"Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret" goes the tag line to ABC Family's breakaway hit Pretty Little Liars. It sets up viewers to expect a certain kind of now-familiar teen trope: pretty people doing terrible things in nice clothes. What it doesn't prime viewers for is the subtle feminism that runs through the show.
I know what you're thinking, gentle reader: "Charles what now?!" (My goal of shoehorning a 30 Rock quote into every situation is now complete.) It may be hard to imagine that a show about four girls haunted by their murdered friend, and perhaps her murderer, is ripe ground for empowerment. While the girls might be terrorized by the mysterious 'A', however, they never lose their sense of agency.
The premise of the show is thus: A year after their friend Alison (Sasha Pieterse) is murdered, four friends are reunited after they start receiving mysterious, threatening texts from 'A.' The girls each have their own distinctive personalities, including strengths and weaknesses.
There is Aria (Lucy Hale), the creative one who always looks like she got into a fight with an arts and craft store and lost, dating her high school English teacher. Spencer (Troian Bellisario) the high achieving type-A personality who has a thing for her sister's boyfriends and immediately thinks everyone she meets is a murderer. (Hilariously, she's probably right more than she's wrong. The fictional Rosewood, Pa., is apparently known for its beautiful fall foliage and creepy axe murders around every corner.) Emily (Shay Mitchell) is the athlete of the group who came out as a lesbian in a well-done arc in the first season. And rounding out the group is Hanna (Ashley Benson) the popular queen bee, who hides her insecurities and her family's money problems, mostly in pasta boxes. (There's always money in the lasagna box!)
The show is a surprisingly masterful blend of genres like the late, great Veronica Mars before it. At one moment Pretty Little Liars is a teen soap opera, at the next moment it's a murder mystery, while seconds later it's a horror movie that transforms into a Nancy Drew who-dunnit. This narrative shifting keeps the teen girls at the center of the action from ever getting pigeonholed into solely romance-based storylines.
In fact, you could argue that the romances of the show are all secondary to the girl's friendship with each other. On Pretty Little Liars love interests come and go but the bond between our fierce foursome remains constant. Their supportive friendship is the central relationship of the show and all other storylines radiate from this connection like the spokes on a wheel.
A well-done Huffington Post blog by Katie Stroh recently decried the lack of authentic female friendships on television, citing Leslie and Ann from the great Parks and Recreations as one of the few positive examples. She mentions, rightly, that most female friendships on television wouldn't pass the Bechdel Test.
The Bechdel Test is a simple question that asks: If two female characters have scenes together, are they talking about something other than their love lives? It's amazing how few movies (only two of the Academy Award nominated pictures this year) and TV series pass this test. Pretty Little Liars, however, would pass this test with flying colors. The girls have a lot besides romance on their minds. Sure they might commiserate about their love lives, but seconds later they'll be back trying to solve a murder mystery. They've got bigger fish to fry.
The girls' love lives in another place where Pretty Little Liars does something interesting and unexpected. Almost every love interest on the show is suspicious in some way. The whole show plays out the paranoia of the teenage years, the fear that everyone is always watching you at all times. Nowhere is this more evident than in the girls' romantic pursuits. While watching with my friend recently, I noted that maybe the least creepy guy on the show started his run by literally living in the vents at their high school like a homeless Phantom of the Opera. That was the most well-adjusted guy on the show.
In fact, instead of making men infallible items of perfection like Twilight's Edward Cullen, the men in Pretty Little Liars are the opposite. Most are usually perceived as a threat before they ultimately show themselves to be either friend or foe. This, in my opinion, acts as a metaphor for the experiences of teenage girls as they begin to renegotiate their interactions and relationships to the boys and men in their lives.
Pretty Little Liars also depicts the fraught issues of teenage girl sexuality without judgment, something rare not only on the dial but in society in general. Hanna starts the show by wanting to have sex with her conservative boyfriend and vocalizing that urge in a fairly straightforward way. After their break-up she does eventually sleep with new boyfriend Caleb (Tyler Blackburn). It's presented as a healthy representation of their relationship, without endless virginity hand-wringing. Emily's storyline about coming out as a lesbian and her subsequent relationships are treated exactly the same as her straight friends, including scenes of kissing and intimacy.
Conversely the show also has a strong Lolita theme. (The biggest laugh I got all season was when the literal book Lolita became a plot point in one of the episodes. "They're just punking us now," I thought to myself.) Aria's affair with her high school English teacher is a major ongoing storyline in the show. Meanwhile, if there is an older guy in Rosewood chances are he will either be dating or trying to date a teenage girl. If there was ever a town To Catch a Predator's Chris Hansen needed to visit, it's Rosewood.
The show's stance on this is ambivalent. While many of these men are presented as creepy, Aria's love for her (now former) English teacher Ezra (Ian Harding) is presented as a dramatic love story. The one thing the show does right, however, is that it doesn't make any of the girls a victim. They own their sexuality and their choices, even if they are choices that we the viewer might not agree with. It's not a perfect portrayal or message for teenage girls by any means. But allowing Aria and Spencer to have autonomy in their romantic choices allows them to retain their power, instead of casting them as poor victims of older men looking to use them.
Like cult classic Buffy the Vampire Slayer before it, Pretty Little Liars also uses its premise to explore through metaphors the pains of growing up. In Pretty Little Liars, the danger of adolescence is made literal not through monsters or vampires but through 'A', a shadowy presence that tortures the girls with their own secrets.
Adolescence is a time when teens begin figuring out their identities, and sometimes hiding the parts they find shameful. On Pretty Little Liars, 'A' doesn't allow the girls to hide from their worst fears, their hidden selves or their bad behavior. 'A' holds a light up to the dark places that the liars try to hide. The metaphors in Pretty Little Liars come directly from the show's title, that adolescence is when we find it both necessary and impossible to lie to ourselves.
The show also directly takes on the modern day surveillance culture once adroitly addressed by another teen girl staple, the CW's Gossip Girl. While Gossip Girl has moved away from the concepts of surveillance, or at least gotten cushier with them, Pretty Little Liars uses the theme as an ongoing threat.
The girls are never safe from being watched. Many shots on the show are long-shots or taken through windows, giving a voyeuristic impression. This directorial choice is unsettling and deliberate. The audience is being constantly reminded that the girls are being constantly watched. The way the girls are being watched by 'A' and other malevolent forces is similar to how many of the choices of women and girls are constantly being judged by outside forces. Society seems to feel entitled to judge women's behavior, how they dress, speak and act.
Pretty Little Liars is by no means a perfect show. I feel it has been largely ignored, however, because it fits into the teen girl entertainment archetype. The same people that love Kristen Bell's teen girl detective Veronica Mars might roll their eyes over Pretty Little Liars, but the two shows share a great deal of DNA.
In the upcoming season finale, 'A' will finally be revealed, which might take some metaphorical juice out of the equation but will make the show no less interesting to watch. There will still be mysteries the girls need to solve, murderers to uncover and Aria will still be putting feathers or spikes in weird places on her outfits. Through it all, however, the girls will stick together and make their voices heard. And that's something I wish we'd see more of on television.
What do you think? Do you also think Pretty Little Liars is under-appreciated? Do you like the way the show portrays teen girls or do you have issues with it? Discuss in the comments!