Quick! Name me a character from a Regency-era romance!
I bet you said either Elizabeth Bennet, or her love interest Mr. Darcy. Yeah, pay up.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen is the most well-known Regency romance, and is perhaps the most well-known, adapted, and imitated story of its time. This is, in no small part, due to the lead character, Elizabeth Bennet. Don’t worry, I’m not a total Austen shill or Pride and Prejudice fanatic (I’m not a huge fan of Regency romance, and within the genre, I actually prefer Sense and Sensibility). But like a lot of other girls my age, when I first read P&P in high school English class, I did feel a sense of kinship with Lizzie Bennet. And why not? She’s intelligent, witty without being crass, beautiful without being vain, independent without being aloof, and all while maintaining an air of grace, courtesy, and spirit. What girl wouldn’t want to be like her? But you knew that already; I’m going to go ahead and assume you have at least some recollection of her from your own high school days.
The point is, she’s often imitated and rarely equalled, but I think she may have met her match from a wholly unlikely source: Lydia Martin from MTV’s Teen Wolf.
Huh? Hear me out.
At first glance, Lydia is your stereotypical high school TV drama queen bee – popular, beautiful, a social butterfly, and seemingly quite vapid. But as time goes on, we’re shown other aspects of Lydia’s character. We see her excel in school, we see that she cares deeply for her friends, we see that she’s practical and knowing and fully aware of every inch of her facade, she knows the value of social capital (let’s do ourselves a favor and drop the pretense that none of us wanted to be popular in school, or that such popularity wouldn’t have eased things along for us for those few years). The general reaction I’ve seen to this character is that everyone wants to either be her, or do her (or both).
On the surface, the similarities between her and Lizzie Bennet might not be readily apparent. I myself will admit that I didn’t start drawing parallels until I saw them both listed on the “Spirited Young Lady” TV Tropes page (shhh, don’t judge me). And while they certainly do both fit that archetype, there’s a lot more there.
The first thing that stands out to me is their use of their reputation and social standing. Elizabeth is noted to be independent, and just a touch rebellious, without ever crossing over into impropriety. She knows the advantages to her adhering to and confronting social norms at the right times, and probably not consciously, this cultivates her a very positive public image in her neighborhood (if we ignore her mother, who is mentioned by the narrative to be silly and not well thought of in town). Lydia, in a similar way, knows the benefits of being popular, which I know is not the same as having good social graces, but in modern high school, it might as well be. She deviates enough that we can assume that she knows exactly the image she’s created for herself. Social capital is a very real thing, and shouldn’t be dismissed as an entirely frivolous or vapid concern.
Another similarity is their use of their sharp wit and intellect. Lydia’s book smarts come in handy for the main characters of Teen Wolf on multiple occasions, and come as a surprise for those who underestimate her (both in-show, and out). Elizabeth, at one point engaged in reading, is pestered by Darcy who insists that most women read simply to impress men and do not comprehend or absorb what they do read (yeah, I’ve always had some issues with Darcy, and that scene in particular). Both are also quite capable wielders of sarcasm and wit, without I think, ever intending to hurt or offend, which is the key here. Sarcasm as a shield, or defense mechanism, is different from sarcasm as a weapon. Both know when they’re in vulnerable positions and that’s when the wit comes out for both of them (eg, when Elizabeth is defending herself from some of Darcy’s ruder accusations about her family, basically every time Lydia is confronted with the weird shit happening in Beacon Hills). Again, they do so without ever truly breaking social norms or doing so in a way that would make them perceived as “improper”.
Something I want to note, in regard to “action girls” and role models, is that when asked to name some strong female role model characters, those that most often come up are very physical characters who don’t shy away from fights and kick lots of ass. There’s nothing wrong with those characters, but when it’s the only kind of character we’re expected to look up to, there’s a problem. I’ve heard complaints that both Elizabeth and Lydia are “bad role models” because compared to others they don’t fight, or they conform too much to social norms, or they would seemingly be better off letting other characters fix things for them. I think those people mistake being “active”, as in proactive in their stories, with being physically active. Characters who break entirely out of society’s expectations are praised more than those who work within them to subvert assumptions or even just to get shit done. For proof, just look at the way the Game of Thrones fandom reacts to sisters Arya and Sansa Stark.
Elizabeth gets a lot less of this, because I don’t think anyone expects an 18th-century upper class woman to be a fighter, but she does get critique for being passive and letting other people (namely men) carry the action of the story. I think a lot of people have a problem with viewing older works through a modern lens and perhaps not reading closely enough or with enough awareness of the background, but I’ll accept this as a valid criticism, even if it is one I disagree with. Lydia, on the other hand, absolutely gets the short end of the stick here. I’ve seen a lot of bros complaining that she’s a mere damsel in distress to be saved by the main characters (which, besides being factually incorrect if you look at the actual plot of most episodes, is also disregarding her role as a main character herself). She also tends to be unfavorably compared to her counterpart, Allison Argent, who is much more of a fighter-y action girl. I think they’re missing the point and also missing out on some of the main points of third wave feminism (we CAN be bitchin’ strong fighters and we CAN be princesses and we CAN do anything and there’s nothing wrong with femininity or masculinity or any degree thereof, but what we WON’T do is be told by men or society what to be), but I suppose that’s their loss, because they’re missing out on some great character development.
In the end, I think both of these characters are wonderful in their own, very different ways, but ultimately fulfill the same satisfying niche for female readers/viewers. These are characters we can admire and emulate within our daily lives, without taking up kick-boxing or shunning men (that’s an important thing that I didn’t touch on perhaps as much as I could have – neither of these characters hate men or are straw feminists! They believe in love and find love with men, without ever being subjugated by them!). They know how to manipulate their respective images to best suit them, they are graceful and elegant and impeccably put together and will not hesitate to put you in your place if you are not living up to their standards. These are women who love their friends and families, and are polite and respectful but still witty and open. They make their own roles in society and they own it – Head Bitch in Charge might be a strong term for them, but only because they know how to be in charge without being seen as bitches. I guess what I’m getting at is that I love both of these women, and any perceived discrepancy between loving them and feminism and modernity vs. classicism is just someone not looking closely enough.