kingakowalska ([personal profile] kingakowalska) wrote in [community profile] popcultureinvestigators2013-10-30 01:19 am

Kinga Kowalska - Peek-a-boo with Mr Darcy. Mediated voyeurism in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.

Title: Peek-a-boo with Mr Darcy. Mediated voyeurism in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.
Author: Kinga Kowalska, Graduate Student at the University of Silesia
Type: Presentation
Author's note: This paper was first delivered on May 9, 2013 at the Institute of English Cultures and Literatures, University of Silesia in Sosnowiec, Poland, at the first official meeting of the Popular Culture Research Initiative. The form of the paper was a multimedia presentation with short screenings of relevant fragments of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and I will attempt to recreate its transmedia character in the following transcription.

Jane Austen's most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, has been adapted a staggering number of times, remaining a favourite romantic storyline of film and TV producers alike. Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet have been prideful and prejudiced not only in 19th century England, but also have gotten themselves transposed to many an exotic location, including contemporary Utah (Pride and Prejudice: A Latter Day Comedy, 2003) and modern-day India (Bride and Prejudice, 2004). It would therefore be easy to dismiss The Lizzie Bennet Diaries as just another in a long line of updated reimaginings of the timeless love story, were it not for its innovative form. For the webseries re-tells the well-known tale through the use of videoblogs and various other forms of Internet social networking, making the project one of the first successful instances of transmedia storytelling. My aim is to have a closer look at the narrative forms used in the series and to analyse how they represent the ideas of mediated voyeurism proposed by Clay Calvert in Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture (2004).

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, created by Hank Green and Bernie Su, aired on YouTube between 9 April 2012 and 28 March 2013, cumulating in 100 episodes - Lizzie Bennet's videoblogs of the base storyline - which spanned 7 hours of film and have garnered more than 40 million total views. True to its transmedia character, the story does not end with the main vlog, but expands over to vlogs of other characters, as well as conversations on Twitter and Facebook, providing diverse perspectives which serve as additional layers to the main plot. When introducing the show to his audience on Vlogbrothers, Hank Green stressed the project's unique and experimental character, expressing his concerns about whether the form of videoblogs would be a successful narrative technique due to its formal constraints, but in the end he believed the experience to be worth the possibility of failure:

The webseries' stupendous popularity is proof that new media are the future of storytelling, and The Lizzie Benet Diaries have become a pioneer of immersive and participatory online cinematography. An astronomical number of total views is not the only measure of the show's success: in recognition of the show's creative impact, the producers Bernie Su and Jay Bushman and transmedia editor Alexandra Edwards were awarded an Emmy for Original Interactive Program. The project has been so well received that it prompts the investigation into the forces behind it. No doubt a solid script, intriguing performances, and clever updates to the beloved Jane Austen novel, as well as nods to feminism and ethnic diversity are the major source of the show's appeal. However, it is the transmedia form and its advantages and constraints which provide a perhaps less obvious reason for the increased interest in the adaptation.

In the context of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, 'transmedia' is defined by Jay Bushman, the series' transmedia producer, as:

Apart from the 100 episodes of Lizzie Bennet's vlog, which form the base of the story, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries consists of two personal vlogs of supporting characters (Lydia Bennet and Maria Lu), and two YouTube channels for the fictional companies Collins and Collins and Pemberley Digital, the latter being a platform for within-universe vlog adaptations of other Austen novels, Sanditon and Emma. Moreover, the characters have a rich online presence, with accounts on each of the contemporary major social networks: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and even Google+.

Conversations held on Facebook and Twitter, as well as posts on other websites, provide insight into the other characters' motivations and opinions which are invisible from the limited perspective of Lizzie's first-person videos. It is not necessary to delve into the attached universe to understand the webseries, therefore the possibility of exploring the universe remains an individual choice of the viewer, who can construct his or her own more or less complex narrative out of the available decentralized elements.

The interactive character of the series is further strengthened - but also problematized - by the lack of the fourth wall. The viewers can easily communicate with the characters by leaving comments or asking questions, which are often addressed directly within the story itself. Of course, the interaction is illusory, as the answers to comments are scripted entirely by the writers and transmedia directors, and not the characters, or even the actors. The ubiquitous presence of the characters on various Internet media combined with the illusion of a relationship with the audience ascribe to the story a peculiar sense of authenticity, linking the fictional universe of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries to the real world. Despite their obviously fictional identity, through direct addresses to the audience Lizzie Bennet and Will Darcy become members of a reality parallel to that of the viewer's, which in turn exposes the act of watching their onscreen romance as a case of mediated voyeurism.

The act of watching The Lizzie Bennet Diaries meets all the requirements mentioned in Calvert's definition of mediated voyeurism: using the Internet to witness the private moments of apparently real characters in order to be entertained while sacrificing their in-universe privacy with detrimental consequences within the narrative. The viewers become the peeping-toms and the characters are exposed to their gaze as the boundaries between story and reality are blurred with the progression of the plot, which relies heavily on the meta character of the story as an Internet phenomenon. The audience becomes a character within the story proper, frequently mentioned by Lizzie or others, and the series' popularity plays a major role in the climax of Lydia's disgrace. Through mediated voyeurism, fiction and reality are further entangled, generating even more involved instances of voyeurism.

All four types of mediated voyeurism proposed by Calvert are present in the story, and I shall examine them one by one on the example of relevant episodes:

Reconstruction voyeurism in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries is the most innocuous and entertaining form of voyeurism in the series. Due to the limitations of the videoblog form, which is a rehearsed first-person direct address to the audience, most of the action happens off-screen, and therefore needs to be either narrated or reenacted. Lizzie's answer to this dilemma is the Costume Theatre, where Lizzie and her friends put on symbolic costumes and impersonate absent characters in their key scenes. Consider the introduction to Mr Darcy, who does not appear on screen until very late into the story:

Lizzie's portrayal of William Darcy is a humorous caricature influenced by her prejudice, and a one-sided account of an important, plot-establishing scene which could not have been presented directly due to the constraints of the form. It is an ingenious narrative technique and, despite supposedly depicting real events, is not dangerously voyeuristic. However, Lizzie and Lydia's insistence on the "true to life" quality of the dramatisation (and by extension, the whole vlog) foreshadows later, not so innocent instances of voyeurism.

It can be argued that Lizzie's decision to record her personal diary on camera and publish it on the Internet is a case of tell-all/show-all voyeurism. The protagonist's exhibitionism is her own choice and she exposes her private life with no regards to possible consequences of such honesty. Most of the time Lizzie's blatant disregard for privacy remains unmarked, but there are several instances when her agency as the provider of sordid details is addressed directly. In the following episode, Lizzie expresses her concerns about publishing a particularly revealing scene, but ultimately decides to share it with the audience. It is an example of a candid moment captured on camera, exposed deliberately to satisfy the public's need for truth.

The most pressing issue with this episode is that the privacy Lizzie sacrifices is not only hers, but William Darcy's as well. By publishing the clip in its entirety she is taking an executive decision about another person's private emotional moment without his informed consent. Darcy is not aware that Lizzie's vlog is an Internet phenomenon, so his choice to proceed with his confession despite the camera in the room cannot be understood as agreement. Darcy's humiliation is now two-fold: not only is he rejected by Lizzie, but also his failure is broadcast without his consent for all to see. Lizzie excuses her violation of his privacy by invoking the audience's right to the truth, implying that the viewers have the right to invade Darcy's personal life and witness his unsuspecting vulnerability. Her comment that "the videos are bigger than [her]" sheds light on the possible reason for Lizzie's transgression: whatever autonomy she might have had at the start of the story, it has been lost in the face of the public's demand for onscreen authenticity.

The voyeurism in this case is a direct result of the vlog not being fully equipped to serve as a narrative medium. The characters are aware of the camera's watchful gaze, making the scene clunky and awkward. The constant distraction robs the action of its "true to life" quality, as it draws the attention of the characters and the viewers to the medium through which the story is being told, completely breaking the fourth wall and destroying the audience's sense of comfort. The viewer is no longer watching a movie which is separate from him or herself, but is transposed into the room with Lizzie and Darcy, and forced to be a silent spectator to a scene which should remain behind closed doors.

The sense of discomfort multiplies when the scene in question is an instance of video vérité voyeurism:

Most of the candid moments caught on Lizzie's camera which can be interpreted as video vérité voyeurism are the interactions of Jane and Bing Lee. Their flirting is recorded and then published under the guise of a video letter to Charlotte Lu, Lizzie's best friend. Neither Bing nor Jane suspect that their conversation will be broadcast to thousands of anonymous viewers on YouTube.

Once again Lizzie distances herself from the decision to invade another person's privacy by putting the blame on the viewers, whose demand trumps Lizzie's common sense and integrity. She poaches on her sister's and Bing's lives in order to satisfy the needs of her followers. The "stolen" aspect of the clip adds an aura of authenticity to the action, showing a glimpse of a raw, secret truth. As a supposedly unedited piece of film, the moment between Jane and Bing gains legitimacy, but also becomes disturbingly genuine. Editing conventions so ubiquitous in a conventional romantic scene are missing, leaving only raw material that could have been a recording of a real flirting couple, and not a pair of actors working with a script. The viewer is again transported into the room with the characters, and what was simply enjoyment of a story suddenly becomes a voyeuristic experience. It brings with it a sense of discomfort and an urge to avert one's eyes so as not to witness the private moment verging on an uncomfortable case of a public display of affection.

However, in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries the line between an acceptable and a shameful act seems to have shifted. The only truly rejected form of exhibitionism in the webseries is explicit sexuality.

Sexual voyeurism in the show is present as in-universe and off-screen. Due to the contemporary relaxation of the moral code, Lydia's disgrace on the hands of the wicked George Wickham needed to be suitably updated to remain shocking to the audience. The show's answer was the threat of a sex-tape published on the Internet, which could only function as a genuine danger thanks to Lydia's notoriety on Lizzie's vlog and then through her own website. Lizzie's exhibitionism has made her little sister into an Internet celebrity vulnerable to scandal.

Lizzie proclaims that "the Internet is for life", but she does not follow her own advice. Lydia being the star of a sex-tape is a tragedy that will follow her for the rest of her life, but Lizzie's arrogance, prejudice, and disregard for the privacy of her family visible through her vlog are deemed acceptable and do not prompt her fear for the future. Lizzie's hypocrisy is reflected in Lydia's accurate description of their relationship as constantly being mediated by the presence of the camera, and by extension the thousands of spectators. The lack of privacy becomes a source of conflict between the sisters, pushing them apart until their only interaction happens when they are observed. Similarly, Lizzie's decision to publish Lydia's candid reaction to Wickham's betrayal can also be explained by the pattern of voyeurism generating more voyeurism: in order for the audience to see Lydia as true to life, they require proof of her innocence, and that can only be acquired through more exhibitionism. The public is insatiable in its quest for their voyeuristic pleasure.

The examination of the voyeuristic aspect of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries brings me to the conclusion that while vlog storytelling is certainly an innovative and interesting narrative technique, its limitations give rise to a number of 'glitches'. Conveying iconic scenes through vlogs makes them exhibitionist and the act of watching them voyeuristic. As a result, the flow of the story is disturbed by clumsy, awkward scenes provoking the audience's discomfort and uneasiness. Considering the story's overall moral rejection of exhibitionism, its blatant voyeurism-inducing practices seem needlessly hypocritical. However, the breaking of the fourth wall and bringing the viewers' attention to the medium may serve as a warning about the voyeuristic character of immersive and transmedia entertainment, bringing to the fore the contemporary audience's increasing need to invade other people's privacy for the sake of amusement.

Calvert, Clay. Voyeur Nation: Media, Privacy, and Peering in Modern Culture. Boulder: Westview Press, 2004.
Gray, Julie. “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the Power of Transmedia.” Just Effing Entertain Me. 25 April 2013. <> 29 October 2013.
Gutelle, Sam. ‘The Lizzie Bennet Diaries’ Wins An Emmy Award. TubeFilter. 22 August 2013. <> 29 October 2013.
Disclaimer: The logo in the PowerPoint slides is borrowed from The Lizzie Bennet Diaries tumblr: