Bridget Jones: The Failing SAHM
Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy casts the postfeminist zeitgeist 20 years on from her ‘girly’ singleton days to her current status as a SAHM. Bridget Jones is now a 51-year-old widow and mother to two small children, residing in a middle-class North London neighbourhood. Bridget recounts her experiences in the familiar diary form and writing style of her early diaries (e.g. daily statistics) enhanced by her bemused experimentation with new media technologies like Twitter. She writes about her emergence from grief over her husband Darcy’s death four years previously, her everyday struggles as a mother, and her consequent return to dating.
Darcy left Bridget financially secure, with no financial need to return to the workforce and she is represented as neither willing nor fit to do so. Her capacity to be an economic labourer is ridiculed through various grotesque meetings with the potential film production company that considers buying her contemporary adaptation of Hedda Gabler. These meetings specifically highlight the ‘clashes’ between Bridget’s maternal identity and her (vaguely aspired to) professional identity. Bridget is never properly prepared for or focused during her meetings with the production team, almost always because she is preoccupied with issues related to her kids and their school.
Mothering is a new important object of Bridget’s self-governing. The ‘disciplinary neoliberalism’ (Gill 1995) that in her 20s focused on selfmonitoring her calorific intake, fluctuating weight and romantic relationships now extends to her maternal practices through Twitter and numerous parenting self-help books whose expert advice she tries to follow. Bridget constantly demands of herself and feels that she is being demanded by others (her mother, her children, other parents, her children’s teachers, experts) to be a ‘good mother’. This demand is accentuated and legitimised by her ‘stay-at-home’ status. Bridget is not in paid employment and, thus, has no ‘real’ career to excuse anything but ‘perfect’ mothering. When her son’s teacher criticises her for neglecting his homework and assigning greater importance to ‘sitting in the hairdresser’s’ (Fielding 2013, p. 233), echoing the stereotypical image of the lazy self-indulgent SAHM who deals with her ‘excess’ time by working on her appearance, Bridget defensively explains: ‘I am a professional woman and am writing an updating of Hedda Gabbler by Anton Chekhov’ (Fielding 2013, p. 233). Thus, Bridget marginalises her investment in and concern with her appearance, to highlight her focus with the ‘important’ matter: her professional identity.
But Bridget fails continuously. She and the readers know that rather than focusing seriously on her professional career, she has been procrastinating, working on her improbable screenplay and thinking about her toyboy, Roxter. When she is about to give a presentation after proudly describing her play as a ‘feminist piece’ (Fielding 2013, p. 221) she opens her laptop to reveal a girly homepage of Princess Bride Dress Up—a mark of her two incompatible worlds: career and mothering—in both of which she repeatedly fails. Thus, while Bridget’s ability to be an economic labourer is deeply questioned, so is her ability to adequately perform her mothering role. She aspires to be a ‘perfect mother’ (Fielding 2013, p. 134), but consistent with her younger incompetent self, Bridget makes a clumsy mother, finding herself in endless comical situations related to parenting and schooling.
On the one hand, Bridget recognises the substantial labour involved in being a single SAHM. She reports in her diary on thoughts and moments that do not normally enter the dominant highly idealised ‘Mommy Myth’ (Douglas and Michaels 2004), such as exhaustion, annoyance and frustration with childcare. Bombarded by her children’s relentless morning demands, she writes: ‘Suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion and desire to read paper in echoing silence. [...] Why can’t everyone just FUCKING SHUT UP AND LET ME READ THE PAPERS?’ (Fielding 2013, pp. 87-88). Simultaneously, she repeatedly rehearses to herself that her children must come first (Fielding 2013, p. 158) and she should not focus on men (Fielding 2013, p. 133), puncturing the ‘masquerade of the doting, self-sacrificing mother’ (Douglas and Michaels 2004, p. 6) that mothers are expected to adopt. Writing from a maternal perspective, in such a way that does not idealise, silence or denigrate the maternal, but rather attends to the mundane, messy realities and frustrations of motherhood, may contribute to complicating dominant maternal narratives (see Baraitser 2009). Thus, the character of 51-year-old Bridget might be argued to contribute to challenging the stronghold of the ‘perfect mother’ myth by voicing the difficulties and frustrations of maternal experience and by making visible the huge labour that mothering involves.
On the other hand, this recognition is constantly diffused and undermined. The comic, satirical features of Bridget’s chaotic and clumsy parenting mask the immense labour demanded by and involved in single stay-at-home motherhood. Amusing situations, such as having to wash and change her children’s diarrhoea and vomit-soaked sheets, largely obscure the physical and emotional work Bridget’s mothering entails. They also diffuse the very painful feelings of self-blame and self-hate that she sometimes experiences as a mother, exemplified as she writes: ‘Everything is completely intolerable, I hate myself, I’m a rubbish mother’ (Fielding 2013, p. 135).
Recognition of Bridget’s maternal labour is further obfuscated by her depiction as desperately dependent on her au pair to manage herself and her kids, from doing the daily school run to looking after sick children— ‘simple’ and ‘basic’ tasks that Bridget is constructed as too inept (and lazy) to do alone. Bridget’s self-mocking and self-disparaging of her poor performance in these maternal tasks reinforce the marginalisation and misrecognition of the significant labour they involve.
Importantly, Bridget’s self-beratement, and others’ judgements of her ‘poor mothering’, rely on oppositional figures of the ‘perfect mother’, against which such judgements are implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) made. Specifically, it is the SAHM mediated figure, such as Jools Oliver’s, that is evoked: not only is she the perfect SAHM who has an absent partner and who (seemingly) has no childcare help, Jools (and similar SAHM figures) is also the sexual ‘perfect body’ model whose images Bridget frus- tratedly consumes in magazines. The perfect sexual SAHM is not only mediated; there is ‘perfect Nicolette’, a mother in Bridget’s son’s class, who constitutes an important reference point in the book (the stereotypical ‘yummy mummy’) against which Bridget measures herself: ‘the Class Mother (perfect house, perfect husband, perfect children) [...] perfectly dressed and perfectly blow-dried with a perfect gigantic handbag’ (Fielding 2013, pp. 4-5).
Just like 20 years ago, now in the shadow of these successful maternal feminine figures, Bridget aspires to ‘work on herself (Gill 2007, p. 227, original emphasis). Her body is still presented as equally (if not more of) a fundamental source of her feminine identity. Twenty years wiser, struggling to control her unruly maternal body, Bridget recognises the acute oppressiveness of the unattainable and untenable beauty standards which women are demanded to meet. She questions: ‘Why are bodies so difficult to manage?’, stressing that bodies ‘splurge fat unless you, like, STARVE yourself’, subsequently listing 13 high-calorie foods she has consumed before noon and concluding: ‘Put that in your pipe and smoke it, society!’ (Fielding 2013, pp. 58-59).
Yet Bridget is depicted as unable not to surrender to a sisyphic body project to re-attain ‘her sense of sexual self’ (Fielding 2013, p. 33). She constantly self-monitors and struggles to discipline her body’s shape and size, through endless dieting, physical exercise and reduction of alcohol intake. Echoing the (Christian) ‘prohibition’ on sexuality as underpinning ‘good mothering’ (Littler 2013; Danuta and Harrison 2014), Bridget is temporarily resolute about a ‘focus on being a mother instead of thinking about men’ (Fielding 2013, p. 33). However, she swiftly concludes that this prohibition is outdated; the age of 50s, she observes, was ‘the age of Germaine Greer’s “Invisible Woman”, branded as non-viable, post-menopausal sitcom fodder’, however ‘now with Talitha school of branding combined with Kim Cattrall, Julianne and Demi Moore, etc. is all starting to change!’ (Fielding 2013, p. 152).
Talithas voice reverberates contemporary culture’s hailing of women to makeover their ageing bodies and make themselves visible through ‘cosmeceutical interventions’ (Dolan and Tincknell 2013) and beauty practices. Thus, however satirical Bridget’s obsessive self-monitoring is presented, as Rosalind Gill (2007, p. 228) observed of the first Bridget Jones novel and film, ‘the satire is not straightforward’, ‘the body is represented as a chaotic and in need of constant discipline’. Just as the huge labour of her chaotic mothering is marginalised and ridiculed, so the intense aesthetic labour demanded of Bridget is masked, alongside its often painful consequences. The following example, of Bridget’s dualistic self-surveillance—observing herself (in the diary) observing herself (in the mirror)—illustrates how humour and self-irony work to blur and divert difficult feelings like self-blame and self-hate, which are induced by ‘body projects’ and practices of ‘disciplinary neoliberalism’ (Gill 1995):
Got home and surveyed self aghast mirror. Am starting to look like a heron. My legs and arms have stayed the same, but my whole upper body is like a large bird with a big roll of fat round the middle that [...] is about to be served up for an extended family’s post-Hogmanay breakfast. (Fielding 2013, p. 48)
Thus, 51-year-old Bridget continues to be the woman who is endearing by virtue of her failing (McRobbie 2009). However, unlike her younger self, Bridget’s mature self is characterised by an inner drive to compete against herself and other mothers, most notably ‘perfect Nicolette’. Indeed, the 2013 diary is a space of ‘inner-directed self-competition’ (McRobbie 2015, p. 15) over becoming the ‘Perfect Mother’ (Fielding 2013, p. 134) and the perfect ‘sensual woman’ (Fielding 2013, p. 86). The outcome of this competitive self is constant self-beratement (McRobbie 2015), which feeds into and perpetuates extensive and ever-expanding types of labour she must perform.