‘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.
JB:
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?
JB:
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 … ?
JB:
Yeah.

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

AE: Is Alison “A” for sure?
JB:
No.

AE: So she had the secret affair with Alison. Who got killed.
JB:
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?
JB:
I do know who A is, but I’m not at liberty to say.

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

AE: Do you know who killed Alison?
JB:
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?
JB:
They are really supportive.

AE: Everybody?
JB:
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.

NO NOT HER THE OTHER ONE

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.”

TA-FUCKING DA.

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 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief 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 2695 articles for us.

34 Comments

  1. I started watching this show purely b/c I’d heard that Emily would have a gay storyline. I assumed that I’d end up watching like 5-6 episodes TOPS b/c that’s how long these things typically last. But I actually legitimately enjoy this show now and I really want to know who A is, who killed Allison, and why Toby has such a creepy combination of the mannerisms of Edward Cullen and those of a serial killer (Oh wait… same thing).

    Also- it makes sense to me that Emily didn’t label herself just yet. Labels can be really scary to say out loud even if you’ve already kind of labelled yourself. There’s a reason that the first time I came out I said, “I think I might kinda sorta like girls a little bit” even though I knew I was totally gay.

  2. I have to admit, I would watch this show even without Emily/Maya. BUT the E/M just makes it so much better! I’m excited for the next season. I feel like I’m cheering Emily on from my couch. I wonder if she will come out to her father next season, it seems like she wants to.

  3. I don’t know what “coming soon on ABC Family” means but it sure as hell better mean September and not next June.

    I heart Emily, I do, but we could play a drinking game with her facial expressions–take a swig every time she has concerned eyebrows.

    I prefer Aria and her doe-eyes. And the way she says “shhh” during the theme song. Anyway….

  4. Cannot believe that I love this show. I started watching it because I was bored one night and ended getting through, like 3 episodes in one sitting.

    Also, I’m pretty sure ABC Family ordered an additional 12 episodes for this season. So they are taking a break, but when it returns it will technically still be season one. Kinda like what happened with Glee…

    • *ended UP

      Also, I had no idea the creator of the series is a lesbian. Make me have more faith in it haha. I do hope they don’t cancel this one like they did with 10 Things I Hate About You (which was super cute/smart/hilarious/awful as well)

  5. when emily walked in wearing a her blu dress in the homecoming episode, that walk of her’s made me forget that she was there with death.the kiss at the theater wow.

    if anyone is interested, at the afterellen recaps of episode 9 on the comments section there is a cut out of the kiss.(i’ve heard)

  6. i want to have sex with spencer’s face/ does anyone else get creeped out when allison just shows up in general? like for some reason i just find that actress really doll like which equates to extreme creepiness

  7. this is great riese, thanks! i downloaded a few episodes of this because my ex-girlfriend told me to and you did too and because i’m sexually frustrated and consuming a lot of lesbomedia right now. so i’ll keep downloading it! because someone gave me an itunes giftcard explicitly for that purpose.

    your narration of the graphics stealing was pretty excellent YOU SHOULD DO STANDUP, I HEAR THAT’S VERY LUCRATIVE

  8. This show is sofa king crazy. Like, I just giggle and giggle when I’m watching it, all “You have GOT to be kidding me!” And then six seconds later I’m legitimately shouting at the teevee, “Oh my God, Emily, turn around, you’re going to get axe-murdered!”

    Also, I’m not going to lie to you, Spencer’s husky voice and control-freakery do something to me. It’s probably what I would feel like about Hermione Granger if I were ten years younger.

    • I used to like Spencer more, but I’m super-skeeved out by the fact that she’s hooked up with, not one, but two of her older sister’s boyfriends. However, this tendency might also have to do with the fact that Melissa has bad taste in men (i.e. men who think it’s totally okay to hit on their fiancee’s underage sister).

      Next thing you know, Melissa’s going to be dating Mr. Fitz so Spencer can kiss ANOTHER of her sister’s boyfriends and Fitz can immaturely/creepily date another student. And that would be a completely plausible storyline for this show…

      • I agree. Ian, Wren and Mr.Fitz creep me the fuck out(Mr.Fitz less cause at least he realizes in some way what he’s doing is wrong) but Spencer is no saint either.

    • maybe i invented this in my head, but i felt like the scenes with allison revealed a lot — she seemed more open and conversational with her, but when allison shot emily down, it sort of closed her up and made her feel ashamed of herself. it’s odd b/c of all of them, i think em’s secret is clearly the easiest to deal with (at least socially, who knows what’ll happen with her family), but it seems to be the one that keeps her the most muted, like she can’t really talk about who she is yet. I think more screen time with maya could fix that right up

  9. holy crap! heather hogan if ur reading this i hav to say i look forward to your recaps. hella funny.anyone with suggestions on wat we’re to do till the start of the nxt season?… no? a break mite b good anyway its becoming unhealthy

  10. I enjoy that this plotline inspired a new excuse for those with a disdain for a same sex romance between women to use. It was the “she may look like a teen but in real life she is much older which is why it bothers me” excuse. We always get excuses of the “Not that I am against but —–” variety but this may have been the most laughable one yet. That many of the same people ate up a teacher banging his 16 year old student and wanted Emily to hook up with the most offputting teenage boy yet…love Dawn’s “Edward Cullen and those of a serial killer” description says a lot. Fun show. A bit silly to say the least. Cute girls.

  11. Pingback: BiFemLounge.Com » Pretty Little Liars Successfully Maintains Lesbian Storyline For Entire Season … – Autostraddle (blog)

  12. Who ever wrote this…THANK YOU. You made my day, that was one of the funniest articles i’ve ever read. I love this show, I mainly watch because of Emily, and NO i am not in high school. I think this show is amazing, the story lines are great, i am always shocked and left wanting more and more, finding myself making shay mitchell / emily & maya fan videos to cure some of the withdrawal of each week.

    I love how this show, from the start, started with the lesbian storyline. I truly believe it will help teens and woman more by having it up front and out there than waiting and waiting and waiting. PLL doesn’t need ratings, they have the viewers, they have the success of the books to back it up. PLL is awesome and I want to thank the producers, cast, crew, author of the book and everyone else for making it, I hope it continues for seasons and I hope it helps change the world just a little bit more. Thank you ABC family.
    I feel like a teen again watching it…and I love it, PLL is my brain candy. I needed this, THANK YOU!!

  13. I actually caught up on all ten episodes last night with my tree best friends from middle school (it was raining, okay?) while consuming alcohol and ice cream, so good timing, Riese, good timing.

    1. Emily Fields(/Shay Mitchell) is really, really, really pretty/beautiful/hot.

    2. Toby looks just like the guy I stupidly started dating when I was getting together with my girlfriend. Creeps me out, but Emily’s story line makes sense. Wanting to be sure, doing stupid things, hurting people, keeping secrets from people who wouldn’t care.

    3. Hanna. Oh, Hanna. Thank you. And please don’t be dead.

    4. How could taking a 5 MONTH BREAK possibly be a good idea? The story line is way too complex for me to care that long.

  14. This show has it’s hits and misses. They didn’t ruin the queer and Hanna was awesome. But I don’t dig the Spencer Dirty Dancing narrative (will A try to put her in a corner?) and Aria dating the teacher is fucking gross. I’m a young teacher, and there is no way I would date a 17 year old, no matter how mature they are for their age. The show makes it look okay and it’s not.

  15. I’d seen the PLL books a few times, I frequent the bookstore. But I didn’t know anyone who had read them. It seemed to me like some “teen chick lit fluff”, which is not a genre I’m particularly interested in. However, when I heard they were making it into a show, I decided to at least watch the first episode. From then on, I’ve been hooked. PLL seems to have everything, murder, drama, scandal, hot girls, girl_on_girl action and of course mystery. I told my friend “I think I see a South of Nowhere tribute coming up,”. Hopefully the rest of the season and further seasons will see much more of gorgeous Emily and adorable Maya.

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