Watching “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is like going on a crash course in how far female comedy characters have come since Helen Fielding’s creation first appeared 21 years ago. She helped pave the way for the introspective comic heroine, but to modern audiences, the dappy, self-deprecating Bridget seems quaintly naïve.
Today’s funny girl is brash, unapologetic and sexually voracious. Next to Hannah Horvath, Lena Dunham’s character in “Girls”, or the eponymous heroine of “Fleabag”, a recent comedy series by British writer and actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the well-meaning 43-year-old looks sweetly out of touch. Watching Hannah show off her glorious, tattooed nakedness, or Fleabag give her desperately unhappy sister a “Burrower” vibrator as a birthday present (“it’s half price ’cos it’s relentless”) you realise gratefully how much the presentation of women has changed in mainstream culture. Unlike Bridget, these millennial singletons are neither loveable nor particularly ambitious. They don’t want to get married, they don’t really want jobs, they don’t smuggle their flesh into Spanx and they don’t need men – or the viewer – to like them.
The appeal of the third, surprisingly funny, film in the lucrative Bridget Jones franchise is largely nostalgic: even those of us who, back in the 1990s, were infuriated by Bridget’s calorie-counting and flabby girl power, can sit back and indulge her foibles, reflecting on how far we have come in the past two decades. The scriptwriters are careful – slightly too careful – to acknowledge how much the world has changed, shoehorning contemporary feminist debates into the narrative with gusto. Bridget’s new work pal, a glamorous news anchor called Miranda (Sarah Solemani), is a Tinder-swiping hedonist in her thirties unafraid to let us see her moustache being waxed; her wise-cracking gynaecologist (Emma Thompson) is a second-wave feminist and single mum; while her boss Alice (Kate O’Flynn) is a sardonic, ruby-lipped twenty-something with a top-knot, surrounded by a coterie of bearded hipsters obsessed with branding, audience-ratings and cats that look like Hitler.
Its plot is as predictable as it is commercial, conventional and conservative. Sure, Bridget attends antenatal classes in a makeshift polyamorous family, sitting proudly on a birthing ball between the two possible fathers of her child – the hunky yet sensitive millionaire dating guru Jack Quant (Patrick Dempsey) and the stalwart but emotionally stilted alpha male Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). But, despite the fact that (semi-spoiler alert) it teases you into thinking it’s going to plump for a relatively progressive conclusion, Bridget ends up right back where she wanted to be: in a white dress in Austen-land with a baby boy on her hip. It stays true to Renee Zellweger's finely crafted character, but the whole thing is as challenging to the status quo as Elizabeth Bennett on tranquilisers. Still, it does what it says on the tin. “At least I have integrity”, Bridget shouts triumphantly when she gets sacked by the “inane” Alice.
But one of the more unexpected elements of “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is that, for all its dubious gender politics, it sheds an unflattering light on the current trend for seemingly progressive entertainment by, about and (predominantly) for women. “Girls” and “Fleabag” may be heralded as trailblazing female comedy, but they also embody the subtle failures of feminism. For all Lena Dunham’s brave attempts to confront body fascism, “Girls” is dominated by painfully underweight and exceptionally beautiful actresses. Much more problematic is the fact that Hannah turns out to be very different from the carefree, emancipated woman she seems at the beginning. Her rebellious spirit and unconventional attitudes gradually reveal themselves as a psychological problem: she’s not radical, she’s deeply unhappy. Rather depressingly, it’s the show’s male characters like Adam (Adam Driver) and Ray (Alex Karpovsky) who are in fact its most sympathetic and moral.
Similarly, “Fleabag” appears to be a refreshing portrayal of a 30-year-old woman with a healthy sexual appetite. But we slowly discover that she doesn’t like sex “for the feeling” but because she wants to be wanted, and is tormented by dark secrets. Her libido is in the end a pathology not a pleasure. Of course neither Hannah nor Fleabag are intended to be role models – and why should they be? And Waller-Bridge’s spiky and sophisticated clowning is in many ways a response to the privileged navel-gazing that Lena Dunham is now frequently criticised for. In one of the more knowing moments in “Fleabag” the lead character says, “I have a horrible feeling that I’m a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can’t even call herself a feminist.”
Nevertheless it is infuriating that when we finally see an interesting, funny, promiscuous woman on screen she has to be punished. As important as it is to portray unhappiness and failure, where are the female comedy characters not consumed by self-loathing and shame? What we need on our screens now is an unapologetically rebellious heroine as loveable as Bridget.