Pretty Little Liars debuted in 2010 as a teenage murder mystery soap, loosely based on Sara Shepard’s book series of the same name. After the mysterious disappearance of their friend Alison, four estranged friends reunite when they receive threatening texts from “A,” who seems to be posing as the missing Alison. After five and a half seasons, the girls finally unmask not one but two blackmailers, and the second half of season six is a time jump five years into the future. Hannah, Spencer, Emily, Aria, and Alison herself return home to Rosewood as Charlotte, the second and more violent “A,”, is released from prison and promptly murdered; a new mysterious blackmailer wants revenge for Charlotte’s death.
The series has garnered many negative reviews citing spotty performances, contrived writing, and would-be progressive representation that often misses the mark. The sixth midseason finale, for example, sparked a flood of think pieces on the troubling representation of a transgender woman, who fell victim to sloppy writing that resulted in her characterization as a “deceitful and manipulative transwoman” trope instead of a victim of patriarchal values, as the writers intended. Fans of the show, myself included, often describe it as a guilty pleasure, and a show where twenty-something women play teenagers wearing seven-inch heels to high school as they balance salacious relationships with solving mysteries probably deserves that moniker. But underneath all the red herrings and clumsy character arcs is something not only redeemable, but also downright remarkable. Whatever else it does wrong, Pretty Little Liars values bonds between women and takes girls’ friendships seriously in a way most popular media does not.
Both the first and second “A” plot to tear the girls apart by threatening to expose their secrets. Yet as they scramble to keep those skeletons in their respective closets, the girls not only maintain their friendships, but grow closer and build healthier relationships with each other. We see in flashbacks that before Alison disappeared she was a toxic presence who encouraged Hannah’s eating disorder, toyed with Emily’s romantic feelings for her, and bullied Mona to the point where she became the first “A.” When the four girls come back together without Alison and find themselves victims of an invisible stalker, they forge new bonds founded on mutual trust and respect. Dealing with their complicated feelings towards Alison, whom they miss and resent in equal measure, they find healthier ways to relate to each other. They bond over shared trauma, yes, but they also take genuine interest in each other’s personal lives and romantic relationships. Alison used to tell her minions that “secrets keep friends together,” and while she was wrong about what exactly that meant, the crux of the statement proves to be true. “A” forces the girls to reveal their secrets to each other, and instead of facing rejection they find support and acceptance that brings them closer and makes them stronger.
We see these relationships develop further after the time jump, as the girls come back together as women with a new set of problems. Spencer and Caleb (Hannah’s ex boyfriend) feel attracted to each other, but worry about how Hannah will react to their relationship. On any other show this would be the springboard for a vicious fight between Hannah and Spencer, but they are respectful of each other’s feelings. Hannah is not exactly comfortable with the idea of her friend and her ex getting together, but she recognizes that since she loves and respects them both, their happiness is more important than her discomfort. Hannah and Caleb shared a spontaneous kiss in last night’s spring finale, but a dramatic moment like that is different from a falling out because “friends don’t date friends’ exes.” Maturity on Pretty Little Liars is about feeling more confident in the lessons in trust and openness that the four girls learned as tortured teens, and the time jump is a vehicle to showcase that growth.
This is in stark contrast to a show like Gossip Girl, which, as another TV adaptation of a young adult book series, is perhaps the best point of comparison to Pretty Little Liars. Gossip Girl had an anonymous (and eponymous) all-seeing mystery-character of its own, and like “A,” Gossip Girl exposed characters’ secrets and lies on her blog. Gossip Girl was always more interested in portraying glamorous backstabbing than exploring the apparently revolutionary idea that girls can maintain healthy friendships with other girls. It was often hard to tell why Blair and Serena were even friends, to say nothing of the never-ending circles of manipulation among the secondary characters. Gossip Girl celebrated cattiness and treated it as the norm, but Pretty Little Liars exposes it as a last ditch weapon of the insecure that leads only to pain and misery.
This is not to say that the positive portrayal of female friendships absolves Pretty Little Liars of all its sins, and its sins are many. After the unfortunate handling of Charlotte’s life story it is even more infuriating that she was killed off without so much as an appearance onscreen after the time jump. Yet her feminine presence is felt everywhere since the characters discuss her almost constantly. She is only ever referred to by she/her pronouns and the audience is never subjected to hearing anyone deny or question her gender identity.
Another instance of Pretty Little Liars mixing the good with the bad (followed by the ugly) can be found earlier in the series with Emily’s first girlfriend, Maya. On the one hand, the show features an interracial same sex couple where one partner openly identifies as bisexual. On the other hand, Maya falls into the stereotype of the bisexual bad-girl who is edgy, unpredictable, and a drug user.
Then of course there is the just plain problematic relationship between Aria and Ezra, who start dating when Ezra was Aria’s English teacher. Even after it is revealed that Ezra seduced Aria as a ploy to investigate Alison, their relationship is highly romanticized, and since she was his underage student it should have been treated as inherently predatory from the beginning. I could go on. But just as it is important to call out harmful elements in a piece of media, so too is it crucial to highlight the pieces that work, and to recognize that the two can coexist.
Fans of Pretty Little Liars often find ourselves insisting to our friends that we watch it ironically or chastising ourselves for indulging in a show with such regressive and easily avoided issues, but we do always seem to find ourselves watching it. It should not be a surprise that Pretty Little Liars draws viewers who crave representations of sisterhood, and discussing areas that deserve criticism is the devoted fan’s duty. Not much is consistent on Pretty Little Liars but the high value placed on ties between women is a constant, and an important step towards creating media that handles diversity well on multiple levels is acknowledging both sides of the coin. Maybe the next step is to just stop apologizing for appreciating a show that appreciates women, even if that’s one of the few words of praise we have.
Chelsea Shea Ennen double majored in Theater Studies and English at Wellesley College, and she earned her M.A. in Contemporary Literature, Theory, and Culture at King’s College London. Her dissertation, “Entertaining the Offered Fallacy,” explored ways to create third wave feminist narratives in pop culture. She is the fiction editor of the Kaaterskill Basin Literary Journal and loves to write everything from personal essays, to media criticism, to fiction.
3 comments on “Why Pretty Little Liars is a Problematic Fave”
there definitely needs to be some filthy cons to match up with these overly melodramatic pros. So this cuts perfectly.
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I enjoyed reading this article.
My thirteen-year-old loves the show. I appreciate that you didn’t approach the show like an academic, many of whom dismiss “pop” culture out of hand, but simply pointed out the virtues, flaws, and even cultural importance of a program that is also highly engrossing to large numbers of people.