Essays

The Age of Un-Innocence: Feminine Loneliness in BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY and SEX AND THE CITY

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“Welcome to the age of un-innocence,” said Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) during the 1998 pilot episode of HBO’s Sex and the City, a television series that would go on to be among the most influential ever made. The series was based on a book, which famously compiled a column that freelance journalist, Candace Bushnell, wrote for The New York Observer between 1994 and 1996. The column was called “Sex and the City,” and chronicled the single lifestyles of herself and her friends in Manhattan in the ’90s.

If this sounds somewhat similar to something that had become wildly popular and influential across the pond around the same timeline, that’s because it is. While Bushnell was chronicling the sometimes scandalous but always fabulous love lives of her friends in New York, British writer, Helen Fielding, was doing much of the same thing in the form of a column called “Bridget Jones’s Diary” that first appeared in The Independent in 1995. Originally published without a byline, the column appeared as if it were not fictional, as if Bridget and her friends were real people. The charade didn’t last too long, but its immense popularity resulted in the equally massive novelization of Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996 — followed by several well-consumed sequels thereafter.

Both books and characters would enjoy their own success stories, with Sex and the City becoming the aforementioned iconic television series — as well as two spin-off films and a current digital revival — and Bridget Jones hitting the big screen portrayed by Renée Zellweger in three theatrical releases. In the quarter-century since, many a critic has taken notice at the similarities between the meteoric rise of both Carrie Bradshaw and Bridget Jones. Which came first? Is one author a copycat of the other? Who cares, anyway, if Carrie and Bridget are both terrible people? All these years later and yes, these questions still weigh heavily at the forefront of popular culture, since both columns and series are largely responsible for bringing third-wave feminism into the pop cultural lexicon: a world where (white) women could have their cakes and eat them too… even if the cakes still came at a cost.

All By Herself: Bridget Jones Through the Looking Glass

Long before she developed into one of the most celebrated and beloved romantic comedy heroines of all time, Helen Fielding conceived Bridget Jones as merely a piece of satirical fiction: a mirror into the triumphs and shortcomings of modern day feminism, if you will. Bridget was supposed to be a pastiche of modern singlehood, coining the once-embraced and then derided term “singleton” to best describe the lives of Bridget and her friends.

“I was trying to write an earnest and frankly unreadable novel about cultural divides in the Caribbean, and was rather short of cash,” Fielding recalled of Bridget’s beginnings in the book From Hollywood with Love. “I assumed no one would read it, and it would be dropped after six weeks for being too silly.”

Fielding was no stranger to working in media by that time, having written for various newspapers, produced documentaries, and published her first novel, Cause Celeb, in 1994. Stuck in the “sophomore slump” while writing her second novel, Fielding returned to newspaper work to make ends meet. Cause Celeb had at least caught the attention of editors at The Independent, who had been thinking up the idea of a column aimed at professional young women in their thirties. Fielding was intrigued by the premise but was desperate to be taken seriously as the column’s author, even briefly refusing the name Bridget Jones as it sounded too frivolous. But as time would tell, it was the silly and frivolous tales of Bridget and her friends that readers kept returning for, which quickly allowed Fielding to place her internalized snobbery on the back burner.

“By chronicling the extremely specific daily concerns of one extremely specific professional woman — work, romance, family, diet, and anything else that might pop up into her daily life — Fielding’s columns had tapped into something that spoke to many women across [England],” says From Hollywood with Love’s author Scott Meslow. Fielding had of course based Bridget’s friends in the column on her own friends in real life, and since no one save for a few insiders knew that she was the author behind “Bridget Jones’s Diary” in the early days of the column, her friends began to slowly put the pieces together.

Sharon Maguire, on whom Fielding based Bridget’s friend Shazzer, eventually came right out and asked.

“Her face was very red and flushed,” remembered Maguire. “Then, of course, we read it and realized all of our lives were being mined. It was very much based on her life at that time, and our lives. And I didn’t mind, strangely enough, that my bad, inappropriate dates — and all of our sexual proclivities — were being mined for general humor, week to week.” It only seems apropos that Maguire would go on to become the director of the Bridget Jones’s Diary film adaptation that hit theaters in 2001.

Much like other classic literary reimaginings that came out in the ‘90s, Bridget Jones’s Diary was a very obvious take on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. “My female role models were Elizabeth Bennet and Maria from The Sound of Music,” recalled Fielding. “And Mr. Darcy and Captain von Trapp were both these locked-up men that needed that joie de vivre and informality, and the women needed this slightly more sensible person to keep them from going completely off the rails.” In this vein, it’s not difficult to connect the dots from there to Mark Darcy and Bridget Jones. But as a result of the renaissance that Pride and Prejudice enjoyed from the widely consumed 1995 miniseries on the BBC, it definitely paved the way for the success that the Bridget Jones novelization would enjoy when it was first published the following year.

“The columns had always been popular, but few modern novels have had as seismic an impact on the literary world as Bridget Jones’s Diary did when it was published in 1996,” observed Meslow. “The book was an instant hit, sitting on the bestseller charts for dozens of weeks and spawning a mad dash for similarly pitched novels like Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada, Emily Griffin’s Something Borrowed, and Sophie Kinsella’s Confessions of a Shopaholic, which were collectively (and often derisively) referred to as ‘chick lit.’”

In the years since Bridget catapulted to fame, Fielding has often felt that the character was unfairly made out to represent all women, which was never her intention and certainly never the case of any universally beloved male characters in literature. “My feeling was, and is, if women aren’t allowed to laugh at themselves, they haven’t got very far on the equality front, have they?” But the bottom line of why Bridget still resonates is her depiction of feminine loneliness. “It touched a nerve of about the female state of loneliness and confusion in the ‘90s,” says Maguire of the character’s juggernaut recognition. “If we’re not conforming to the conventions of marriage, and having babies in our 30s, where do you look for a meaning to life? It dealt with the fear of loneliness. Whatever choices feminism has given us all — whether you’ve got empowerment, economic independence, all of those things — the fear of loneliness is a valid fear.”

Flying Above the Clouds: Glitz, Glamour, and Narcissism in Sex and the City’s New York

In 1993, freelance writer Candace Bushnell was broke. She’d been living in New York City for 15 years and felt like she’d had nothing to show for it, even as she’d had bylines appear in Mademoiselle, Vogue, and Esquire. She might not have had much money, but she had friends who did, and one in particular graciously let her crash on the fold-out couch of a second apartment the friend kept as an office. It was when she was living on this couch that she was hired by The New York Observer, with the editor-in-chief famously referring to Bushnell as the paper’s “secret weapon.” It was only the following year when the editors realized how much their audience connected with Bushnell’s voice that they decided to offer her a regular column. When asked by editor-in-chief Peter Kaplan what it should be about, she replied, “I think it should be about being a single woman in New York City and all the crazy things that happen to her.”

At the time, Bushnell was 35 and single, so she felt confident in her ability to deliver this premise. Like many media figures in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Bushnell enjoyed the best of both worlds, so to speak: she knew what it was like to be broke and need to crash on a friend’s couch, but had made enough upper-class friends that she had also enjoyed a taste of luxury and comfort aboard private jets and intimate connections with high-end designers and authors. This would ultimately contribute to the thesis statement for Bushnell’s semi-autobiographical alter-ego, Carrie Bradshaw, who would rather max out her credit card on that new pair of Manolo Blahniks than to worry about buying food or paying rent that month.

In the two years that the “Sex and the City” column would run, readership of the Observer spiked exponentially. Largely predating the phenomenon of guessing which famous man Taylor Swift wrote which song about, readers loved to take in every word of Bushnell’s columns and try to guess which Manhattan upperclassman was the subject of each escapade. As Jennifer Keishin Armstrong notes in her book Sex and the City and Us, Bushnell had achieved something quite remarkable in that she created something accessible to women who rode the subway and women who vacationed in the Hamptons.

“Bushnell’s column contained seedlings of the fantasy life that would bloom in Sex and the City the television show. But ‘Sex and the City,’ as a column, was a bait and switch,” Armstrong observed. “The clothes command high prices and the parties attract big names; however, despite the column’s name, there isn’t much sexy sex and there’s almost no romance … Bushnell’s column fit into a long tradition of literary fascination with single women’s lives.”

The column’s title was, indeed, a riff on Helen Gurley Brown’s landmark 1962 publication Sex and the Single Girl, and research shows that this fascination dates back as early as 1898, when a column in Vogue by Neith Boyce called “The Bachelor Girl” first appeared. “I was about to leave that domestic haven, heaven only knew for what port. I was going to New York to earn my own bread and butter and to live alone,” Boyce wrote.

Given Bushnell’s engaging ability to sprinkle juicy soap opera antics into age-old society pages, it was no surprise when Atlantic Monthly Press published an anthology of the “Sex and the City” column in 1996, shortly after it ceased publication in the Observer. It was only on her first book tour did Bushnell realize that her misadventures, which she once thought were so distinct to Manhattan, in fact resonated everywhere. “We thought people could only be this terrible in New York,” she said. “But this phenomenon of thirtysomething women dating was much more universal than we thought.”

It would ultimately be the column’s widely successful television adaptation that originally aired for six seasons on HBO between 1998 and 2004 that would seal the deal on Sex and the City’s legacy, even if it ended up veering far from its source material during and after its second season, according to Armstrong. Although the series was colossally successful within its target demographic of white women and gay men, its blatant lack of diversity continues to leave fans divided. Unlike similar complaints lodged against other influential series of the era like Friends or Seinfeld, many people of color quoted in Sex and the City and Us took issue with the lack of diversity while also admitting that they too couldn’t help but get swept away by the shoes and the cosmos.

Since Sex and the City was published as merely an anthology of the column and not a novelization, its book form hasn’t endured as much into the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean that the column and its television and film adaptations aren’t also chipping away at a valid sense of loneliness, which exists no matter how fabulous you or your nightlife are.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other

Although similar in themes and structural format, Bridget Jones and Sex and the City are actually quite different — but that hasn’t stopped pop culture from relentlessly comparing them to each other. As Armstrong notes, the “Bridget Jones’s Diary” column was always satirical: she and her creator were very much in on the joke, and it was Fielding’s very intention to get women to laugh at themselves. “But Bridget and Carrie did not belong together in any sense, even though they kept getting stuck together in trend pieces,” she says. Bushnell was once quoted in The New York Times as referring to Bridget Jones as “ten years out of date,” in that she was so dedicated to bettering herself solely for the male gaze.

“Bridget struggled with her weight and suffered from low self-esteem, but also seemed to like her life, her friends, her family, and her middle-class status,” observed Armstrong. “Carrie, on the other hand, knew how attractive and thin she was, dated and drank with the upper echelons of Manhattan society, and was still moody and cynical. Where Bridget was sweet and well-adjusted underneath her snark and borderline alcoholism, Carrie suffered mood swings and self-sabotaging behavior. In short, they sat at opposite ends of the single-woman character spectrum: Bridget an updated version of the single woman who knows her place, and thus is quite likable; Carrie an unsympathetic character, a true antiheroine at a time when unlikable lead female characters were rare.”

If Bridget Jones was to be a pastiche of modern singlehood, then Carrie Bradshaw was more of a pastiche of Holly Golightly by way of a sexualized Mary Richards, with a tendency for narcissism sprinkled on top. Bridget Jones was, well, Bridget Jones. Short of the Cathy comic strips, there’s few other female characters to compare Bridget to, especially in British literature, given how revolutionary she would become. Carrie was revolutionary in her own ways too, of course, but America’s landscape for groundbreaking female characters existed in an entirely different sphere than that of the United Kingdom, especially in the ‘90s. Bushnell never intended to create Carrie as a romantic comedy heroine or figure of satirical fiction, either. “I don’t write books because I want everyone to like the characters,” she once said. “These are women who make some choices that maybe aren’t the best choices in terms of morality.”

Still, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health — Bridget and Carrie and Fielding and Bushnell were, as Armstrong puts it, “linked in the cultural ether” and credited with the late 20th century rise of “chick lit.” When pulled apart and analyzed for their differences, Bridget and Carrie can’t relate all that much to each other. But within the cultural lexicon of female-driven romcom literature, they were poster girls and might as well have been photographed with their arms linked. “Though it’s fairly easy to draw parallels between Bridget Jones’s Diary and Sex and the City — drinking, swapping mortifying stories with friends, reflecting obsessively on one’s sex life — the books are most interesting when read for their differences,” says Meslow. “The glamorous New York City lifestyle depicted by Bushnell is leagues away from Bridget’s more humble life as a mid-level media employee.”

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