seeming “cool”. And, mostly importantly of all, she permits herself to be vulnerable.
From the perspective of a young woman in 2016, that can seem excruciatingly uncomfortable – but only because we so rarely allow ourselves the same luxury.
Bridget’s focus on finding a man is outdated, yes. But her ability to wear her feelings without shame or pretence? In these steely-hearted times, that seems more relevant than ever.