Recently I saw, within a few days of each other, Bridget Jones’s Baby and Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which, if nothing else, indicates my fascinatingly varied viewing tastes. However, it is not a case of ‘if nothing else’, giving that seeing these films caused me to fear that, although I like to call myself a feminist at this moment in time, I’ll eventually make a right turn into social conservatism and cease to know myself.
I trotted off to Bridget Jones’s Baby because, while the Bridget Jones books and films pluck my nerves to varying degrees, she has been on the scene as a weathervane of modern womanhood for so long that I feel I simply must stay in touch with what she’s up to. I saw the flick at four pm on a rainy Friday, and was impressed to see that a few men, one of whom looked like fictional-diary-keeper-in-arms Charles Pooter, had gone along with their wives, an act of devotion the likes of which I had never seen before. Most patrons had had the foresight to purchase glasses of booze to take into the cinema with them, and the fact I hadn’t done this myself filled me with regret as I sat through trailers that made me realise, yet again, I do not share the French sense of humour.
I will keep my comments on the quality of Bridget Jones’s Baby relatively brief, as I don’t have much to add to the general wisdom that while it’s not exactly a cinematic triumph, it’s better than Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. Yes, the story, in which we see a pregnant Bridget fought over by two men of means is relentlessly predictable while also being ludicrous (making me wonder if it would all turn out to have been a fantasy, like that insane final season of Roseanne), but the movie itself is pacey, reasonably diverting and I laughed out loud at one of the lines. However, I did think it was questionable that so little of the original character of Bridget remains except for the fact she’s an idiot. (And she’s always been a bigger idiot in the films than in the books, as, while in the books she is mishap prone, she does at least get to crack wise to herself). In Baby, Bridget is slender; has given up smoking; gives up drinking alcohol by necessity (as the nanny state would have us believe); and has the kind of job you can impress people with at parties (improbably, this fool is a producer in the high-pressure workplace of morning television). On the vexed question of Renée Zellweger’s face, I will just say that acknowledging that she, of course, has the right to do anything to it she likes isn’t the same as saying that she should do anything to it she likes.
But, yes, Bridget remains dunderheaded as ever, causing on-air disasters and screwing up a vital work presentation, and rarely have I felt more sympathy with anyone than I did with her hard-bitten young boss, who’s supposed to be the villainess of the piece. What I want to know is, why is this criminal level of incompetence supposed to be endearing? Does anyone love the man in the disaster movie who causes a tower to become an inferno? And, too, let us not pass lightly over the fact that this is a film basically on the level of 1959’s The Best of Everything in preaching that a husband and baby is womankind’s greatest glory, with Bridget declaring in voiceover that going to a party as a single woman has no fears for her now, as, because she’s pregnant, she need no longer feel like a sad old spinster. Now, all this is only to be expected, unfortunately, but what did surprise me was that one of the writers is Emma Thompson, who has always made a big deal about being a feminist, and this is one of the reasons I have always liked her, even though her ‘I’m so very British and sensible’ schtick can get pretty old. But, given Thompson’s long-held principles, why is she helping to peddle Bridget Jones’s Baby? I realise she probably lives in London and so has to pay twenty pounds for a cup of coffee but does she genuinely need the money that badly? I can only hope that she did, at least, contribute the best lines to the screenplay. Either way, I am not sure whether it would make the situation better or worse if Thompson were genuinely such an enormous fan of the franchise that she simply could not stand to miss the opportunity to be involved.
Having also seen, but, by contrast, enjoyed, Joe Cinque’s Consolation, I found myself keen to re-read the Helen Garner book on which it is based. Once I’d done so, I felt cranky. Now, I am a big admirer of Garner, because she is, to my mind, one of the finest writers in the English language. Furthermore, I’ve never known anyone who has had a personal encounter with her to have a bad word to say – and, believe me, if you work in book publishing, you may never be able to afford to retire but you will accumulate knowledge of who out of Australia’s Greatest Living Writers are also Humankind’s Greatest Living Monsters. So, when it comes to being critical of Garner, in the words of successful prostitute Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind, ‘Don’t think it pleasures me none to say it.’ And I appreciate that Garner is entitled to think and write whatever she wants, as, indeed, she does. What I want to know is, what makes a person start thinking and writing this way?
I don’t recall Joe Cinque’s Consolation being particularly controversial upon its first publication, in 2004 (although I freely admit I may well have been too busy watching Joe Millionaire to have noticed). This was in contrast to Garner’s The First Stone, which did, if nothing else, keep anyone forced to churn out newspaper columns every week happily occupied. The First Stone is about a sexual harassment case at Melbourne University in the 1990s; Joe Cinque’s Consolation is the bizarre and harrowing tale of a Canberra law student, Anu Singh, killing her boyfriend with a heroin overdose, even though neither of them was a heroin addict (and, in his case, anyway, not even a recreational user of drugs) in the 1990s. In The First Stone, Garner looks at, inter alia, who was the real victim, or victims, when a university professor was alleged to have groped a student. In Joe Cinque, by contrast, Cinque and his family are the victims pure and simple. I had limited sympathy with Garner’s beliefs in The First Stone that the accused was the real victim, but wasn’t entirely out of sympathy with the concept that an argument to this effect could, at least, be made; with Joe Cinque, though, I am in complete agreement with her on this point. Cinque seems to have been a pleasant young man who had the tragic misfortune of becoming involved with an unbalanced, selfish and possessive young woman, who, for a cocktail of peculiar reasons of her own, decided to kill him. Then, his ‘consolation’, that Singh would be seriously punished, evaporated like water on hot pavement, given the lightness of her sentence on grounds of diminished responsibility. (And I am not generally necessarily against reduced sentences on grounds such as these, by the way.)
So far, so completely fair enough. What disturbs me about Garner’s book is the larger portrait she seems to want to paint of men and women, and, as with The First Stone, it’s her remarkable eye for small details that results in overly broad strokes. Singh appears to have been an appallingly self-centred killer, so the fact that she was talkative and had enjoyed a lively and varied sex life are not what I personally find anywhere near the most disturbing things about her. Yet, one of Cinque’s friends is quoted as saying that he thought the way Singh talked when he saw her with Cinque – namely, dominating the conversation – ‘was quite ball-breaking’; Garner herself head-waggingly says of her past that when Cinque first met her, ‘Singh was a girl with a reputation’. In contrast, when talking about Cinque’s earlier and only other serious girlfriend, who didn’t believe in sex before marriage, Garner ‘was flooded with respect for her clarity and self-command’. All I can say is that I’m sure it’s easier to be sentimental about the concept of no sex before marriage if you were Pram Factory-ing it up in Melbourne in the nineteen seventies and actually did get to have sex before marriage. Joe Cinque generally gives the impression that modern-day young women are hardboiled schemers while young men are pure-hearted and guileless; even a Federal Police officer Garner talks to is kind-hearted and soft in his manner, in contrast to the female journalists, in all their catty wisdom, she meets at the courtroom. Furthermore, Garner goes to the trouble of quoting Mrs Cinque’s throwaway comment that ‘I like having boys around … They not picky, they eat everything, you can tell ’em off and they come back again’. To quote photographer Liz Imbrie in High Society, ‘The little dears!’
I was really popping a vein like Cyrus Beene in Scandal, though, when Garner, in a discussion with one of Cinque’s friends about whether it was possible Cinque had ever, as Singh alleged, been violent to her, queries whether she may have ‘goaded him’ into it. Garner writes: ‘I know that can happen, because I once did it myself to a bloke, when I was a student. I treated him so cruelly and hurtfully that he hit me across the face. It was only an open hand but it knocked me to the ground. I never felt badly towards him for it, though. I was ashamed. Because I knew he wasn’t that sort of guy. I knew I’d driven him to it, I pushed him past his limit.’ Well, as I wait for the round of applause from Mark Latham to die down, I cannot imagine the situation in which I’m shaking my head with sympathetic understanding at hearing about a man hitting a woman because she’s been insulting him. Speaking of balls, this fellow needed to grow a pair.
So, and perhaps, unfairly, it’s always more irksome to me when women who are, or have been, self-proclaimed feminists start spouting nonsense than it would be if they had always just been spouting nonsense. Similarly, it is most irritating when women who grandstand about feminism in theory but can barely function without a man and make deals with the devil when they have one – a syndrome that a friend of mine and I used to sum up, for reasons too exhausting to explain here, by screaming in a Southern accent, ‘Give me a baby, Big Daddy!’. I’m not talking about wanting to have, enjoying having or even strongly preferring life with a male partner. I’m talking about staying away from your husband’s professional turf because he feels threatened by your presence on it, or relinquishing a career opportunity so that you can be at home every night in time to prepare and serve your boyfriend’s dinner, the first of which I heard about on excellent authority and the second of which I witnessed first-hand.
But, to return to women spouting nonsense in the public arena, what causes this? If they’re parents, is it the tendency to see everything through the prism of their parenthood? Of believing the words ‘I’m a mum’ are a terrific explanation of pretty much anything? The narrowing of big problems to ‘I want everything to be perfect for my little girl’, so that suddenly you’re saying piously that that’s why feminism’s important to you, and then winding up advocating for the old ways and aspirations because they now seem a lot safer somehow? Or is it just that when you’ve spent decades thinking one way, social conservatism feels excitingly radical? In any case, it’s a sorry state of affairs that Emma Thompson should be involved in a slaver-off over puffy white weddings and babies, and Helen Garner should be overly censorious about modern young women and not nearly censorious enough about domestic violence – that females with actual brains in their heads should see fit to disseminate the concept that if you’re a woman on her own, you’re not enough, or that women should spend their lives tip-toeing around men’s egos and desires. That said, now I’m feeling annoyed with myself at giving those males in the cinema that was screening Bridget Jones’s Baby so much credit just for agreeing to sit through a movie their wives wanted to see. Give me a baby, Big Daddy!