I was sitting on my bed on a Sunday night and had exhausted all the content I was interested in consuming when suddenly a suggestion popped up to watch a vlog from…The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a video series that I hadn’t thought about in nearly five years.
Released in 2013, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries (LBD) is a transmedia adaptation of Pride and Prejudice set in modern-day California. Elizabeth Bennet is a 24-year-old graduate student using 100 episodes of four-minute video blogs (vlogs) to document her life with her two sisters Lydia and Jane, their cat Kitty and cousin Mary. Everything is set into motion when a successful doctor, Bing Lee, his sister Caroline, and their friend William Darcy move into Lizzie’s sleepy town for a summer. Mr. Darcy is the CEO of Pemberley Digital, a software development company, and his sister Georgiana (nicknamed Gigi) is a graphic artist. The main action of the plot takes place on several social media platforms, (several YouTube Channels, a Pinterest account, Instagram accounts, Twitters, and even one external website), and following all of them was essential for understanding the entire story.
There have been many adaptations of Jane Austen’s original story through the years, but this was the first time it was adapted for digital video and social media platforms. The series garnered a massive amount of attention at the time of its release, and I was just as immersed and emotionally invested in the series as everyone else. There was a special quality to watching the videos come out in real time, that unfortunately cannot be replicated revisiting the videos five years out. Witnessing Darcy and Lizzie’s jaunts around San Francisco as they appeared through a series of tweets as they happened was largely what made the series feel so real. It’s possible now to binge the entire series in the span of a couple days, but the slow burn of its extended release made the series uniquely captivating. There was a certain tension in knowing how the story would end but also, not really knowing how the creative team was going to adapt certain elements for the book to fit a millennial’s lifestyle. Furthermore, vlogs comprised much of the highest-grossing content on the YouTube homepage at the time of release, so Lizzie and her friends and family fit seamlessly in with other creators. LBD went on to win the 2013 Emmy award for Outstanding Creative Achievement In Interactive Media – Original Interactive Program, as well as numerous Streamy Awards for screenwriting and acting in both 2013 and 2014.
I started my rewatch with “My Sisters: Problematic to Practically Perfect”, the second episode of 100, immediately wondering how my perception of the series might change re-watching it in 2018, when I had first watched it in 2013 as a college sophomore. How would my perspective change now that I had completed graduate school, Lizzie’s central professional struggle in the series?
As it turns out, I still feel largely the same about the characters.
I maintain that MK Wiles as Lydia is the most delightful performance of the series. Lydia is a college student and even has her own set of vlogs to tell her side of the story. Between this and her appearances in Lizzie’s vlogs, we are able to understand a more sympathetic and three-dimensional character than was originally presented in the novel. It is immediately apparent from her vlogs that her style is completely different from her older sister’s. Where Lizzie sits squarely into the center of frame in interiors that look like sets, Lydia is dynamic, shooting in locations like on top of a hill overlooking Los Angeles or outside of the strip in Vegas. Her style is more natural and closer to what we might expect both from a new creator starting to vlog, and from the norms established by creators of that time. Though she is initially portrayed as silly, Lydia is charming and energetic and, because of this, is immediately magnetic. To witness her slow and unfortunate decline as she is exploited and manipulated by other characters is legitimately painful, and this emotional connection with this character is one of the show’s highlights.
Similarly, Laura Spencer’s performance as Jane Bennet, Lizzie’s “perfect” older sister in both Lizzie and Lydia’s blogs, is also lovely. We truly feel for her sadness and welcome her success as she loses love and starts over in the big new city of Los Angeles. This narrative of leaving a sleepy town in pursuit of a new life in a big city is one that will likely resonate with many young adults. Both Lydia and Jane are able to easily garner audience support and sympathy, and frankly I wanted and still want to see more of them and their interactions with Lizzie.
But five years haven’t changed the fact that I have a difficult time connecting with this iteration of Elizabeth Bennet. I found Lizzie hard to empathize with when I first watched the series, and I think those feelings have only been amplified by having recently completed graduate studies myself, completing the job search and working for a company in which some of the information I handle is confidential.
As the titular prejudiced character, we already knew that Lizzie would likely have fixed ideas about the people around her. But her extreme portrayals of the people around her who she supposedly loves (complete with costumes) lack any nuance and read as unnecessarily callous. Lizzie’s characterization of her little sister Lydia as a “huge whore-y slut” at the beginning of the series hasn’t aged well and in the context of the #MeToo movement seems all the more cruel. Lizzie’s acting feels overdone and campy. In the series, Lizzie’s friend Charlotte makes a note about this, so the audience knows it is intentional on the part of the creators, but I wish we could see more moments of authenticity shine through. If the series were only comprised of Lizzie’s vlogs, it would have been rather boring. This is surprising, considering the series’ choice to give Lizzie a background in communications: if anything, one might expect that she would be able to discern what is or isn’t working for other content creators and adapt her content accordingly, but the format of her vlogs stays generally the same throughout the series. At best, Lizzie’s vlogs on their own are a little boring and at worst, it is truly painful to see how poorly she treats people in the beginning of the series, especially her little sister Lydia.
The premise of Lizzie character (that she is using these vlogs as a way of documenting her life and hopefully using them in her thesis) seems terribly unrealistic in my opinion because of the overlap of her personal and professional lives. We (and any potential employer) know too much of everything from her familial tiffs to her uncertainty about the future. That’s fine for the purposes of storytelling, but not likely a perspective real graduate students would want to have out in the open.
From a professional perspective, it does not make sense that you would drag your family into something that might ultimately be your graduate thesis or impact your professional career. The series could have easily been sold as Lizzie just wanting to document her life and studies and being afraid of post-graduation life. Making the point that this has anything to do with her studies seems somewhat irrelevant to the story that needed to be told. And, as is touched upon in Lizzie’s first vlog at Pemberley, a lot of the information about what she is reporting on is proprietary and I would assume that an actual graduate student would be more prudent about what they choose to share, especially before they’ve gotten a chance to publish their work in a peer reviewed journal (or at least until she completed her thesis). I understand that there is a lot of irony in a communications major being able to talk to hundreds or thousands of subscribers and yet unable to articulate herself to her romantic interest. But if I had a time machine, I would have urged Bernie to reconsider whether that creative goal is worth sacrificing of a certain level of authenticity for a graduate student actively in the job market (not a position of great power).
Furthermore, a thread woven throughout the entire series is Lizzie’s unawareness about the accessibility of content on the internet, but this seems rather unrealistic given that even in 2013, this would seem like basic internet literacy. In the context of someone about to launch into the working world, having all this information about her friends and family connected even a little bit to her professional work seems reckless, especially when one considers that what was in the vlog made that final editing cut. I do think that in general, we as a society are much more jaded and cautious now about what we put up on our personal pages, so perhaps this could be an artifact of 2018 Tiffany revisiting the series from a halcyon era.
As I continued to watch, I kept coming back to a single question. Would The Lizzie Bennet Diaries still occupy the same niche of YouTube content in 2018 and have such a meteoric rise in popularity? It’s hard to say.
Pride and Prejudice occupies a special place in the minds of many, and for those that love the story, I believe they would want to see it through to the end. From the BBC to Bollywood, the story of the proud Mr. Darcy and stubborn Elizabeth Bennet is one that continues to resonate. But the Lizzie Bennet Diaries series in some ways feels like a time-capsule, preserving a YouTube that doesn’t quite exist anymore. Admittedly, this should not come as such a surprise— because YouTube changes every day. But 2013 YouTube was a completely different place than 2018 YouTube is; it was a lot more creator-based and intimate than today’s YouTube. Many channels at the time, like Shay Carl’s family, had daily vlogs that have since fizzled out, since that type of constant content creation is not sustainable for most vloggers. Since the 2016 election, I know that at least my feed has been populated with political commentary and more themed videos from creators, rather than vlogs of their daily lives. Perhaps incidents like the home break-ins, stalking, and other threats in the past few years have made creators more cautious and desire more privacy and distance from their audiences (which would be completely understandable).
Vlogs are no longer the highest-grossing videos on the internet, and the content that graces the Trending Page of YouTube today feels a lot more professional and corporate, because…frankly, it is. BuzzFeed (an actual media company) and cable news have increased their online presences in the last few years, and these companies have raised the bar in terms of production quality. A fledgling content creator like Lizzie would find it difficult to break into today’s YouTube or gain the kind of audience she earned in 2013, especially with recent changes to the Partners program. Also, YouTube the company now sponsors content in YouTube Red shows, elevating YouTube personalities to more traditional actor roles, and YouTube as a medium is starting to fill more of the roles of traditional media, like cable news channels. Against this backdrop, I doubt the LBD vlogs would feel as cutting edge, innovative, and special. If you were to see new videos from Lizzie alongside those of Stephen Colbert, or The Try Guys, how would they compete?
How and why the platform is changing over the past few years (for better or worse) has been a subject of much discussion between YouTubers recently. Re-watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries gave me the chance to indulge in some nostalgia, as most content created prior to Fall 2016 does. The Lizzie Bennet Diaries was a completely experimental creative form, one that I do not think even the creators have reproduced as successfully with their subsequent shows Emma Approved and Frankenstein, MD. At the time, these platforms themselves were so new (Instagram was only two years old!) that this idea to create an immersive digital experience was truly innovative and the awards and accolades it received are absolutely well-deserved. This particular adaptation wasn’t perfect in my opinion, but the idea of a transmedia experience was and still is incredibly groundbreaking. And despite my feelings about Lizzie, the cast was entertaining and even now, I can’t help but want to binge watch the episodes again. Criticisms aside,The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ crowning achievement was that it made viewers feel deep emotions and have strong opinions about every single character. It brought the story to life in such a unique way that I do not believe any other adaptation can imitate again.
NB: All images and characters are the property of Pemberley Digital.