Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) is a staple of many Christmas movie diets. Its popularity and appeal are no wonder as the film constitutes a melding of the well-loved genres of Christmas films, rom-coms, and Austen adaptations. Although its heroine Bridget (Renée Zellweger) bears very little similarity to Elizabeth Bennet from Pride & Prejudice (1813), there is one significant continuity at the heart of each work: each protagonist experiences challenges making a good romantic match in a society which systematically devalues them- albeit for disparate reasons. While Elizabeth experiences pressure to marry due to her lack of dowry and is critiqued as a result of her family’s dysfunction, Bridget’s primary issue- as presented in the film- is her weight which is demeaned and seen as a deciding factor in her attractiveness by her mother, herself, arguably her friends, and her rival for the attentions of the movie’s Wickham equivalent. Given this, even while the movie ends with a cute resolution as Bridget and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) kiss in the snow, and does offer some critique of superficiality in love, it is somewhat problematic. The underlying gender politics and fat phobia are coated with a sweet love story, tied up with string, and neatly packaged for conventional Christmas consumption. As with the presents under the tree, it could do with some unpacking.
The opening scene of the film introduces Bridget “on New Year’s day in [her] 32nd year of being single” when she is about to attend a holiday gathering where she fears her mother will attempt to set her up with an unattractive man as she has done before. Instead, her mother reacquaints her with a childhood friend called Mark Darcy. However, their meeting is strained and awkward. They have little to say to each other and Bridget admits to being hungover and preferring to be “lying with her head in a toilet” than at the party with him. Evidence of her binge drinking and smoking make Mark Darcy very uncomfortable throughout their first interaction. It is these habits that Bridget decides to break in order to improve herself so that she is no longer afflicted with the condition of being “single.” However, she also aims to lose 20 pounds off of an already thin frame. Indeed, the movie creates a vexing juxtaposition between Bridget’s inability to be thinner and a smoking or drinking addiction, while also implying that her attractiveness is largely contingent upon her weight. Bridget clearly thinks this herself and this perception is also mirrored in characters such as her mother, who is overbearing like Mrs. Bennet and who berates Bridget for her weight.
Where in the novel Elizabeth has a passing affinity for Mr. Wickham, Bridget becomes involved with the modern Wickham, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Yet, the reason for each cad’s wandering attention differs between the novel and this adaptation. While Mr. Wickham is primarily motivated by wealth, seeks out women like Georgiana who have a large dowry, and is persuaded to marry Lydia only after Mr. Darcy effectively bribes him, the obstacle between Daniel’s affection and attention and Bridget is potentially her weight. In fact, when Bridget catches Daniel with another woman who notes “I thought you said she was thin,” the other woman, who functions primarily as a foil for Bridget in the plot, seems to imply that Bridget is inferior due to her perceived unacceptable weight. In doing so, she puts herself in competition with Bridget for male validation and attention. This scene especially highlights the parallel between the hierarchy of dowries, which in large part determined a woman’s desirability in the Regency era (particularly to a cad like Wickham), and the persisting perception of female attractiveness as both a currency and a competition.
At the end of Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Darcy marries a relatively poor Elizabeth and at the end of Bridget Jones’s Diary, Mark Darcy chooses to be with a “fat,” uncomposed Bridget. So, while the movie itself presents an endearing and timeless love story, its critical parallel of the currency of perceived attractiveness (largely vested in weight) with dowry is marred by the fact that what is deemed “fat” by some characters in the film (including Bridget herself) is actually a perfectly normal, healthy weight. That said, Bridget’s weight does not seem to be a concern to Mark Darcy himself, just as he is not concerned about Bridget’s propensity to speak without thinking or the behavior of her family when he attempts to assuage her embarrassment after an incident by telling her: “I like you very much just as you are.” Similarly to how the issue of dowry or the Bennett family’s lack of decorum is ultimately overpowered by Mr. Darcy’s love for Elizabeth, Mark Darcy is unaffected by more superficial considerations in his feelings for Bridget. In other words, the movie does ultimately provide critique of superficiality and pressures on women in terms of perceived attractiveness.
All that said, the movie elicits critique for its subtextual fat phobia and its compliance with ostensibly innocuous gendered conventions. For example, Bridget’s own friends are dubious that Mark Darcy could really like her as she is, and one asks: “Just as you are? Not thinner, not cleverer, not bigger breasts and a slightly smaller nose?” Their incredulity at his genuine feelings for her evidences their own internalization of superficiality, while it troublingly celebrates Mark Darcy as being exceptional simply because he doesn’t objectify women. Further still, at the end of the movie, Bridget’s seeming confidence and acceptance of herself in the film correlates with the true beginning of her romance with Darcy. Although the heteronormative trope of a woman’s happiness or perceived success being dependent upon having a relationship is certainly not unique to Bridget Jones’s Diary, as it appears in many rom-coms and certainly Hallmark Christmas movies, it still requires its own unpacking. In addition, despite the fact that Mark Darcy is never concerned with Bridget’s weight in the film, no other character’s criticism of it is explicitly challenged, which is troublesome given that Renée Zellweger was obviously at a very healthy weight for the role. As a whole, Bridget Jones’s Diary succeeds in presenting the heart-warming, romantic narrative audience members have come to expect from rom-coms, Christmas films, and Austen adaptations alike, yet any feminist critique of superficiality and female beauty standards is ultimately stifled by the gendered romantic conventions it perpetuates.