Shock, horror! Fictional character obsessed with booze, fags and getting a boyfriend makes it onto the list of the seven most influential women of the last seventy years. Bridget Jones’s appearance on the Woman’s Hour Power List 2016 apparently caused more controversy and arguing among the judges than any other nomination – including Margaret Thatcher (in first place), whose promotion of women’s rights and, indeed, other women, is arguable in itself.
Karren Brady, one of the judges most vociferously against Bridget’s inclusion, said she didn’t think Bridget was a good role model for her young daughter – and no, in some ways, she’s not. She famously drinks and smokes too much, obsesses over her lack of a boyfriend, messes up countless jobs and makes an idiot of herself, publically, in ways that I’m sure would never have been dreamed of by the successful businesswoman. But I’m quite upset by her slighting of Bridget, who may not be the perfect role model but who has a hell of a lot more going on beneath the surface than might be immediately obvious to the casual sneerer.
Those who defend her position on the list say she spoke to a generation of women, telling them it was ok to fuck up, to be insecure, to speak your truth. And that is, of course, true. But there’s a lot more to it than that, little whiffs of which appear in the brief interviews with the judges, and I’d have loved to be in the room when these discussions were taking place. There’s a comparison to Carrie Bradshaw in Sex And The City but I’m not buying that – Carrie is a successful journalist, style icon and she may have a messy love life, but she’s a lot more sorted than Bridget ever was. Do we ever see Carrie in a mundane job, bored and frustrated that she’s not being given anything more interesting to do? Cooking disastrously for her friends, rather than going out to chichi Manhattan restaurants? Not so much. Carrie’s ‘diary’ is a self-conscious, rather mannered pondering on life for the purposes of a newspaper column – whereas Bridget’s is an outpouring of real, honest and funny fucked-upness, anxiety and musings on her life that didn’t just strike a chord with ‘normal’ women but sang their anthem, loud and proud. With a marching band, storming through the streets.
Because it’s about so much more than just saying ‘it’s ok to be fucked up’ – which has so many negative implications, and as women we are quite rightly encouraged to be more positive, extol self-belief and stride forward, Thatcher-like, burying all self-doubt. It’s about humanity, and generosity of soul, and understanding of what it is to be female in the 90s, 00s and now 2010s. Bridget Jones has that humanity, and expresses it in a very direct, honest voice that resonates because she feels so real. It’s no accident or ironic choice that it’s the character, not her creator Helen Fielding, who made it onto the list. No disrespect to Fielding, who I adore and will be eternally grateful to for creating Bridget in the first place, but it’s the character who has made such a phenomenal impact. Fielding’s ‘acceptance speech’ on Bridget’s behalf is wonderfully modest, but she makes the point that perhaps there is something ‘more profound’ about it:
‘… there’s something in Bridget’s nature which is very British which is ultimately quite decent, quite kind, quite resilient, not judgemental.”
Like many women in the 90s, I identified with Bridget: I was a singleton living in London, who drank and smoked way too much, and constantly rued my lack of boyfriends. I even did Bridget’s job for a while (working at a publisher – when Renée Zellweger was ‘researching’ the role she did that same job as work experience) and worried constantly about where my life was going. I read Helen Fielding’s column in The Independent every Saturday and felt a massive connection to this woman who was so funny, honest, confused and just excellently flawed and unpredictable. It was a voice for a feeling that had not really been expressed, and Fielding always seemed to find the words that I struggled to articulate. When Princess Diana died, and the country spent that week in shock and a peculiar kind of detached grief, it was Bridget who voiced how I felt about it. Like me, she went to join the queues of flower-layers and candle-lighters outside St James’s Palace, curiously drawn and not quite sure why she was so moved. She took a copy of Vogue, a box of Milk Tray, a scratchcard and a packet of Silk Cut: ‘Not perfect but everyone will have bought flowers and know she liked Vogue.’ And her views on Diana moved me more than any other obituary or comment piece:
‘Really she was the patron saint of Singleton women because she started off like the archetypal fairytale doing what we all thought we were supposed to do i.e. marry a handsome Prince and she was honest enough to say that life is not like that. Also it made you feel that if someone so beautiful and gorgeous could be treated like shit by stupid men and feel unloved and lonely then it wasn’t because you were rubbish if it happened to you. Also she kept re-inventing herself and sorting out her problems. She was always just trying so hard like modern women.’
The Woman’s Hour Power List 2016 was put together to celebrate ‘achievements by women, for women’ and also, as the judges’ chair Emma Barnett put it, women who ‘actually had impact in real women’s lives’. Although each of the women on this year’s list achieved great things, some with a lot more tangible influence for women (like Barbara Castle and the Equal Pay Act), I would like to believe that my 11-year-old daughter will not just admire those achievements but also embrace the optimism, honesty, humour, and generous, open heart of Bridget Jones.