Villainy, Slut-Shaming, and the Art of Adaptation in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

E: Our faithful readers might recall from last week that at least two of the three Quibbling Siblings have fallen under the spell of the marvelous, the delightful, the charming Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern transmedia — vlog (mockuvloggery?), Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, etc. — retelling of our beloved Pride and Prejudice.

C: If you read our Pride and Prejudice at 200 post, you’ve already heard some of our praise of this nifty series, so after E gets a little more of it out of her system (though, judging by her frequent emails to me on the subject, there may be an endless supply) we’re planning to tackle a little critical analysis of the latest developments in this unusual adaptation.

E: Web series, how do we love thee?  So many ways.  For taking the costumes out of one of our favorite costume dramas, and then explicitly playing costume theater?  For this alone I could love you.  But happily for the rest of the (not so nerdy) world, the show has myriad other charms.

C: Very attractive actors, for instance.

E: (Fans self)  Why, whatever do you mean?   You don’t mean Bing, do you?  On the less shallow side, the characters are goofy, fun, flawed and endearing and engaging, and they learn from their mistakes.  And for devoted fans of Austen’s work, it’s never less than a pleasure to speculate over how the great Jane’s words will be adapted.

C: And episodes that average 3-5 minutes in length. Perfect for a quick, pretty work break!

E: Exactly. The ideal reward for hard work, even upon re-watching.  But what does this have to do with villainy and slut-shaming, you ask?  Just at this moment we’ve reached the defining point in any modernization of this story: Lydia and Wickham’s stalled elopement.  What to do with a drama that centers around the devastation of premarital sex when its mere mention no longer makes virtuous maidens flush in shame?  You can take away the side bangs and ball gowns easily enough, but how do you make Lydia’s undoing a horror? Just what is the modern equivalent?

Lydia and Wickham take a modern guise

“My ‘undoing’? Excuse me?”

C: LDB teased us at New Year’s with a trip to Vegas where Lydia and Wickham met up on the strip. I did think it was possible they were going to go with a runaway marriage after all — which doesn’t have at all the same weight of scandal, but which certainly wouldn’t register as a brilliant life choice to the family of a ne’er-do-well just-turned-21-year-old girl.

E: I knew that wasn’t bad enough. After all, they could just get it annulled, Britney-style. No, as Charlotte Lu might put it… I totally called it.

C: You called it?

E: Absolutely!  I totally knew that a sex tape/video was the perfect scandal for a modern retelling. Wait, why – didn’t I talk about that with you?

C: Nope.

E: Phooey.  I guess that must have been back when I was waiting (impatiently) for you to catch up with real time.  Okay, well, I did call it, but apparently it was to strangers on the internet instead of you.  (Of course, being on the internet, it’s verifiable.)

C: That’s the important thing. One needs one’s smugness credentials.

E: One certainly does.  At any rate, it seemed to me that the best possible choice of scandal, given the world that the LBD team set up for the story — Lydia has a popular vlog, Wickham is clearly all too interested in internet fame — would be a sex tape, or some sort of video circulating online.

C: And that’s what happened — we have a countdown and pre-order site set up advertising a sex tape with “You Tube Star Lydia Bennet.”

E: As you said, C, there’s been speculation that “Lyckham” would get married in Vegas, or that Lydia would get pregnant–

C: I never said the L– word.

E: –but neither of those really made sense to me; how are those problems Darcy can solve?  Because to prove his love for Lizzie, suitor Darcy has to fix this.  As internet video mogul, Web Darcy might be able to weave some sort of digital magic to erase the tape.

C: Hm, I don’t really think that’s possible. Even if Darcy could hack Wickham’s sex tape website, Wickham could still upload the original video file elsewhere.

E: Well, yeah, exactly how that’s going to work out I can’t fathom.  In fact, I’m looking at it as a kind of wonderful mystery.  In Tuesday’s installment, Fitz (the Web version’s Colonel Fitzwilliam) intimated that Darcy wouldn’t just be able to “throw money” at the situation as he did to detach George from Gigi.  But Darcy has proclaimed “I will find him” and I?  I believe him.

C: I did assume he was going to bribe Wickham to destroy the video, though. It’ll be interesting to see if they can find a believable way around that.

E: I know, right?  What else can he do?  I can’t wait to find out.  But while we wait, let’s go back to the topics at hand. Wickham making Lydia fall for him, secretly taping their first tryst and then attempting to sell it online definitely qualifies as villainy.  So what’s the other part?  When something private gets broadcasted, and the girl’s made to be ashamed of sexual behavior that was normal in its original context, there you have it.  As much as we like to think we’re evolved about sexual freedoms and equalities in the last 200 years, it’s quite telling that Lydia’s the one humiliated and potentially scarred by this tape.

C: Really? You think if it wasn’t presented as a bad thing for her, that would constitute an “evolution” of “sexual freedom”? I’m pretty sure Lydia would have to consent to have her sexual activity made public for this to be anything other than a horrifying violation.

E: I don’t at all mean that putting a sex tape online is an instance of sexual freedom; I do think, though, that there’s a level to which bringing sexuality into a public forum is automatically humiliating to the woman, but not the man.  If we don’t expect Lydia to be a virgin until she’s married, then isn’t it interesting that there’s still such devastation in the proof of it?

C: Um, no. You’re married, but I think both you and Mr. E would be devastated to find your 100% culturally sanctioned intimate life displayed on the internet. It’s about privacy. I have no moral stance against pooping, but I don’t want to see a video on Youtube of someone I know doing that either.

E: Yes, of course, but it’s not just about the heinous invasion of her privacy. Yeah it’s Wickham’s choice to go public and not hers; but even if it weren’t, she’s the one who’ll be followed by the scandal forever. It’s not just that we’re embarrassed for her.  It’s the anticipated, lifelong public response to it.  They may elect porn stars to Parliament in Italy, but not in America.

Rep. Henry Waxman

Not a porn star. We are pretty sure.

We’re told that sexting and sexy photos are the norm for teens, but heaven help you if you’re the one whose pictures get circulated.  It’s hard not to hear about the way the internet is plastered with girls like Lydia, unintentional web stars judged for what they wear, who they’ve dated, how far someone thinks they’ve gone — even though at the same time we (as a culture) expect them to be sexually active.  In that sense, the targeting of women with these kind of videos shows that we haven’t come as far as we think in our attitudes about gender and sex.

C: Perhaps. In general I agree with you on that last idea, but unless you’re a reality star I think a sex tape is probably a bad idea for anyone.

E: Unchallenged.  (And, when you think of it, an issue that resonates with Austen’s text, where we see the distance between private sin and public exposure.)

C: In fact, in one of the meta-posts surrounding The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, where the creators break the fourth wall and discuss the series, head writer Bernie Su thanks both Mary Kate Wiles and Wes Aderhold, the actors playing Lydia and Wickham, for their bravery in “putting themselves … in the most vulnerable position in our industry” by allowing the sex tape image to circulate. The fact that an in character image of two actors, from shoulders up no less, could still be the cause of great concern for both their careers, was what really brought home for me the huge weight that attaches to this kind of thing.

E: Well, there it is.  Partly, I’m sure, because the order page they’ve created for the tape is just so monumentally skeezy.

C: Within the world of the story, too, the reason the other characters (who at first believe that Lydia agreed to sell the video) caution her about the stupidity of this “decision” but not George, is because they hate him — it’s not like his career wouldn’t also be endangered by something like this.

E: Right, especially as a college swim coach.  He’s probably not the world’s best planner.

C: Or he’s planning on a very big payout from Darcy…

E: I don’t know — do you think he expects that will happen?  I think his motivation is much more vindictive, to hurt Lizzie.

C: Oh, I think it’s definitely for money. He saw Darcy’s on-camera declaration of love and took his cue from there.

E: Oh, interesting.  I mean, I think he’s doing it to get back at Lizzie and Darcy, but if he wanted to be paid off, wouldn’t he be easier to find?  But to get back to the point, yes, of course we’re worried about Lydia and not George because George is evil and Lydia is not — and because the tape was created with George’s permission and not Lydia’s — but there’s still a level where, in today’s culture, it’s always going to be more damaging to the woman. That’s why, in the title of this post, I brought up the term “slut-shaming.”

C: Of which our readers – in case they’re still wondering – can find a handy definition here.

E: This is perhaps not a normal instance of what one means when using the term, but it does raise a lot of the same issues. Did Lydia’s behavior, selling a party girl image online, open her up to this kind of attack? Wickham certainly made use of her earlier videos, especially her mention of drug use and of having rumors spread about her by a guy in school, to manipulate her. “Not the reaction I expected from someone who posted the video for thousands of people,” he scolds her when she’s embarrassed by his reminder.

C: Interesting point. Wickham’s website uses the slogan: “See YouTube star Lydia Bennet reveal EVERYTHING” — he certainly is playing off her reputation, in more senses than one. So you could definitely say that the series is either buying into the idea that women need to be more cautious of their public image, or playing off of the reality of that fact.

E: After watching all his creepy game-playing and then seeing the launch of this sex tape, I’ve been debating whether Book Wickham or Webseries Wickham is more culpable, and for sheer meanness, I might give it to Web Wicks.  What he’s done to Lydia is so twisted and despicable it hurt to watch.

C: There’s no contest! Book Wickham doesn’t hurt Lydia. Mostly, of course, that’s because Book Lydia doesn’t have a sense of shame, making her humiliation-proof.

E: Well, wait a second there. Book Wickham is described as not having set out to ruin Lydia — merely unable to resist the temptation of decamping with a companion.  But this seems like an instance of slut-shaming, too.  Book Wickham might still have made his fortune by marrying a rich girl, but Book Lydia is finished.

C: Well, yes. That’s how the whole patriarchy thing worked. But you don’t need me to go into my Gender History Lecture; as Mary Bennet so usefully stated: “loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable … one false step involves her in endless ruin.”  Just because a man is culpable, though, that doesn’t always make the woman innocent!

You surely recognize The Pill.

Fun Lecture Fact: these were invented, and folks stopped calling girls “ruined,” around the same time. Huh!

E: Book Lydia is thoughtless, heedless of the importance of her mistake — but surely Wickham had to plan this assignation; it’s not as if she accidentally stumbled upon his carriage in the middle of the night.  Whether or not a fifteen-year-old kid knew it was a dumb move doesn’t excuse the fact that he deliberately used her, knowing the results would be permanent for her.  And where there’s premeditation, my sympathy disappears; it’s fascinating that it took this adaptation to really show me that.

C: But that’s why I don’t feel sympathy for her! Sure, she ostensibly runs away with him to get married, but she isn’t at all fussed when he doesn’t lead her straight to the altar — when Darcy arrives to “save” her, she refuses to leave: “he found Lydia absolutely resolved on remaining where she was. She cared for none of her friends; she wanted no help of his; she would not hear of leaving Wickham. She was sure they should be married some time or other, and it did not much signify when.”

E: That doesn’t make you feel bad for her?  She clearly is still besotted, and thinks he means to marry her, which he absolutely does not.

C: What you apparently take as a touching confession of faith, I read as indifference — to morality, yes, but worse: to what this means for her family. Lydia doesn’t need to have paid attention to Fordyce’s Sermons to know that her choices negatively effect her sisters; but she’s not thinking about that. When she comes back to her family after the ordeal she’s put them through, “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy, and fearless.” While Web Lydia’s currently devastated on LBD, Book Lydia is always feeling fine. Wickham’s level of “sheer meanness” is, to my mind, proportional to the damage Lydia suffers by it.

E: Clearly the emotional impact of his actions is not the same, but how does that excuse him?  She was wrong in trusting him.  He had no intention of marrying her.  What would have happened to her if Darcy hadn’t intervened?  And then look at the best case scenario.  Like an old testament virgin, Book Lydia is tethered for life to her (statutory) rapist.

C: That’s an awfully grim view of a character who makes her own choices of her own free will. You’re denying all her agency, but I don’t think we’re supposed to think Lydia is not responsible for her choices because of her age. The fact that her mother is just like her suggests that Austen sees Lydia as a formed personality. And in fact, she gives Lydia and Wickham in the book a sort of happy ending — as happy together, at any rate, as either is likely to be with anyone, given that neither one has any principle or deep feeling. They fall out of love and borrow money from everyone in order to amuse themselves, and that’s the extent of their “punishment.”

E: That we hear in a rather short summing up, anyway.  We can’t know if Lydia really was beyond redemption — if she could have done better, been better, when surrounded by better companions.  Could she have eventually improved as Kitty did?  Doesn’t Austen blame Mr. Bennet for not trying harder, for just giving up on her?

C: I just plain disagree. Yes, Lydia may have had the material of a less terrible girl in her, but the fact is that it wasn’t developed by education or training of any kind. By the time we meet her, she is what she is. You can’t imagine her into a psychologically complex character just because you want her to be one; Austen is all about calling a spade a spade. She specifically states that Kitty is able to improve because “she was not of so ungovernable a temper as Lydia.” And Book Wickham knew she wasn’t the kind of person he could hurt emotionally when he ran away with her, which is why I see him as less vicious than Web Wickham (though still wicked). On the other hand… I’m just now having this thought: Book Georgiana is innocent…

E: And Book Lydia isn’t?  Both run away with a guy they think wants to marry them.

C: Would it suit you better if I say Book Georgiana is virtuous? She’s a good person who cares deeply, and she’s manipulated into believing that Wickham truly loves her. So on reflection, Book Wickham does have the heartless manipulative qualities of Web Wickham after all. I guess I’m coming around to your way of thinking, for different reasons.

E: Excellent. And in return, I’ll agree with you that Web Lydia has far more depth than Book Lydia; in some ways her exuberant party girl with the soft, insecure inside charms even more than her judgmental older sister.  Mary Kate Wiles is devastatingly affecting as the girl foolishly opening up to a manipulator: “He cooked me this ridiculous dinner at his place Saturday night — he wouldn’t let me help with anything!  What guy does that, unless he really cares?” Ugh.

From Lydia Bennet episode 25

Lydia, diminished.

C: Doesn’t that say so much about our culture today? We can overlook almost any other “bad behavior” sooner than a judgmental attitude.

E: Oh, interesting thought.  Which is kind of perfect, right, since such judgement (and misjudgment) is such a major theme of the novel Pride and Prejudice.

C: But for me, the point you just made about Web Lydia is where the “slut-shaming” concept really raises an interesting, and perhaps strange, question: is shame an asset in fiction? Since Lydia’s a fictional character,  in the end it doesn’t matter whether we believe that she should be ashamed of her actions or not — what matters is whether or not we identify with her.

E: Now that’s even more interesting.  We don’t enjoy seeing Lizzie shame Lydia, even if Lizzie’s trying to be helpful and put Lydia on her guard, but as long as Lydia can feel embarrassed and hurt, we feel for her.  Because whether or not you change your behavior, we do seem to culturally find some sort of virtue in feeling guilty.

C: Exactly. I’d say the one significant character difference between Book Lydia and Web Lydia boils down to this: Web Lydia cares what other people think. She’s hurt when her loved ones seem to disregard or disapprove of her, just like us. We all, in some situations, have felt that feeling. On the other hand, Book Lydia don’t care. That’s why almost every article or discussion post you’ve sent me a link to has included a comment like “Lydia’s my favorite character in this adaptation!” or “I never liked Lydia before, but now I love her.”

E: Yes, spot on.

C: And when does that start? When do you go from being amused (or annoyed) by Web Lydia to feeling for her? For me it was the babysitting episode, when she identifies with the little boy whose siblings are ignoring him.

E: I  agree, that’s just when we start to see the vulnerable side of Lydia, which continues through her somewhat tumultuous relationship with cousin Mary. That’s why it’s so devastating when she and Lizzie have their big fight; we know how much Lizzie’s opinion of her matters, and we know immediately what a painful blunder Lizzie’s ill-considered present was.

TLDB Episode 74

C: Yes… because unlike Book Lydia, who literally does not listen when her sisters are talking, Web Lydia is crushed to think that Lizzie has a poor opinion of her. I stand by my statement: the fact that this Lydia is capable of feeling frustration, embarrassment, shame, neglect — and grateful affection — in reaction to how the other characters treat her, is the difference between her and Book Lydia, and the reason we like her more.

E: It is interesting how the series plays with showing characters in a better light than the book, while also making them culpable. They even balance a more apparently sympathetic (to the unwary viewer) take on Wickham with glimpses of his nefarious side. From the moment Lydia spills a drink on him and Wicks gladly bares his abs for the camera, we can see that he’s hooked on the limelight.

C: LOL, sis, this just goes to show that you and your girlfriends were all married before the age of online dating. It’s hard to find a single man these days who doesn’t post shirtless photos of himself on the internet.

E: You’re kidding!  Are you kidding?  You are, right? Granted I could see wanting to show off abs like Wicks’s, but, really? I’m sorry, but I have a lot of trouble imagining your single male friends doing that.  (Also, shut up, I am not that old.)

C: Oh good grief, no, not my male friends. They’re literature grad students! They have too much self-respect, and too little time to spend whaling on their abs, for that. But you only have to cruise OKCupid for about three minutes to see dozens of shirtless dudes — most not fictional. Getting back to your point though, you’re right that Wickham comes across as willing to perform.

E: It’s quite clear from his use of Lizzie’s sign-on, his constant chatter about whether Lizzie watches Lydia’s videos and whether (as his sort of ex) she’ll be jealous of their new relationship, and the peculiar way he confesses love for Lydia, turns a knowing eye at the camera and almost grins “Oh my God! Did I say that for the first time on video?” that Wickham’s intentions are ill.  I feel like he made it much too clear that his actions were pointed toward Lizzie (who had betrayed him) rather than Lydia.  Book Wickham at least lacks this layer of villainy.

C: Yes, at least on the page. He did calculatingly play on Georgiana’s feelings to get revenge on Darcy, but we’re only told that story in brief summary, from Darcy’s perspective. The web series heightens our awareness of his culpability there by having Gigi tell her own story.

E: I love that aspect of the show.  Gigi has agency!  I can’t help thinking this would be a great teaching tool in high schools, and not just to learn about Jane Austen’s amazing novel.  What not to put on the internet, how to know when a boy really likes you, how to expect to be treated…

C: That is a great point. If this is used in the classroom, as I expect it will, most likely it’ll be in college literature courses. But I feel like a high school might be an amazing place to start conversations about the modernization of Lydia’s story — not least because very few 15-year-olds, whether they’re more like Lydia or more like Georgiana, think of themselves as mere powerless victims.

Advertisements

5 comments on “Villainy, Slut-Shaming, and the Art of Adaptation in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries

  1. Jill says:

    This is amazing, you guys. 😀 I still haven’t started watching the series (I will eventually, especially after reading E.’s glowing reviews!), but if I ever do and ever teach it, I’d want to link my students to this conversation. This is how thoughtful discussion is done.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s