I have a hard time relating to romantic comedies.
This doesn't mean I don't like them; I love them. I love their cheesy wedding toasts, their Technicolor wardrobes, their stubborn belief in the power of coincidence. I love their rose-colored glasses, the way they can transform anything — from a filthy city to an awkward family dinner — into something sparkly and exciting.
I even love the impassioned speeches in public places that end with two people smashing their faces together, just like you knew they would all along.
But when a romantic comedy asks me to imagine myself as its heroine, I inevitably shrug it off. The genre's "hapless" female leads might trip on a curb here and there, or stumble into a shallow pool of self-doubt, but for the most part, any woman who ultimately finds love in a romantic comedy is sunny-cheeked, bright-eyed, iridescent.
When she brushes back her hair to make eye contact with some square-jawed man, his immediate attraction just makes sense. Of course he's drawn to her; she's fucking adorable.
Bridget Jones is none of those things.
Author Helen Fielding's reimagining of Pride and Prejudice — published in 1996 and brought to the big screen in 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, 15 years ago — casts Jane Austen's protagonist as a bitter 32-year-old London singleton. She's no less sharp than Elizabeth Bennet, but she's more jagged, and definitely more bitter.
Played to acerbic perfection by Renée Zellweger — who even earned an Oscar nomination for the role — Bridget is smarter than most people in the room, but still hates herself. She can throw an expertly calibrated insult in your face with impressive speed, but not before taking a giant gulp of wine and a contemptuous drag off her fifth cigarette of the night. She obsesses over her weight, drools over terrible men, and spends many a night getting drunk with her equally miserable friends and sinking into her couch in a fit of self-loathing.
Bridget Jones is the romantic comedy heroine I'd always wanted.
Bridget Jones's imperfections make her relatable at times when I feel like a walking disaster
When I moved to Los Angeles in 2011, I was 22 years old and had no idea what I was doing. I'd never been to LA; I didn't even have any friends there. I was taking a wild stab at something new.
As I navigated an unfamiliar, smoggy city, I was hired to work on a web series that was trying to be The Daily Show, but about pop culture and in five minutes or less. My bosses were awful, but my team was scrappy and united against them. I briefly felt like I'd found somewhere to belong in a foreign place.
Then in September, the Fox sitcom New Girl premiered. Though the show has since become a friendly and fairly bonkers hangout comedy, in its early days it was about Zooey Deschanel playing an awkward, stumbling jolt of sunshine who could barely walk in a straight line without falling head over heels and landing in some ridiculous misunderstanding. A rash of bright yellow billboards with Deschanel posing in a smile and a sundress spread throughout my new city, screaming "ADORKABLE!" at various intervals throughout my commute.
Around the same time I made the mistake of getting bangs, and a new office joke was born.
"Hey, New Girl," my boss would say as he walked by my desk, smirking at my glasses and sundress.
"You're just so adorkable," a co-worker would say as I sloshed coffee onto my desk and scrambled to save my computer from the spreading flood.
And whether I was tripping on the carpet or just sitting quietly at my desk, anyone and everyone would sing-song the New Girl theme at me with a grin: "Who's that girl?"
Fuck if I knew. But whatever competence I had shown before, they suddenly seemed to have me pegged — and the constant comparisons to a character defined by her inability to function didn't feel especially flattering.
Looking back, I don't blame my old co-workers for teasing me about a superficial similarity to a TV character, even if I don't have enormous blue eyes that could lull an animated rabbit into a cozy coma. I trip on things. I lock myself out of my apartment almost as regularly as I break or lose important possessions like my cellphone. Ninety percent of my attempts at cooking are best described as just that — "attempts" — and I usually come away with scalded hands.
One time, I wound up involved in a lengthy text thread with someone I thought was a new friend, only to learn several months later that I'd been messaging some guy I'd gone on one drunken date with. It was hilarious and deeply embarrassing, all at once. And when I told friends the story, none of them were surprised to hear I'd accidentally catfished myself.
After years of floundering and even accidentally setting myself on fire (thrice), any given day is more noteworthy when I don't end up in a situation that would be better off in a wacky sitcom.
But whenever my life looks a little ragged, or at least not as polished as I’d like, it could be because I literally tripped up the stairs this morning, or it could be because I'm feeling a bit lost and hoping I’ll have some epiphany that guides me toward a steadier track. And in those latter moments, I don't feel adorable; I feel like a hopeless mess that needs fixing, whether or not it's actually true.
In those first few lonely years in LA, I turned to romantic comedies more than ever. They used to be comfort food, full of pretty people and happy endings, but stopped feeling so reassuring as I struggled to figure out what I wanted to do, where I stood, and what I thought of myself. For the lightly bumbling heroines of bubblegum romances I grew up with, tripping into disaster was just a speed bump on the way to true happiness — not a way of life, as it was increasingly feeling like for me.
So, for better and for worse, I turned away from the glittering escapism of a perky makeover montage, and found myself in the wine-soaked misadventures of Bridget Jones.
Bridget Jones's Diary upholds typical rom-com tropes, but with a bracing dose of reality
Before Bridget Jones's Diary debuted, it's not like I'd never seen a romantic comedy with a stereotypically unlikable woman at its center. Sandra Bullock has played an escalating series of tightly wound rom-com protagonists over the years, and if you count Sex and the City as a rom-com (and I do), Sarah Jessica Parker's Carrie Bradshaw was one of television and film's greatest narcissists.
Today, movies like Sleeping With Other People and Bridesmaids — and even television shows like You're the Worst and The Mindy Project — explicitly take on rom-com tropes only to twist them into something rawer, more accessibly human.
But looking back at my favorite romantic comedies, most star a New Girl–esque "mess" whose problems rarely get worse than a dropped latte or botched karaoke performance. Even Nora Ephron's fantastic, flawed heroines — usually portrayed by a neurotic Meg Ryan — tend to have their more important shit together, save for that one annoying guy in their periphery who keeps insisting on being delightful.
In all the twinkly popcorn romances I watched in the 1990s and 2000s, Bridget Jones would have been the cynical sidekick to Kate Hudson's glowing magazine columnist, or just a punchline in the background as a pair of dimples saved some sad-sack man from himself (see: Love Actually).
Bridget Jones was cynical and unhappily single, the type of desperate single gal who was so often employed to warn the waffling protagonist of exactly how bleak things could get if she didn't land the man. In so many other movies, Bridget would have been less of a character than a cautionary tale.
But in her own starring vehicle, Bridget has room to encompass her more unflattering traits and be the heroine. She's not just dispensing advice to some more put-together friend; she's juggling men and insecurities in a way that feels real because of all her sloppy imperfections.
So when the dashing Mark Darcy tells Bridget that he likes her, just as she is, her friends don't tell her she deserves Darcy's affection. They don't tell her that she's brilliant and beautiful and so of course he likes her. Instead, they just gape at her, stunned.
"Just as you are?" one finally asks. "Not thinner or cleverer or anything?"
Bridget shakes her head no, and it's at that moment that I always remember why why Bridget Jones's Diary is such a revelation for the romantic comedy genre, and why she means so much to me as I keep trying to figure out my own self-worth.
Through all her self-doubt — which runs deep — Bridget still finds a way to laugh at herself, and ends up with far more self-respect than she started out with. She lands the guy, not because she's too adorable to resist. She's a romantic comedy heroine who earns her happy ending by becoming a better version of herself.
Bridget Jones can be a real, truly chaotic mess. But she's also a star — just as she is.