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Bridget Jones’s Baby chains its heroine to an outmoded vision of female success

The new belated sequel suggests a different sort of happy ending, then chickens out.

Bridget Jones makes a face at a birthday cupcake
My face during the final scene of Bridget Jones’s Baby.
Universal Pictures

The new Bridget Jones sequel Bridget Jones’s Baby begins with a pointed callback to one of the most memorable moments of the original 2001 film, when a wallowing Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) works out her romantic frustrations via a bombastic lip-sync to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself.” The new film, which checks back in with Bridget 15 years after this defining moment (11 years in movie time), finds our sloppy heroine in a similar wallow on the night of her 43rd birthday, when that fateful song comes on once again, tempting her into another highly feminized emotional display.

Ah, but things are different this time around, Bridget Jones’s Baby suggests. This time, rather than succumb to Ms. Dion’s siren song, Bridget — quite drunk, as is her wont — switches over to a much less loaded tune: “Jump Around.” Her subsequent sing-and-dance-along to House of Pain’s party anthem suggests our beloved, beleaguered protagonist has rejected the performative self-pity of her 32-year-old self and evolved into a mature woman who’s not beholden to society’s expectations regarding her romantic life.

Of course, Bridget Jones’s Baby still centers on one Bridget Jones, so this is not the case, and arguably cannot be the case.

And Bridget Jones’s Diary is still a romantic comedy — one of the most beloved entries in the genre, as a matter of fact — and the romantic comedy that allows its lead to eschew romance is as rare to find as a woman getting married after 40 (outdated societal expectations zing!).

But as a belated sequel more than a decade removed from the series’ last entry, Bridget Jones’s Baby had the opportunity to evolve its titular character into a different sort of character, one less beholden to the original film’s source material (Helen Fielding’s novel, itself a literary riff on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice) and more in line with modern notions of what constitutes personal success for women in the 21st century.

Now, no one was expecting a radical feminist version of Bridget Jones in 2016; that’s not in line with the series or the character that’s been established, and it’s not what most fans of the series probably wanted from this sequel. (In fact, Baby seems to pointedly poke fun at the idea of Bridget as a feminist figure, working in weirdly antagonistic jokes aimed at a Pussy Riot–esque punk group and a women’s rights march.)

But Bridget Jones’s Baby seems keenly aware of its gendered baggage, and feints several times toward the suggestion that perhaps there is something out there for Bridget other than the storybook, heteronormative, married-with-a-baby fantasy. In the end, it reneges on all these suggestions, but their presence in the film says much about how Bridget functions as a romantic hero in 2016.

(Major spoilers for Bridget Jones’s Baby ahead.)

The Bridget Jones series has always been about achieving romantic norms

What’s important to remember going into a Bridget Jones movie is that what Bridget wants more than anything is the standard nuclear family: handsome husband, doting children, the whole shebang. (She also ostensibly wants a career as a successful journalist, though the films are much wobblier in displaying her commitment to that goal.) The tension in the original film came from Bridget’s desperation to conform to these norms — a desperation born primarily of outside expectations, specifically those of her meddlesome mother, played by Gemma Jones.

Bridget’s charm is rooted in her inability to gracefully achieve what’s expected of her; she’s a bumbler, and her efforts to conform to the expectations of others usually end up with her embarrassing herself, and possibly others. The romantic linchpin of Bridget Jones’s Diary is the declaration by Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) that he likes Bridget “just as she is,” faults and all. Bridget ends up getting where she wants to be not by walking the path that’s expected of her, but by careening drunkenly all over the path before tumbling gracelessly over the finish line.

But however haphazardly Bridget navigates the path to a fairy-tale ending, she never actually diverts from that path. The finish line remains static, and the Bridget Jones films serve as checkpoints on the way to that finish: Diary ends with her happy and committed to Mark; its (dreadful) 2004 sequel The Edge of Reason ends with Bridget and Mark engaged; and Baby, after much tantalizing teasing to the contrary, ends with Bridget and Mark finally (finally!) married with a child.

But before it gives Bridget her preordained happy ending, Baby teases us with all the different paths she may have taken — and they’re all more interesting than where she actually ends up.

Bridget is most lovable when she’s not desperate

As Baby begins, Bridget is single once more, semi-reluctantly embracing her “spinsterhood” following a between-films dissolution of her engagement to Mark. She’s also a top producer at Hard News, skinnier than she’s ever been (this series’ fixation on Bridget’s weight remains one of its most obnoxious qualities), and living in a nicely updated version of her shabby-chic London flat, which has to have quintupled in value since 2001.

She has a new group of work friends, saucy 30-somethings who don’t seem to care that she’s unmarried and childless. They fill the fun-loving void left by her old group of friends, who have all contracted a serious case of the happy-families but still try to make space for Bridget in their crowded lives (mostly by asking her to be godmother to their children).

As she celebrates her 43rd birthday, Bridget is down about her single status, but she’s far from out: She’s got a great job, a banging body, good friends, etc. As this version of Bridget, Zellweger radiates confidence and mature beauty. It’s tremendously fun to see her translate the Bridget Jones character to her 40s; she’s still fundamentally Bridget — crass, a little shallow, a lot goofy — but there’s an earned confidence to her demeanor that’s a welcome evolution for the character.

Bridget Jones crowd-surfs at a music festival
Bridget Jones, living her best life.
Universal Pictures

Of course, this being a romantic comedy, Bridget can’t not care that she’s single — even if it weren’t a rom-com norm, that wouldn’t be true to the character, who’s always craved the love and approval of others. But there’s a pointed lack of desperation to Bridget’s singledom this time around. At the behest of her best work friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani), Bridget attempts to embrace the casual-sex lifestyle, hooking up with a nice, good-looking guy whose yurt she stumbles into during a music festival.

Given that this guy is played by rom-com staple Patrick Dempsey, it’s obvious he’s going to wind up being more than a one-yurt stand for Bridget. But the addition of Mr. Yurt (okay, his name is Jack) to Bridget’s orbit suggests perhaps she’s finally left the toxic triad of Mark Darcy, publishing playboy Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), and herself in the rearview. Maybe New Bridget has a future, one the 2001 version of herself (and her mother) never even envisioned.

Enter Mr. Darcy, once again

Three movies in, one of the weirdest, most frustrating aspects of the Bridget Jones series is its rigid adherence to the romantic-triangle model, even when that model is no longer useful to the narrative. The Bridget-Daniel-Mark trio works in the first film, in large part because it echoes the relationship between Elizabeth Bennett, George Wickham, and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. (In case you thought it was coincidence that Mark’s last name is Darcy, it is definitely not.)

Edge of Reason has too many flaws to get into here, but perhaps the biggest one is its determination to contrive a return to this same exact same romantic triangle. It saps the movie of whatever narrative tension it may have had, because we know Daniel will end up being a cad and Bridget will end up back with Mark — it’s just a matter of seeing how much she’ll humiliate herself on the way back into his arms. (Answer: a lot.)

With Hugh Grant declining to reprise his role as Daniel for Baby, the door was open for the series to tell a different kind of love story this time around, perhaps one more in keeping with the older, (relatively) wiser version of Bridget we see as the film opens. It has to be possible to tell a story about a woman in her 40s finding love and family without falling back on the same tired love triangle that plagued her 30s, right?

Turns out it isn’t, because there’s Colin Firth on the poster for Bridget Jones’s Baby, and there he is in the movie, assuring us that despite the addition of Jack to her story, Bridget will not stray from the romantic trajectory that was set in motion the moment she laid eyes on Mark’s reindeer jumper back in 2001. (Don’t worry, the reindeer jumper makes a cameo in Baby.)

That magic moment.

This time around, two men are competing not just for Bridget but for a paternal claim on the baby she carries, which — thanks to a box of expired condoms — could belong to either Mark or Jack. The swapping out of Daniel for Jack and the addition of a fetus skews the Bridget Jones triangle somewhat, but it’s still the same damn shape, forcing Baby to conform to its preordained narrative.

Of all the possible outcomes for Bridget, Baby goes with the most predictable one

The biggest, most frustrating tease in Bridget Jones’s Baby is the suggestion that Bridget might just make a go of it as a single mom. Jack and Mark’s squabbling over their paternity rights rings hollow throughout the film, in part because, early in her pregnancy, Bridget proclaims her utter devotion to her growing baby, a devotion we’re led to believe overshadows her interest in either man vying for the position of her baby daddy.

There are other hints at a single-mom future for Bridget, many of which come from her obstetrician Dr. Rawlings (played by a fantastically dry Emma Thompson, who also served as a script doctor on Baby). Dr. Rawlings seems utterly unimpressed with Bridget’s romantic predicament, and flat out tells Bridget at one point that it’s totally possible to raise a child alone.

There’s also the matter of Bridget’s mom, whose subplot involves her campaign for a parish council position. Initially running on a platform of traditional family values, Mrs. Jones eventually transitions — at Bridget’s urging — to a more inclusive platform that embraces nontraditional families and specifically single mothers. This about-face on the part of Mrs. Jones suggests, albeit obliquely, that perhaps the Bridget Jones films could also let go of their rigid notions of what constitutes a family, and let Bridget raise her child on her own.

Emma Thompson and Renee Zellweger look at a sonogram.
Emma Thompson almost saves this movie, but the prophecy of the reindeer jumper is too strong.
Universal Pictures

But of course that’s not in the cards for Bridget, especially once an epic screw-up at work — motivated by Bridget’s romantic troubles, naturally — leaves her out of work and, at one point, literally sobbing in the street, just waiting to be rescued by one of the two handsome, wealthy men who are dying to save her. (Oh, yeah, Jack is a billionaire, naturally.)

But even as it pushes Bridget toward marriage, Baby hints at the possibility that the baby’s paternity may be left as an open question, or that one of the two men might wind up embracing the other man’s child as his own, out of love and respect for Bridget. It’s an intriguing possibility, one the film gooses repeatedly with its talk of surrogacy and nontraditional families.

But nope! After a one-year time jump and a brief fake-out, we’re assured that Bridget’s son is indeed Mark’s, and the two of them have finally fulfilled the reindeer jumper’s prophecy and tied the knot. Fairy-tale ending achieved. How uninspired.

Well, what did you expect, really?

It’s reasonable to assume that for a large portion of the Bridget Jones fan base, the end of Bridget Jones’s Baby will play as a long-awaited triumph. And taking the series as a whole, it’s a logical outcome for a trilogy that checks in at three major stages of its central relationship. There’s nothing wrong with giving Bridget her fairy-tale ending; many would argue that doing otherwise undermines the entire series.

And yet it’s hard not to wish that Bridget Jones’s Baby displayed the same sort of confidence that Bridget has at the beginning of the film, the confidence to embrace a different vision of success for its heroine.

Contrary to what the Bridget Jones series believes, there are happy endings for Bridget that don’t involve Mark Darcy, a man whose hot-and-cold affection for the woman he ostensibly loves is absolutely maddening. She has a good career (at least until her latest romantic machinations cause her to implode on the job); a supportive, if slightly obnoxious, family; friends who love her; and a baby she claims to adore more than anything in the world. The only way Bridget’s life looks like a failure at this point is if you subscribe to the notion that a woman can’t be truly happy and successful unless she is married to the father of her child.

Alas, that’s exactly what the Bridget Jones series seems to believe. By tethering Bridget to the happy ending she envisioned for herself more than a decade ago, Baby suggests that women’s needs and wants remain static as they mature, and that’s simply not the case. Bridget may have gotten older and wiser, but her movies have stayed the same.