A friend of mine got me watching the new ABC Family teen drama Pretty Little Liars. There was a significant amount of cajoling, but really her argument boiled down to one thing – there’s gay. And who can say no to that? Even when it comes packaged with preposterous story lines and wooden acting.
The story of Pretty Little Liars revolves around four high school juniors whose lives seemed to be built on a foundation of deceit, to the point where should one piece be revealed, everything would fall apart. At least, according to them. There’s Aria, our artsy, headstrong heroine who witnessed her father having an affair with one of his students and is now engaging in her own with her young English teacher; the formerly Hefty Hanna, who has since become the Queen Bee at Rosewood High, has a sticky finger habit and possibly an eating disorder; Spencer, the stern-faced perfectionist who has a thing for her sister’s significant others; and last but not least, Emily, the competitive but demure athlete struggling with her sexuality. The one thing they all have in common is Allison, who disappeared the year before and the only one who knew all their secrets and now seems to be threatening to reveal them from beyond the grave via text message.
The girls, who grew apart over the past year, come together again over their shared troubles, even though they never actually reveal them to each other. One wonders how these girls even hold a conversation when everything personal they feel they need to distort or straight up hide. I lied before when I said that Allison was the one thing they have in common – the other is shame. This show revolves around image and pride and its protagonists lack of ability to just let go. Why doesn’t Aria’s new teacher/boyfriend just transfer to another school so that they can date out in the open? Their age difference isn’t so huge that they’d be shunned by society, and her parents are clearly liberal enough to handle it (unless we’re making this a political commentary as well about lack of teaching positions available these days). Why won’t Spencer tell her friends about kissing her sister’s fiance, even after her sister found out and the wedding was called off? And why oh why Emily, can’t you just walk down your school hallway hand-in-hand with your girlfriend and just be happy?
Emily’s love interest is the new girl who moved into Allison’s old house, Maya, and while they both have boyfriends (sort of), they find themselves swiftly and accidentally falling into coupledom. They kiss each other on the cheek when parting, spoon during sleepovers, and buy each gifts all within a few week’s time. Its really adorable and sweet, but Emily’s extreme insecurity about the situation sets the tone, while Maya’s unabashed charm serves as a calming, almost normalizing counterpoint. Its difficult to gauge how Maya perceives Emily’s obvious fear – she kisses Emily in a photo booth and isn’t afraid to get into semi-hostile banter with her boyfriend, Ben, but makes sure to only hug her when they’re in public. The whole time Emily appears like she’s going to fracture into a million pieces, if she hasn’t already.
Emily and Maya’s storyline is a far cry from normalized homosexuality that I like to see in TV and movies, where people are simply not-necessarily-straight and no one makes a fuss. But that’s not what this show is about – here, everything is a production. Everyone – except for Ben – is atrociously pretty and perfectly styled, and each dramatic moment is marked by long pauses and pensive stares, complete with threatening adults and perky young girls clutching their schoolbooks to their chests . Ah, drama. Perhaps Emily’s story is one that resonates with other young lesbians or bisexual girls who have grown up in picture perfect New England suburbs in a traditional yet effectively assimilated family. Hell, that kind of sounds like my upbringing. But chances are they didn’t find themselves in trysts with beautiful, confident femmes like Allison and Maya (God, if only).
Both Maya and Emily have some level of androgyny, though being on the swim team does not a butch make. Also, both are of non-white heritage, giving them a sense of “otherness.” As such, Emily’s storyline, while touching, still reeks of male fantasy. Ok, a teensy bit of female fantasy as well, but the point is it is hardly a realistic scenario (though, what is on this show?). As lovely as I think Bianca Lawson, who plays Maya, is I would loved to have seen Emily fall for a female who could convincingly get into a throw down in the locker room with Ben, instead of the brutish but practically mute, Toby, who comes to her rescue when Ben makes unwanted advances on her. It certainly would’ve made more sense as to why her rescuer would be in the girl’s locker room in the first place. Who knows, perhaps Allison’s alleged older boyfriend wasn’t a boy at all. I imagine this show has many tricks up its sleeves.
There’s also the fact that the girls who are more confident in their sexuality, Emily’s suitors, have an element of darkness to them. Allison, of course, was a master manipulator who caused not a lack of destruction in her wake, including blinding one her schoolmates, and while she was engaging in a vaguely intimate relationship with Emily, she also badgered her about her sexual insecurity. In the flashback that opens the show, the girls are chatting about the latest Beyonce video (whatever that may be, to give specifics would unnecessarily date the story), and when Emily says she loves it, Allison retorts with both a touch of saccharine and acid (Sasha Pieterse, the actress who plays her, is extremely effective, on many levels) , “Maybe a little too much, Em,” causing Emily to immediately deflate. Maya has yet to show such overt aggression, but she’s not subtle about her plays for Emily, and while Emily reaches out to her for comfort, Maya seems more interested in claiming Emily for her own.
Sexual discovery isn’t even the only thing Pretty Little Liars has on its plate, as Hanna struggles to bed her religious boyfriend. Unfortunately, she seems to be doing it for all the wrong reasons, and when he rejects her she takes it as another blow to her endless body issues, not a testament to his principles, which he conveniently fails to mention as she’s getting dressed. It may be just my slash goggles, but I have a feeling Hanna is barking up the wrong tree, which would be interesting but possibly disappointing. Its extremely rare to see a male character who resists the physical affections of a woman who isn’t gay, but at the same time it could mean we might get a little religious social commentary, not to mention someone for Emily to commiserate with.
Oh, did I mention the embodiment of patriarchy in the form a cop investigating Allison’s death who does so by intimidating the girls and bedding Hanna’s mother? Or what could be a pseudo-incestuous pairing of blind girl Jenna and Toby, her troubled stepbrother? And that Aria’s essentially putting herself in the position of her father’s mistress through her affair with Mr. Fitz, while at the same time battling with said former mistress for her father’s loyalty? I think this show might give me something to write about on a regular basis. Which is good for me, and of course, good for you. Even if the plot is terrible, there’s still plenty of pretty to go around.