VIENNA, Va. -- Can Bridget Jones edge out Ally McBeal?
This may not sound like a burning question of our age. But it is. If the final answer is yes (the signs are tentative right now), it could mean that women are emerging from the battlefields of feminism.
And learning -- shock, horror -- to relax.
It is a truism by now that we live in a world in which pop culture and pop psychology are dominant forces. Oprah and Rosie rule. Anyone who doubts this should watch what happens when either of them recommends a book or endorses a diet. They long ago replaced the prevailing female influences of the 1960s and 1970s, the Betty Friedans, Germaine Greers and Jane Fondas who burned their bras and fought for equal rights and equal pay. The playing field between men and women is still not leveled, but they made it more equal for militant feminism to have faded as a mainstream movement.
Through the 1990s, though, we lived in a time that was somewhat weird for women. Ally McBeal was probably the best symbol of the age. On the one hand, she is a successful lawyer, living proof of feminist gains.
But could normal people really be like McBeal? Certainly she is neurotic (many can identify with that). But impossibly thin, pretty and mini-skirted, too -- a TV version, in fact, of the perfect, and perfectly non-real magazine beauties.
The competing pressures to be a successful career woman and to reclaim some femininity were clearly clashing.
Enter Bridget Jones. All right, so she's British. Not exactly an American role model. But that small detail can be discounted since she is played in the movie by Texan Renee Zellweger and has proved a smash hit at the U.S. box office.
The two books of Bridget Jones's diaries, too, top best-seller lists around the country.
Bridget, finally, is the kind of heroine everyone can feel comfortable with. A real human being, who is overweight and looking desperately for a man. Her life is a series of failed diets, failed love, too much wine, too many cigarettes, too many self-help books and a genetic incapacity to exercise or get anywhere on time.
The important point is that this is a heroine who is herself and not some perfection who mere mortals could never hope to be like, no matter how many hours spent on the treadmill or under the plastic surgeon's knife.
The response to Bridget has been overwhelming.
Not, perhaps, as over-the-top as in London where she has been declared the symbol of our times. But it has equalled an "aha" recognition, like seeing yourself in the mirror and having the courage to accept, if not love, the wrinkles and bulges and insecurities.
Bridget does care about looking good, though, not like the early feminists who disdained any efforts to be pretty, feminine, use make-up etc. Think dumpy Hillary Clinton back at Yale with Coke-bottle-bottom glasses and greasy hair.
What does this all mean? Maybe, just maybe, it's an indication that the zeitgeist of the early 21st century is one of loosening up. And not just for women. There is, after all, a delegating president in the White House who cares deeply about his daily exercise and his trips to the ranch, in contrast to his workaholic predecessor.
In 1999, Americans officially overtook the Japanese as the industrialized world's worst workaholics. But an economic downturn is starting to bring layoffs. Rather than panic, many of the young people who were making fortunes in dot-coms are reveling in new leisure time in which they can focus on themselves.
And on being human, like Bridget Jones.
Comb the media in recent weeks and it is startling who you will find confessing to being a Bridget Jones aficionado: including congressmen and a diehard feminist who at first hid her Bridget Jones diaries behind her more politically correct tomes on her bookshelf.
So, will she edge out Ally McBeal? Earlier feminists would probably have gasped in horror if they could have envisaged her as a symbol of the other side of feminism.
But it was a different time back then. A time when one of the icons was militant feminist Gloria Steinem, who founded Ms. magazine and fought for women's independence. That would be the same Ms. Steinem who recently got married and declared herself blissfully happy just being with her man.
Just guessing, but she is probably a Bridget Jones fan, too.
Louise Branson, British by birth, is a journalist and free-lance writer who lives in the Washington area.