The Jew in Bridget Jones
Helen Fielding’s heroine isn’t Jewish, but her internal conflict is acutely familiar to Jewish women
Oh, my friends, the Mother Abbess from The Sound of Music was right: When God closes a door, he really does open a window. Smash may be gone, and my resulting existential crisis not quite solved, but all is not lost.
Bridget Jones is coming back!
U.K. publisher Jonathan Cape announced Tuesday that Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, the long-awaited follow-up to Helen Fielding’s international mega-best-sellers Bridget Jones’s Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, will be published in October of this year, and I am v.v. excited indeed. (Especially since, due to the advent of Amazon, I will not, as last time, actually have to physically fly to London to pick up my copy. Yes, I did that.)
A kind of confessional ur-blogger, prone to measuring out her life not in coffee spoons but in cigarettes, glasses of chardonnay, and pounds gained and lost, Bridget was often seen as the first “chick lit” heroine, the stone that started the avalanche of glossy-covered beach reads of women’s midriffs pushing strollers filled with shoes (or whatever it was that Lena Dunham said that pissed Jennifer Weiner off so much). The Bridget of Fielding’s novels however, is far smarter, archer, sadder, and more self-aware than the army of dizzy shopaholics tripping through major urban centers in her name (not to mention the Bridget played by Renee Zellwegger in several layers of stunt-pudge, whose inability to perform simple physical tasks such as walking down a hallway or spooning food into her mouth without falling ass-first into the camera made you wonder if the filmmakers were being coy about a serious mental handicap). Unlike her sister-in-zeitgeist Carrie Bradshaw, Bridget sees the fashion industry for the materialistic narshkeit it is. The few brief shopping scenes in the novel focus mainly on the peculiarly feminine hell of space-age foundation garments and communal dressing rooms; the only brand name dropped with any regularity is Cadbury. As for her love life, Bridget seems less motivated by the search for a rich, handsome Master of the Universe to build her a walk-in closet/complete her, than by the very human fear that she will die unloved and alone (and say it with me, “eaten by Alsatians.” Does anyone know how the Alsatians were supposed to get into her apartment? That was never clear.).
As for her career, Bridget Jones is not exactly Sheryl Sandberg, nor is she one of those shockingly capable women peopling rom-coms who run their restaurants/homey independent bookshops/wedding planning companies with terrifying efficiency. (Hi, Meg Ryan.) As in her love life, she tries, she often fails, and when she does, she both feels her failure keenly and can clearly identify the ludicrous society pressure that is making her feel that way. She’s both a perfect filter for and a keen observer of how the expectation for women to “have it all” can make it seem like you’ve got none of it.
Bridget Jones isn’t Jewish—we don’t have mandatory turkey curry buffets on Christmas day at which one is expected to wear a snowman sweater, thank God—but her internal conflict is one that is acutely familiar to generations of Jewish women. Plucky, sarcastic Brits may have been at the forefront of the great 1990s “women’s fiction” revival, but plucky, sarcastic, and frankly feminist Jews—your Rona Jaffes, your Alix Kates Shulmans—were at the vanguard of the last one, writing fiction about the Problem That Has No Name (which one of their own, of course, was the first to give one to).
And why not? The technical definition of ambivalence is not, as it is popularly understood, “vacillating apathy” but wanting two, often diametrically opposed, things so badly that a kind of dynamic inertia sets it—the irresistible force and the immovable object. Who better to understand that than women who come from a people who have traditionally deified professional and intellectual achievement while also seeing child-bearing as a semi-sacred obligation to fortify the genetic coffers of a dwindling tribe? Fail to have kids and you’re letting the team down; fail in your career and not only will you be the first to be rounded up when they come for us, you’ll spend the rest of your life chopping gefilte fish and watching your triceps slowly melt into fleshy wings while you wonder why the kids don’t call.
Of course, the problem, as Bridget Jones’s Diary so wisely and hilariously illustrates it, isn’t that women—Jewish or otherwise—decided they wanted to be the doctors and lawyers they were supposed to marry, nor is it that some of them may have kids and decide maybe they don’t need to work 80 hours a week after all. The problem is that we’re made—that we make ourselves—feel like failures simply for making the decisions one has to make in life, because somewhere down the line we decided having it all means all having the same things: a stellar career, an adoring partner, and three brilliant, Ivy League-bound children who will carry on the family legacy of excellence whether they want to or not. And by putting this pressure uniquely on women, we forget that not all men become partners at the firm, not all men find their soulmates, not all men have—or want—kids.
As women, and as Jews, we’re driven make it all happen. But as people, sometimes we have to let ourselves sit back and say, you know, two (or even one) out of three is still v. v. good.
For more from Tablet magazine’s pop-culture columnist Rachel Shukert, click here.
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