Saturday, May 28, 2022

Rediscovering the Feminist Genius of ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’

Ten years ago today, one of the most groundbreaking webseries ever produced premiered on YouTube. Originally conceived as a modern era Pride and Prejudice adaptation in which viewers followed the life and times of 24 year old grad student Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bennet (Ashley Clements) via vlog, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD) ultimately changed the way interactive media content was produced. It was one of the first webseries that spanned well over 100 episodes (for an independent production company, no less), and was the first to win an Emmy Award.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries offered a new way of engaging with Pride and Prejudice, unafraid to make changes where necessary but always retaining the intent of the original. But the most important, and the most effective, aspect of the LBD experience was the way that it centered female stories and gave voices to characters that had long been relegated to background status in the main romantic narrative of Pride and Prejudice. LBD consciously chose to center Lizzie’s search for herself rather than her search for love. Of course, Darcy (Daniel Vincent Gordh) is a major figure in the story whose first on-camera appearance (in episode 60 out of 100, no less!) was heavily teased for months. Their romance is swoon-worthy and steamy, living up to the high bar set by other Pride and Prejudice adaptations and often exceeding it.

But LBD is really about Lizzie and her sisters growing up and deciding what kind of people they want to be. Viewers watch them struggle in real time, like the slow changes in Lizzie and Charlotte’s friendship as they grow apart. The relationship between Lizzie, Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles), and Jane (Laura Spencer) is complex. They tease and annoy each other as sisters do, providing a lot of the comedy early on. But between the main LBD videos and the various side vlogs that supported them, we see how fierce their love is for each other despite their disagreements. Their growth is the engine that drives the series forward.

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It’s the way Lydia’s story is handled in particular that makes LBD the best Pride and Prejudice adaptation out there. Lydia’s arc with George Wickham (Wes Aderhold) is no longer about a cautionary tale of a flighty girl meeting a dashing rogue and ruining her reputation. It’s about the bond between sisters and the ways we hurt each other, intentionally or not. While Lydia is first introduced as a bright, happy college student (if a bit self obsessed), we soon see that the way she is dismissed by Lizzie (and others) has grave consequences for her self esteem and later choices. Lydia just wants someone to take her seriously, to see that she can enjoy partying and fun clothes but also be worthy of respect. Even her older sisters see her as a silly child (and in Lizzie’s case, make sure she knows it).

Unlike the original novel, which mostly uses Lydia as a plot device, LBD gives Lydia agency. She has her own spin-off series The Lydia Bennet, providing context to the rumors about her that are discussed on the main show. Her unfiltered thoughts and subtle personality changes throughout her vlogs create a nuanced character far from the Lydia we have come to expect. While her sister Lizzie may not know everything that is going on with Lydia, we as the viewer do, and it’s like watching a slow moving car crash as George Wickham gains a foothold in her life. Wiles is heartbreaking as Lydia, reminding us at every turn that while Lydia can occasionally be mean, she’s still a young girl trying to figure out who she is and what her place is in her family.

The Lydia Bennet shows an emotionally volatile relationship playing out in real time, and for preteen and teen viewers who watched Lydia’s story week to week, it was an invaluable resource to show how easy it can be to be sucked into an abusive relationship. Her final solo vlog before disaster strikes, “Good Enough,” is Wiles’ best work. It’s devastating to watch Lydia try to justify George’s behavior as she convinces herself that what she has with him is true love. The updated version of Lydia’s “ruination” is a secret sex tape recorded by George and distributed without Lydia’s consent or knowledge, allowing for incisive commentary on revenge porn and assault written by female writers. Writers like Rachel Kiley and Kate Rorick gave Lydia layers that Austen did not, alongside Wiles’ acting choices.

LBD dared to place the blame squarely on Wickham and his manipulation. Lydia is clearly the victim both in Pride and Prejudice and LBD. But in prior adaptations of Pride and Prejudice and in the original text, Lydia ends up marrying her abuser to save face (as arranged by Darcy). She shares equal blame for what happened, both in how the other characters discuss Lydia and Wickham’s relationship and in how the narrative treats her. While this is period accurate, it reduces Lydia’s experience to a problem that Darcy helps solve, thereby earning Lizzie’s trust. Lydia is “punished” for her mistakes in a way that has permanent implications for her life. She’s barely a footnote in the story after that as Lizzie and Darcy’s connection takes center stage.

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In LBD, Lizzie, Jane, and Lydia work together to help Lydia deal with the fallout of Wickham’s actions. While Darcy is certainly supportive, he’s no hero swooping in to save the day. Lydia gets to share her story with the world and address her trauma directly with viewers. She is ultimately given back the control that was taken from her, and though she still has plenty of healing left to do, we know that she will be okay. There’s even a spin-off book, The Epic Adventures of Lydia Bennet, that continues Lydia’s story after the vlogs conclude. Lydia gets therapy and learns how to navigate her new online reputation, a cathartic and satisfying read for LBD viewers who grew to love Lydia.

This feminist approach to Lydia strengthened the main story as much as it fleshed out Lydia’s arc. Lizzie’s angry rant about how she failed her sister by reducing her to a “party girl” stereotype marks a turning point for Lizzie. By the end of the series, she is unrecognizable as the girl who first stared into the camera to document her life. Clements develops Lizzie beautifully through her performance, creating the most relatable version of Elizabeth Bennet that has ever been presented on-screen.

It’s no exaggeration to say that LBD is the benchmark by which all modern Austen adaptations should be judged. It broke the mold of traditional storytelling by breathing new life into its subjects, from Twitter posts supposedly written by the characters that directly commented on the unfolding story to spin-offs meant to give other characters more agency than in the traditional Pride and Prejudice narrative. LBD sparked a passionate fandom wave that helped to define a Tumblr era. On its tenth anniversary, it’s important to celebrate this brilliant webseries and the unapologetically feminist approach of its creative team.

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube. Ashley Clements is currently hosting The Look Back Diaries to celebrate the anniversary, which you can watch here!

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