As someone who spends her time watching media portrayals of young women, I’m here to say… I LOVE Pretty Little Liars (Tuesdays, 8pm EST, ABC Family). This week was the second season’s premiere, and if it’s any indication of things to come, we’re in for another season of smart, resourceful, funny, young women who don’t take any crap (from parents, friends, or a psycho mystery stalker named “A” whose torment of the titular Liars informs the drama of the show).
To recap for those who aren’t familiar, Pretty Little Liars (the showrunner is Marlene King) is based on a YA series by Sara Shepard, following the lives of four teen-age girls in the aftermath of the murder of their best friend, Alison DiLaurentis. Alison was that magical friend we all had in adolescence– beautiful, reckless, and more than a little intimidating. In this case of these friends, Alison was the glue that brought sporty Emily, artistic Aria, preppy Spencer, and former nerd turned glamour girl Hannah together. Her disappearance caused the girls to drift apart, just as the discovery of her body one year later initiated their reconnection.
Now that the girls are close again — and trying to deal with divorcing parents, SATs, boyfriends (and girlfriends– Emily’s coming out storyline last season was one of the most respectful and touching lesbian narratives I can remember) — their lives are turned upside down by the mysterious “A-” an unknown aggressor who seemingly knows all their darkest secrets and uses cryptic text messages, emails, and notes to manipulate and tease the Liars. The strength of the show is in how it balances the dark, mystery-thriller element with very nuanced and realistic portrayals of young female friendship. These girls aren’t saints, but they aren’t vacuous, backstabbing airheads either. Like all young people, they have their disagreements, but the core friendships are touching in their strength and the very lived-in feeling each young actress brings to her role.
Somewhere between Twin Peaks, Buffy, Gossip Girl and Gilmore Girls in tone and style, Pretty Little Liars allows young women to be strong and proactive, while still maintaining vulnerability. This season’s premiere saw the friends having to defend themselves against accusations of craziness following Spencer’s attack by her brother-in-law, Ian (the attack was resolved when a shrouded figure appeared and pushed Ian off a ledge before he could push Spencer). Now the cops have appeared and can’t find Ian’s body, so they assume the entire episode is a fabrication. Concerned and overwhelmed, the girls’ families insist they undergo therapy to correct what must be a misplaced sense of grief that is leading them to compulsively lie. As viewers, we know the girls aren’t lying at all, nor have they misplaced their grief. They are dealing with the very real fact that their friend has been murdered, they are being stalked, and now, on top of that, their own families are dismissing them as nuts rather than grapple with the unsavory notion that seemingly perfect Ian might be a creep.
This trope is one that appears throughout drama (notably in the melodramas of the 40s and 50s, and for me, most poignantly throughout Buffy) — that girls who express unpopular opinions must be nuts, and thus either “fixed” or silenced. Though many of us (thankfully) won’t deal with the specific kind of accusations the Liars face, how many times have women’s opinions and knowledge been undermined by that nasty word “crazy–” a word that at once discredits our very ability to see the world around us for what it is. Kudos to Pretty Little Liars for going there– for expressing the fear and frustration women feel when their voices are silenced and their truths are ignored just because they disrupt popular opinions.
I can’t wait to see what’s coming next…
Emilie Spiegel is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Media and Feminist Studies at NYU.