Pretty Little Liars is my guilty pleasure. I am frequently teased for enjoying the show, but I have always considered it to be much more intelligent than its name might imply. Based on a series of young adult novels by Sara Shepard, the ABC Family series had me hooked on after its premiere during the summer of 2010. It follows a quartet of teenage girls who, following the death of Alison (Sasha Pieterse), their Queen Bee, are harassed and stalked by an unknown person or group of people who go by the name “A.” Seemingly omnipresent and all-knowing, “A” threatens to reveal the girls’ secrets and unleashes havoc upon their small town of Rosewood.
What has kept me coming back to Pretty Little Liars week after week other than my inability to walk away from a mystery story before it’s solved (and the main characters’ fantastic outfits in every episode), is the four main characters. Each are fully formed and sympathetic. It’s not just that I want to know if I’m right in guessing who “A” is. I actually care about what happens to these girls. Hanna (Ashley Benson), who used to be overweight and an outcast, struggles with self-esteem issues. Spencer (Troian Bellisario), the preppy honor student, is always overshadowed by her seemingly perfect big sister. Aria (Lucy Hale), the sensitive writer, has to watch her parents go through a messy separation. And Emily (Shay Mitchell), the star athlete, comes out as a lesbian and struggles with her conservative parents’ response.
I was especially impressed by how Pretty Little Liars handled Emily’s coming out. After engaging in a tentative flirtation with her new neighbor Maya, Emily said it out loud to Hanna, who responded in a warm and loving way by saying, “You were Emily dating Ben and now you’re Emily dating Maya. We love Emily. No one cares who you’re with.”
Hanna is typically written as a ditzy, superficial girl who sometimes appears to be lacking common sense (one of my favorite lines from the second season was, “Guys, she can’t hear us! She’s blind!”), but in this scene she dazzled me with her ability to comfort and reassure her friend. I was thrilled to see such unconditional acceptance between two teenage girls on an ABC Family show. And when Paige, a supporting character who eventually became a love interest for Emily, struggled with her own coming out, Emily supported her. When Paige confided in her, saying, “If I say it out loud — if I say, “I’m gay” — everything will change,” Emily told her it would – in good a way.
“Crazy,” last week’s episode of Pretty Little Liars, however, upset me greatly. The devastating effects of teen bullying are nothing new to the American public, and Pretty Little Liars has addressed bullying in various ways through its three seasons on the air. So when one of the characters – and what’s more, the character who is a writer – used a derogatory term in an off-hand, casual way, I felt extremely disappointed in the show.
Ella, Aria’s mother, is newly divorced and was surprised to find herself signed up for an online dating site without her knowledge. Aria, concerned about her mother’s lack of a social life, registered her an account under the username “HotMama.” The fact that a teenage girl (who is dating an older man, nonetheless), would do this was a bit beyond my willing suspension of disbelief, but so are many aspects of Pretty Little Liars. After her date ends, Ella finds herself flirting with a coffee shop owner and confides in her daughter over the phone that she thinks she is on a second date. Aria, who is spending the night at Hanna’s, says of her mother, “She’s a slut. Let’s just go to sleep,” before climbing into bed. If Hanna had objected to Aria’s use of the word, I would have a very different response to the scene, but Hanna didn’t respond in any way, and her silence affirmed Aria’s use of the word.
Aria is the sensitive, artistic writer who goes to poetry readings, takes photography courses, wears aggressively unusual clothing and is dating the man who used to teach her high school English class. Of all characters, one would expect her to choose her words carefully and not insult and degrade her own mother. (Granted, I consider Aria’s parents to be the worst characters on the show and think the actors playing them are beyond awful.) However, Aria has almost always seemed more intelligent than them.
Slut-shaming is nothing new in society, and the impact of bullying is immeasurable. In May, a 13-year-old seventh grader in Mantorville, Minnesota hung herself after enduring months of bullying. The word “slut” had been written across her locker and she had been called a “prostitute” by her classmates. It is clear the word “slut” is used loosely, casually and dangerously in our culture. And I am disappointed that a show which handles many hot-button topics with sensitivity – teens coming out, infidelity, divorce, and bullying – would be so callous about this.
“They’re kids. They made some horrible decisions. If these kids would’ve known this would happen I’m pretty sure they never, ever would have done what they did,” the father of the girl who killed herself told Minnesota Public Radio. While his empathy in the wake of such a tragedy is admirable, if shows like Pretty Little Liars continue to set the example they set in “Crazy,” kids will not know any better.