21st Century Rewatch: Bridget Jones’s Diary and Toxic Femininity
A while ago, a male acquaintance of mine asked me “So we’ve seen lots of film examples of toxic masculinity, but what about toxic femininity?”
I couldn’t give him an answer then, but, when I settled down to watch my annual series of cosy Christmas films, I hit paydirt! Bridget Jones’s Diary is all about a woman’s struggle with toxic femininity. I love Bridget Jones’s Diary. It’s funny, sweet, well cast, and surprisingly relevant today, but that relevancy comes from her struggles to align herself with an ideal that she can’t measure up to. Toxic masculinity or femininity is when people feel obligated to follow gender roles and norms they feel are present in society, even when it limits their own freedom and choices. Toxic masculinity has tons of pretty clear examples, such as men feeling like they shouldn’t wear the color pink because it’s coded as feminine. The “feeling” here is really important, since obviously men can physically wear the color pink, men historically have worn the color pink, and some men happily wear pink now. The point is not that men can’t wear men, but certain men feel like they shouldn’t wear pink, even if they like it and would like to wear it, because society’s rules dictate that masculine men don’t wear pink. Toxic femininity works the same way, so let’s examine Miss Bridget Jones.
From an outside perspective, Bridget seems like she’s got pretty much everything.
She’s youngish, conventionally pretty, and intelligent. She’s got a decent job in publishing, her apartment is cute, her friends are loving, and her family is respectable. So why isn’t she happy? She might tell you it’s because she doesn’t have a serious boyfriend, but that’s not actually her problem. Her real problem is that Bridget doesn’t feel like she measures up as a woman. We see this visually when Bridget imagines herself to be like Grace Kelly in a scarf and big sunglasses, taking off in a convertible. Unlike the ideal Grace Kelly, however, she ends up losing her scarf and having her hair blown into a huge rat’s nest by the wind. This is so relatable because we all want to be a flawless Grace Kelly, but our human foibles get in the way. In Bridget’s mind, she ought to be thinner, drink less, not smoke, be more sophisticated, and have a sensible boyfriend. Theoretically, all of those previous goals are in aid of finding a sensible boyfriend, but under closer examination, they aren’t actually about men at all.
Bridget, in the entirety of the film, gets no negative comments or reactions from men about her appearance.
This runs through quite a range, from men she’s sexually interested in like Mark Darcy and Daniel Cleaver, to men she’s clearly uninterested in like her uncle, Mr. Fitz Herbert, and the boss at the television station. They clearly all find her to be physically attractive. When Daniel Cleaver pulls up her dress to reveal her compression granny panties, he thinks they’re funny and do not hamper his ardor at all. Instead, the scene turns from slightly intimidating serious sexiness to light-hearted and charming romance as they laugh together before continuing their love scene. Mark makes the only comment about her appearance that is even slightly negative, but it’s that she “dresses like her mother” when Bridget is wearing clothes that her mother picked out and that she personally dislikes. It’s definitely her clothes he’s objecting to, not Bridget’s person. So clearly Bridget has no trouble sexually attracting men. She also doesn’t get any negative reinforcement from her father. They have a close and affectionate relationship and he never comments on her appearance at all. So, if Bridget gets only positive reinforcements about her appearance from every man she encounters, why is she so hung up about her weight and appearance? We can’t hang that responsibility on men she knows because they clearly like the way she looks. It’s from another source completely.
Every negative comment about Bridget’s appearance comes from other women.
And it happens A LOT. Bridget hears it pretty much everywhere she goes from other women. Her mother, for instance, not only forces her into clothes that Bridget doesn’t like, but buys them at least a size too small. Bridget, up until the end of the film, wears what her mother puts out for her, despite her clear physical and emotional discomfort; presumably because she doesn’t want to disappoint or fight with her mother about it. The clothes being too small is an extra dig because not only does her mother not think Bridget is attractive enough in the clothes she choses, but she’s also not the size her mother thinks she ought to be.
The most cutting remarks about her appearance come from Bridget’s romantic rivals for Daniel and Mark. They are what Bridget is not: extremely tall thin ambitious career women who serve as foils to Bridget’s much more ordinary self. Mark’s girlfriend Natasha makes disparaging comments about Bridget’s bunny costume, as well as generally showing her up in poise and sophistication. Her rival for Daniel Cleaver, Lara, however, is even more brutal. In the one scene she’s in, she’s remarkably posed: naked with long slim arms and legs emerging from behind a huge binder. Her only line is not to Bridget, but to Daniel “I thought you said she was thin.” This line, coming from a character played by a literal fashion model, is heart-wrenching because we (the audience and Bridget) instinctively feel that she (and us) could never win over what society considers to be the apex of women.
At the time the film came out, much ado was made of Renee Zellweger’s weight gain for the film. Bridget lists her weight at around 130 pounds, which, even by antiquated BMI scales, is considered a healthy weight for a woman of Zellweger’s height. There were countless articles and discussions about this. At the same time, numerous men, such as Elvis Costello, commented that they thought she looked really good. So, if Bridget’s body is attractive enough to successfully attract men and she seems to suffer no negative health implications, why is she worried about her weight? The answer is simply that society tells her and Bridget tells herself that she should be thinner. It’s not a practical goal of being thinner to attract more men, it’s the toxic femininity that says no matter how thin women are, they could always be a little thinner.
What Bridget says she wants is the opposite of what she actually wants.
Bridget’s goal in keeping the diary is to lose weight, stop smoking, stop drinking, and find a sensible boyfriend. She has a few other minor goals such as remembering to put her dirty laundry in the hamper, but those four are the most repeated ones. Here’s the problem: Bridget really likes drinking, smoking, and eating. These traits don’t seem to really be negatively impacting her life. She doesn’t seem to be an alcoholic. We never see her, for instance, drunk while she’s working or with her parents. These goals seem to just be a list of society’s feelings of “what’s good for you.” Arguably (and a big “arguably” for wanting to lose 20 pounds when you’re a 130 pound woman), these are all things that people generally regard as good life goals.
“Finding a sensible boyfriend,” however, is pretty different from the first three. Bridget doesn’t want to find a sensible boyfriend because she genuinely wants one, she is trying to convince herself that she should follow society’s expectations for women rather than going after a man that she actually wants. Bridget repeatedly mentions that she’s made to feel bad for being single over 30. She’s constantly set up by her mother and absolutely loathes being with “smug married couples” and family friends who insist on probing her about her love life. Bridget fantasizes about having a wedding, but she doesn’t fantasize about being married. We don’t see her imagine growing old with someone or grocery shopping together or building a home. It’s pretty unclear whether or not Bridget even would want to be married if she weren’t trying to live up to the expectations of her friends and family. She has an extremely comfortable home, an active social life, a fine enough job, and she replies “Yuck!” when asked if she wants children. What she wants is to put all of those uncomfortable questions to rest. And…
Bridget wants to have sex with Daniel Cleaver.
Bridget’s totally aware of all of Daniel’s negative traits, but she still desires him. Leaving aside the problem of Daniel being her boss (which I feel okay about doing because Daniel never uses her employment to threaten or persuade Bridget), is there any particular reason why she shouldn’t have him? If she removed the expectations of a relationship and just had a friends-with-benefits situation with Daniel, this film might be a lot shorter. She might enjoy a couple of weeks or months with him, decide she’s really looking for a long term thing with a man she can respect, and then move on. So why doesn’t she do this? Because she worries “I’d finally die fat and alone… and be found three weeks later, half-eaten by wild dogs. Or l was about to turn into Glenn Close [in Fatal Attraction].” Now, none of those things seem likely to happen since she lives in London, which, to my knowledge, does not have a wild dog problem and Bridget does not suffer from the same issues as Alex (read more about that here!). These are fates attributed to single women by society that have no basis in reality. It’s been ingrained in her that by her age she ought to be in a stable marriage. She may want to be in a relationship, but the fears of not being in one are pure toxic femininity.
When Bridget breaks up with Daniel, it doesn’t change her self image or beliefs.
Bridget decides that she “won’t be defeated by a bad man and an American stick insect,” but she doesn’t do this through introspection, she instead just double downs. Daniel expresses why he cheated on her fairly honestly; he’s looking for an extraordinary connection with someone else, but Bridget only seems to hear the toxic femininity parts of his speech: Lara is younger, American (exotic or glamourous), and confident. She doesn’t take the part about him looking for an extraordinary commitment seriously. She doesn’t tell herself that she too should be looking for an extraordinary connection to another person, who clearly is not going to be cheating lying Daniel. Instead she focuses on what she imagines self improvement to be. We’re treated to a montage of her improvement: she drinks a lot, she clumsily exercises in a way that suggests she hates doing it, she goes on a bunch of tv job interviews that she seems not to even be genuinely interested in, and she swaps out her self help books. The self help books are particularly telling. She gets rid of all of her “how to attract a man” books and replaces them with “you don’t need a man” books. Neither of these two sets of books address her actual problems. She clearly could attract men and she clearly would like a man in her life. While we don’t see the content of these books, one can easily imagine their it if you’ve ever looked at the cover of Cosmo. The “attracting men” books probably have all sorts of rules for behavior like “play hard to get” or “never say ‘I love you’ first” which are usually an assemblance of nonsense advice that in no way reflect the reality of most healthy relationships. The “don’t need a man” books are probably compendiums of reasons why women are foolish to even want to have men in their lives. Usually in films when a character goes on a voyage of self improvement, we see them looking fit, wearing better clothes, and wowing the object of their disdain. This doesn’t really happen in Bridget Jones’s Diary. Instead, she does confront Daniel and quits her job, but her triumph doesn’t come from looking hot and being successful, it comes from her confidently telling him she doesn’t want to be around him. The toxic femininity part doesn’t work, but the being honest about her feelings does.
Bridget’s friends are an echo chamber for her toxic femininity beliefs.
Bridget’s friends love her, but they buy into the same feelings about what Bridget ought to be rather than who she actually is. When she decides to truly go after Daniel, she consults her friends who instruct her on how to go after him: look gorgeous, circulate, ooze sophistication, suck up to famous authors, and ignore Daniel. None of these are things that come naturally to Bridget and they are all completely unnecessary. Bridget and Daniel have already been flirting over email and he’s already asked her out to dinner. He clearly likes her and is interested in her. Instead of telling her something like “he sounds like he’s into you, go talk to him” they tell her “your whole future happiness now depends on how you behave on this one social occasion.” That’s not true in the slightest, but they clearly also believe that Bridget is not enough to succeed on her own. She needs to be a different person with a set list of ideal attributes to attract him.
This is brought to a serious head when, after a number of encounters, Mark Darcy tells Bridget “I like you very much just as you are.” When Bridget tells this to her friends, they are shocked. Jude asks “Just as you are? Not thinner? Not cleverer? Not with slightly bigger breasts and a slightly smaller nose?” When Bridget nods, her friends look like they might cry at that revelation. They honestly don’t know how to process the idea that someone likes Bridget for who she is, and, probably, by extension, that someone might like them for just as they are. Mark’s honesty cuts through everything they’ve ever told each other because their focus has always been on improving themselves to the point that they’re loveable. It’s not the outside world telling them that they’re unlovable and need to improve, it’s coming from within themselves.
Bridget only becomes happy after she lets go of her toxic femininity ideas and reacts honestly.
The big climax happens in the form of a fistfight between Daniel and Mark and one would think that Bridget, holding on to her toxic femininity ideals, would be delighted. Having men fight over you should be the ultimate flex on other women since it proves you are so desirable they’ll risk physical harm. Here’s the problem, though: having men duel over you is only fun if you do not care about the men’s wellbeing. Bridget, for all of her toxic ideas, is a kind and loving person. It’s what makes her a likable character. When Mark finally wins, she doesn’t fling herself in his arms over Daniel’s bloodied body; she chastises him. Mark stands there triumphant in a toxic masculinity kind of way, but she says “You give the impression of being all moral and noble and normal and helpful in the kitchen but you’re just as bad as the rest of them.” This is interesting because, while she has no problem recognizing these toxic traits in others, she can’t see them yet in herself. She knows that this “duel” is really about years of betrayal and negative emotions between the two men, not her. Mark’s perception is that she’ll be pleased, but she’s not, so he takes off. When she goes to help Daniel off the ground, she actually recognizes why she doesn’t want to be with him. It turns out what she wants was actually the same thing that he said he was looking for in Lara: “I’m not willing to gamble my whole life on someone who’s, well, not quite sure.” That’s a big step for Bridget. Her problem with Daniel is not her ability to attract him through games and unnatural behaviors, but that he’s simply not the right man.
Likewise, she actually wins Mark not by being cool or sophisticated, but by being herself in all her wonderful humanity. The first part happens at his parents’ party where she makes such a supremely dorky and heartfelt speech about him moving to New York that it makes a lasting impact upon him. This scene is supremely embarrassing, particularly because it takes place in front of two people who have made Bridget feel inferior: Natasha, Mark’s girlfriend, and Bridget’s own mother. Significantly, Bridget is wearing her own clothes, not ones her mother has forced upon her. She’s now wearing her own skin, not the skin forced on her by others. She carries on, after her initial involuntary outburst, because she knows that she needs to express honestly how she feels. Realistically, Mark doesn’t immediately cast Natasha and his work plans aside and crush Bridget to his chest. Instead he mulls it over as he travels to New York.
The second part is after Mark returns to Bridget and tells her he doesn’t intend on leaving her. Bridget’s toxic femininity almost destroys things again. Mark repeatedly tries to kiss her, but she puts him off because she wants to be wearing more exciting underwear. At this point, I feel safe saying Mark would not be put off by whatever Bridget is currently wearing, but it bothers Bridget in a scene that mirrors her granny panties scene with Daniel. The men don’t care, but Bridget is convinced that they do. She leaves Mark alone to change and he flips through her diary which is left open and sees rude remarks about himself. He leaves and Bridget immediately flies into action, running out in the snow in a huge romantic gesture. Unfortunately for her, since she can’t ever be glamorous as her ideals, she runs out without pants. Everything Bridget has ever heard or read has led her to believe that she must act now because relationships between men and women are so fragile that they can be broken with a single wrong word or act. When she finds him and apologizes, Mark smiles. He wasn’t mad at her, he was simply buying her a new diary. His love isn’t going to break just because she does a single thing wrong. She’s surprised and delighted. We get one tiny last bit of toxic femininity in the last lines where Bridget says “Wait a minute. Nice boys don’t kiss like that” referring to the idea that bad men are somehow more sexually exciting and that if she’s excited by him, there must be something wrong. Fortunately, Mark is more than willing to banish that thought by saying “Oh,yes,they fucking do” as he kisses her again.