Fifteen Years Later, Bridget Jones Is Still Teaching Me to Embrace Imperfection

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When Bridget Jones’s Diary was released 15 years ago today, I was a few weeks from my 18th birthday. I had recently read and loved the book, so I excitedly made plans to take the oft-maligned Green Line from Boston’s city center to one of its leafy western suburbs to watch the movie with a friend and her mother. But our wires got crossed about when we were meeting, so I sat alone in a Chestnut Hill theater as the title cards appeared over the titular heroine trudging through a snowstorm.

That spring, I was in the midst of what was then a lifelong obsession with perfection. When I daydreamed about my impending adulthood, which I did constantly in those last months of high school, it always featured the same things: the Perfect Husband, Perfect House, and Perfect Children. But I had also decided that before I could attain any of that, I needed to become the Perfect Me. I kept in my head a running list of all of my shortcomings, both small and large, to be handled, wrangled, and pushed deep down. My constant striving for perfection was unhealthy, but my bigger problem was my belief that happiness was intrinsically tied to it; that I would suddenly have the happiness I lacked if only I could finally attain perfection.

In the movie version of my life, I would have walked out of that theater into the New England sunshine and an epiphany. That’s not what happened. At the time, I only knew that I liked Bridget Jones’s Diary very much — liked Colin Firth’s dimples, Hugh Grant’s floppy ‘90s hair, and Bridget’s grown-up apartment. I wasn’t looking for the lesson about life and happiness and personal acceptance. I was too obsessed with the fulfillment of my fantasy. It took many more years and many more viewings to realize why Bridget Jones held such a special place in my heart.

Those imperfections that I couldn’t love in myself, the ones that made me a whole person, I have always loved about Bridget. At this point, the bumbling hero has become something of a cliché. She sits in wet paint or spills red wine on her white blouse during an important date. She is ridiculous, her flaws always on display. They set her apart from the audience, make viewers squirm, groan, and laugh as they remind themselves that they are so much better than that. More often than not, I join in. Her over-the-top imperfections distract from our own more subtle ones.

But Bridget’s shortcomings lack that air of ridiculousness, a trait she shares with her literary inspiration, Elizabeth Bennet. Lizzy is the star of Jane Austen’s romance Pride and Prejudice. As is often the case with classic tales, something is usually lost in the retelling of Lizzy’s story — in her case, her imperfections. When watching her portrayed by Jennifer Ehle or Keira Knightley or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, I can’t understand how Darcy could ever deny her intelligence or beauty or charm. She is headstrong and bold and fiercely loyal.

Renee Zellweger’s Bridget, though, doesn’t change much at all. There is no classic makeover montage. There are no elocution lessons. Her flaws remain flawed. And Mark Darcy falls for a Bridget still full of them.

Every time I watch Bridget prepare for the book-release party, one of many parties she attends throughout the movie, I feel as if I am looking into a mirror. Even at my best, group gatherings make me uncomfortable. I prepare talking points and stories to tell that I forget as soon as I find an acceptable corner in which to place myself. Now that I live in Los Angeles, where many a party takes place outside, I migrate toward foliage — better to hide and observe the landscape. I stumble over my words in a way that I never do when surrounded by small groups of people I know well. More often than I’d like to admit, I return home playing missteps over and over in my head.

For the past few years, I’m almost always on Team Choose Yourself when watching rom-coms. I’ve gotten tired of the hoops characters jump through for their “better” half because I saw the same ones I was forcing myself to jump through for men I was interested in. Yet when I watch Bridget run through the snow in her “sexy knickers,” mirroring those opening titles in an almost absurd way, I always feel joy take hold as I wait for that meeting of an imperfect, perfect pair — and a very romantic kiss with just the right hint of profanity.

“It’s my Bridget Jones year,” I texted a friend late on New Year’s Day to explain my behavior in the first few hours of the fledgling year. I was 32, the same age Bridget is in the movie, and the parallel had been on my mind. At around 11 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, I left a small gathering of friends after the host’s pets and my usually mild allergies conspired against me. Maybe it’s because it marks an end and a beginning that my old need for perfection often rears its head on New Year’s: I long for something a bit shinier and more glamorous than my very ordinary plans. As I walked back home that night, I spotted a neighbor’s party. I stopped for a moment to observe the people milling outside and to listen as the music mingled with the nighttime sounds of my generally quiet hilltop street, then continued on my way. When I arrived home a few minutes later, I kicked off my shoes and — still in my swingy, black cocktail dress and bright-red lips — drank a fancy tequila shot offered by my landlord before settling in for a relatively uneventful end to 2015.

But after midnight passed, something prodded me to take a leap and crash the party I had passed on my way home. I put my shoes back on, touched up my lipstick, and slid, quite poorly, out of my house’s side door. Maybe what I needed was a little Bridget-style messiness. Maybe what I needed was to accept my own messiness. I clumsily lied my way into the neighbors’ party, where I was accepted wholeheartedly by a small group of women balancing out their booze by snacking in the kitchen. I was a little too tipsy to be anything but what I always am at parties — a little awkward, a little quiet. I decided to go with it. I had five months left in my Bridget Jones year. There was no reason to keep believing that I needed to achieve perfection before I could be happy in ways both small and large. I put my coat away, walked to the drink table, and pondered my choices.