Date Like Olivia

One of the wonderful things about re-reading Shakespeare’s plays, or watching a new production, is that you will always find something new. That’s the sign of great literature… but actually, the same can also be said for pretty any much any old film you haven’t seen in a while. The new Bridget Jones film (Bridget Jones’s Baby 2016) combined with the festive break gave me a prompt to revisit the original Bridget Jones’s Diary. Back in 2001 I had found the insecurities of the film’s heroine appealing. I hate to admit this, but I definitely preferred Bridget to Lizzy. Elizabeth Bennet was so smart, clever, and composed. I identified far more with bumbling Bridget. At 13 I had already fallen into the all too common trap of feeling as if I was the least intelligent and fattest person in every room, regardless of who else was in it. Bridget’s awkward exchange with Salman Rushdie (“Do you know… where the toilets are?”) was like a metaphor for my life. Apart from this vague feeling of affinity, I probably didn’t really understand much of what was going on.

Fast forward 15 years and I see Bridget Jones’s Diary completely differently. It’s funny, but it’s all quite horribly familiar. At festive gatherings of family and friends I can almost hear Bridget’s voice-over announcing, “the question dreaded by singletons the world over: how’s your love life?” I can feel my shoulders tense up as a blush of embarrassment colours my face. Admitting to being single, absurdly, feels like admitting to failure. While I had once thought that the scene in the film in which an entire dinner party of “smug marrieds” turns to stare at Bridget when she is asked to explain the phenomenon of the single woman was absurd, I now think of it as mildly exaggerated. I’ve been there! A rather sudden change has taken place at some point over the last few years, as almost all my peers seem to have all slipped into coupledom with alarming speed, and those of us left have become oddities. I have now been to many a party at which I was the only single, and have been viewed as an object of pity, curiosity, or even entertainment (any single girl can tell you at least a few appalling and hilarious dating tales). Another moment from the film that I had previously viewed as preposterous, but that I now know to be run of the mill, is the moment when Cosmo snarks “better get a move on old girl,” and as he pats his wife’s pregnant belly, significantly intones “tick tock”. The idea that my time is running out, is not only routinely impressed upon me by certain well-meaning friends and relatives who shall remain unnamed, but also by would be dates. The cringeworthy “tick tock” mantra that is repeatedly thrown at Bridget throughout the film brought back, rather unwelcomingly, my most uncomfortable dating experience of 2016. I’d met a bloke who I thought seemed promising, but then as we got to know one another better it became clear that a relationship between us wouldn’t work. We had talked about this and I had made my feelings clear, but he adopted several strategies to make me change my mind. Their nature was such that they only confirmed I was right. At one point he made reference to my age and suggested I needed to have children soon, therefore I should be in a relationship with him. The implication seemed to be that this could be my last chance, that this was a buyers market, and I, the product, was fast approaching my sell-by date. Of course I found that irresistible and we are now married. Well, at least I didn’t hit him, but it was tough.

This encounter made me incredibly angry. A portion of this anger was justified, but a portion was certainly due to accumulated anger at others, and anger at myself for allowing such a comment to sting me. At the time, I didn’t share this incident as one of my laugh out loud dating disasters because I secretly wondered if he was right: was I running out of time? The idea that women should only be valued for their physical beauty and their childbearing abilities is hideous and reductive, and as such are products with a short shelf-life, but it’s also pervasive (equally pervasive and absurd is the idea that the two are linked, that beauty is synonymous with youth and fertility, and that one ends with the other). This narrow definition of a woman’s worth is espoused by one of Shakespeare’s least attractive suitors, Count Orsino in Twelfth Night. Orsino explains the dating game to his young protegee Cesario, who is actually Viola in disguise.
Then let thy love be younger than thyself, 
Or thy affection cannot hold the bent; 
For women are as roses, whose fair flower 
Being once display'd, doth fall that very hour. (II.4)
Orsino claims that women are like roses, in that their bloom, though lovely, is brief. This all adds to the bitter sweet mood of the play that celebrates the transience of youth, life, and love, but Orsino is clearly also a sexist pig, who values a woman only for her appearance in the brief bloom of youth. By comparing women to roses, he depicts them as purely decorative, frail objects, and suggests that their worth lies only in this moment of ripeness. The unfortunate object of Orsino’s affection is Olivia, a wealthy and independent lady of means. She has rejected Orsino’s advances, but like my most uncomfortable date of 2016, he can’t take no for an answer. In Orsino’s mind, Olivia’s feelings are clearly not as legitimate as his, so he proceeds to harass her with messengers pushing his suit. Olivia is branded “cruel” because she does not reciprocate (Orsino calls Olivia cruel in II.4 and twice in V.1, other characters also describe her with this word). Any woman who has dabbled in online dating knows this phenomenon. Abuse for turning a man down is quite routine (on subscription sites as well as free apps). The rejected man’s sense of entitlement is outraged if a woman replies in the negative or fails to reply. Messages in this genre often include a list of the man’s good qualities followed by the assertion that the woman ought to be grateful. For example, after failing to reply to an unsolicited, graphic, and really rather bizarre sext, a friend received the following: “I’m loaded, and I know I’m fit. You’re not going to find anyone better, you stuck up b*tch!” When people share these messages with me I always wonder about the logic behind them. Surely these men don’t expect, after such acrimony, that the woman will think, ‘oh my goodness, he’s right. I should be damned grateful for this man’s attention.’ The idea that a woman should be grateful for the attentions of any man (even one with a Jekyll and Hyde personality that switches between sexually aggressive and abusive) lurks painfully behind society’s treatment of single women.

Olivia Twelfth Night, Thomasin Bailey
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

One woman who is most certainly not grateful for any old scrap of attention is Twelfth Night’s Olivia. A friend asked me why I wanted to write a piece about “wet Olivia” when everyone prefers witty girl-dressed-as-a-boy about town Viola. Of course, she had a point, but I do admire Olivia’s response to the dating game. I think she’s a great role model for single women besieged by the axis of evil that is, on the one side, obnoxious suitors, and on the other, the constant suggestion that their time is running out (tick tock) and that they ought to be grateful for the attention. Olivia is a put-together woman, in charge of her own household and affairs. Despite the constant harassment and abuse that Orsino unleashes upon her, she remains resolutely resistant to being bullied into a marriage that she doesn’t want. Olivia is in a precarious position, as, sensing a vacuum in masculine authority, the men in her household jostle for power (Sir Toby and Malvolio), and suitors like Orsino and Aguecheek are probably not the only ones seeking control over her fortune. Olivia’s decision to remain single is pretty brave. In her book The Heart and Stomach of A King, Prof Carole Levin suggests a parallel between Olivia and Queen Elizabeth I, who famously resisted the pressure to marry (p.133-137). I heartily recommend you read this interesting comparison. Single women today get their share of stick, but it mainly comes in the form of a pitying look or a snide comment. Imagine if you had all of the most powerful men in Europe threatening that the cost might be your life, your nation’s security, and the future of your religion, should you fail to marry. Puts it all into perspective actually. The second reason I admire Olivia is that she isn’t afraid to pursue her own desires. When Olivia meets Cesario (Viola) her desire blooms and she doesn’t keep it a secret. Olivia emphases her physical attraction for Cesario and she’s happy to go with the flow.
What is your parentage?'
'Above my fortunes, yet my state is well: 
I am a gentleman.' I'll be sworn thou art; 
Thy tongue, thy face, thy limbs, actions and spirit, 
Do give thee five-fold blazon: not too fast: soft, soft! 
Unless the master were the man. How now! 
Even so quickly may one catch the plague? 
Methinks I feel this youth's perfections 
With an invisible and subtle stealth 
To creep in at mine eyes. Well, let it be.  (I.5)
After recalling her conversation with Cesario about his parentage, Olivia lists his gentlemanly qualities, lingering on the physical. She dismisses both her caution and her qualms about his social status, and decides to succumb to her attraction. Often commentators on this play will point out that Olivia gets a rough deal because she ends up married to a man she doesn’t know. However, it seems to me that she has got exactly what she wanted: a guy who looks like a girl dressed as a boy (don’t forget his “perfections […] creep in” at her “eyes”), and who will allow her to retain her independence and run her own affairs as she pleases. Before marrying him, she asks Sebastian, “Would thou be ruled by me?” He replies, “Madam, I will” (IV.1). This is a very unusual deal for Shakespeare’s time, when a wife was considered to be wholly subordinate to her husband. While I’m not suggesting that women should demand only to be with a man who would be “ruled” by them, I do think that we, like Olivia, need to hold out for someone who lets us be ourselves. Olivia’s narrative in the play reverses the reductive logic of Orsino’s rose imagery. Olivia does not bloom and wilt according to her age, but according to her choice and in her own time. While she is mourning her brother and father, her desires are wilted and dead. They cannot be resuscitated by Orsino’s self-centred effusions. Reversing the chronological life of a flower, feelings that she had considered long-since dead, spring back to life and to full bloom when she meets Cesario. And why? Because Olivia is a woman not a flower. She is a sentient being with choices.

Olivia Twelfth Night, Thomasin Bailey
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals

So, in the style of Bridget Jones, I think I’d better set a (late) New Year’s Resolution. It won’t be about losing weight, but it will have something to do with not being tempted to date “alcoholics, workaholics, sexaholics, commitment-phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional fuckwits, or perverts.” My resolution is as follows: date like Olivia. The Oliva method runs as follows: feel like a countess / boss; take your time and don’t feel pressured by an imaginary clock; don’t give the time of day to rude people; dump apps (you’re a countess now for goodness’ sake!); engage in a lot of witty banter; and, if you meet someone you like, well then, go for it! #DateLikeOlivia

Olivia Twelfth Night, Thomasin Bailey
Photograph by Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals
Click here for more information about the images in this blog, which are part of my Shakespeare's Women collaboration with Peter Marsh at ashmorevisuals.


  1. The whole "Olivia is boring, Viola is interesting" thing you mention reminds me a bit of the arguments that have been going on online recently over the new Sherlock episodes, in which (SPOILER ALERT) Mary Watson dies. Everyone's complaining that it's fridging (which I disagree with because I think it's a logical consequence of the character's arc and the decisions she made, and nothing to do with John), and completely ignoring the fact that Sherlock's interpretation of Mrs Hudson is one of the strongest female characters you can imagine, *and* also holds on to her femininity at the same time.


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