All I Want From Pretty Little Liars’ Final Season Is For a Man to Be Held Accountable For Literally Anything

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?


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Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

Heather has written 519 articles for us.

41 Comments

  1. 14

    Apropos of the theme of this article, on “Riverdale”:
    – Veronica stood up to the guy that slut-shamed her.
    – Veronica and Betty took down a group of jocks that had a “score book”.
    – Said jocks were held accountable.
    – And when one of those jocks complained to Betty that that ruined his life, she said, “I’m sorry that you sexually harassing those girls had actual consequences, Chuck.”

  2. 14

    All the boyfriend’s are main characters with tons of screen time but even Emily’s longest term girlfriend Paige, just popped up randomly. What a slap in the face. This show gets credit for having a lesbian lead character in the press a lot, I do give it some too, but ultimately it always treated her as second class and that should be it’s legacy.

    Also Paige was too good a character for this show and I’d watch her in another better show any day.

  3. 2

    I want to half-jokingly respond to “How can Emily go a whole season without a real love interest” with: “Because she lives in Pennsylvania and not Pittsburgh or Philly?”. Growing up in PA, and being there until I was 30, identifying as Queer for the last 10 years I was there I felt like it was reallllly hard to find other queer women. But maybe that was just down to the towns I lived in, who knows. I never felt good or safe or ME in PA.

    So much has happened on this show that I think I need to go rewatch the last season on Netflix and then not watch this final season until it’s all done, then binge watch and SOMEHOW avoid internet spoilers.

    Loving Troian’s response about her character.

    • 13

      I think that would work if it had been addressed — and, perhaps, a more realistic choice would’ve been that Emily stays with the same girl a lot longer than she should (as the other Liars have done with their boyfriends) because there are so few other options out there. One of the things that surprised me in early seasons was simply how many love interests did pop up for Emily. I was like, “She lives in a small town in Pennsylvania! Where is she finding all of these lesbians???”

      If the creators wanted to represent that reality, why not have Emily in a long term relationship, you know? It wouldn’t be unrealistic for her to find two love interests in Rosewood, and to have it stop there.

      But if anything, there is an abundance of love interests, she just can’t make any of them stick.

  4. 16

    It’s almost over now, so I’ll just be honest and say I was never able to see what you saw, Heather. I always wondered if the thoughtful analysis you provided was ever what was intended to be taken from the show on the part of those who made it. In the end I suspect it wasn’t.

    Either way I will always remember the Rosewood you wove out of your incredible brain, Heather – you have been (at the very least) half the magic of this show the whole time. I am looking forward to reading your thoughts on it as we traverse this final distance.

    • 14

      Thank you, Eva. I made a couple of big mistakes with PLL. The biggest one, of course, was justifying Maya’s death. (That’s the biggest mistake of my career.) On my recap of the finale where Charlotte was revealed as A, a friend of mine commented and said, “I’ve always wondered if you were pulling out the golden thread of feminism from this show.” And she was right and I’d never even considered that was true. I watched it how I watched it and internalized it how I internalized it and processed it how I processed it — and that’s how I wrote about it. I went to a PLL fan event at New York Comic Con a year or so ago and was SHOCKED by what the people in the audience cared about.

      What I understand now is that maybe I saw something that was really there but that the writers and directors didn’t intend to be there. Or that I saw something that was there that writers and directors *did* intend, but the network didn’t see or care about it. I suspect it’s that second thing. Either way, I should have paid more attention to the way the general public was watching and internalizing the show so that I could have tempered that golden thread of feminism with a dose of reality from the wide world of heteronormativity.

      I’ll always look back on the first three seasons of this show with intense fondness.

  5. 16

    Emily and her storylines haven’t moved with the times. I was impressed in 2010 with Emily and Maia’s relationship but they haven’t progressed 7 years on and shows like Wynonna Earp, Person of Interest and Supergirl have left the queer storylines in PLL in the dust.

    • 2

      IDK about Person of Interest, outside of the two episodes that exist inside characters’ heads (the Machine and Shaw); and I guess what’s progressive about Supergirl is that, after season 1 being one of the most progressive feminist shows on TV last year, in season 2 the only thing progressive is the queer relationship, while everything else has been walked back 30 years. Those two shows have disappointed me as much as PLL, ultimately.

  6. 24

    “Will an adult man be forced to take responsibility for literally anything?” is really the question we should all be asking (demanding) of the world at large.

    Bravo, Heather. The story you built around these characters and this show always far, far outshone what was actually being presented on screen.

  7. 10

    THIS THIS THIS.

    You just put in perfect words everything I’ve ever wanted to say to people who don’t think representation matters, to all these “hey, everyone can die!” people.

    Emily was one of the very first gay characters I’ve seen on TV. I think at least partly thanks to her I came to accept LGBT+ people. But when I first thought that I myself can be gay – I saw future which was, well, not very bright. And even if I don’t remember it very well, I can’t stop thinking it was also because of her.

  8. 0

    You mention that the death of a straight white man on tv is nothing. I seem to recall on the show Dallas, who shot JR was a big deal back then. Well to viewers anyway.

    But I digress, a killing of a white man by a white man doesn’t really change anything anymore. Could be his brother, his father or his best friend. But have the killer a lesbian or a trans and a woman of color and well society is up in arms.

  9. 10

    This was beautiful. Thank you for writing it. I also will always be grateful for what this show gave me – you, for one, and most of my queer friends; an entire community – but I will also never forget how hard and fast it fell.

    My favorite thing about this show was always you and your words, the BooRadleyVanCullen fandom you built and the inside jokes you gave us. And so much of yourself in every recap. For that I’ll also always be grateful.

    <3

  10. 11

    this show blew me away at first, when you and i were both writing about it on rival websites, because emily stayed gay for an entire season. like Tara says upthread, it didn’t keep up with the times. it began as a trailblazer and then stayed stuck there.

    but i’m excited for these last ten episodes. the last set of episodes were good television and i hope they can keep that up, somehow

  11. 4

    I love this Heather thank you! I was blinded by the patriarchy for the first few seasons and loved Ezra….then the spell was broken. The only male characters I ever really liked were Caleb (not entirely sure why) and Aria’s brother Mike (his character seemed pretty legit). I was drawn to the show for it’s strong and intriguing female characters, and although I still love it it’s definitely not as much as I initially did. The show just didn’t seem to move forward in the right way and was too busy trying to cover loose ends (Sara, obvs)

    Emily’s story was there for me when I was trying to come out to myself for like the millionth time.

    Troian’s comment is just perfect though. And originally Spencer was my least favorite of the liars, until I too realised it was the men not her (and when I started to relate to her going a bit psychotic with the addictions and stuff)

    Fingers crossed these new episodes give us back the original awesome Rosewood…and that Aria finds someone she deserves not Ezra!

    • 8

      I didn’t mind Ezra for the first few seasons either. I think Heather has written about it before, but the show went out of it’s way to make Ezra as non-threatening and virginal as possible at the start. I think that’s why it was easy to like him.

      That is also why if they kept him as A, it would have been perfect. They went out of the way to make him as unassuming as possible but then here he was, an even bigger creep than we could have ever imagined. It would have been amazing, and there would always been Ezria shippers out there who would have wanted them to come together even if they continued down that path but ultimately the show could have been mature enough to portray him as dangerous as he is and most of the audience would have agreed with it.

      This is also exactly the same reason why the fake out was so, so dangerous. Ezra was a massive creep who specifically preyed on Aria and stalked a bunch of teenage girls but it’s ok everyone! he fell in love! he’s redeemed! it’s such a beautiful love story!

      ergh. It makes me so sick.

  12. 3

    Heather, my grandmother used to say “People in hell want ice water”. I think that applies here as well. I gave up all hope for PLL seasons ago. I genuinely thought the show had already ended until I recently saw articles about it’s return.

  13. 5

    I absolutely loved this show in its early seasons, and I think so much of the campy element was intentional at least in the actors’ delivery. I miss the simpler times when Allison offered cryptic lessons via flashback, Ashley Marin hid stolen money in boxes of pasta, and Dr Sullivan gave us the beloved invention of ‘adrenalized hyperreality’.
    Ezra choosing to have sex with a teenager creeped me out from the very start, and Maya’s death really angered me, but it was the trans deception plot that killed my ability to watch the show ever again. The mysteries had diminishing returns, particularly after the Mona reveal, but I probably would have kept watching if they hadn’t made my favorite snake vanquisher into a transphobic trope. I understood the rage at the 100 for its massive fuckup, but PLL was far more disappointing to me.

  14. 2

    This made me legitimately tear up. I spotted your recap post before this one, and I did wonder that you jumped straight into it, after having stopped the recaps before. I second people watching Riverdale, although it does potentially have other problematic issues (asexuality erasure, and questionable race politics). But I do love it, and it is filling that PLL space in my heart showing strong female relationships, mystery, and weird parents(like, a large part of the premise is a generations old MAPLE SYRUP FEUD, which is so fab). I also want Betty and Veronica to be endgame. But I also want Emily and Maya(so many are people are not dead, can’t she be not dead?) and Spencer and Caleb to be endgame so I don’t think I pick them well.

  15. 1

    I was such a PLL junkie for the first three seasons, but I’ll say it to my grave:

    PLL’s Ezra is just a grown up version of Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey.

    Here’s hoping this ending is less infuriating and bizarre than that one.

  16. 1

    THIS. 100% THIS.
    “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.”

    Heather… you just rawk.

  17. 1

    Heather, it was through your writing about PLL that I discovered AE and ultimately other queer sites and blogs for queer women, sites like this one. I remember watching PLL and going through the same things Emily and Paige were going through, except I was ten years their senior. Naturally, I became obsessed with the show and Emily’s storyline and it was while looking up articles about the show that I stumbled upon one of your recaps from season 1. Thanks to you leading me to that site, I found out that there were many communities online of people like me. I found a sense of belonging in the queer community online, on AE, this site and Tumblr. Your write-ups, in particular about PLL and Paige, were a huge part of the reason I was able to accept that I do indeed like women. Your PLL recaps introduced me to your particular brand of writing and I will try to follow you wherever your career takes you, because you are an amazing writer. Thank you.

  18. 0

    ‘Is it Rosewood? Or is Rosewood, as I always suspected, simply Stars Hollow laid bare.’

    Is this a Gilmore Girls diss I can’t make sense of or just a reference to the PLL set?

    I’m genuinely asking, because GG is my absolute favorite show and I can’t imagine it being interpreted as anything other than feminist.

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