Miramax

Here are some of the things Bridget Jones does in the course of the film named for her and her diary: She gets embarrassingly drunk at a company holiday party. She does a slurred, karaoke-ed rendition of “Can’t Live (If Living Is Without You)” at that event. She wears a Playboy-ish bunny costume, fuzzy tail and all, to an afternoon lawn party. She publicly insults Salman Rushdie. She covers up the fact that she’s loudly phone-talking with a friend in an otherwise quiet office—about that friend’s “fuckwit” boyfriend—by pretending that she is in fact talking to F.R. Leavis. (Yes, “the F.R. Leavis who died in 1978.”) She becomes temporarily famous for a tail-end up-skirt shot aired live on national TV. She interrupts an engagement announcement with a loud, abrupt “nooooo!” She sleeps with her boss.

Here are some of the things Bridget Jones is, though, in the course of the film named for her and her diary: warm and witty and generous and charming and honest. She loves her friends. She has no patience for people who insult her dignity. She has even less for those who insult her intelligence. She repeatedly finds herself on the right side of the thin line that divides acting foolishly from actually being foolish.

Bridget Jones’s Diary, which premiered in the U.S. 15 years ago today, is a movie that gets a lot of mileage out of the disconnect Bridget herself embodies: the divide between the is and the does. Bridget is a great character, kooky and caring and trying her best. The movie relies on all that for its own charm; indeed, without it, this would be a far different—far sadder—film.

But Bridget Jones’s Diary is of course an extremely upbeat rom-com; and that’s not just because of what Bridget does in the movie, but because of who she is—which we’re privy to because of what she writes. The film is aptly named: It’s the journal, more than anything else, that is the star here. And, more importantly, it’s the evidence of Bridget’s interior life, with all its warmth and wit, that gives her character her exterior charisma. In that sense, Bridget Jones’s Diary, in its way, predicted many of the things that the Internet, which was still very young at the time of the movie’s release, would help to bring about later on—first among them the opportunities for empathy that are afforded when the inner self, via the workings of status updates and chats and snaps and the like, gets converted into media.  

The movie’s prescience was a matter of both serendipity and design. Helen Fielding, who wrote the several Bridget Jones novels and co-wrote the movies that have been based on them—there’s a new one coming out later this year—has credited Bridget’s success as a character to the fact that, fundamentally, she explores “the gap between how we feel we are expected to be and how we actually are.” It is the diary—full of swearing and exclamatory excess, its “I” often only implied—that most easily allows that division to be exposed.

Which means that there is also a division between the people in Bridget’s world and the people who, through the screen, watch them. To those at Pemberley Press, Bridget is that PR girl who wears transparent tops and really, really short skirts, that girl who got sloppy-drunk at the holiday party. To her family members, Bridget is her parents’ unmarried daughter. Even to us, her audience—objectively, which is also to say superficially—she’s accident-prone and “verbally incontinent” and unable to make a soup that doesn’t come out robin’s-egg blue.

But, significantly, none of that is the point here. Because Bridget is so much more than any of that. Via her diary, her audiences are uniquely able to see Bridget for what she really is: a full, flawed, complicated person. That balance—the fact that, on the other end of the butt-shots and the granny panties and the ignorance of F.R. Leavis, is a warm and wonderful and deserving human—is what saves Bridget Jones as a character. It is also what saves her movie, which is otherwise full of pitfalls.

For one thing: Scene by scene and in its overall premise, it must be said, Bridget Jones’s Diary fails the Bechdel test. The majority of Bridget’s energies in life seem to be concentrated on guy-getting. She seems to see her job as, basically, a husband-market (hence the sleeping-with-the-boss thing). Same with a simple dinner party. And yet—again, via the collision of action and the emotions that underscore it, via the union of the is and the does—we are led to understand why, exactly, Bridget is so myopically focused on man-getting. It’s because everyone else is myopically focused on that, on her behalf!

Bridget may be a romantic heroine who’s been blessedly relieved of the idealized baggage of traditional romantic heroinery; she is also a romantic heroine, however, for whom the traditional expectations—find a man, keep that man, live happily ever with that man—are still very much alive. That tension drives the movie. It is the tension embodied in the film’s romantic climax: Darcy informing Bridget, in his perfectly dry, Colin Firthian way, “I like you. Just as you are.”

So on the one hand, Bridget Jones’s Diary holds up because of the universalities of its premise—universalities that Fielding borrowed from Jane Austen, namely the divide between romantic expectation and romantic reality, the failures of first impressions, the power of misunderstandings, the disconnect between what we can know of people and what they actually are. The fundamental and frustrating fact that feelings, for the most part, are invisible.

But the movie holds up, as well, because in its premise and its execution it neatly predicted the Internet’s ability to externalize the interior—and thus to enable empathy. It brought with it the ability to understand people’s inner lives on scales that were never before possible.

Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and Tumblr and Instagram and all their similar services are “social media,” yes, but they are also their own kind of diaries. They are daily, or roughly daily, assessments of the world offered up by ordinary—who are also, in their way, extraordinary—people. For the most part, though, these records are public, which is to say they do the same thing Bridget Jones’s diary did: They turn formerly silent thoughts into readable text. They turn “characters” into “people.” The tweet may be about the weather; the insta may depict dinner; regardless, each status update and post and snap is an invitation not just to judgment, but to understanding. Each one challenges its viewer or reader or listener to see the person on the other end as much more than they might seem. Each one helps us all to get a little closer to understanding other people—just as they are.

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