This weekend in the Guardian, Professor Sarah Churchwell confronts the ghost of Bridget Jones and the persistent stereotype of the dismal singleton. Her column gets it so right that I was tempted just to reproduce it here in its entirety. But Churchwell broached so many issues—about the power of stereotyping and singledom—that I wanted to discuss it in greater detail.
Churchwell’s elegant rant begins:
A survey this week – misleadingly called a “study” by some reports – found that of 2,000 [British] women in their mid-20s, a majority of those polled felt that 26 was the ideal age for marriage, and hoped to have children a year later. The implication was clear to editors across the country: Bridget Jones is back! One paper explained that young women don’t want to end up “like author Helen Fielding’s fictional singleton”. But this isn’t the return of Bridget Jones so much as the dogged survival of an insistent stereotype: women need to get married young and have babies. And judging by this survey, young women are listening.
The editor of More magazine, which commissioned the poll, commented, “Young women today no longer want to be party girls throughout their 20s only to reach their early 30s and find they’ve loved and lost Mr Right. They don’t want to fall into the Bridget Jones syndrome and view their future through an empty wine glass.”
“Times are changing fast,” the report concluded. Changing times may sound like progress; sadly, this report represents anything but. Careers, evidently, have no place in women’s plans: girls just want to have fun, and then marry Mr Right, so they’d better not wait too long or he’ll slip through their fingers.
More, incidentally, bills itself as “A comprehensive resource and community for women over 40.” Part of their over-40 community spirit appears to be snarking on young women’s career and marriage choices. It’s the same chauvinist faux-concern women have been fed for years: we want you to be happy, but if you prioritize your own fulfillment you’ll wind up miserable and aloooooone. Congrats, More magazine—you win the gold-medal for Undermining.
Bridget Jones’s Diary—the novel based on Helen Fielding’s newspaper columns—was published in 1996, the year I gradated from college, moved to New York and began climbing the career ladder. Bridget was a decade older than me, but I identified with her in an aspirational way. Bridget was like the big sister whose strappy heels you might borrow for a night out; I tried on her dating-work-friendship stories as I started to create my own.
I was one of many. Churchwell points out:
Women who identified with Bridget Jones in the 90s didn’t view her story as a cautionary tale; she represented not what they feared, but how they felt. Which, by the way, wasn’t miserable, or desperate, although occasionally lonely.
Here’s a newsflash: men are occasionally lonely, too. Where are the surveys asking them what they think the ideal age is to marry and have babies? Personally, I’m waiting for the “study” that shows Ms Right is so busy pursuing her career that Mr Right needs stop playing his Wii and go find her.
Right on. I’ve harped on this plenty, but it bears repeating. Society treats women as though it’s our highest calling to make a man want to marry us—even if that requires giving up on education, career and financial security. It’s never his responsibility to drop everything to find the right woman, or to accept her for who she is. Nor does anyone expect him to be tormented by the possibility of winding up alooooone. The stereotype of the desperate singleton with the empty wine glass and cats and a pint of ice cream is reserved only for the despised single female.
The problem, again, is stereotyping. Asking “What do women want?” presumes that all women want the same thing – and the answer assumed by those who are not women continues to revolve around marriage, the home and children.
Sadly, due to the inevitable creep of stereotyping, the answer isn’t just “assumed by those who are not women.” It’s assumed by women too. Stereotyping single women is a misogynist pile-on that women also participate in, including Bridget’s creator, Helen Fielding.
Unfortunately, the evolution of Bridget Jones’s story has been all too representative of the way “times are changing”. In the first novel and film, Bridget was insecure, yes, but surrounded by loving friends, enjoying her work, and learning self-respect; her gentle embarrassments were endearing.
By the second [Bridget Jones] film, in keeping with the dismal, downward spiral of recent “chick flicks”…Bridget’s character was forced into increasingly degrading situations, in which her behaviour is borderline deranged. She has far less investment in her career, and is so desperate to preserve her relationship that she constantly humiliates herself. By 2005, creator Helen Fielding was writing columns in which 40-something Bridget was now desperate for a baby; persistent rumours of a third Bridget Jones film presume that her biological clock will drive the plot – and doubtless she’ll be interpreted as an object lesson once more.
This dismal downward spiral–and the fact that I find Renee Zellweger incredibly irritating–is why I gave up on Bridget long ago. Helen Fielding’s vision of Bridget’s life went from a knowing, funny narration of an urban professional’s highs and lows to nothing but the lows, as her heroine became increasingly pathetic, neurotic and baby-hungry. Fielding went from inviting her women readers to identify with Bridget to inviting them to mock Bridget and to fear turning out like her. It’s as though Fielding—and Hollywood—simply couldn’t imagine a different future for Bridget: if she was single and working by her mid-thirties, she was doomed to be a joke, a fool, a lonely, regret-filled cautionary tale. It’s no wonder that the later adventures of Bridget Jones failed to sell the way the original did.
Of course, if you choose not to be like Bridget, you’re no more assured of happiness or societal approval. Fictional women with successful careers who deliberately choose not marry may not be presented as pathetic and pitiable, but they are inevitably scorned in other ways:
Meanwhile recent films such as The Devil Wears Prada, The Ugly Truth and The Proposal vilify career women as frigid and uptight, and anywhere from controlling to malevolent.
This is why Harpy trips to the movies often result in muttered obscenities during the previews for rom-coms. It’s nearly impossible to find a comedy with female characters that’s not based on one of two premises: desperate single gal must cutely entrap a willing male or cold-hearted career bitch must reform herself in order to find love. PhDork has gotten to the point where she can express her utter disdain for such movies simply by frowning and flaring her nostrils. Pilgrim Soul and I still resort to outright cussing. I also bounce up and down in my seat a little. You may not want to sit next to us at your local multiplex.
Does it matter? The standard defence is that these stories are merely stories, not a treatise on contemporary womanhood. But in aggregate, that’s just what they are. It’s no coincidence that a film such as last year’s He’s Just Not That Into You began life as a self-help book: these stories are advice manuals, and women – and men – are listening. Just ask the young women who’ve decided to get married 10 years younger than they might have done a decade ago.
Well…I’m not as convinced as Churchwell that stereotypes can abolish the advances women have made. The constant toxic drip-drip of stereotypes and double standards often gnaws away at the pleasure we should be taking in our achievements.That can leave women feeling angry, confused and resentful–and rightly so. But in practical terms, are the survey’s young women who want to be married by 26 actually doing that en masse?
The data for the United States, at least, says that the “play dumb and marry young lest you wind up alooooone” message is not gaining much traction. Education and work are more a priority for women than ever before, and more women now graduate from college than men. An increasing number of women are out-earning their husbands, who fail to shun them for such temerity. And professional, educated women—far from being discarded for their frigid, career-bitch ways—are getting and staying married in greater numbers than their less-educated counterparts, even as they are marrying significantly later than their foremothers did. The tired notion that a woman will wind up alone if she doesn’t mate before her mid-20s certainly exists, but the data would indicate it’s more a platitude than a reality.
Despite this, stereotypes derive staying power from their familiarity. Stereotypes are hard to uproot, and they grow lots of low-hanging fruit for the entertainment industry. It’s easier to create entertainment—be it novels, TV shows or movies–that play into existing stereotypes than it is to come up with an alternative. With few exceptions, Hollywood–and publishers, to a lesser extent–are so lazy and risk-averse that they keep recycling the same threadbare plots and stock characters. That invariably leads to a shucking, jiving gallery of bros, hos, ditzes and bitches, with maybe just a smidge of empowerfulment in the form of cocktails and casual sex.
Sarah Churchwell takes a very dim view of what results:
Social psychologists – in actual studies in the US and Europe – have identified a process called “stereotype activation”, in which people characterised by a demeaning stereotype (whether sexist, racist, or any other) unconsciously fulfil it. Many experiments have shown that when a group of women and men taking a maths test are told that they will perform equally well, they do. But when women are reminded of the gender stereotypes around maths, they significantly underperform. This is the power of suggestion – and, crucially, the women weren’t verbally abused, they were just patronised. What they were basically told is: “I’m sure you girls will do just fine.” And you know what? They didn’t.
I’m not sure the data supports rock-bottom pessimism. There’s no doubt that women are constantly receiving and absorbing harmful or unhelpful messages, including the pernicious “you’ll be aloooooone” one. The truth is, women have always been assailed by such negativity; there’s been no time in the history of womankind that we have not been the target of manipulative messages and pernicious stereotypes.
The radical achievements we’ve made, especially over the last 100 years, put paid to the old stereotypes of women as dumb, silly and helpless. New ones have sprung up to accomodate the cultural shift–the barren career-bitch is purely a 20th century invention—but despite this, women’s achievements are accelerating, not stalling. Looking at women’s actions, rather than society’s conventions, might prove instructive for those tempted to trot out Bridget Jones as a scare tactic–and as proof that women can’t win.