R.I.P. Bitches – A: Analyzing Pretty Little Liars

Five of the most popular girls in the affluent Rosewood suburb are at a sleepover on a dark and stormy night. When their Queen Bee Alison goes missing in the middle of the night they are left adrift – no longer anchored together by the leader of the pack who tormented them with their deepest, darkest secrets yet also protected them like a mother hen. What happened to Alison DiLaurentis the night she went missing? And how can one figure out who’s responsible for her disappearance when everyone in town had a reason to want her gone?

Alison’s disappearance is treated like characters being told Laura Palmer is dead in the first episode of Twin Peaks – a sad but almost oddly expected tragedy. As we get to know the four best friends she left behind – all of whom also having reasons to distrust and resent Alison – we find it easy to root for them as they try to make their own way.

*****SPOILERS AHEAD*****

It’s hard to describe how refreshing and silly and addictive Pretty Little Liars was at it’s peak. Although it’s excellence was bogged down by a foolish decision to create a 5 year time jump the true nail in the coffin came down to a terrifically horrible decision at an especially terrible time to villianize a trans characters for the sake of a cheap twist. How did a show that went from one of the most authentic depictions of lesbian characters get to such a terrible transphobic moment? How did one of the most feminist shows on TV (you may scoff but the bar isn’t that high) succumb to heternormative happily ever afters for all its characters including the queer ones?

Let’s start with the reasons I absolutely adored this show:

The Good:

1) A Plethora of Gay

Pretty Little Liars up until seasons 6 and 7 would have easily been one of my top picks for best mainstream depiction of lesbian and bisexual female characters. The showrunner I. Marlene King is married to another woman and that authenticity shows throughout Emily’s storyline.

In 2016 I visited the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. It featured an exhibit on same sex marriage and had a section dedicated to the crucial role mass media played in changing peoples’ perceptions on LGB people. Pretty Little Liars was featured because of scenes like this.

I really respect this show for not going the easy route and having her parents immediately accept her. It showed Pam and Wayne struggling with the reveal and Pam even trying to deliberately sabotage Emily’s relationship with Maya.

Fortunately Emily’s parents came around but the show didn’t stop there. It showed the enigmatic Alison being a manipulative straight girl to retconning her character to suggest she secretly returned Emily’s feelings, in earnest, the whole time‘s struggles with her own sexuality.

As well as Paige’s (aka BAE).  Paige McCullers is a character you either relate to and absolutely adore or don’t relate to and absolutely hate. In my case I had never related to a character so much in my entire life – flaws and all. It didn’t hurt that unlike most actresses playing queer women, Lindsey Shaw actually looked kind of gay. Unfortunately Paige was never written as evenly as the male love interests for other characters – nor did she ever have an independent story from being Emily’s girlfriend to the extent Ezra, Toby, and Caleb were granted. Given half a chance I bet most viewers would have warmed up to Paige as Emily’s main love interest. Unfortunately that chance was never given – always putting her at ends with Alison ensured that would be the case.

But Emily’s love triangle with Paige and Alison wasn’t the only gay blessing this show bestowed upon us. Emily’s first relationship was with Maya (played by the forever young Bianca Lawson) making it one of the rare interracial same sex couples not featuring a white character on TV:

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In addition it introduces many secondary queer characters – including revealing established character Jenna Marshall as bisexual and dating Paige’s ex Shana. It would have been incredibly easy not to have that subplot but there was a deliberate choice to gay the show up even more which I think is fantastic.

2) Feminist Television

When it started and throughout its initial five seasons Pretty Little Liars was one of the rare shows which passed the Bechdel test constantly and bestowed upon its numerous and nuanced female characters a nearly unprecedented amount of agency for a teen soap opera. The four characters all had love interests but they weren’t made to be damsels in distress getting rescued by their boyfriends. Instead they mostly rescued themselves and each other – constantly reinforcing the often life or death importance of women being there for other women.

Here’s just one of those scenes.

For a series which focuses on four main female characters they only ever once share a love interest with one another and even then it’s handled maturely. The show also makes a great point in highlighting the importance of consent in its earlier love scenes which again establishes the agency of the main characters. They have moments during the beginning of those sex scenes when the love interest explicitly and clearly asks, “are you okay with this?” I am so glad a show targeting a demographic at least a decade younger than me has that in there. Hell I’m glad female viewers my age got to see those moments.

3) Excellent for Drinking Games

Here’s the easiest and most effective Pretty Little Liars drinking game ever:

  • Drink anytime someone gets a message – two drinks if it is actually from A
  • Drink anytime someone lies (you won’t always know but just drink when you do)

Most important rule of Pretty Little Liars drinking club:

4) Do You Love Ridiculous Things?

I loved All My Children when I watched it, and there’s always been a void in my heart needing to be filled by soap opera storylines. Pretty Little Liars for a long time took itself seriously enough that when it did begin to nose dive into getting murder mystery clues from talking parrots, hyperadrenlized reality, and long lost evil twins it really spoke to my heart. This is never more evident than the series finale when it seemed like the show’s creator just said “fuck it if you are always going to complain I might as well jump the shark while simultaneously giving you as much fan service as I can muster.”

Did I mention a blind character literally sniffed out someone as an impostor?  Or that she tried and succeeded in shooting one of the main characters? Or how about when a would be murderer accidentally dropped his double-headed ax, tripped, and decapitated himself ON HIS OWN DOUBLE HEADED AX?

Live tweeting this show with the hashtag created by and for queer women who watched the show #BooRadleyVanCullen (long story) was truly a pleasure and made being an adult and going through the daily grind a bit more bearable. It was something I looked forward to every Tuesday.

The Ugly:

So despite saying the show went seriously wrong I complimented it a lot just now. The two major complaints I have about this show are huge spoilers for major twists on the show (one of them being the reveal of the elusive A).

1) It’s treatment of black characters is deplorable.

I know what you’re thinking reading that statement: what else is new with popular television shows? And you are right. But Pretty Little Liars doesn’t just have a bad relationship with its black characters – it straight up killed all three of its first three major black characters. And by major I mean appearing in multiple episodes and being integral to the plot. Two of those characters were killed in self-defense by one of the four main liars. I’m not going to attempt to solve racism with this commentary, or try to justify this part of the show. It’s just bad. And adding Lorenzo in later seasons didn’t magically make it better. I just cannot understand how anyone on the creative team didn’t see this pattern and say, “you know what? Let’s not.”

2) The Charles is Charlotte Reveal

“I didn’t want people to think that this person was a villain because of their gender identity,” she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. “She was a villain because she came from a very, very crazy family, so genetically she is probably a little crazy too.”

Thankfully, I don’t know what the sound of a train wreck sounds like exactly, but that quote comes pretty close to how I imagine it. There are many, many articles expressing frustration with this particular story line but I want to discuss why I don’t buy the “being trans has nothing to do with the character’s evil/crazy behavior”, and even if I did believe that it almost makes it worse because then ALL the trans storyline set out to do was be a cheap shock. Let’s not pretend like cramming 20 minutes of backstory and showing characters not misgender Charlotte undoes the fact it’s meant to be a cheap shock. Own up to the fact you wanted to use the character’s journey as an excuse to trick viewers into thinking A was a male character.

But let’s talk about A’s behavior. A is Charlotte and Charlotte is transgender. A’s goal is to make the 5 main characters into her dolls – actually culminating with locking them into a dollhouse slash prison and forcing them into certain behaviors and fashions. The obsession with objectifying the femininity and controlling the 5 main cisgender female characters coupled with the reveal A is a transgender woman cannot simply be ignored. You can’t undo that disturbing implication with a few soundbites about how humanizing your depiction of a trans women villain is. No trans woman being the villain is going to be humanizing or good for the cause. We already have enough of that.

Another factor in this I don’t see discussed often enough: Charlotte INTENTIONALLY dates her biological brother. I cannot fathom why that is included in the storyline other than to support the deceptive transgender character trope. And it’s just icky – further pulling away from the excuse that the transgender identity of the character is being humanized.


I thought about not including these examples of two places the show really failed. But sometimes you have to admit your fave is problematic. I still appreciate a lot of what Pretty Little Liars was trying to do, especially in its early days.It’s a show that could have benefited from not continuing as long as it did and doing an ill-fated time jump to add more drama and episodes. It’s a show that also could have benefited from having more wherewithal when it came to how it depicted its POC and trans characters. It’s a show that was good but could have been great if it had people behind the scenes making informed suggestions about those storylines. But despite all of this it’s a show I and many others will miss.

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