Its that time again, time to go back, back to a world where high school is full of designer clothes and tantalizing secrets. The world of ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars. I couldn’t bring myself to keep up with the fall season in posts, but now that I’m caught up for the winter I find myself unable to resist. The past three episodes in particular have been nearly jaw-dropping, but not for the plot twists or red herrings. I am seriously impressed where this show is taking ideas of gender roles and sexuality.
The show’s return has brought back a lot of the ideas that got me so involved in the first place. The episode “Know Your Frenemies” is probably the most interesting as the girl’s deal with the threat that A may be their fellow student, Noel Kahn. He is of course not, but the episode is ripe with the implications of a male oppressor – he begins by threatening Aria’s relationship with Ezra. Realizing that Aria has passed him over for their English teacher, Noel quickly moves from trying to “help” Aria based on the assumption that she is a victim in the situation, to completely disregarding anything she might feel by deciding to blackmail Mr. Fitz. Ezra, rather impressively, refuses to buckle, even with all the repercussions that entails, but luckily A swoops in and saves his ass just in the nick of time. Noel’s game play, while clumsy in comparison to the masterwork of A, is enough to make the television screen reek with male entitlement. He never once considers that Aria should have some autonomy in her relationships, that he has a right to her interest in him, and her relationship with Ezra is based purely on the fact that he’s an authority figure, as opposed to her, you know, being in love with him.
Even so, A takes the cake once again. Or cupcake, as it may be. A uses Hanna’s body issues against her, sprinkling in Noel, the football team and Lucas’ broken heart for good measure. Hanna is still my favorite little liar, thanks to her straight-talking and snarky delivery. But even with her shield of sarcasm, Hanna’s weaknesses are obvious, particularly when she’s facing this level of manipulation. The leverage – Hanna’s mother, strapped with debt, resorts to stealing from an elderly client, using the funds to keep her and Hanna afloat, while investing the rest so the money can be returned as soon as possible. Unfortunately, during a party thrown by Hanna’s best frenemy Mona, the money is stolen from the spaghetti box it was hidden in, presumable by you-know-who. So in exchange for the cash, A makes Hanna do embarrassing and cruel things that would only be embarrassing and cruel to a teenage girl.
Forcing her to choke down a box full of cupcakes in public is not just about the humiliation, its a purposeful trigger. Turns out, Hanna’s tryst with bulimia only happened because of Allison’s suggestion, and only happened once. After the binge, and mulling over Allison’s words that A throws back at her – “You know how to get rid of it” – she gives herself a good hard look in the mirror, and then kicks the stall closed behind her, putting the toilet out of sight and out of mind. Its hard to not pump a fist in the air in congratulations. (Visually it was also a pretty fantastic moment, an aspect that’s given the show a distinctive style that I have been continuously surprised by. ) Hanna might’ve won that round, but the next two she takes a beating when she’s coerced into dancing with Lucas, her equally sarcastic and socially inept buddy who is nuts about her, and then finally into betraying Aria. Despite the supposedly weakening of Hanna’s character, I can’t hate her for the choices she’s making (if you can call them choices). She’s protecting her mother from jail time, and that, I’m afraid, pales in comparison to Aria’s man issues. All of these attacks are painful wounds to young girl who juggles the loyalty of her friends and an image to uphold in front of her peers; but they are nothing to a woman who knows where she stands. It makes you wonder, exactly, what A is trying to do.
Meanwhile, having loved and lost so quickly and extravagantly, Emily is hardening into something kind of awesome. Far from the simpering jellyfish she’s been since the beginning of the show, she’s decided to dig her heels into life a bit. Of course, this doesn’t come without a challenge. When she begins to pull ahead in swimming, a new bully emerges, the competitive but obviously fragile, Paige. Emily is also dealing with an onslaught within her own home. With her father gone again – this time to Texas, rather than Iraq – Emily’s mother manages to makes it clear that only boys are allowed to play footsies with her while doing homework, and manages to get Maya sent off to a juvenile detention camp. Emily is not only separating herself from the ignorance of her mother, but the expectations of others, and is learning what it means to accomplish something for herself. Her progression is really exciting.
What’s really impressive about this show is that while it positions itself as a story about the secret lives of stuck-up teenage girls, even by title alone, it is in fact about the secrets of a whole lot more. Of all shows, this is the one that breaks the idea that only girls can be Mean Girls. In the first half of the season, the male characters were often presented as outright aggressors – like the cop who was investigating Allison’s murder – or bumbling innocents – like Spencer’s tennis club boyfriend. Either way, they were pure, whereas the women are complex and bogged down with agendas, politics and deceit, never allowed to express themselves directly or do what they please without stepping on someone else.
Now the characterization has evolved. Liars can be handsome as well as pretty, it seems. Men and boys can have secret identities, ulterior motives, can manipulate and disarm. They can also have good intentions and fail miserably at them, such as Allison’s older brother Jason, who was introduced into the story as a controlling suit with an agenda, when in fact he was only a kid in a lot of pain who was lashing out at the people around him unjustly. His return had him not only apologizing, but shirtless – a vast improvement. There’s also Aria’s father, who made mistakes in the past and now only wants to be with his wife and his family, but struggles with the single parent role under the weight of all the responsibilities it entails as well as the stigma.
Likewise, ladies are not just damsels or femme fatales. Paige likes to think herself a capable manipulator, but when she’s angry she lashes out physically, and all it takes is a moment of self-awareness to bring her standing in the rain on Emily’s doorstep. There are many other shows with smaller casts and five times the seasons that have yet to reach the kind of character depth and sincerity that Pretty Little Liars is getting close to. Someone get me a fainting couch, for real.
The one thing through, that I find absolutely baffling is the treatment of Spencer’s new brother-in-law, Ian. The shadow of a mistake that Spencer once made suddenly barges back into her life when he returns to Rosewood and marries her sister. If that weren’t enough, the girls also discover that while he was seeing Spencer behind closed doors, he was also seeing Allison, and was with her moments before she died. The danger that’s hiding behind his baby-face is palatable, but I’m wondering why none of the girls are as grossed out by his presence as I am. No one is stating the obvious – the guy’s a pedo. Granted, ages for all the characters are kind of fuzzy, but as Allison said herself, “He’s, like, old.” Regardless, Ian has had two discreet relationships with underage girls, one of them his girlfriend and future wife’s younger sister, the other the younger sister of his pot buddy. Seriously, how does Spencer look at her sister’s shit eating grin and not blurt out “Your husband was fucking a 15-year-old. Last year. A 15-year-old who is now dead.”
Perhaps it is a tad hypocritical of me, and them, to make such a claim. Aria is in a relationship with an older man, which they all support, and aside from legal issues so do I. This show has made one thing very clear – even as they are being manipulated and strong armed left and right, these girls make their own decisions and hold themselves and each other responsible for them. So, it makes sense that they wouldn’t see the situation the way an outsider would. Or say, perhaps, Allison’s brother would. But Ian’s behavior presents a pattern of a man who preys on the vulnerable and impressionable. Even his marriage to Melissa is consistent with that – he comes back into the life of a woman he left high and dry when she’s just gone through a broken engagement, and swiftly gets her under his thumb. Suddenly she’s gone from wanting her MBA, money and success to cranking out babies as fast as possible. Spencer is already aware of the unhealthy lives she and her family have lived with their unabashed ambition, but even she sees that something is wrong with that picture.
The show is not perfect by any means. Its still incredibly melodramatic and overly preoccupied with how damn good looking everybody needs to be. But its clear to me now that this isn’t just another show using a lesbian storyline or girl power to get ratings. The writers and creators have something to say about girls and boys, and men and women, and they’re doing it a refreshing and entertaining way. I know I am not going to be writing every week about this show – there are still plenty of filler episodes like this past week’s “Je Suis Un Ami” – but I am very excited to see where things are going to be going and have every intention of following along, as silly or as ridiculous as it may get. Wish me luck.