I Still Can’t Believe Pretty Little Liars Thought Ankle Rubbing Was Lesbian Sex

I Still Can’t Believe is a TV Team series where we remember the things happened on television that baffle us — in good and bad ways — to this very day. 

Pretty Little Liars was a TV series whose premise was: What if the most unhinged, batshit bonkers, out-of-the-frame, hyperadrenalized mishaps befell a group of teenage girls living in a haunted town of endless secrets and living dolls? There’s no character for whom this was more true than Emily Fields, Rosewood’s resident lesbian who, over the course of seven seasons, saw multiple girlfriends murdered and one girlfriend resurrected, was kidnapped alongside a different girlfriend and forced to stab their kidnapper — who was pretending to be the cousin of her most recent dead girlfriend, but was actually the one who murdered her — in the guts on top of a lighthouse, received a necklace made of human teeth that spelled out DEAD GIRLS CAN’T SMILE, got poisoned by her BENGAY sore muscle cream, weathered a car driving into her living room on purpose, was attacked by her school building which literally came to life one night and told her to ACT NORMAL BITCH, and had her ovarian eggs stolen and fertilized and implanted into the uterus of her first girlfriend who died and came back to life.

Pretty Little Liars hit during a perfect storm. It arrived when Twitter was just taking off as a platform for communicating with the people who make TV and the people are watching the same shows as you. It casually walked, without issue, through the door Glee had kicked down when it came to gay teens on TV, at a time when ABC Family was desperately trying to rebrand itself as a network known for more than its lifelong contractural obligation to air Pat Robertson’s white evangelical nightmare show, The 700 Club. And it made its entrance before streaming platforms were making TV, before binging became the norm, before the studios and networks that greenlit television were able to bypass Standards & Practices reviews that worried about losing advertisers aiming at straight, white, conservative, middle-age middle America. Watching TV live and weighing in and being heard by the actors and creators was part of the Pretty Little Liars experience, and it was a new one — and oh, it was heady.

Spencer and Toby having sex

I recapped all seven seasons of this show, but the one image that stands out to me after all this time — the one that I still, to this day, cannot believe — is during the series finale when all the straight couples were having sex, and, instead of doing that, Emily Fields and Alison DiLaurentis rubbed their bare ankles together. I rewatched “Till Death Do Us Part” recently, to see if I was remembering it correctly, and yep: There’s Ezra and Aria flipping each other like pancakes, Spencer climbing Toby’s naked torso like a tree, Hanna and Caleb making a baby, and Emily and Alison’s feet just a-touchin’. Little toe tap here. Little heel bump there. Feets on feets on feets, lesbian lesbian feets.

Alison and Emily's feet touching

The reason I still can’t believe that it happened is because it was 2017, after Orange Is the New Black, Sense8, Lost Girl, Orphan Black, Jane the Virgin, and Wynonna Earp had all given their queer couples the exact same amount of sex with the lights on as its straight couples. It happened after ABC Family had become Freeform, in large part because of Pretty Little Liars. It happened with so many queer people writing and directing. It happened in the last episode, when there was nothing left to lose. And! It happened! Juxtaposed with every! other! couple! on the show! That kind of thing is always going to bother the heck out of me — it’s my job, in fact, for it to bother the heck out of me — but it was really the cherry on top of Emily’s short-stick romantic storylines over the course of the show’s final seasons.

Everyone else had their final shebangs with their first on-screen loves on the show, which of course Emily couldn’t do because hers was Maya St. Germain and Maya was dead. Everyone else had emotionally resonant romantic storylines in the final seasons, but Emily didn’t because one of her love interests was just a plot point that never made a lick of sense, and Alison spent most of the last season chained to a bed getting tortured by her husband who carried a BONE SAW around in his backpack. And to celebrate making it through the series alive, no small thing for two gays in Rosewood, Emily and Alison just stacked their feet on top of each other!

Aria and Ezra having sex Emily and Alison's feet touching

Years before Pretty Little Liars‘ finale, there was a similar controversy on Modern Family. Gay viewers noted that while the other families shared a lot of physical affection, Cam and Mitchell hardly ever touched. The discourse reached its apex in a scene were Claire and Phil, and Cam and Mitchell reunited in an airport. Claire and Phil kissed in the foreground, while Cam and Mitchell hugged in the background. Even GLAAD had something to say about it.

There’s a lot of reasons Pretty Little Liars doesn’t hold up in 2021: most notably making the inexplicable decision to pin the show’s major crimes and mysteries on a trans woman character, perpetually glorifying the relationship between a teacher and the student he stalked and abused, and killing off basically every Black character who ever came to town. Pretty Little Liars was on air long enough to see the whole world change around it. The TV landscape it launched in was not the TV landscape it landed in.

This show gave me a lot of laughs, a lot of notoriety as a lesbian writer, a lot of good friends, and more than a handful of grey hairs. The absurdity will stick with me, fondly, forever — but I’m never going to get over this pile of homosexual tootsies.

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Heather Hogan

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior editor who lives in New York City with her wife, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Heather has written 1718 articles for us.


    • Heather I’m surprised you didn’t write about Skins Fire, because I REALLY still can’t believe they did that.

    • This made me cackle! Paily is the ship responsible for turning me gay in 2013 and it’s just absolutely abysmal. I’ve never seen less on screen chemistry. Yet I dutifully watched all of the seasons for the net 26 minutes of gay content. Thank god today’s teens have more options lmao.

      • @Rene Are you sure you’re talking about Paily and not Emison? because I’m not even a Paily shipper but I acknowledge that Lindsey Shaw and Shay Mitchell delivered what needs to be delivered on camera. Paily making out scenes had heat. Whereas the Emison’s making out scenes specifically the sex scene were dry. It was too obvious that Sasha Pieterse didn’t have any interest in touching or kissing Shay Mitchell and vice versa.

      • Just for the record, I was rooting for Maya because of Bianca Lawson. As a kid, I had a crush on her when I watched Save The Last Dance. But Shay Mitchell even said that she’s a Paily shipper because she’s got chemistry with Lindsey Shaw and Lindsey Shaw said the same thing about Shay Mitchell so I don’t know….. I just don’t understand your comment.

  1. Honestly your recaps of PLL is why I followed your writing to Autostraddle. I didn’t even watch the show but instead looked forward to your hilarious recaps and community commentary. I would genuinely laugh out loud at before lol was a thing with my wife wondering what I was chuckling at. I don’t normally post but this was another lol moment

  2. Ugh the feels. Heather’s recaps on PLL are what got me on Autostraddle, and the femme-femme representation on PLL was life changing for me and my coming out process. I stopped watching PLL after they made A trans in season 5, and I guess I’m glad I did. I never saw Emily and Allison as end game, and I was just too mad to keep going. But oh the memories of this show. I started out being like wow Fitz is hot, and then I was like nope I’m fully gay. Thank you for this piece and for always making me feel a little less alone.

  3. PLL had lesbians play tootsies so that Riverdale could have lesbians be absolutely quackers (and still not be the most insane people on the show).

  4. There was also a scene where Maya and Emily feet were touching when they were lying on a bed and Emily’s mother was really triggered. Apparently foot fetishes are a big thing on PLL.

  5. Thanks for this. I legitimately cracked up over and over again while I read it. Really needed some laughter today <3

  6. a) LOLLL absolutely spot-on, and b) Autostraddle has a whole “is this sex” chart PLL could have used if they had lesbians questions! I do not recall “ankle rubbing” as an answer anywhere.

  7. They way they DOWNGRADED from Emily and Maya passionately making out in the first season to the ankle rubbing and overall neutered Emison relationship in the very last season

  8. i did not watch pll. i am the kind of old where my entire lack of interest in unnecessary drama could not be overstated. i have also never felt great about the way ‘bitch’ is used as a casual female referent; i know it means sth different to the youngs and don’t push my personal thing on anybody else.

    nonetheless, of the many things Heather has written that stay with me,

    “…was attacked by her school building which literally came to life one night and told her to ACT NORMAL BITCH,…”

    will not be the least. i suspect i will be repeating it to myself in a number of circumstances hence.

  9. The first paragraph alone deserves a Pulitzer. It takes me back!

    Heather, I started watching Pretty Little Liars just so I could understand your ape-shit bananas recaps. I would see hundreds and hundreds of comments of every single one of them and had to know what was up. I properly binged the first two seasons on Putlocker in the middle of writing my masters dissertation just to catch up to you and the weekly episodes of season 3A I think (the height of Emily and Paige, right?).

    I’d watch an episode when I woke up in the morning while drinking my tea and eating breakfast, immediately read your recap then head off to the library for 8 hours. Then I’d come home, watch an episode and read a recap to unwind, watch another episode (and read another recap) while eating dinner, and watch another episode (and read another recap) before going to bed. Only to get up and do the exact same thing the next day. For four months!

    It honestly kept me sane even though it was all so ridiculous. There was comfort in the chaos, all thanks to your recaps. They really helped me in a lot of ways.

  10. I am going to be the devil’s advocate here but as we all know Sasha Pieterse who played Alison gained a lot of weight during the show.Due to Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (also known as PCOS), she gained 70 pounds over two years.She has already addressed how this has been difficult for her to deal with and how she was bullied for it on social media. She was very insecure at the time and we cant not omit the option that it may be why they went for the ankle rubbing instead of the full body embrace.
    I am not saying that a gain of weight is a good reason not to show a body on tv but one person personal insecurities can be.

    • That’s the thing. They don’t have to get naked because even with full clothes on, they don’t have any heat for each other whatsoever. I’m going to be very frank, Shay Mitchell and Sasha Pieterse looks like two dead fishes trying to put their lips together. It looks soooooooooooooooo dry! Like dry dry! Not even a little moisture between them but just plain dry. As individual characters, Emily Fields and Alison DiLaurentis are super interesting. But when they try to get it on with each other, it’s not believable at all. Not even a little bit. Watching fake lesbian porn with all of the exaggerated screaming is 1000000000x better than watching them have sex.

  11. Alison and Emily in all of their make out scenes but specifically in their sex scene both look like they have never touched another female’s body before. It’s tolerable but it’s somehow painful to watch. For a couple who has waited 7 seasons to be together, they don’t look like they’re interested in having sex. Emison is overhyped because they are lead characters but even the actresses(Shay and Sasha) have got nothing much to say about each other in their interviews. Shay and Sasha only started promoting Emison because it’s probably what Marlene King wants them to do. It’s obvious that Shay isn’t an Emison shipper and neither is Sasha. If they were, the camera would’ve captured the spark, the passion, the desire, the intensity, the so and so, but there really is no heat whatsoever between the two of them.

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