Photo by ABC FAMILY/Andrew Eccles

How “Pretty Little Liars” perfectly encapsulates girlhood

Katherine Rosa


A&E Editor


During its seven years on air, “Pretty Little Liars” was a pop culture sensation. This success can be attributed to a variety of things – namely drama, mystery, and an attractive cast – but one factor rarely mentioned is its female perspective. Even now, over a decade later, it is hard to find many popular shows with an entirely female ensemble. 

In “Pretty Little Liars”, each of the main characters is targeted for a specific reason, as they all have secrets they are desperate to keep. Aria is dating – or rather, being groomed and abused by – her English teacher, Ezra Fitz. Emily is a lesbian, who’s in denial about her love for the presumably-late Alison. Hanna is a bulimic shoplifter, who’s ashamed of her family’s (comparatively) lower class. Spencer harbors an immense jealousy towards her older sister, and copes by trying to take everything she has (namely, her boyfriends). At their age, the possibility of their secrets being exposed feels like the end of the world, and maybe it is. Not all teens have legitimate stalkers on their case, but it certainly feels like someone is watching their every move. This sensation is even more prevalent in teenage girls, who are under constant criticism from society. This feeling is essential to the show as a whole. 

Also vital are the intricacies of female friendship, and the dynamics that each of these girls has with one another. Aria, Emily, Spencer, and Hanna represent the positive aspects of female friendship – their undying loyalty and devotion, their empathy and care. This is juxtaposed with their relationship with Alison who is, for the most part, not a good friend. She meticulously hand-picked each of the girls to craft the perfect friend group that would benefit herself. While it is certainly an exaggeration, and most teenage girls are not actually masterminds that can bend an entire town to their will, Ali’s relationship with her friends parallels a very real and prevalent dynamic between teenage girls. Girlhood is a mess of anxiety, insecurity, and jealousy. It’s easy to find yourself being used to someone else’s advantage. It’s also easy to find yourself on the other end, putting others down to raise yourself. 

“Pretty Little Liars” was also quite ahead of its time in regards to their lesbian characters. Very rarely are queer women on TV given half the time and attention of their heterosexual – and, at times, even their gay male – counterparts. PLL was a diamond in the rough of a media storm that was slowly moving towards inclusivity. Never once was Emily or her girlfriends overshadowed by the other relationships on the show. In a series where each of the protagonists has a new romantic interest every other episode, Emily is never excluded from this treatment. The importance of Emily’s representation as a lesbian woman of color cannot be understated, especially when her original love interest, Maya, was also a sapphic woman of color. This relationship unfortunately ended to make room for Emily’s character development and her new, white girlfriend – one of the show’s many missteps – but what we did get of Emily and Maya in the first two seasons was refreshing, and something we still rarely see on TV nowadays.  

Critic Cyndi Waite of “Ms. Magazine” sees the show from a different perspective. In her article, “Top Five Anti-Woman Myths in ABC Family’s ‘Pretty Little Liars,” Waite explores ways that the first few episodes of the show supposedly play into sexist stereotypes. Her piece, with its heart in the right place, fails to recognize the nuance of many of the points she addresses. For example, Waite claims that by killing Alison and having the other girls be stalked for their secrets, the show reinforces that misbehaving girls deserve to be punished. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The show goes to great lengths to make it clear that even though Ali was not a good person, she was just a little girl, and that no one deserves to die the way she did. Many even argue that Alison is portrayed as far more sympathetic than she warrants, especially in later seasons when she returns (alive) and is given a redemption arc. As for the stalking and blackmailing, this is again clearly shown as an awful obstacle that the protagonists have to overcome throughout the show. We are meant to root for the girls in taking down their stalker, not believe that they deserved it. 

She also argues that the show promotes hyper-femininity – and yes, it does. “Pretty Little Liars” is absolutely a hyper-feminine show, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. These girls love fashion and makeup, and those aren’t things they should be shamed for. In fact, it’s great that a mainstream show like this has an ensemble of women who embrace femininity without being portrayed as “vapid” or “superficial” because of it. 

Despite its faults, “Pretty Little Liars” provided people with a show by girls, for girls. Instead of trying to appeal to teenage girls through an attractive male lead, as many shows do, PLL gave these girls complex female characters they could relate to. In a time when many female characters could barely pass the Bechdel Test (and quite frankly, still can’t), the catharsis brought by the PLL girls cannot be overstated. For this reason, the show deserves far more credit than it is usually given. Yes, it was campy, messy, and at times quite problematic, but that doesn’t erase what it stood for. 

At its time, “Pretty Little Liars” was one of the few mainstream television shows to explore both the beauties and pitfalls of being a teenage girl, in an industry that couldn’t care less about them. They are the largest target demographic, and yet rarely given the care and attention that “PLL” provides them with. For this reason, “Pretty Little Liars” is a testament to the success of allowing women to represent themselves on screen.