Of Jane Austen, the Bennet Sisters… and VAWA?

lizzie bennet“I let him film us having sex, Lizzie. I let him do that. … He never made me do anything, so just tell me that I didn’t get what I had coming Lizzie, just try to tell me that!”

A sobbing and self-abusive young woman named Lydia Bennet is speaking to her older sister Lizzie on the latter’s YouTube Vlog. They have just learned that Lydia’s so-called boyfriend, George Wickham, has set-up a website and is staging a countdown to the worldwide release of what Lydia thought was a private sex tape of her. “I thought he loved me,” Lydia cries in her sister’s arms.

The scene is featured in the 87th episode of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, the sensationally popular YouTube series and transmedia phenomenon created by Hank Green and Bernie Su, based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.

As a college professor and Jane Austen scholar I (like many of my colleagues) have been fascinated by the series. My students told me about it in a Jane Austen course I taught last semester and since then I’ve been hooked. In an earlier Ms. blog, I praised The Lizzie Bennet Diaries for its refusal to overly romanticize Mr. Darcy.

But nothing has impressed me more than the Diaries’s treatment of the Lydia plot in Pride and Prejudice. The adaptation not only continues the series’ de-emphasis on romance but also celebrates the importance of female bonds and addresses the need for women to work together to address sexual victimization.

Austen herself cherished female bonds. Her closest companion was her sister Cassandra, and several of her novels stress the value of same-sex friendship. “Perhaps no man can be a good judge of the comfort a woman feels in the society of one of her own sex,” says Mrs. Weston in Emma. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet is bosom buddies with her sister Jane and distraught when her best friend Charlotte marries the idiotic Mr. Collins. (The Lizzie Bennet Diaries redeem Charlotte by having her merely accept Mr. Collins’s job offer.)

But when it comes to Lydia, the Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice has only scorn. She calls her youngest sister “vain, ignorant, idle and absolutely uncontrolled.” In the novel, Lydia has sex with George Wickham, a huge taboo in 19th century England. In most novels of the period, female characters who have sex out of wedlock are doomed to die. At the very least, Lydia’s life will be ruined, her family stained, and her older sisters’ marital prospects compromised. When Elizabeth learns about Lydia’s scandal, she assumes that Darcy is forever lost to her.

Screen shot 2013-03-06 at 11.07.38 AMLike Elizabeth Bennet, Lizzie Bennet is contemptuous of Lydia—so much so that she calls her a “whorey slut” as early as the second episode. In the 87th episode, as they await Wickham’s release of the sex video, Lydia pointedly re-quotes her: “None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been acting like a stupid whorey slut again, right?” Having watched her older sister’s Vlog, Lydia knows exactly what Lizzie thinks of her. Indeed, Lydia produces 29 episodes of her own Vlog—also available on YouTube—partly to compete with Lizzie and partly to attract her attention, which Lydia desperately craves. It is thanks to this secondary Vlog that George Wickham gains access to Lydia and turns her vulnerability into porn. In this way, Lizzie is herself partly responsible for Lydia’s tragedy. By calling her sister a whore, Lizzie triggered a chain of events which, in the anarchy of the Internet, led her younger sister into a form of involuntary and horrifically public prostitution.

In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy secretly coerces Wickham into marrying Lydia and the scandal is resolved. Nevertheless, Elizabeth remains “disgusted” with her sister: “Lydia was Lydia still; untamed, unabashed, wild, noisy and fearless.” Earlier, the Bingley sisters described Elizabeth as “wild” and accused her of “abominable … independence.” She too once longed for freedom and refused feminine decorum. Not so by the novel’s end, when Elizabeth judges her sister with sexist harshness.

In contrast, Lizzie Bennet recognizes her complicity in Lydia’s trauma and reaffirms their bonds. “No, no, no,” she cries when Lydia re-quotes the “whorey slut” comment. “I … put that line in Episode Two with the intention” of “having it come back to bite Lizzie,” Rachel Kiley, the ingenious writer of both episode 2 and 87, wrote on Tumblr. Kiley “took the line and made Lizzie learn from [its] ramifications,” said Bernie Su.

What does Lizzie learn? She learns that she cannot call her sister a slut without violating her and that she cannot attack female sexuality without abetting the very system that makes women prone to attack. There is a fine line between Lizzie’s mental exposure on her Vlog and the pornographic exposure forced upon Lydia. Lizzie represents herself as intellectually and socially superior to her sister, but in a world of female objectification and commodification she, too, is exploitable, and all women are vulnerable to harm.

Unlike in Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth scapegoats Lydia and steps into the conservative comforts of marriage, Lizzie finally starts seeing herself as Lydia’s equal and her defender, and she recognizes their ineffable bonds. As Lydia weeps about her love of him, Lizzie substitutes herself: “I love you. … I love you. Do you hear me? I love you. You are not alone.” When Lydia blames herself for Wickham’s sex crime, Lizzie insists, “You didn’t deserve this!”

That message is especially crucial to Kiley. She wrote me,

Just because Lydia has a history of being flirtatious and having sex and willingly made [the sex] tape doesn’t mean it’s in any way her fault that Wickham exploited her. I hope that having Lizzie defend Lydia not only signifies [Lizzie’s] growth … but sends a positive message to any other girls who can relate to Lydia in any way.

By episode 88 the problem is resolved. Wickham’s website disappears. Lydia is saved from forced pornography. As a Pemberley Digital video (part of another interpolated series narrated by Darcy’s sister Gigi) reveals, Darcy is, of course, the hero who foils Wickham’s plans—just like in the novel.

Nevertheless, the feminist point remains the same. Even more than they need Darcy, Lizzie and Lydia need to love each other and work together. As proven by the recently victorious effort to renew the Violence Against Woman Act, there is no fighting sexual abuse without female bonds.

Screenshots via The Lizzie Bennet Diaries on Youtube


Susan Celia Greenfield, Associate Professor of English at Fordham University, is the author of Mothering Daughters: Novels and the Politics of Family Romance and of many scholarly articles on early women novelists. In addition to the Ms. Blog, her op-eds and reviews have appeared in CNN Opinion, The Huffington Post, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and PBS Need to Know. She also publishes short fiction.