Botch GoddessHow Bridget Jones Redefined Career Failure

Colin Firth as Mark, left, Renée Zellweger as Bridget, and Hugh Grant as Daniel in Bridget Jones’s Diary (Photo credit: Miramax)

In the 20 years since Bridget Jones’s Diary made its big screen debut, there has been one infamous line from the Pride & Prejudice-inspired rom-com that has become a catchphrase among my friends: “Come the fuck on, Bridget.” It’s a quick, throwaway line in the third act of the movie spoken by Bridget’s (Renée Zellweger) queer BFF Tom (James Callis) when she’s fumbling with her house keys, and it would be almost forgettable were it not for the volumes it speaks about our heroine’s inherent clumsiness. 

At one point or another in our lives, we have all beat ourselves up for our perceived shortcomings—like Bridget, we may resolve to drink less, lose weight, quit smoking, find a better job, or abstain from messy affairs with scoundrels, only to purposefully abandon all those resolutions. It was at those moments in my life when I’ve whispered a “Come the fuck on, Bridget” to myself in disdain. Bridget Jones’s Diary, the story of a perfectly average woman stuck in a career rut who nevertheless is loved and celebrated “just as she is,” struck a chord with me in 2001 when I felt ashamed of my designated rung on the career ladder. The movie still has that effect on women today because, as costar Sally Phillips pointed out recently, working women today still face the same struggles and worries that Bridget stared down in 2001. But we also can’t forget that Bridget memorably upended her rut in a spectacular fashion: She harnessed the power of career failure.

Before Bridget Jones’s Diary, one of the most popular movies about women in the workplace was 1988’s Working Girl, in which Tess McGill (Melanie Griffith) and nearly all of her female colleagues were portrayed as scheming charlatans, lying to and deceiving one another just to get ahead a notch in a man’s world. Before that, we saw His Girl Friday (1940) and 9 to 5 (1980), which both depicted everything a woman had to do to succeed in stiflingly male workplaces. Yet as we saw Bridget’s story unfold across three films, it became obvious that, as Becky Fuller wrote in a 2016 article for ScreenRant, her story spoke volumes to “women who are having to make the choice between a career or children…for those of us who maybe would like to have all of that, but who refuse to compromise ourselves, our career or our integrity to get it. For those of us who feel irrelevant in a fast moving workplace as newer, fresher, younger employees enter the fray.”

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It’s no secret that women in the real world are given fewer opportunities than their male counterparts to redeem themselves after workplace failures. As we’ve seen far too often, men are allowed to fumble at work while women have to be at the top of their game always; we simply don’t have the luxury of being an office ass, and if we do mess up we’re penalized in ways men are not. Bridget Jones redefined fallibility as a career asset and since its release, we’ve seen more women—even former First Lady Michelle Obama—speaking about the power of “failing upward” in our careers, and advising women to embrace professional face-plants. There are entire newsletters and Substacks dedicated to working women embracing failure and finding solidarity in each other’s epic bombs. Even Hugh Grant, who starred as Daniel Cleaver in the film and its sequel told The Guardian that Bridget Jones is “a sort of celebration of failure, of being a bit shit.” 

Thirtysomething Bridget definitely has a clumsy, insecure approach to work. Barely eking by in her career at a publishing house where colleagues “slightly senior” to her disrespect her on the daily, Bridget intentionally wears NSFW clothes to set tongues wagging, then engages in a scandalous affair with her boss, Daniel, which by today’s standards (and frankly, 2001’s as well) would be considered a predatory abuse of power. But it’s this very faux pas that prompts Bridget to start demanding more for herself. Daniel lies and cheats, to say nothing of publicly fondling and belittling Bridget. She puts up with it because, as she reveals, “I already feel like an idiot most of the time.” Cutting out magazine pictures of models and pasting her head on them, she’s intensely focused on reining in her body and intimidated by the career women around her who seem to have their shit together. Both Lara (Lisa Barbuscia), the “American stick insect” with whom Daniel cheats, and Natasha (Embeth Davidtz), the girlfriend of Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), are introduced as slim, confident, assured, and assertive anti-Bridgets. But though Bridget, like most women, struggles with insecurity, her story includes no makeover montage or eye-popping transformation.

Bridget doesn’t change who she is to get what she wants; there is no Pygmalion engineering a My Fair Lady–esque reinvention as a society-accepted lady. Rather, Bridget changes her own circumstances by sticking up for herself, speaking her mind, and allowing herself to fail. Most important, she doesn’t lose her ability to laugh at the absurdity of her circumstances. Not only does she stand up to Daniel, she does it in front of the entire office (Who can forget the iconic line “If staying here means working within 10 yards of you, frankly, I’d rather have a job wiping Saddam Hussein’s arse!”). This public act of self-respect has a ripple effect, and for the first time we see her “failing upward.” She turns a colossal workplace scandal into an incredible confidence boost. If her colleagues (who include the leering “Mr. Titspervert”) once thought her a buffoon, they’re definitely re-evaluating that now. And by the skin of her teeth, she lands a new and exciting career—as a producer and presenter at a British talk show (not by talent, experience, or the power of her resumé, mind you, but rather by clumsily admitting that she “shagged” her previous boss). She’s the embodiment of faking it ‘til you make it.

Men are allowed to fumble at work while women have to be at the top of their game always; we simply don’t have the luxury of being an office ass, and if we do mess up we’re penalized in ways men are not.

By repeatedly messing up, fumbling through life, and having the inability to see what’s safe before losing her footing, Bridget cultivates some serious chutzpah. She becomes resilient through failure and picks herself up again, demonstrated perfectly when she turns the embarrassing viral moment of landing bum-first onto a live-to-air camera into a blossoming career. Even the opening shot of the 2004 sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, has her skydiving face-first into a pig pen full of poop, joyfully laughing it off as the cameras roll. Had either of those events that happened to Lara or Natasha, the embarrassment would’ve eaten them alive. But our gal Bridget laughs, downs vodka with her friends, dances to Chaka Khan, makes blue soup, trash-talks her enemies in her diary, and just comes “the fuck on.” She doesn’t need to maintain an air of success at all times, because she has her effervescent approach to life to guide her forward. 

As Mark says in the final movie in the trilogy, Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016), “You’ve turned disasters into triumphs with your sheer, joyful, indefatigable, infectious lust for life!” In the past 20 years, Bridget’s trial-and-error style isn’t exactly de rigeur, and probably wouldn’t land well were the film made today. Some have noted that Bridget’s obsession with her weight and caloric intake feels awfully dated in today’s world of body positivity (when Lizzo posted on Instagram that she was following a juice cleanse, there was an immense backlash from fans). Even Helen Fielding, who wrote the original novel and also cowrote the film’s script has said that she’s shocked by the workplace sexism Bridget faced, and doesn’t believe it would be made today. “I think, thank you, #MeToo,” she recently told The Guardian. If a movie like Bridget Jones’s Diary came out today, it would be unlikely to have the same relatability. Bridget would in all likelihood work from home and never meet her colleagues in person. She’d never be able to afford her Borough Market one-bedroom flat on a freelancer’s salary. And if she landed bum-first on a camera, she’d be sacked without severance and an unpaid intern would be given her duties.

Despite all that, lately we have seen more portrayals of working women dove-tailing off of Bridget’s example and embracing the power of career failure in order to succeed and reach their goals. The popularity of movies like 40 Year Old Version, The Devil Wears Prada, I Feel Pretty, Set It Up, Up In The Air; as well as TV series like The Bold Type, Insecure, Shrill, and my personal fave Younger (most of which were created by women), demonstrate that, regardless of how the original BJD has aged in the past two decades, Bridget’s legacy is still to be found in today’s stories. Personal and professional improvement is great, and by the third film, we see that Bridget has definitely become a more refined, sleek, and composed working professional—a result of years of experience and maturity. Yet somehow she is still failing upward when she uses her role as a senior TV producer to dig up dirt on a potential love interest (and does it live on air, no less). So when crisis hits, and it will, sometimes you just have to say, “Come the fuck on, Bridget” and figure out a perfectly imperfect solution, by hook or by crook. 

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Headshot of Christine Estima by Preacher Photography

Follow Christine Estima on Twitter @ChristineEstima