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Pride, Prejudice & Feminism: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (Part Two)

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In Sunday’s blog post, I talked about how I’m enjoying The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, YouTube’s modern adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. The most interesting aspect of this series to me is how updating a famous 200-year-old story by and about a woman forces us to examine how women’s roles have changed in the last two centuries. The intertwined concerns of gender and social class permeate Austen’s novel: the central problem of the novel is that Mr. Bennet has the misfortune to have sired five daughters, all of whom must be provided for, while his modest family estate is entailed upon the nearest male relative. In other words, he is prohibited by law from leaving any of his wealth to his daughters, and of course there is no possibility of women of their social class being allowed or able to earn an income. The only possible solution is for all of them to marry, or for some of them to marry well enough that they will be able to support their unwed sisters.

This is obviously not a concern that translates well to the twenty-first century. This was one of the creators’ reasons for reducing the number of Bennet sisters from five to three (as co-producer Hank Green explains here). The modern Bennet girls will earn their own way in the world, although there’s some concern that with Jane’s ambition to be a fashion designer, Lizzie’s graduate degree in Mass Communications, and Lydia having been relegated to community college because her grades aren’t good enough to get into university, they may not be able to support themselves comfortably in a faltering economy. They worry about student loans and being underemployed. And the differences of wealth and social class between the Bennet girls and their admirers still exist. In one video Gigi Darcy, happily babbling about her family’s winter place in Colorado, innocently asks Lizzie, “And where does your family ski?” — a question that illustrates as well as anything the minefields of class in a supposedly classless society.

But though financial pressures exist and Mrs. Bennet would like to see her daughters marry rich men, marrying “up” is no longer seen as a career move. Mrs. Bennet’s obsession with marrying off her daughters is always presented as a personal oddity rather than the pressing economic necessity it is in Pride and Prejudice.

This, in fact, is the underlying message of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries for those who are familiar with the original: Times Have Changed. Young women, you no longer need to find a man to support you! You can support yourself, and marry only when you find someone you genuinely want to spend your life with, rather than someone who can support you, or a distant cousin upon whom your family’s property is entailed. Let’s be honest: marriage for love, as we practiced it in the 20th century (and continue to practice it in the 21st) certainly has its shortcomings, as evidenced by the divorce rate. But anyone who thinks we need to get back to the “good old days” when a more “traditional view of marriage” prevailed really needs to read their Jane Austen. Marriage in the past was a business arrangement, in which the personal happiness of either partner (but particularly the woman, who unlike her husband would have fewer interests outside the home, no career, and less freedom to pursue extramarital affairs) was a secondary concern.

Jane Austen herself turned down a proposal of marriage from a not-particularly-appealing suitor (much as Elizabeth Bennet turns down Mr. Collins) knowing that by refusing him, she was passing up the chance of greater financial security not only for herself but for her family. In a letter written several years later to a niece who was considering a marriage proposal, Austen urged her “not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection.” But even as she was apply this to both her own and her heroines’ lives, Austen was keenly aware, as her fiction makes clear, that “marrying without Affection” was the lot of many women of  her time, for practical reasons.

Elizabeth Bennet, of course (like thousands of heroines of genre romance that have sprung from the plot outline originally laid down by  Austen) is offered the best of both worlds. After her initial dislike of Darcy turns out to be based on, well, pride and prejudice (on both sides), she is given the opportunity of marrying a man who is both personally appealing to her, and wealthy enough to offer all the security her family could ever desire. The same is true of Jane’s match with Mr. Bingley. But other characters — Charlotte and Lydia — do not fare so well. Charlotte marries the pompous Mr. Collins for security and seems moderately happy; Lydia impulsively elopes with penniless and shiftless George Wickham, whom she adores, and finds that his charm quickly wears thin and married life is less idyllic than she had imagined.

What of their twenty-first century counterparts? Modern Jane Bennet’s story has just reached its conclusion with yesterday’s Episode 92. As in the original, she and Bing are reunited after misunderstandings. But rather than the couple riding off into the sunset to become master and mistress of a country estate, their relationship is resolved in a way that makes it clear that Jane’s career is just as high a priority to her as her relationship with Bing, if not higher. Jane may be the sweetest and most tractable of the Bennet sisters, but she is assertive and insists on an equal partnership. And though we haven’t yet seen the resolution of the Lizzie/Darcy relationship, no-one who’s watched the series can doubt that Lizzie will maintain her independence in whatever romance emerges.

It’s Lydia’s story that’s the most poignant element of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and that most sharply points up the changes in society since 1813. Modern party-girl Lydia, self-absorbed and always out for a good time, occasionally gives her viewers glimpses of the insecurity beneath her bravado — her early videos imply, though never directly state, that it’s not easy being the least obviously bright and talented of the Bennet daughters, nor being the odd girl out of Lizzie and Jane’s tight sisterly bond. There are hints of wistfulness beneath her bubbly exterior that never appear in Book-Lydia (at least, not as seen through Elizabeth’s narrative point of view).

In Pride and Prejudice, Lydia runs away with George Wickham, a handsome militia officer whom Elizabeth briefly admired but for whom she later lost all respect, thanks to Mr. Darcy’s revelations about Wickham’s unsavory past. Lydia writes home that they are going to Scotland to be married, but in fact they go to London, where they live together for a couple of weeks until Mr. Darcy tracks them down and essentially pays Wickham to marry Lydia. Throughout, Lydia seems unaware of the disgrace that living with a man before marriage brings not only upon her but upon her whole family; she appears to have been initially deceived into thinking they are to get married immediately but when no wedding is forthcoming Lydia seems unconcerned. She assumes that they will marry at some point, not knowing that Wickham is keeping her as mistress while trying to keep his options open in hopes of finding a wealthy wife — after which point the discarded Lydia would be shamed for life and valueless on the marriage market. When they do marry, Lydia does so gleefully and without the sense of shame her family feels would be appropriate, and takes great pleasure in her new marital status — until the romance has dimmed and Wickham’s charm has worn thin.

How to translate this situation to the twenty-first century? Obviously, Lydia and George living together would have no shock value at all today, and throughout the series fans speculated about how Lydia might be disgraced. In The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, Lizzie briefly dates handsome swim coach George Wickham, and does indeed begin to see him in a new light after Darcy reveals some facts about George’s past. After Lizzie and Lydia have a nasty quarrel, Lydia runs off to Las Vegas, where she happens upon George and their relationship begins. That relationship unfolds under the watchful eyes of the internet, since George begins appearing in and even orchestrating Lydia’s videos, but without the knowledge of Lizzie, who has stopped watching Lydia’s videos since their argument.

The videos Lydia makes with George are some of the most interesting of the series, since on one level everything that happens between the couple can be seen as a typical romantic cliche. On another level — one viewers were quick to comment on — the relationship appears manipulative and even emotionally abusive (it’s interesting to speculate whether viewers would have been as quick to accuse Wickham of setting up an abusive dynamic if they had not had previous knowledge of book-Wickham’s evil ways). Lydia diminishes almost visibly before the viewers’ eyes, her trademark “totes adorbs” personality becoming muted and quiet, her usually vivid wardrobe replaced by drab and baggy grays and blacks. In a final video, with George absent, Lydia offers a moving testimonial to how much George loves her and how their love has changed her for the better — yet it’s hard to watch her declaring this when every non-verbal clue is shouting the opposite.

It’s the last of Lydia’s videos because the next thing to hit the internet is a website (available online for a day or two before it’s ever mentioned in the videos, and sure enough, it took fans no time to find it and react) offering access to a hot video of YouTube star Lydia Bennet baring all. No actual video appeared on the site, only an email address and a countdown clock, counting down the days until the “Lydia Bennet tape” would become available.

Fan reaction to this revelation was fascinating. The show’s producers and writers had, of course, chosen the perfect scandal to expose Lydia and her family to public shame, and reveal Wickham’s manipulative colours. In 1813, the greatest scandal imaginable for a young woman of good family was for everyone in the community to know that you were having sex outside marriage. In 2013, when everybody assumes you’re already doing that, the greatest scandal is for the community to be able to actually SEE you doing it.

Almost all fans immediately assumed that Wickham was advertising and releasing the video without Lydia’s knowledge or permission, either exploiting a tape they had made together and meant to keep private, or possibly even taping her without her knowledge. Only a few fans opined that Lydia might have been complicit in the video release (and Lizzie herself, upon learning of it, makes the same assumption, only to be excoriated by viewers).

In fact, if Lydia had been involved in the release of the video, the story would have remained truer to the original. Lydia and George deciding together to parlay Lydia’s YouTube popularity into internet stardom via “adult” videos — having a laugh and making a quick buck along the way — would be a better modern equivalent to the couple who run away and live in sin together, heedless of the consequences, in Pride and Prejudice. In this sense, Austen’s Lydia is almost more empowered and independent than her twenty-first century counterpart: rather than being the nearly-innocent victim of an abusive opportunist, book-Lydia is a knowing partner in crime. Book-Lydia would be more empowered, of course, if she were deliberately flouting social convention because she genuinely believed that marriage didn’t matter and that she had the right to sleep with whomever she wanted, regardless of what the neighbours thought. Book-Lydia is no fearless defier of convention, though; she is almost unbelievably stupid, appearing not to recognize or understand the social censure to which she is opening herself. And, of course, that very stupidity and lack of regard for the consequences makes it impossible for her sisters to ever like and respect her, or for the reader ever to view her as a really sympathetic character.

YouTube Lydia is a very different young woman, despite her superficial similarity to her book-original. Though less academically inclined than her sisters, she is never presented as stupid, and beneath her brash exterior is an obvious core of sweetness and vulnerability. Society has changed a great deal since Austen’s day, but not so much that a respectable young woman can become an online star of naughty videos and retain the approval of her family and friends. For Lydia to retain and strengthen her relationship with her sisters — and the fans’ approval — she has to be an innocent victim (suggesting that perhaps our perception of to what degree young women control their own sexuality, while it has come a long way since 1813, may still have some distance to go). Sure enough, Lydia turns out to know nothing about the adult website, is horrified at the thought that George has violated her privacy, and is immensely relieved when the site is taken down without any incriminating video being released to the public (as yet viewers have not been told how this was accomplished, though of course we have our suspicions). After the crisis, Lydia retires (temporarily, fans hope) from appearing in Lizzie’s videos and makes no more of her own, suggesting that the experience has not only scarred her but forced her to reconsider how much of her life she wants to share with the public.

What I found particularly interesting about this entire story arc was that a few fans, even after the illicit video site had been revealed, were suggesting that the story might still end with Lydia and George together, as in the book. Some Austen purists protested that keeping them apart was too big a deviation from the original. But it seemed obvious to me that the sympathetic way in which Lydia’s character had been developed (due at least as much to Mary Kate Wiles’s excellent acting and onscreen charm as to the writing) made this impossible. In 1813, if a man took advantage of you, stole your innocence and shamed you in front of the community, your best case scenario was that he would then marry you. Legal marriage would offer you protection in the eyes of society — even if it offered little in the way of love, congenial company, or protection from domestic abuse. In that sense, women in the 1800s hadn’t come all that far from Biblical times, when the law required a rapist to marry his victim. Those laws seem repugnant today only because we’ve forgotten that in a pre-feminist world such a marriage, unpleasant as it was, really was your best possible outcome.

Thank God — and I say that with all sincerity, believing God to have been behind the feminist movement — this is no longer the case. No-one would suggest today that if a young woman’s boyfriend made compromising pictures and video of her available on the Internet without her consent, her best course of action would be to marry him. The Wickham experience has been shown to be traumatic and probably life-altering for Lydia (we have yet to see what new version of Lydia might emerge from this experience, and very few episodes left in which to see it). But viewers have no real doubt that the Lydia they’ve come to love will emerge wiser and stronger, and certainly with no need of George Wickham in her life.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries series has so much to offer — but really, if keeping Lydia free from marriage to George Wickham were all it offered, it would still be enough. Enough to remind us that although all feminism’s battles have not yet been won, we have come an impressive distance in 200 years.

2 thoughts on “Pride, Prejudice & Feminism: The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (Part Two)

  1. As one of those too-avid, annoying Janeites, I just succumbed to watching LBD last week. I’ve enjoyed your analysis. Have you seen “Lost in Austen”? It gently makes fun of people who yearn for Austen’s era without remembering the oppression, but ends (inconsistently, I think) flaunting the social strictures.

  2. No, I haven’t seen “Lost in Austen” — something else to check out!

    I thought the yearning for Austen’s era was nicely addressed in Lizzie’s last Q&A video when someone asks what era in history she’d like to live in and she basically says, “Duh … the present, of course!”

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