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Ordination, Dominican Province of St. Joseph

Bridget Jones, Vocation, and the "Problem" of Singleness

Adulthood: Issue Three

Carly Henderson

Few films within the rom-com genre top 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, and few reveal the elements at play within the “problem” of singleness so directly.

Based on the popular and acclaimed 1996 novel of the same title by Helen Fielding, Bridget Jones’s Diary follows a year in the life of “singleton” Bridget Jones, a 30-something Londoner navigating personal vices, romantic relationships, friendships, career, and self-image. It’s loosely based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, with Bridget (played to perfection by Renée Zellweger) being the Elizabeth Bennet of the story, Mark Darcy as the obvious Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth, who, ironically, played Fitzwilliam Darcy in the incomparable 1996 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice), and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, in rare villain form) standing in as the George Wickham character. Like Lizzie Bennet, Bridget has an initial, awkward run-in with the aloof Mark Darcy, instigated by her socially unaware mother. Bridget later—and shamefully—falls for Daniel Cleaver, who claims that he and Mark Darcy were best friends until Mark stole his fiancée. The rest of the movie follows the slow unraveling of that lie, as Bridget realizes that Mark is, in fact, the man for her.

Unlike Lizzie Bennet, Bridget is not, shall we say, your typical Austen heroine. Virtue and self-possession are not her strong points. She is, as Mark Darcy initially and unkindly describes her at a New Year’s turkey curry buffet, a “verbally incontinent spinster who smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and dresses like her mother.” This description is not entirely inaccurate; in the following scene, Bridget deals with his rejection alone and drunk in her apartment, watching Frasier and pathetically lip-syncing to “All By Myself.” Her attempts to take control of her life focus on losing weight, reducing her cigarette and alcohol consumption, and avoiding relationships with dysfunctional men—all of which she never quite accomplishes. We would, of course, never see Lizzie Bennet like this, even in a modern context.

Also, unlike Lizzie Bennet, Bridget is unhappily single. Lizzie declares that nothing but the deepest love could persuade her into matrimony, and somehow, the reader knows she would be content even if she fails to find that love. We do not get this same sense from Bridget. Bridget hates her singleness, one reason being that everyone around her irritates her by asking why she’s still single, as if it’s her fault. In several relatable scenes to anyone who has been single into their 30s and beyond, it’s clear that there is a certain pressure put on her by society to be married. Another reason is that the rest of her life is a bit of a disaster—her parents have separated and her job is a dead-end, among other things. And it is also true that she is unhappily single because she wants a relationship and does not have one. While at first it seems like she will take any man walking—as evidenced by her relationship with Daniel Cleaver when her self-respect goes utterly out the window—she, in the end, is not completely desperate. She wants something extraordinary, something worth giving her life to, although she does not fully realize this until she is loved, simply as she is, by Mark Darcy.

When Bridget Jones came out in the early 2000s, feminists were a bit torn on how to assess her. Some thought it problematic that she is so focused on her weight and is a bit hopeless in achieving her goals.[1] But most found it even more problematic that she is unhappily single and seemingly needs a man to be happy.[2] Some saw it as a weakness: her happiness lies in herself, and her task should only be to discover that! We see here a presupposed dichotomy: either Bridget needs only herself and the will to forge her own destiny to be happy, or Bridget needs a man to be happy. If these are the two options, then of course it should be the ‘either’, not the ‘or.’

Incidentally, we see this dichotomy reflected in recent comments made by Bridget’s creator herself. At the Hay Festival in 2017, Helen Fielding said that, if Bridget’s story had been set today, it would have been quite different, precisely because there is significantly less societal pressure to be married. As such, there is more social acceptance of singletons as well as less traditional social roles. “The age of the singleton is over,” the article from The Telegraph begins, and, it concludes, Bridget “would be fine” today—that is, she would have been happily single. In other words, her singleness would not have been a “problem” solvable only through a committed, monogamous relationship. In this way, Fielding seems to affirm the dichotomy and rule in favor of the principle that one needs only independence and self-possession to be happy. This admission from the story’s creator is surprising, to say the least, not simply because it seems to forget its own Austenian roots and misrepresents the “problem” of the story, but even more so, because it does not coincide with Bridget’s character at all. It is to say that the desire to marry is merely sociological, existing from the pressure a couple-centric culture puts on women (but, n.b., not men, according to this framework), rather than something ontological. And, if it is sociological, and necessarily imposed on the person, then the only way to be free of it is through asserting one’s own creative power in return. But to affirm this, as Fielding does, reduces Bridget’s desire for a meaningful relationship simply to societal expectation, and this weakens Bridget’s character. It is to say that Bridget’s unhappiness is the result of her own misuse of choice and intention, her inability to be independent from the winds of society. This narrative is a reduction of Bridget herself and misses the actual point of her story.

The truth, however, is that this dichotomy—either Bridget needs only her independence, or Bridget needs a man—is a false one. In fact, it’s neither. Bridget wants a relationship and does not want to be single, not simply because society tells her to feel that way, but because the desire is ontological, arising from her very nature. Even so, Bridget’s journey lies not in simply finding any man who will do—if it was, she would have stayed with “office scoundrel” Daniel Cleaver. Instead, Bridget’s journey is the unraveling of her life, and Mark Darcy gazing at her within it and simply loving her as she is. He assures her, “I like you very much, just as you are”—not the better version of Bridget, but Bridget in all her imperfections. After this declaration, we begin to see a transformation within Bridget. She does not immediately fall into his arms. Instead, his gaze brings order to her life, allowing her to know herself better and, because of this, gives her the confidence to walk away from Daniel Cleaver. Only after this does she begin to recognize her love for Darcy and, in relationship with him, realize her heart’s desire. The point is that, in being seen and loved by the other, we come to know ourselves and are able to thus meaningfully give ourselves in love. The gaze from another—something we can never give ourselves—allows us to realize our nature.

Even so, the reductive cultural logic we see at work in Fielding’s remarks is a response to the suffering that singleness can bring to the person. Indeed, the reduction of the single person’s desire for marriage to something socially imposed on the person is pervasive in gender theory today.[3] From this point of view, society has long been centered around the heterosexual couple and the family. In fact, culture is so centered on this principle that anyone who does not enter into marriage and family life is doomed to exist on the margins of society, devalued, misunderstood, and without ample opportunity to live freely and creatively. In this way, singleness becomes a “problem” to overcome. This causes a profound suffering in single people, and as such, cannot be good for society at large. The solution to this “problem,” they propose, is not to marry, but to remove the principle of the couple and the family as the cornerstone of society precisely so that societal expectation does not impinge upon the freedom and opportunity of every person. This move promises to let every individual person simply be as one is by creating oneself unencumbered by societal expectations. This reveals a vision of the human person as free, autonomous, and fundamentally alone, as one who can enter into relationships (or not) and live one’s life as one chooses. In this way, the “problem” of singleness is revealed to be non-existent after all. While the validity of this anthropology is debatable, what is important to see is that it is an attempt to mitigate and solve the suffering of the single person, and in that way, it is very sympathetic. Why have a culture centered on marriage and family if that means that those who, for whatever reason, cannot or choose not to marry are excluded and seemingly denied what should be theirs—namely, happiness and fulfillment? In this way, it is a movement to solve that injustice.

This cultural logic leaves its mark within Christian circles and does so primarily in two ways. On one hand, the feminist claim that a woman’s happiness should not rest in a man alienates women who want nothing more in life than to be married and have children. In an article in For the Church, Andrea Burke writes that, in her work with young women, she finds that they are embarrassed of their desire to marry, have children, and take care of a home. “They don’t want to say it,” she writes, “for fear that admitting it will make them look weak.” The cultural narrative that tells women to pursue a meaningful career and to put oneself before others is so pervasive that, Burke writes, “when a 21-year-old girl sits across the table from me and tells me that she wants to be a mother, she blushes and gives a thousand caveats as to why she knows it’s not the optimal choice.” This embarrassment is a problem for Burke because it effectively silences and devalues the experience and desire of these young women for something that is beautiful, inherently and infinitely valuable, and ontological.

On the other hand, the culture’s aim to solve the suffering of the single person is also evident in the practice of the Church, and this in two opposing ways. First, some speak to the suffering of the single person and offer hope in describing the single years as just an in-between time to endure as best one can until one inevitably finds one’s vocation. While all certainly hope for this happy resolution, there is subtly hidden within this message an assurance, even a guarantee, that someday they will no longer be single.[4] Second, some propose the vocation to the single life as a way of affirming the fruitfulness and dignity of being single. Both of these approaches, in their own way, seek to address and heal the suffering of uncertainty and loneliness that single persons often experience. Yet, in doing so, both in their own way do not solve or take away the suffering. In fact, they can make it worse, precisely because both miss the point. Just as we saw earlier the false dichotomy at work in Bridget Jones, so too we see it here: either happiness lies in one’s independence, or it lies solely in a romantic relationship with another. But again, both of these miss the point altogether.

The cultural and ecclesial attempts to mitigate and solve the suffering of the single person are, in some sense, commendable, but, in the end, ineffectual. This is because they ultimately ignore, bracket, or silence the suffering of the single person. These attempts force the single person to ignore the question at the heart of their suffering by essentially denying its existence. That question arises from the fact that every human person is made in and for love, and our deepest desire and vocation is to give ourselves away definitively in love. When that desire is unmet, for whatever reason, it causes a profound suffering that cannot be solved or taken away. It is an ache that can be expressed in the question: “What if my desire for a totalizing love will be forever unmet?”—which is another way of asking, “What if God does not have a plan for me?” It is the question that remains, aches, and keeps us up at night. Whether in subtly promising the single person the fulfillment of their hoped-for vocation to marriage, or in claiming that singleness is an end in and of itself, one overlooks and disregards this question. Even so, the question remains, under the surface perhaps, yet quietly oppressive.

The mystery lies in that, as one keeps this painful question alive in the heart, the possibility of a peaceful, hopeful life is possible. One has to face the question that one wants simultaneously to avoid, for it is in willingly facing it that we truly begin to see Christ’s presence with us within the suffering, and this is the wellspring of hope. For it is through Christ’s presence with us in that suffering that the possibility of a happiness, despite the absence of our heart’s desire, can be glimpsed: within Christ’s presence we begin to see that we are always and already from, for, and with Another. That we are never alone and without love. That we can be entirely ourselves, in our brokenness and fear, before God, and discover his gaze upon us, where we are loved just as we are. Asking the question of God is also to put all in God’s hands in an act of hope, even if that act feels quite hopeless. It is to affirm and see Christ’s presence with us, a presence that culminates in a loving gaze upon us. The truthful asking of the question is a beautiful witness for the Church, in fact, a heroic witness in our day. This gaze of Christ can be mediated to us in many forms within the community of the Church. It gives strength and order within the heart, because it grounds one in the truth of who one is in Christ. It is this realization and conviction that allows us in freedom to embrace a vocation, to embrace the cross of anticipation for one’s vocation, or the cross of that vocation’s absence.

This experience of Christ’s gaze makes the suffering of the single person mysteriously meaningful and fruitful for all, and even joyful. It doesn’t necessarily take the suffering away, but it does place it within a meaningful framework. Yet, it cannot be arrived at without facing the ache at the heart of singleness. In fact, ignoring the question, as the cultural and ecclesial attempts we outlined above do, often only makes the pain existentially worse. To change the ontological framework and say, essentially, that singleness is not a suffering, is false balm that also is an affront to the experience and existential pain of many people. The key to “alleviate” the suffering is to start by seeing the suffering within singleness for what it is, not erase it.

This is what ultimately makes Bridget Jones so relatable. She suffers her singleness, like many of us do or have done, and sees it for what it is. One woman wrote in 2001 that, as a feminist, she was a bit embarrassed of her love for Bridget Jones, but it was not until she went to a book signing and there saw scores of all different types and ages of women that she became proud of her love of Bridget and was able to somehow reconcile it with her feminism. [5] And that is because Bridget’s experience—an experience of singleness, but also an experience of being loved and discovering and accepting oneself—corresponds with the experience of other women from all walks of life. But Bridget knows that simply “getting rid” of the suffering of her singleness by either getting together with anyone who will take her, or denying its existence, isn’t a true solution. Instead, she wrestles with it, accepts it, makes the best of it, and holds out hope for something extraordinary, precisely because she has the experience of being loved, imperfect as she is. This is what makes Bridget a character of depth and one that makes her so relatable and, in the end, admirable.

[1] Jessica Reaves, “I’m a Feminist—and I Love ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary,’” TIME, April 13, 2001. See also Kelley A. Marsh, “Contextualizing Bridget Jones,” College Literature 31, No. 1 (Winter, 2004): 52‒72; esp. 53‒56.

[2] See again Reaves, “I’m a Feminist.” See also, for example, Fiona Sturges, “Bridget Jones is back and—let’s face it—just a little bit thick,” The Telegraph, March 24, 2016,; and Suzanne Moore, “Why I hate Bridget Jones,” The Guardian, September 30, 2013.

[3] See Shelley Budgeon, “The ‘problem’ with single women: Choice, accountability and social change,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 33, no. 3 (2016): 401‒18.

[4] See, for example, Emily Stimpson, The Catholic Girl’s Survival Guide for the Single Years: The Nuts and Bolts of Staying Sane and Happy While Waiting for Mr. Right (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2012).

[5] Reaves, “I’m a Feminist.”

Carly Henderson received her PhD from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family in May 2019.

Carly Henderson is a wife and mother of two and a sessional instructor at Catholic Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia. She received her Ph.D. from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in 2019.

Posted on December 8, 2019

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