I’ve written about the TV show “Pretty Little Liars” before on this blog. Many of my friends have expressed surprise that I watch the ABC Family drama about teenage girls being harassed by an anonymous stalker – before they admit that they themselves watch the show. I’ve theorized about who “A” is with my friends, and my predictions have often proved to be correct. The show has entertained me consistently for several seasons with its ongoing drama and mystery, but it has also consistently disappointed me in its portrayal of teenage sexuality.
As I have written previously, “Pretty Little Liars” impressed me greatly with its depiction of Emily coming out as homosexual. I thought it addressed the topic with compassion and understanding. However, the show’s portrayal of Aria’s sexual identity has disturbed me greaty.
“Pretty Little Liars” has portrayed Aria’s on-again, off-again relationship with Ezra Fitts with a great deal of carelessness, both with regard to the characters involved and the plot’s cohesiveness. Aria, a teenage girl, begins a romantic relationship with Ezra before she learns that he is her English teacher. She continues to pursue him, and the two keep their relationship a secret for as long as possible. The subject of sex, and the fact that Aria is underage, is never outwardly addressed on the show. They presumably have sex for the first time when Ezra decides to leave town, and then he chooses to stay and be with her, despite the fact that he has lost his job, partly due to Aria’s father meddling in their relationship (which, in my opinion, introduces an entirely different level of disturbing ideas and themes to the show). One episode in the most recent season does briefly address the possibility of Ezra facing legal consequences for having a sexual relationship with Aria, but that is the first and only time that subject is brought up.
In the most recent season, Aria and Ezra have ended their relationship. She chose to break up with him, despite his pleas to stay with him, saying, “It shouldn’t be this hard.” However, it is not a clean break, as Ezra has regained his job teaching at her school – and rumors about Aria are swirling.
Aria’s family knew about her relationship with Ezra; he told them that he was in love with her, and her father objected, while her mother decided it was better to allow the relationship to continue than to risk Aria rebelling and running away. Her brother uses the relationship as emotional blackmail, telling her about their mother traveling to Vienna with her new boyfriend, “The only reason you want her gone so bad is so you can start boffing your teacher again.”
The emotional blackmail does not stop at home; Aria is also taunted by her peers at school. After she helps her brother’s teammate Connor with an English paper, he tries to kiss her and she tells him, “I’m sorry. I’m not interested.” The following day, Connor tells his teammates in the locker room that Aria “hooked up” with him. When Aria confronts him in front of his teammates, he responds by saying, “You can quit the innocent virgin act. Everyone knows you and Mr. Fitts weren’t just scrabble buddies. How many points for the word slut?” Aria runs out of the room and then starts receiving texts, asking her if she wants to pull an “all nighter.”
When Ezra tries to talk to her, saying, “You shouldn’t just let some stupid rumor get to you,” she responds tearfully, saying, “It’s not just some stupid rumor. There’s some truth to it, Ezra.” Aria acts like she has something to be ashamed of, and that theme continues at her home, when she tells her brother, “I’m sorry your whole team thinks I’m a slut. I’m sorry about Mom going away. I’m sorry. OK?”
What exactly is Aria apologizing for? The fact that she lived her life and did exactly what the media and all the men around her tell her to do and expect her to do? She shouldn’t be apologizing to Mike. He should be apologizing to her.
In the following episode, “Crash and Burn Girl,” Aria’s brother is accused of smashing the windows of Connor’s car, and Aria and her father have the following exchange:
Aria: I think this is happening because of me. Connor kissed me and I said that I wasn’t interested, so he started this rumor at school.
Her father: What kind of rumor?
Aria: The kind that’s really not worth repeating.
Her father: Why didn’t you come to me with this?
Aria: Because I thought I’d handled it. I set Connor and his friends straight.
Her father: Why would he say these things about you?
Aria: (Looking ashamed) Look, apparently there’s been some talk. About me and Ezra. I guess that Connor figured that since I’d dated an older guy, I’d do just about anything with anybody. Dad I know what you’re going to say.
Her father: I’m not concerned with Ezra Fitts. I’m concerned with your brother and making sure that he hasn’t gotten himself into trouble.
It greatly disturbs me in that Aria appears ashamed of what she has done and acts like she is being rightfully punished for her actions. Yes, Aria knew there would be consequences for getting involved with an older man. And yes, she should take responsibility for those actions. I’m not denying any of that. But she didn’t make Connor try to kiss her, nor did she make Mike do whatever he did. She does not need to take responsibility for other people’s actions. The fact that she had sex does not mean she has to take responsibility for everything bad that follows. A young woman enjoying sex does not mean tragic events will inevitably unfold – despite the right-wing agenda that perpetuates that exact idea.
Aria’s attitude, and the attitude of those around her, falls into the category of slut-shaming and the disturbingly “all or nothing” attitude that permeates our culture regarding young women and sexuality.
The book “The Purity Myth,” by Jessica Valenti, addresses the trend of teenagers pledging their virginity to their fathers and saying the only way to be a “good girl” is to be “pure” and deny the fact that she has a sexual identity. Abstinence-only education does not work; rather than filling teenagers with fear and lies, adults should arm them with knowledge and information on how to protect themselves and make good decisions. As I wrote about in my last blog post about “Pretty Little Liars,” slut shaming teens can result in tragedy.
Aria does need to be aware of and face the consequences of choosing to have a sexual relationship with Ezra, a man over the age of 18. However, she doesn’t deserve to be lied about and bullied because she had a sexual relationship with a man she loved. She doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed and called a “slut.” And she doesn’t need the men in her life to tell her she’s OK. After the locker room confrontation, her brother tells her, “I messed up. I should have known that Connor was making that stuff up. I’m your brother. I’m supposed to watch out for you. Stand up for you. I’m going to make it up to you. OK?” Following this brief conversation, Aria suddenly feels so much better about the incident – presumably because a man told her it was OK.
A show like “Pretty Little Liars,” which stands as the most watched series on ABC Family, maintaining a steady viewership of over 2.5 million and currently standing as the only show to yield an average of over 2 million viewers, contains a great deal of influence. And I would hope a show that addresses such timely topics as bullying, especially cyber-bullying, and homosexuality, would handle the subject of teenage sexuality with more compassion and respect.