Hidden by the fervor surrounding the second
season of "Orange is the New Black" is tonight's premiere of another
subversively queer and feminist television drama: "Pretty Little Liars".
Yes, the show about four teenaged girls escaping
the murderous tendencies and texts of an unknown figure/animal/ghost, stands as
one of the most socially conscious and progressive shows on air.
Like "OITNB", "PLL"’s success rests in its ability to interweave identity politics into an already engaging and existing narrative. With its fifth season beginning tonight, the show is marked by the tribulations of four teenage girls, characterized not by relationships or romances, but by their ongoing battle with anonymous villain ‘A’ in Rosewood, PA. After the disappearance/ alleged murder of friend Alison, the girls are thrown into an impossibly complicated web of blackmail, former lovers, and threats from an unknown source as they try to figure out the who/what/where of the mystery. The characters are never treated as victims, but rather leading agents, where the girls’ friendship and unity is privileged above all else in the narrative.
A diverse range of queer characters (albeit all female) are portrayed right from the beginning, including Emily Fields one of the four ‘Liars’. The queer identities of these characters are not peripheral, but are actually entangled in the plot of the mystery. Alison’s former relationship with Emily unravels a series of secrets and mysteries which reveal more plot twists, more murder, and more queer characters. Seriously, the show is like a Russian Nesting Doll for queers; every week a new character is introduced and indicted into the plot. Outside the fictional, the show is even Executive Produced by out-lesbian I. Marlene King. It thrills me to no end to know that televangelist Pat Robertson’s ABC Family is dominated by a show that is dominated by lesbians.
The show's subtle radicalism extends to a subtle Marxist critique of the prevailing economic and government structures that define life in Rosewood. The problems faced by the ‘Liars’ on their sleuth stem from the routine failing of trusted bureaucracies and institutions - schools, police stations, surveillance systems, hospitals, families - and the ways in which these failings adversely affect those most vulnerable and marginalized. Even against the backdrop of traditional television Suburbia (the one where everyone lives in nice houses but no one works) the show explores class distinctions with nuance. Spencer and her attorney parents are readily able to leverage their social and economic capital to escape legal punishment, whereas Hanna and her single mother resort to stealing money from a bank and are repeatedly punished by overzealous law officials.
The show is, of course, patently absurd. “I can’t believe your mom buried you alive” is uttered with the utmost sincerity. And yet, the ridiculousness of the plot lines actually renders the politics of the show more impressive. For a series that so heavily relies on tropes of the mystery, revenge, and romance genres (the fourth season even includes an entire episode shot in noir style), the drama is able to escape the trappings of traditional gender and sexuality representations that have so plagued young-adult television. What, no girls fighting over the same boy? No shaming of characters over their sexual experiences? Instead girls decoding an encrypted journal and wielding gardening tools to fend off attackers? Whoa, the revolution may be televised.
"PLL" never gets the critical attention it deserves because of its branding as not only a “teenage drama,” but one that is specifically directed at young girls. It is not news that American “high-brow” culture plainly degrades anything directed at or adored by young women (see: One Direction, Justin Bieber, "Twilight" etc.). "PLL" is no exception. Side note: we should probably stop doing this as it creates an avenue for adult women and their pursuits to be equally patronized (see: Jill Abramson, Hillary Clinton, and First Lady Michelle Obama).
It also probably doesn’t help that "PLL" visually resembles the litany of other young-adult series, namely that of the CW’s "Gossip Girl". Yet, however similar in format and aesthetics, "PLL" is really the antithesis of "Gossip Girl". Where in the latter characters are divided and restricted by the omnipresent virtual watchdog after which the series is named, the characters in "PLL" are united by ‘A’ and wage attack with both brain and brawn against their unknown tormentor.
The show is not perfect. While better than most
other young-adult dramas, "PLL" could stand to improve in terms of racial
diversity. And despite being defined as consensual and legal, Aria’s relationship with her teacher Fitz is
confusing and wholly unproductive in a show predicated on the freedom and
agency of young women. Even with these failings, "PLL" is worth both a
watch and consideration alongside other critically revered dramas. Just don’t start tonight - there is no way you’ll ever figure out the lifetime of events
that have happened in the first four season. Luckily, it’s all on Netflix for your binging