(Originally published 2 October 2014. Special thanks to both Catcher in the Reel and Martha Shearer for permission to repost.)
By Martha Shearer
This article is part of an ongoing project on the topic of web series that will discuss a few key examples over the course of the summer.
For this entry, I am very happy to turn things over to Martha Shearer. Martha first switched me on to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, so I thought, who better to take the reins in discussing the series.
May include mild spoilers.
Over the course of its run from April 2012 to March 2013, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries became one of the most visibly successful web series, going on to win an Emmy last year. It shares with the other web series featured so far in this series the use of direct address and also made extensive use of transmedia storytelling: alongside the primary web series (its protagonist Lizzie’s video diaries) are the characters’ twitters and tumblrs and other characters’ video series and vlogs. But while it shares the faux-vlog style with lonelygirl15 andThe Guild, it differs significantly in its source material: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Lizzie Bennet is an impoverished graduate student who starts a vlog about her life at home with her parents and sisters that begins with the arrival in her small town of wealthy medical student Bing Lee and his friend William Darcy. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is interesting as an adaptation both in its form and in the way it shifts the novel’s economic concerns to a contemporary recessionary context. But it’s also interesting as a web series, because by making Elizabeth Bennet a grad student/vlogger, it’s also a web series about digital media. The fake vlog effect isn’t just stylistic, an effort to establish a connection with the audience by mimicking the style of something ‘real’, Lizzie’s vlogging is also part of the narrative itself. We’re continually reminded of who knows about her videos and dramatic moments come when people discover them. But she also aspires to a career in digital media and her videos end up becoming a kind of showcase for her understanding of the medium, while the series itself becomes a showcase for web video as both a form and an industry. So what I’m going to focus on here is how it depicts digital media and how in doing so it updates the novel’s concern with the future security of its heroines.
Pride and precarity
In Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet daughters need to marry or risk becoming destitute due to inheritance laws favouring male heirs. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries updates this concern with the economic security provided by marriage by instead focusing on work as well as relationships. On his blog showrunner Bernie Su wrote that one of the biggest shifts that needed to happen in modernising Pride and Prejudice was that the series could not just focus on marriage and men:
Obviously Pride and Prejudice does hyperly focus on those two things given the time period but as I said before, this is a different generation. Lizzie Bennet Diaries is a story about modern women, 2012 women. Women who are striving for higher education and/or career aspirations and/or other goals that are more than just “putting a ring on it”.
Charlotte Lu, for example, takes a job with, rather than marrying, Mr Collins.
The Bennet family’s financial difficulties are not the result of patriarchal legal structures, but clearly framed against the backdrop of the 2008 financial crisis: the subprime mortgage crisis, as well as the uncertain futures and precarious working conditions of its young female protagonists. Early episodes are particularly preoccupied with Lizzie and the Bennet family’s financial predicament. Lizzie herself is “getting an advanced degree in Mass Communications, which dooms [her] to a life of unemployment”. Lizzie and her adult sisters all live at home. Her younger sister Lydia is an undergraduate and older sister Jane has a low-paid fashion industry job with a long commute and has defaulted on her student loans (in this version Kitty is an actual cat and Mary is an emo cousin). Meanwhile, Lizzie overhears her parents talking about second mortgages and the falling value of the house. There’s an ongoing subplot about whether the Bennets will lose their home.
In order for her daughters to achieve financial security of some kind, Mrs Bennet is just as preoccupied with marrying off her daughters as in the novel (or, at least, she is according to Lizzie – the character doesn’t appear onscreen until the final episode), but she’s also insistent that Lizzie accept job offers. The idea of marrying for financial security isn’t entirely abandoned, even if it’s only coming from the most ridiculed character. However, in response to this maternal pressure, Lizzie exclaims that it’s not just all about men anymore: “I can get a PhD! I can run a company! I can get one of those crappy mortgages and put myself in horrible, debilitating debt. I mean, more horrible, debilitating debt.”
The three options she gives here are telling: she starts the series as a grad student, ends it running a company, and there’s a constant referencing of debt throughout.
But Lizzie’s eventual route out of her precarious, debt-ridden circumstances is not marriage. It’s the Diaries themselves. By the end of the series both Lizzie and Charlotte (who films and edits Lizzie’s Diaries in the series) have both become enormously successful. Charlotte has been hired as a partner at Collins & Collins at the age of 24 on the basis of her work on Lizzie’s vlog. Lizzie has attracted investors through her Diaries and plans to set up her own start-up in San Francisco. Part of the explanation for this magical outcome is that in splitting the novel’s concerns with security and love into two tracks, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries becomes a romance between Lizzie and both Darcy and the industry in which he and Lizzie work. Darcy is CEO of digital media company Pemberley Digital, which Lizzie shadows as part of her degree. Lizzie also shadows Mr Collins’s company Collins & Collins, which makes tedious corporate instructional videos. We also see Lizzie, Charlotte and Lydia attend VidCon, a web video convention founded by Lizzie Bennet Diaries co-creator Hank Green. In place of offers of marriage, Darcy and Mr Collins offer Lizzie jobs (both of which she ultimately rejects). What Lizzie has to offer, what makes her attractive as an employee to both Darcy and Mr Collins is her emotional connection to her audience, which Mr Collins keeps insisting she needs to exploit for profit. So the connection to the audience that the faux-vlog style generates is part of the narrative itself.
The Diaries also double as a tutorial on how to produce web video. In an early episode Charlotte tells Lizzie to save a topic for a future episode because “Too many subjects in one video and its feels unfocused”. This sort of commentary runs through The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and its other video series. And actually the series isn’t particularly concerned with looking “authentic”, with imitating an amateur style. It’s well lit and well edited, but rather from detracting from its claims to be a grad student’s vlog, the professional look of it has a narrative function. The videos, and the display within the series of Lizzie as a web video producer as well as a participant, become evidence of Lizzie’s creativity. Darcy, for example, asks her to walk him through the making of one of her videos and then tells her that the use of costume theatre (where Lizzie and anyone else appearing on camera dress up as other characters and re-enact events) makes her “unique, different, creative”. And this is crucial to the emphasis on Lizzie as a creative worker and her videos’ role in her future career: we need to see that what she’s doing is work – unique creative labour that ought to gain her financial reward.
Taking a risk on what you love
In one of her Q&A videos, where Lizzie responds to questions asked by YouTube commenters or the character’s Twitter followers, one of the questions she answers is, “What’s your best comeback when people say your degree isn’t as useful as studying something like business?” She placidly responds that for her generation there are no guaranteed jobs, so “since everything is a risk, you might as well take a risk on what you love”. A risk/security dynamic is absolutely central to how the series conceives of Lizzie’s position: in order to escape debt and insecurity she needs to either take the safe, secure route of Collins & Collins (a job offer she turns down and which Charlotte, whose financial difficulties are more severe, accepts), or to embrace risk. This she does at the show’s end, with her start-up. But the framing of this conclusion as Lizzie’s escape is quite remarkable. She rejects security and stability in favour of the typically neoliberal move of embracing risk as a means to freedom and autonomy. We see no sign that once she does this she’ll experience the dominant working conditions in the creative industries: chronic insecurity, uncertainty and subsistence. And throughout the series, apart from the occasional comment that there are things she chooses not to talk about on the vlog, we also don’t get any great sense that Lizzie feels particularly angry or frustrated about her circumstances.
The part of the series where we do get a real sense of anxiety and alienation is in Lydia’s videos. Lydia starts her own vlog when staying with cousin Mary and while it starts out as Lydia’s means of expressing her own personality, once she becomes involved with manipulative swimming coach George Wickham the tone shifts quite dramatically. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is unusually sympathetic in its treatment of Lydia and these videos are excruciating to watch as we see an exuberant young woman drift into an emotionally abusive relationship. The YouTube comments are full of expressions of outrage, sympathy and support; it’s the series’ genuine triumph. And it’s the part of the series where there’s the strongest sense of risk. But crucially, relationships are where risk lies, not work.
There’s never any question of Lizzie’s venture being unsuccessful, and recent follow-up videos are kind of boring in their lack of tension in either Lizzie’s personal or professional life. The series concludes with Lizzie’s permanent success. A way to understand this is to go back to Pride and Prejudice. It’s a text that raises issues of class, patriarchal legal structures and so on, only to ultimately fold them back into a wish fulfilling conclusion: Elizabeth Bennet needs to marry for money, but won’t marry unless for love and ever so conveniently happens to fall for the richest guy around. (The convenience of this doesn’t go unrecognised when Jane asks Elizabeth how long she has loved Darcy and Elizabeth jokes, “I believe I must date it from seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”). So the novel essentially presents us with a form of female independence that disrupts absolutely nothing of existing hierarchical social structures (which may be why it’s such a staple of postfeminist media culture…). The Lizzie Bennet Diaries may go further than this by emphasising the importance of the careers of its protagonists, and being very clear that these women aren’t and shouldn’t be dependent on men, financially or otherwise. But in its depiction of Lizzie’s financial struggles and subsequent escape into the tech industry, it’s also a series that takes economic problems into account, only to never really question their basis. In modernising Pride and Prejudice, we get a modernised form of wish fulfilment, where the creative industries will magically save us with their good kind of risk.
The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is an example of a new kind of literary adaptation, made for and about the web and using transmedia storytelling to generate complexity and depth: we see events from other characters’ perspectives and we also see minor characters being fleshed out in a way that they wouldn’t be otherwise. The success of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has led its producers to establish Pemberley Digital as their own production company, going on to adapt Austen’s Emma as Emma Approved, as well as a collaboration with PBS Digital Studios, Frankenstein MD, that is currently running. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has also inspired other web series literary adaptations of texts including Anne of Green Gables, The Taming of the Shrew, The Phantom of the Opera and Jane Eyre, which explicitly references The Lizzie Bennet Diaries in one of its early episodes: the inspiration of Lizzie’s videos is what prompts an awkward shut-in like Jane Eyre to start a vlog. So The Lizzie Bennet Diaries has been influential. Part of what made it work well as an adaptation was the good fit between the constraints of its source text and an uncritical perspective on digital media as an industry. But what was really special about it was its use of the web series form to create an emotional connection with its audience and in doing so drawing on its viewers’ own anxieties about their personal lives and professional futures.
Here’s a list of all the LBD vlogs in order, including those by other characters:http://www.pemberleydigital.com/the-lizzie-bennet-diaries/story-lbd/video-diaries/
You can get the full transmedia experience – vlogs, tumblr, twitter – here:http://www.pemberleydigital.com/the-lizzie-bennet-diaries/story-lbd/
Next Up: Squaresville