For a precious handful of golden seasons, Pretty Little Liars was everything I wanted out of a TV show: a haunting microcosm of besieged female sexuality. Who is A? Who cares. Here’s the real question: What if the Dead Blonde Girl knew she was going to die, and why? What if Laura Palmer and Lily Kane and those girls whose names you can’t remember from True Detective and The Killing and half the cold opens of Law & Order: SVU understood that they were going to be claimed by the same puritanical hysteria that destroyed the witches who came before them? To purge. To purify. To punish them for the desires they stirred by simply existing. What if the Messiah wasn’t a man, but a woman. Wasn’t a lamb, but a wolf. What if the Dead Blonde Girl was queer? What if she shook the snow globe?
That show is gone. It stopped existing in degrees by network mandates and shipper mandates and social media mandates, until the Dead Blonde Girl’s magic was burned at the stake, until her agency and power were completely stripped away and she laid drugged and helpless, tied to a hospital bed and a husband — while the embodiment of every toxic, nefarious door Pretty Little Liars opened dropped to his knee at the end of of his redemption arc and asked the woman he stalked and statutorily raped to be his wife.
There’s a clip that surfaces from time to time of Troian Bellisario defending Spencer Hastings to a couple of schmucky morning show hosts on Good Day LA during the first season of Pretty Little Liars. The woman host says she doesn’t like Spencer because Spencer steals her sister’s boyfriends, to which Troian responds, “This is a really good thing to talk about. Because everybody blames Spencer and you know what I want to turn around and say? She’s a sixteen-year-old girl, and all the boys she’s ‘stolen’? They always kiss her first and they’re over eighteen. So can we talk about the responsibility that needs to be taken as far as adult males in this community?”
It’s not clear if Bellisario means the community of Rosewood or the larger global community. It doesn’t matter, really: fiction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Nothing shapes our culture, our religions, our politics, our beliefs, our behaviors, or our ethics like stories.
Which is why it matters that Pretty Little Liars has killed more queer women than any other show on television. Yes, Emily Fields is one of the longest running lesbian main characters in TV history. And also yes, she’s had almost a dozen love interests over the course of the show’s run. But what is the message underneath the fact that Emily’s love interests last for three-episode or six-episode arcs? That her first love, and the only first love interest who was a Black person, was murdered while the other Liars’ first loves survive? That, unlike the other Liars, she can go nearly full seasons without a resonant love interest? Or that the other Liars’ longtime love interests become more integrated into the show’s central storyline while Emily is forced into a relationship with the show’s most preposterous plot point?
What’s the message underneath the fact that the show’s main A was a duplicitous, psychotic trans woman who was murdered?
What’s the message underneath the fact that nearly every woman of color gets killed?
Anyone can die on Pretty Little Liars, is how the saying goes. And it’s kind of true. In addition to the queer women — Maya, Shana, Charlotte, Sara — who met an untimely end, a handful of men bit Rosewood’s bitter dust. Ian. Garrett. Wilden. Rollins (Dunhill?). And Noel Kahn. But if no one ever wrote another book, TV show, or movie about a straight white man, there’d still be more stories about them than you could consume in ten lifetimes. The cultural ramifications of narrative invisibility will never touch them.
Do we watch Dexter and assume all men are serial killers? Mad Men and assume all men are alcoholic sex addicts? Breaking Bad and assume all men are sociopathic meth dealers? No. No political party, no religion is using the depiction of a handful of straight white guys to persecute an entire demographic. Because almost all of our literature, all of our film canon, all of our TV shows, all of our paintings and sculptures and photographs and engravings, all of our physical money, all of our history celebrates and humanizes straight white men.
To lose a white man on TV is nothing.
But in a world where politicians and religious leaders use stereotypes shaped by story to scapegoat and persecute minorities, it’s something. It’s everything. You can’t convince a group of voters that trans women should be kept out of the bathrooms that match their gender identity if you can’t exploit their unfounded fears that trans women are deceitful and untrustworthy. You can’t convince a group of voters to undermine the civil rights of a minority if you can’t reaffirm their dehumanizing biases.
Pretty Little Liars had a moment to drive a stake into the heart of a culture that preys on and punishes women for being women. Ezra Fitz was A. Not only did he pursue a relationship with one of his students, he seduced her knowing that she was 16 and that she was going to be under his authority. He stalked her and her friends, surveilled them without their knowledge — in the same way Jason and Ian had creeped on and videotaped them when they were even more underage — and he did it all because he was obsessed with the Dead Blonde Girl. Sara Harvey was a deus ex machina. Ezra Fitz was the irrefutable missing piece of the puzzle.
He was shot. He should have died. Instead, the Dead Blonde Girl said, “He’s too romantic for his own good.”
An asinine morning show host asks a woman to defend herself against a perception of guilt built largely on the foundation of her femininity. A powerful, pragmatic, complicated, accomplished woman is denigrated and stripped of her power while a legitimately evil white male buffoon is given dismissive latitude. Is it Rosewood? Or is Rosewood, as I always suspected, simply Stars Hollow laid bare.
I’ll never forget the golden hour or stop being thankful for the blessings I still reap from the shining moment in time when the brightest, bravest queer women on the internet found each other and watched as their voices and dreams and hopes and hearts were stitched together on TV. We spoke to the storytellers, I was there, and they wove us a song.
Pretty Little Liars kicks off its final season tonight. Ten episodes to tell us who ultimately gets caught with the A baton in their hands, who killed Charlotte, who shot Spencer, who gave birth to every Little Liar. Is X person good? Is Y person bad? Who will end up with whom? I sometimes wonder if I was asking all the wrong questions about this show. Maybe I should have cared more about: Who is A? But it’s too late for that now and I only have one question left. Lucky for me, Troian Bellisario already asked it: Will an adult man be forced to take responsibility for literally anything?