“What are you doing here, honey? You’re not even old enough to know how bad life gets.” And it was then Cecilia gave verbally her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: “Obviously, Doctor,” she said, “you’ve never been a thirteen-year-old girl.” That’s a quote from Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Virgin Suicides, a work that shares a lot of thematic DNA with the show Pretty Little Liars.
Pretty Little Liars is a show about a group of five friends, one of whom goes missing the night before the girls are to start tenth grade. Her body is discovered one year later just as the four other girls (the eponymous Liars) receive threatening text messages signed only with the letter “A.” The show follows the Liars as the try to solve two central mysteries: who killed their friend Alison DiLaurentis and who A is.
That is something of an over-simplification; the show’s plot quickly becomes absurd. One episode contains a girl beating a rattlesnake to death with a mannequin leg. And A, the omniscient cyber bully and main antagonist of the show, only becomes more powerful. In on of the most recent episodes of the show, she actually manages to blow up a house.
This leads to the show’s most frequent criticism: “The plot makes no sense, when are we going to just find out who A is?” But worrying about who A is stands beside the point. First, because there is never going to be a satisfying answer and second, because the anonymity of A is the entire point. Pretty Little Liars is a show dedicated to mining the horrors of growing up as a teenage girl and A is the perfect embodiment of those horrors. A is everywhere and nowhere, a silent force that knows all of things you’re most afraid of about yourself.
That’s the conflict the girls are constantly struggling with – the terror of being looked at. How can you even begin to forge an identity, a Self, a Subjecthood, when you are being constantly made into an Object? It’s a potent theme and one with particular relevance for the teen girl psyche.
PLL explores this theme by filling every frame, every scene with confusion and fear. The world of the show is a fever dream of the process of growing up as a teenage girl. Your secrets have the ability to tear you, your friends, your family, apart. Every man is a potential predator, a problem that only becomes worse once you fall in love with one. And, in the world of teen girls, the only thing more dangerous than men is other teen girls. They’re the most powerful players in the game.
The form of this show follows its content. Trying to understand the plot fully is ultimately futile because the show is interested in achieving something like a modern noir. Mood, emotion, and character growth take primacy over concerns of narrative believability or consistency. The direction of the show is complex and expressive. Whether it’s by mimicking Hitchcock’s “pure cinema” or staging scenes like Rockwell paintings, the show’s visual presentation is constantly underlying its thematic content.
The show excels at communicating these themes on the level of character as well. The Liars are all distinct and complicated. And while the show portrays them them sympathetically, it never glosses over their faults. They continue to change and develop through all five seasons, often through loss and tragedy. By coming together they are able to survive the dark secrets and ever-growing body count around them.
Teen girls who aren’t the Liars are even more complex, as viewers aren’t afforded the same access to their private lives. The show is home to perhaps the greatest teenage girl on television, Alison DiLaurentis, the dead girl who refuses to die. She is the focal point of the show, constantly negotiating the line between truth and lie, light and dark, adult and child. Ali, the Liars, and many more teenage girls that appear on the show aren’t classic heroines but still enlist our sympathies. These rich portrayals are inherently radical because television is a medium that so often ignores and flattens teenage girls. In the world of PLL, the only one-dimensional characters allowed are men.
So if this show is so great, why is no one ever talking about it? A few niche sites, usually those dedicated to queer women, do cover the show, but it’s met with silence in the greater sphere of television criticism.
The answer to this aversion is simple: it’s because the show is about teenage girls.
TV has a girl problem. That might be unfair to television because our culture in general has similar attitude towards media for teenage girls (just ask pre-1989 Taylor Swift). Even though having a fanbase of teenage girls basically insures massive ratings and unwavering loyalty, it shuts you out of the larger critical conversation. In the new golden age of television where the antihero drama is the height of the form, a show made for girls can’t have anything important to say. Instead, let’s write a few more think pieces about Walter White, Don Draper and the suffocating cult of the “Difficult Man” so prominent in TV’s current landscape.
Pretty Little Liars is an incredible show that serves one of the most vilified and neglected demographics in media at large. But because it defies so many conventions we have established about “prestige drama” and television worth discussing, no “real critic” will ever spend any time talking about it. Which is a shame, because the experiences of young women are precisely the things we should be hearing more about.
Marlene King, the creator of Pretty Little Liars who happens to be one of the few queer women showrunners in television has made her mark on the television landscape by amassing huge ratings for ABC Family and unprecedented social media interaction with the show. But perhaps even more radically, she has dared to make a show about teenage girls that speaks directly to them. When an interviewer asked her about the “schizophrenia” of PLL, she replied “[One] minute the girls are talking about murder and death and destruction and the next minute it’s ‘What shade of lip gloss is that?’ It’s just the world these girls live in… It’s their lives.”