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08 November 2012 @ 05:56 pm
TV REC: "Pretty Little Liars" and why you should be watching it.  
So, friendslist, tired of watching tv shows with not enough women, interaction between women, women of color, lesbian women? I know I am. And what's keeping me happy, while becoming increasingly disappointed in other shows for failing me on these fronts, is "Pretty Little Liars."

It's not a show that requires a large level of investment, and it only has light touches of genre (it borrows a fair bit from mystery/gothic). The plot can be better, but I admit that I don't pay attention to it. It's kind of hard to pay attention to anything else while I am being actively WOWED by how many women are interacting in positive ways on my screen, while NEVER being defined by their relationships to men (who are constantly sidelined on this show).

It's not a brilliant tv show in terms of themes or plot, but it is a brilliant character drama that consistently chooses to focus on the kinds of relationships that are missing from tv.

So if you're going to be missing tv in this upcoming hiatus, I highly recommend that you binge on "Pretty Little Liars." Like I said, low investment, high pay-off.




The premise of "Pretty Little Liars" is nothing new. It revolves around the tragic death of a beautiful young girl, and the focus is on the unraveling of the community that comes from this death. But while my beloved "Twin Peaks" gave me this premise and left the secrets to be uncovered primarily by a male detective, "Pretty Little Liars" is firmly focused on women to such a degree that it takes this problematic premise and turns it into one of the most positive portrayals of women on television in the recent years.

The perfect combination of "Twin Peaks" and Christopher Pike's Young Adult mystery novels, "Pretty Little Liars" is very much a show written for me, but I believe it has a lot of things going for it that should make it appealing to even people who didn't grow up reading women-centered YA horror/mystery novels.

The show starts not with the death but with the discovery of the body of Alison Dilaurentis, who had been missing for the previous year, suspected dead but presumed missing. With the discovery of the death, the hunt for the killer begins and at the center of the story are Alison's clique of friends who shared her secrets and whose secrets she used to hold power over them. Spencer, Aria, Hanna, and Emily have drifted apart in the year since Alison went missing, driven away by secrets as well as by the tragedy. But it seems that Alison wasn't the only one who was privy to their secrets and the four of them start receiving anonymous text messages from someone who claims to know their deepest secrets and threatens to reveal them if they don't do what's asked of them.

Once again driven together by threats and secrets, the four girls form a complex bond that starts out uncomfortable but turns into a deep friendship. This show fails hard at the reverse version of the Bechdel test, and we rarely get any scenes with two men at the center of them. Women are not only the center of this story, but they are also at the center of each and every meaningful relationship in this show. And no relationship between women is one-dimensional. This show consistently takes women who were introduced as antagonists and turns them into unwilling allies and eventually friends.

Spencer is the snarkiest and the most pragmatic of the group, predictably making her my favorite. There's Hanna, who is both snarky and incredibly compassionate and maintains one of the most positive parent-child relationship on tv with her awesomely complex (and morally ambiguous!) mother. There's Emily who is both a woman of color and a lesbian, who also happens to be in a relationship with another woman of color. There's Mona, another woman of color, who is not part of the core group but at its fringes who starts out as an antagonist but turns into much more, and no relationship between any women is simple or stereotypical.

In a format popularized by Buffy and Roswell (as much as Roswell could be said to have popularized anything ;), there's a theme of us against the world that isolates them from most others around them, especially adults. Unlike these, though, this show has a more gothic twist on this theme, with the secrets being shared and hidden by women. Even so, adults aren't portrayed as untrustworthy, but rather that the siniester nature of 'A' makes it so that any time they do trust the adults, it ends up making things worse for them. The more the secrets drive them away from the larger world, the more the girls grow closer to each other, and the relationships grow and evolve throughout the series, with them picking each other over other bonds in their lives, and more importantly, over the men in their lives.

One of the things I love best about this show is its portrayal of Alison. Alison is as vivid and real as Laura Palmer was elusive and mythic and while the focus is sometimes on her cruelty, I never feel like the show wants me to dislike her. And I certainly never feel like either the show or any of our protagonists judge Alison? All the girls share a complex relationship with Alison, the queen bee of their group, who was often manipulative and controlling. But even so, it's clear that each of the girls loved/admired her in their own way, and the relationship between Alison and each of the girls is unique and three-dimensional, with lots of flashbacks.

This show is also somewhat deconstructive of the Mean Girls trope. With a title that outright calls its own protagonist liars, you would think the show has some disdain for its protagonists, as is sometimes the case with teen movies/shows with mean girl heroines. But it takes the clique of girls that you're usually supposed to either dislike or not take seriously, and develops them all as fully realized people with complex and positive relationships that endure (as opposed to fiction's usual frenemy trope with Mean Girl protagonists). Taglines like "Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret" turn out to be ironic in the light of the actual text, where while keeping secrets is initially what started the whole thing, keeping them is what also often saves their lives. Alison outright says that it was TELLING the truth that got her killed, ending with "You're always better off with a really good lie." What all of this does give us are four morally ambiguous protagonists who have all done things they're not proud of, but who are all generally good people in bad situations. And the show never, ever puts these women or their concerns down. As you would expect, this show was developed and is being written primarily by a woman, Marlene King.

And the pacing on this show! Reminds me of early "Vampire Diaries." Lots of things happen every week, and while the mystery keeps getting stretched out, it's clear that the focus isn't really on who killed Alison as much as it's on how the death (and the relationship with the very alive Alison) affected all the women around her. I have no idea where this show is going, and I kind of don't care? As long as it keeps giving me this many complex women, and this much awesome soapy delightful drama and mystery, I'll be here.

Let me end with five reasons you should be watching this. For things that happen in other shows (female-driven or otherwise) that don't here:

1). Men talking over plots slowly: As mentioned already, this show has consistently been committed to failing the gender-reversed version of the Bechdel test since it started. Most episodes pass by without any m/m interaction, and on the rare occasion that it occurs, women are the topic of conversation. I honestly don't think this show has EVER had a scene with two men talking about things other than women.

2). Women being written in the context of relationships: When even shows like Farscape and Battlestar Galactica with their initial positive portrayals of women and women in relationships end up failing HARD at keeping the integrity of women's arcs while writing them in relationships with men the narrative deems more important than them, it's incredibly refreshing to see anything on tv that doesn't fall into this trap. Three of the four main protagnoists are in commited relationships with men, who drift in and out of their lives as the episodes demand and are quickly written out and away when important stuff is happening because the main plot revolves around the four girls.

It is a testament to this show's lack of emphasis on men that Spencer Hastings has become my favorite character while being in a steady relationship with a guy I find actively distasteful to highly annoying. Her relationship with a man is that insignificant to her larger arc. YOU GUYS, this almost NEVER happens with women in het relationships.

3). Mothers and daughters: While the rest of tv world is interested in exploring relationships between fathers and sons (you don't need examples of this from me, I am sure) and female driven shows are consistently interested in their female protagonists relationships' with their fathers (Alias, Revenge, Veronica Mars, etc), "Pretty Little Liars" is consistently interested in relationships between mothers and daughters. Aria and Spencer get some focus on their relationships with their fathers, but primarily, the show chooses to focus on the girls' relationships with their mothers, and even focuses on their mothers' relationships with each other. Mothers are given a narrative prominence over fathers in this narrative, which is also very rare in patriarchal narratives.

4). Women fighting with each other: In so many narratives with multiple women where women are set up to rival each other and constantly in antagonist relationships (I love Revenge, but let's face it, the whole show is built on the premise of women vs. women, as was Damages, apparently, sigh.), I constantly find myself making up headcanons to come up with more POSITIVE reasons for why these women are fighting or at odds with each other. This is a large part of why I tend to ship female characters in antagonist relationships. In "Pretty Little Liars," it's actual canon that when these women fight, it's more often than not a pretend feud to throw people off, and when they hurt each other, accidentally or otherwise, it's done in the interest of keeping the others safe or even in the worst case scenario, it still comes from a complex place that's equal parts love and hate, mingled in.

5). Female friendships disappearing over time as MORE IMPORTANT things take over (I am looking at you, Vampire Diaries): This show develops networks of relationships with a multitude of women: None of the four main girls are alike, and as a result, none of their relationships with each other are similar. They all fulfill different (but equally important) roles in each other's lives, and as a result, we have have SIX UNIQUE FRIENDSHIPS between women, not to mention the relationships these women have with Alison and other women in their lives. Honestly, this show has more women loving women than ALL THE OTHER SHOWS I AM WATCHING PUT TOGETHER. And considering that I generally only watch tv with multiple women, that's saying a lot.



Ready to watch it? Netflix has the first two seasons streaming online. The show is currently halfway through its third season and returns after a hiatus on January 8th. It's also been renewed for a fourth season. If you catch up on the first two seasons, feel free to drop me a line here or email me for, um, more updates so you can catch up in time for its return.
 
 
 
Samarsakuraberries on November 9th, 2012 12:36 am (UTC)
This is absolutely brilliant and all of it completely true. I have loved Pretty Little Liars since the day I began watching it, even though I went into it apprehensive because all I heard about it (from people who haven't watched it, no surprise there) was that it was a silly, childish "chick flick." As I continued watching I realized that, hey, this show is the most feminist and female-positive show on television! And it's highly enjoyable! Unfortunately I think part of the reason the show is scorned is because of the all-female cast, which makes me rage.

Anyway, as I said, this post is brilliant. Would you mind if I linked to it on my journal/Tumblr/Facebook?
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars:  Hannahprozacpark on November 9th, 2012 01:18 am (UTC)
I was hooked from the first episode based on the women alone, but the more I watch it, the more I am both surprised and delighted by its commitment to women's stories and women's friendships. Media has taught me to watch these types of things in fear, and the fact that I am rarely ever ANXIOUS watching PLL? Is appreciated like nothing else.

And yeah, I hate when people dismiss PLL as a chick flick or a guilty pleasure. The plot might not be dealing with epic themes, but it's highly original in showing relationships between women.

Three seasons in, and this show has yet to disappoint me on a front that most shows fail at within a season. And while I am slightly worried about Spencer's arc next season, I realize it's a fear that comes mostly from my general distrust of tv and not anything PLL has given me reasons for.

And feel free to link wherever! More people need to be watching this, sigh.
chaila: nurse jackie - jackie & o'harachaila on November 9th, 2012 12:58 am (UTC)
Whee! I shall be linking here! :D
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars:  friends.prozacpark on November 9th, 2012 01:13 am (UTC)
I have been planning this post for, um, three seasons. And it finally happened, but I feel better about it now because now we know that all of the female positivity was actually, well, that, and not some happy accident.

But then there's BSG...maybe I should have waited one more season? ;)

Are you caught up on Downton? Because I am about to go rage on your LJ and would not want to spoil.
chaila: downton - marychaila on November 9th, 2012 02:31 pm (UTC)
I feel kind of bad that I don't have much to *say* about this show, despite how much I just enjoy it, for all the reasons you say.

I am behind on Downton because I lost my ability to give a crap about it--no matter how dire it was last season, I always had Mary, and this season I don't even have that :(--but I do not care about spoilers and will come and rage with you once I've caught up and can rage properly. Fucking Robert.

Clearly I need Pretty Little Liars icons.
Megan: pll: spencer looking backmeganbmoore on November 9th, 2012 01:17 am (UTC)
Are we watching more this weekend?
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars:  Emilyprozacpark on November 9th, 2012 01:19 am (UTC)
Yesssssss. Really, I am up for it whenever you guys are. I kind of want to rewatch the whole thing before it comes back, but I realize that's a bit ambitious. ;)
escritoireazulescritoireazul on November 9th, 2012 01:30 am (UTC)
A+ description of this amazing show and it's characters. It's such a delight.
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars - Spannaprozacpark on November 9th, 2012 03:07 am (UTC)
When pretty much everything else on tv inevitably fails, I just think of the fact that this exists. <3
Patricia: da. bethany. warden.lafemmedarla on November 9th, 2012 02:31 am (UTC)
I really need to start watching.

Can't get over the fact that one of the girl's dad is Deadpool/Cyclops
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars - vintage Spencerprozacpark on November 9th, 2012 03:08 am (UTC)
Yessss, you do.

Is it Spencer's dad? Because Spencer being the secret lovechild of Emma Frost and Cyclops might explain why she's so perfect. ;)
Patricialafemmedarla on November 9th, 2012 03:24 am (UTC)
If this is Spencer's dad, then yes. And yes, there were better pics but I like these better :P

hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars - Spencer - sideprozacpark on November 9th, 2012 03:25 am (UTC)
This is Spencer's dad. Mystery solved. ;)
Patricia: da. isabela. big damn hero.lafemmedarla on November 9th, 2012 03:42 am (UTC)
More reason to check out the show then :D
Joell: Gossip Girl - Bleightonyetanothermask on November 9th, 2012 02:47 am (UTC)
I watched the first three episodes a couple years ago and really liked it, I just never continued. I think Gossip Girl may have subconsciously turned me off shows about teens.
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.prozacpark on November 9th, 2012 03:11 am (UTC)
I don't know what your issues with GG are, but from what I know of it (and from people who watch both shows), I believe that PLL is better with f/f relationships. Their bond with each other is prioritized over most other relationships in their lives, they never fight over men (the show is really good about them never even being interested in the same men), and they aren't rivals or every compete against each other. <3
Megan: PLL - Emaya kissagemfirefly10 on November 9th, 2012 03:20 am (UTC)
This is why, despite my issues with the show, I'm still watching. I just...I can't help but watch a show that is so devoted to keeping the FEMALE FRIENDSHIPS front and center. This rarely happens and it is glorious. Plus, Emily ♥

I don't know if you've seen either of these but Bomb Girls (Canada) and Switch (UK) are both really awesome lady-centric dramas. Bomb Girls is only 6 episodes, as of now, but they're filming the 2nd season so that's at least 6 more episodes of women bonding and being awesome. Switch UK is the newer of the two but also revolves around women. These women also happen to be ROOMMATES and WITCHES. I can't say it's that believable in the magic portrayal and there's a seemingly annoying love triangle developing (I've seen the first three episodes, they've aired 4) but the plot revolves around the women and their relationships. Also, both shows have canon lesbians and loads of subtext.
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars:  full of secretsprozacpark on November 11th, 2012 08:36 pm (UTC)
Yes, that. Like, my level of interest varies depending on what they're focusing on? And I was barely hanging on last season while obsessing over "Revenge," but this season? Comparing it to "Revenge" is actually not helping "Revenge" given how that show fails to maintain ONE positive relationship between women, while this show gives us new ones each season, on top of the multiple ones we already have.

"Bomb Girls" is already on my list of things to watch, but I hadn't heard anything about "Switch," which sounds awesome just based on roommates and, um, WITCHES. Thanks for the rec. I am going to add it to my list. :)
tigerpetals (Gabriela V.)tigerpetals on November 10th, 2012 09:39 pm (UTC)
I've been meaning off and on to watch this, with the only turnoff I can remember being the whole "Aria and her teacher" thing. It's very tempting now, so hopefully I'll have the time. Well, I should have the time since it comes back in January.

Have you watched Once Upon a Time? It's got so much focus on the women, even when some oneshots are about guys. There's one continuing storyline that's typically guy-focused in a really gross way to me though. Still, all the female interaction is great and I think you will love Regina.
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars:  Emilyprozacpark on November 11th, 2012 08:43 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the Aria and her teacher thing is very unfortunate. If it helps, everyone I have converted to this show hates Aria/Ezra (but mostly just creepy Ezra), but loves the show despite that. It's a pretty big part of her character arc initially, but eventually gets pushed to the background. Meanwhile, there are three other girls having awesome arcs without creepy boyfriends.

I was watching "Once Upon a Time," but I lost interest due to lack of moral ambiguity, a simplistic worldview, and too much focus on Henry. (And I couldn't help but compare Emma vs Regina to Emily vs Victoria, which seemed so much more nuanced.) But I do mean to catch up on it, since I stopped early on, and have been told that it improves a lot later on.
tigerpetals (Gabriela V.)tigerpetals on November 12th, 2012 12:29 am (UTC)
I'll try it out. Probably after the semester ends. I'm glad it's at least pushed to the background.

Once Upon a Time gets much better: at first I was wondering why I kept following it and I thought Regina was too one-note, but I was much pleased and still am happy about what they're doing with her. I love the focus on the other women too.
Samarsakuraberries on November 17th, 2012 05:17 am (UTC)
Aria/Ezra is probably my favorite relationship on the show, actually. But then, I'm a weirdo who has a pretty serious male teacher/female student kink. It's my favorite trope.

/unnecessarily butting in with unnecessary info

Do you dislike it because of general student/teacher squick or is there something specifically about Aria/Ezra that bugs you? Do you just get a general creep vibe off Ezra or is it something he does/says?

Edited at 2012-11-17 05:19 am (UTC)
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Twin Peaks:  Audrey/Cooperprozacpark on November 17th, 2012 06:47 am (UTC)
Given how hard I ship Spencer/Jason, I probably have no place judging people on their PLL shipping. ;) My issue with Aria/Ezra is that the power dynamics there are tilted towards Ezra too much and I don't think the show realizes or acknowledges this. I wouldn't have an issue with it if the show or people around them acknowledged the questionable nature of it, but everyone treats it like it's just your standard star-crossed lovers dynamic.

I have liked male mentors/female mentee type things a fair bit in the past, but I think most of these things acknowledged the weird power dynamics there (The Inside, Batman Animated Series, Twin Peaks, etc.), so it's not strictly a squick on its own, although I admit that I feel that part of my issues is the male teacher/female student thing because of the stages of lives they're both in.
lolachromelolachrome on November 10th, 2012 10:39 pm (UTC)
Wonderful post, hear hear! :D I hope you convert many people to PLL!

Edited at 2012-11-10 10:40 pm (UTC)
hell to ships, hell to men, and hell to cities.: Pretty Little Liars - Spannaprozacpark on November 11th, 2012 08:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you. And yes, more people need to be watching this show. I keep waiting for FANDOM to happen for this, but it hasn't, tragically.
ellestra: wingedellestra on November 11th, 2012 12:32 am (UTC)
Unfortunately, female interactions are not enough for me. I tried to watch it but didn't mange to find anything interesting in the plot so I kept forgetting what happens, kept loosing track of the events and who is who and that was it. Too much teenage drama not enough action. I do feel bad about it every time I see someone raving about awesome female friendships on this show. Every time I read a review like this one I wish I didn't find it so boring. I feel like I'm missing out but I just don't know what to do about it.

However, I also don't like one gender shows so failing reverse Bechdel test is only slightly better then failing Bechdel. It might be because shows that are heavily female are also in genres that I'm not interested in but shows in genres I like that don't have main female characters also loose me fast and I do have problem with caring about ones that don't have any female interactions.

This is my conundrum. I'm never really that into non SF&F shows and the closer they are teenage drama the less I care (it's medical(science)>law>family>women>teenage). I like "guy" stuff. You can sell me on a movie with explosions and cgi effects. You can get me to watch a series longer then I should if you promise me space battles/aliens/magic/AIs. At the same time I want women passing Bechdel test and being friends with each other and protagonists of their stories. Somehow this is a forbidden combination in entertainment. The closest I got so far is Nikita. It's not perfect and it's barley getting renewed each season but it's best I have.
ghanima sun: defaultghanimasun on February 14th, 2013 06:24 pm (UTC)
Here via halfamoon.

I really enjoyed this; you touched on a lot of the reasons I really enjoy the show so much too!