‘Pretty Little Liars’ Successfully Maintains Lesbian Storyline For Entire Season and Probably Longer

Shay Mitchell, who plays Emily on Pretty Little Liars, does this thing with her mouth — she purses her lips, hesitates like she’s in the middle of a troubling truth, slightly parts her lips, and then — nothing. Silence or CUT! Every time she does this, we’re hoping that she’ll blurt out, “I’m a lesbian and want to have lesbian sex right now on the teevee,” but she never really did, though over the course of Pretty Little Liars‘ first season, which ended last night, Emily did say a lot of other very lesbionic things, providing a fairly compelling and relatively unrestrained lesbian storyline — almost unprecedented for a brand-new show as usually our lesbian storylines are reserved for Season 3 or 4 when the writers run out of drugs and miscarriages and need something to boost ratings (usually, obvs, during Sweeps Week).

For the uninitiated: Pretty Little Liars, (we recapped the first two episodes here), centers on a clique of four popular pretty teenage girls, played by Hannah Marin (Ashley Benson), Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale), Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell) and Spencer Hastings (Troian Bellisario). Formerly their clique was a fivesome, with Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) as the Queen Bee. Until one dark & stormy night, when the girls awoke from their slumber party slumber to discover that Alison had disappeared. A year later, where the show picks up, Alison’s body has just been found, which turns the disappearance into a murder investigation. Meanwhile, the girls are plagued by crazytown texts from “A”, a mysterious vowel with lots of insider info only available to Alison.

Everyone has a secret. Emily’s secret? She’s afraid of the dark. JK. She likes girls!

This heightened suspenseful mish-mash of TV genres suits a lesbian storyline well — often we find our most tolerable/relateable gay storylines in series which place interpersonal dramas in a distinctly fictional world — murder mystery! Supernatural powers! Vampires! Outer space!

Social dramas based entirely on the interpersonal relationships of teenagers living in Orange County/Beverly Hills/Dawson’s Creek/Hollyoaks/New York City just don’t compare to what writers can pull off in  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Heroes, Stargate Universe, FlashFoward, Torchwood, Wonderfalls, Carnivale, and by more subtle satirical dramedy/genre-bending shows like Nip/Tuck, Six Feet Under and Desperate Housewives.

Pretty Little Liars functions on several levels — it’s not just about relationships, or high school, or attractive teenagers living fancy lives. The characters constantly strain to bury their own memories and feelings w/r/t the murder — so melodrama, when it comes, feels well-earned & honest. But it’s also about what it’s like to be a teenage girl with secrets and complicated incomprehensible feelings and a tricky social web you’re not certain you can trust.

Emily’s had a lot of ups & downs since we last recapped. I’ve been haphazardly watching/screencapping since, and from what I can piece together these things happened:

Emily fell for Maya and the duo shared a lip-lock in a photo booth at a school party!

Unfortch, they were unable to add the photostrip to their scrapbook of memories ’cause someone snatched it and made a few copies.

Maya & Emily walked through the hallways talking to each other:

Emily got scared about her feelings for Maya, and retreated into a friendship with Toby Cavanaugh, who is certifiably creepy as fuck. You know how it is. You’re an outsider who’s worried everyone would hate you if they knew the truth about you, and you start to wonder if the already-ostracized children might not be so bad after all:

At some point, Maya got Emily a scarf:

Later, Scaryface sees her in the hallway and notes, “You were wearing a scarf today,” and she tells him, “I took it off.” The hills have eyes. AND THEN BEFORE YOU KNOW IT, she’s agreed to go to homecoming with him.

Meanwhile, the mysterious “A.”, who must have unlimited text messages in his/her/ze’s mobile plan, sends Emily’s friend Hannah the stolen photo of Emily & Maya kissing.

Hannah seems shocked, but not appalled:

It’s borderline adorable that Hannah then takes the initiative to tell Maya that Emily would love to see her at homecoming, unaware that Emily’s already agreed to a Date with Death. Maya is understandably unimpressed when Emily shows up with Toby:

Maya confronts Emily about her real feelings/issues and admits Hannah invited her on Emily’s behalf. That’s troubling, and Emily seems full of remorse. Her primary concern is her traditional conservative family, who she doesn’t think would approve of clamdiving.

Meanwhile, the girls find a psych files revealing that Toby and his sister Jenna were doing the dirty-dirty Flowers in the Attic style, text Emily that Toby killed Allison, and you know.  This is bad timing, because Toby is really creepy-looking and he’s just taken Emily into the Chem Lab (a room filled with glass bottles! BEAKERS FOR EVERYONE) to talk to her about something secret, so when he creeps towards Emily to tell her something special, she gets scared, pushes him, and there’s an accident involving broken glass and blood.

Toby drops Emily off at the hospital and skips town. Great date. Also BTW Jenna is now blind because this one time Allison saw Toby & Jenna doing it and thought it would be funny to tell the girls Toby was spying on them and then go firebomb their garage or something. Toby took the fall for Allison’s crime. This is really only tangentially related to what you really care about which are all the homosexual feelings.

AND THOSE ARE. In episode 107, Emily asks Hannah why she thought Emily wanted to go to homecoming with Maya and they have the sweetest heart-to-heart ever.

Emily: “I think I know what I want, but if I say yes to Maya everything would change, I know it would.”
Hannah: “Yeah it would, you wouldn’t have to keep pretending that you’re something that you’re not.”
Emily: “But what if I’m not? What if I’m not — that person.”
Hannah:Emily, you’re not signing a contract. You were Emily dating Ben, and now you’d be Emily dating Maya. We love Emily. No one cares who you’re with.”

New York Magazine was suspicious about how this went down:

Though noble and timely in spirit (a lot of teens nowadays are bi-curious, right? That’s what the trend stories tell us!), it kind of feels like a cop-out on the part of the writers, who take pains to avoid the words “gay” and “lesbian,” instead using solemn this’s and that’s in place of explicit language.

It’s unclear whether NY Magazine sees a distinction between “bisexual” and “avoiding the word lesbian,” but we’re not here to pick a fight. Except ONE LITTLE THING: with all due respect to Emily Nussbaum, any queer could tell ‘ya that avoiding the “words” or wanting to be “sure” before you come out to potentially unforgiving parents isn’t uncommon. Many queers put off “the conversation” until they’ve personally 100% confirmed homosexuality via fingerblasting and/or relationship. It’s high school. It’s an unsure time.

So Emily gets her shit together and lets Maya know that their picture is out there, like a flesh-eating virus dripping with lesbian menarche, and Maya should know. It could still be a framer! Also, Emily doesn’t want Maya to “lose sleep” over it.

Maya: “I won’t lose sleep. That’s you, not me.”
Emily: “I don’t wanna lose any more sleep. I miss you and I want to try and make this work.”
Maya: “When did this happen? The last time I saw you were slow-dancing with Toby at homecoming.”
Emily: “Maya, can we at least talk about this?”
Maya: “How do I know you won’t flake on me again?”
Emily: “Because I’m trying this new thing called ‘being honest with myself.’ How am I doing?”

Then something even cuter happens where Emily invites Maya on an actual date to the movies! It’s not the kind with hand jobs though, it’s the kind without hand jobs but WITH KISSING.

I stole this graphic from Heather Hogan, you’ve probably been reading her recaps on AfterEllen and if you haven’t been, what the fuck is wrong with you, look, this graphic is from there, I STOLED IT:

Last week on Pretty Little Liars (Episode 109: Perfect Storm), Emily kinda-sorta came out to her friends after a season of anguish. Sara Witness at Afterellen spoke to Jamie Babbit, who directed the episode.  Jamie had this to say about what to expect (was she fucking with us?):

AfterEllen.com: So everyone at AfterEllen.com is obsessed with Pretty Little Liars, mostly because of the Emily storyline.
Jamie Babbit:
You know the creator is a lesbian. You should interview her! That would be better than me.  [Jamie is referring to executive producer Marlene King, not the PLL book author Sara Shepard.]

AE: You directed the August 3 episode of Pretty Little Liars. Spill it.
It’s kind of like The Breakfast Club. There’s a big storm in the town and so all the kids get trapped in the high school and have to spend hours together. It’s a really moody episode with the big storm happening outside. Emily has been sneaking around since the first episode with her girlfriend and she finally comes out to all her friends in this episode.

AE: Is she outed or does she intentionally come out?
A series of events happen that are very cathartic that make it better for her to just tell her friends what’s really happening. The whole series revolves around this mystery of who killed A.  And so, the girls are always dancing around who killed A, what happened with “A,” and basically what we realize is that Emily was having a secret affair with A.

AE: That she was actually having an affair with her, as opposed to just … ?

AE: With “A” or with Alison?
With “A.” With the girl that got killed.

AE: Is Alison “A” for sure?

AE: So she had the secret affair with Alison. Who got killed.
Yeah. We find out that before she was killed they were having an affair. They were together.

AE: And you do not know who A is, correct?
I do know who A is, but I’m not at liberty to say.

AE: Is it the same as in the book?
Um, I don’t know.

AE: Do you know who killed Alison?
Once again, I do know, but I can’t say. It’s the big secret of the show! I can’t give that away!

AE: How do the friends respond when she comes out?
They are really supportive.

AE: Everybody?
They’re super-supportive. She’s basically really scared to come out to them because she feels like they’ll reject her.  But in the end, once she comes out, they’re all totally fine with it.

So how’d that end up going down? Trapped in school, Emily decides to catch up on Charles Dickens, because she only read the Great Illustrated Classics version when they did it in school… and hark! Inside the library copy, Emily finds a letter she once wrote Allison just before Allison got killed, and luckily the camera pauses long enough for us to read the whole thing. You know the one. You can relate.

Emily has two flashbacks about Allison. In the first, Allison is almost nice for like a minute, reading out loud to Emily from Great Expectations like it’s Ultimate Lesbian Vampire Erotica or something. Emily is all girlcrushed out, probs moreso when Allison accepts a timid but tender kiss from Emily that didn’t involve nearly as much tongue as we’d hoped.

Allison has teased and flirted incessantly with Emily in every flashback, so it’s good to finally see this tease play out.

The next flashback is a little less hopeful: Allison does that thing straight girls do to their lesbian best friend to torture her for all of time where she gets naked and asks for assistance fastening a piece of clothing to her wet body.

I also stole this photo from AfterEllen ‘Cause My Hulu Wouldn’t Work Yesterday

Emily goes in for the makeout with some cute shoulder-kisses and Allison reminds her that she’s not into that. To her, Emily’s just practice for the real thing — boys. Obviously Emily’s feelings are hurt and you sort of want to hug/fist her.

Back in the real world, the kids are shuffled to another room and Emily loses track of her bag. Hannah tells Emily it’s all good if Emily’s lack-of-alibi for last night’s memorial-vandalism is actually a cover-up for whatever it is lesbians do when they have sex. Emily frowns with her eyes. The girls will love her no matter what, says Hannah. I mean we have real enemies here like that girl with the sunglasses.


At the end of last week’s episode, the Lead Detective takes care of Emily’s coming out by pulling the four girls into a different dark room to accuse Emily of trashing the memorial. He’s got her bag. He’s got the letter. WELL GUESS WHAT DETECTIVE, it’s not 1967 anymore so Emily’s secret is NOT A BIG DEAL HELLO PROP 8 HELLO HI. Hi!

Emily: “I loved her as more than a friend.”


It’s only a second that we have, really, to see what can only be described as apathy/muted surprise, though generally these four girls cycle through 4-5 facial expressions per ep, most of which involve wide eyes or downcast glances. Then Lawer Mom arrives to lay the smack down, the girls stand defiantly behind their friend

Aria takes a little one-on-one time to let Emily know that even though Allison didn’t want to fingerbang and scissor all her life, she still loved Emily a whole bunch!

Aria: “Listen — Allison loved you, and I don’t know that it was in the way that you wanted her to, but I know that she did.”

I liked the Dawson’s Creek Breakfast Club parody better, but that’s probs just ’cause of the part when Pacey goes “Emilio Estevez he was in those Duck movies remember. God those were classics. So funny!” Anyhow everyone is cool with the girl thing and Emily’s Mudville Shoes skulk on home.

So Emily was in love with Allison. Luckily she’s able to move on past that and in the finale, we see her hanging out with her lady-love Maya when suddenly her Dad comes home FROM THE WAR! It’s just like in Little Women!

“She can know we’re together without knowing we’re TOGETHER,” says Emily when she asks Maya to grab the phone. See you guys they’re together! TOGETHER!

SPOILER ALERT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN IT YET – Then Mom tells Emily it’s family time, and Maya needs to leave, because it’s not THAT KIND OF FAMILY.

Later on, Emily’s Dad expresses concern that Emily went to homecoming with Toby instead of her juicehead boyfriend and inquires about their breakup. Emily pauses and does that THANG YOU KNOW THAT THANG but she doesn’t come out, instead she just tells Dad that she loves him and misses him. BOO.

Also Mom has an envelope with a present in it. Seriously, A. must have hogged the Kodak Photo Center at Wal-Mart for like five hours, Briscoe & Green would’ve closed this case in the amount of time it took to shake down the squeaky-voiced vested small appliances salesboy, a.k.a three minutes.

It Could be Worse, She Could be Dating Whitney

Later on a bunch of other stuff happens with Toby and A. and a party in the woods that involves manicures, hoodies and car accidents. Also, Hannah gets killed (maybe) and Toby gets arrested, but he didn’t do it, but we know who did it, but not why really, and also he (probs) killed Hannah. So basically, the point of all of this is just to say:

At the end of the first ten episodes of Pretty Little Liars, the lesbian didn’t die, or go back to boys, or die, or kill herself, or get killed, or die.

What I’m trying to tell you is that the entire first season of Pretty Little Liars happened in which a queer female character did not end the season either less gay or less alive than she entered it.

What I’m saying is, we’re alive!

In a show about MURDER! And it’s not like girlfriend was not heavily threatened.

Have you been watching? Do you like it?

Riese is the 38-year-old Co-Founder and CEO of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2844 articles for us.


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