There is a scene in Bridget Jones’s Baby where the music suddenly changes as Patrick Dempsey’s Jack takes off his shirt and dives in the pool where Bridget (Renée Zellweger) and other expecting women are doing exercises. The moment serves a slight narrative purpose of jealousy — Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), is, after all, privy to the scene — but it is shot in a way that serves a much larger purpose: the female gaze. Upon my second theater viewing of this film (yes, second, and I’d see it for a third, frankly), many women in my company gasped delightedly and laughed as this scene happened. In fact, throughout the entire film the women of my theater were audibly enjoying themselves as I heard them gasp and “aww” and react to a number of moments (don’t worry, I was right there with them) and it was wonderful.
That’s the great thing about the Bridget Jones franchise — it’s always been (primarily) by and for women. It is unabashedly a franchise that is meant to inspire, support, and showcase women and nowhere is that more evident than in the films’ treatment of Bridget herself. Played in a way by Zellweger that it’s difficult to see anyone else in the role, Bridget is never painted as a perfect character. It’s easy to cringe during plenty of her scenes (in the most recent film, her presentation for work at a conference comes to mind), but it’s never cringing in a negative way, it’s the type of cringing that goes along with any sort of comedy film (aka secondhand embarrassment aka in some ways we really are all Mark Darcy). The importance of these scenes is how they’re framed and shot — and they are never, ever shot in a way that is meant to shame Bridget. Bridget, first and foremost, is continuously supported by the writers and directors of this franchise. She is adored, she is human, and she is allowed to have both happiness and flaws.
One of the best and most refreshing ways the films show this is through Bridget’s group of friends — made up of Shazzer (Phillips), Jude (Shirley Henderson), Tom (James Callis), and in the most recent film, Miranda (a wonderful turn by Sarah Solemani) — who are by Bridget’s side through thick and thin over the course of the franchise. These are the characters you want to root for and it’s warming to see real, supportive friends and especially female friendships. Female friendships aren’t completely unheard of in romantic comedies, of course, but it’s usually more typical to see the female lead interacting with no friends to speak of (Notting Hill; Leap Year, which is not a great romantic comedy, but Amy Adams and Matthew Goode have wonderful chemistry), least of all fellow female friends (Kate Winslet’s friendship with Eli Wallach in The Holiday is cute, but not quite the same). It is a small — but telling — aspect to these films.
Women have often been involved with romantic comedies and not just as leading characters — just look at Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers — which is as it should be, because it’s always important to try and get more women behind the camera, but also because romantic comedies occupy a very specific space in the media landscape for women. The boring rhetoric that these films are only for women or that they are in any capacity “less than” (whether in intellect, character, or what have you) should have been retired a long time ago as it dangerously plays into society’s problem with toxic masculinity. Romantic comedies, just like any other genre, have the ability to be intelligent, to buck stereotypes, and to be more compelling than their reputation allows. They’re also a form of escapism, as is any other piece of media.
Now, it should be noted that mainstream romantic comedies are sorely lacking in diversity and should the genre have a renaissance (which it absolutely should), it needs to cast a wider net because, in the past, mainstream romantic comedies have primarily been focused on straight, white couples. Stories for both the LGBT community and people of color are critically underrepresented and it’s non-negotiable that this needs to change.
But more than anything, Bridget Jones’s Baby made me realize I am aching for some good, solid romantic comedies again — you know the kind I mean. The ones from Classic Hollywood (The Philadelphia Story, Desk Set) and those from the ’90s (You’ve Got Mail, Notting Hill). Because you see, something happened to the romcom in the early 2000s and the genre has yet to recover. Suddenly we were getting romantic comedies that relied primarily on its gimmick (because every romcom has one, but it’s crucial that the characters still come first) and began to paint their female leads in broad, stereotypical, and unkind brushstrokes. There was How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days in 2003 (male director, two of three male writers) and Failure to Launch in 2006 (both a male director and male writers) and the unforgivable The Ugly Truth (male director, female writers, two of which co-wrote Legally Blonde and oh, how the mighty had fallen). Of course, there were the surprise hits of the time as well, like Love Actually (hailing from Richard Curtis, one of the more trustworthy men in this genre, alongside the late Garry Marshall, who I’ve written about before) and The Holiday (which brilliantly serves Kate Winslet’s Iris in learning to find value in herself from herself).
Romcoms can absolutely be filled with harmful stereotypes, but so can any piece of media, and there is an equal danger in the teardown of romantic comedies on the pure assumption that they are “girly” and “emotional” and nothing more (it’s also dangerous to vilify such traits, as by doing so it plays into society’s gender norms, toxic masculinity, and misogyny). It is important that romantic comedies exist in a space for women, and should largely be created by women as well, but that does not mean they can only be for women. The genre, provided it starts to diversify itself, also has the potential to create real, human stories as the best romantic comedies of the olden days did.
I’m calling on you, Hollywood. It’s time to bring back the romantic comedy — with a real earnest love for the genre — and start telling these stories with a focus on diversity and the different love stories that exist all over the world, to give women a larger and louder voice with these films, and dismantle the poor reputation they have. Romantic comedies can overlap with genres, take place in different time periods, be unconventional — they are boundless, provided we allow them to be. So let’s do that.
Anya Crittenton | Associate Editor