Back at the dollhouse, BethanyCeCeHarvey feeds the Liars some food through the grates in their doors, and they think she is Mona. They holler for her like redemption: “MONA, SAVE US! MONA, HELP!” Charles finally releases the Liars and tells them to prep for Ali’s arrival. They flood the hallway and cry and hug each other and are dressed like their pitched archetypes from the pilot episode. It’s slick. It’s some slick visual commentary on the danger and delusional nature of the male gaze.
They’re not dressed like who they are. They’re dressed like the lowest common denominator version of who Charles sees/needs them to be to play out his fantasies with them. We say this is dark, all the fans and producers say how dark this season is, but it’s no more dark than any other season. It’s just that the dollhouse makes it deliberate, the dollhouse forces you to acknowledge that those lingering, voyeuristic shots all these years haven’t just been creepy; they’ve been fucking deadly. This locked box where the Liars have lost all control and exist solely as playthings for a dude, I mean, that is just the central theme of the entire show made literal.
The male gaze — in film and TV, in advertising, in online dating, in this new wave of social media as theater — is all about reassuring men that women exist to be seen and evaluated by them, right? Women have no agency outside of the framework of their gaze. Women don’t create their own meaning; their meaning is imposed on them by men working out their fantasies and obsessions on them. Charles is distilling the Liars down to one-dimensional versions of his desires.
Pretty Little Liars is remarkable because it never, ever participates in the male gaze (I can only think of two times that it even came close), but consistently reminds us that gaze exists. It is literally the only show in the history of TV that zooms back and encourages the female gaze to actively scrutinize the male gaze and the way it’s constantly disempowering the show’s female characters, and then extrapolate the truth of that violation to the real world. Yet, we’ve become so desensitized to it these last five seasons that it takes confining the Liars in a cage and forcing us to acknowledge that angry-eyed camera, again and again, for us to remember what we’re dealing with here.
And what Marlene King has done brilliantly over the course of this show, and especially in this episode, is reiterate that the Liars’ relationships with each other are the main thing, the saving thing, the sustaining thing, the only thing that matters, ultimately. Emily says a cool thing later about how the Liars aren’t who they were when this show started, and that’s true in so many ways, the main one being that this show hinted at Mean Girls, but zagged the other way. Roxane Gay said it real good in Bad Feminist: “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic, or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses — pretty but designed to SLOW women down.”
Or even Tina Fey: “You all have got to stop calling each other sluts and whores. It just makes it okay for guys to call you sluts and whores.”
What is endlessly fascinating to me about Pretty Little Liars is how many critics — most of them, in fact — write and talk about this show in a way that makes them the dollhouse, that makes them the things this show is pushing back against and subtly skewering week after week. Shit, y’all, even ABC Family’s official social media is the dollhouse half the time. Watch the same people who call Tanner a cunt talk about how Wilden or Garrett or Holbrook are just so darn cute. Watch the same people who glorify Ezra Fitz ridicule Paige McCullers. Watch these assholes praise Don Draper and Walter White and Dexter Morgan until the end of time while shaking Alison DiLaurentis down as a little bitch, when Dexter and Walter and Don are the exact same person: destroying everyone they ever claimed to love and also themselves, while Alison DiLaurentis destroys herself to save the people who have no idea how much she loves them.
But she’s just a girl! A teenage girl! Let teenage girls in on the secret that if they control themselves, control their own sexuality, the access to their own bodies, stick together and embrace the intensity and intimacy of their relationships, teenage girls will grow into women who will rule the world. We can’t have that, can we? So throw her in the pit. So call her a little bitch until she believes it and we believe it, and we all shut up and acquiesce to the dollhouse.
Pretty Little Liars is Judith Butler’s definition of queer: this fluid, untamable thing that exists to get between the cracks of the establishment and break it apart.
The dollhouse fucks us up — us, the viewers — because it reminds us that this world is doing its best every day to shove us in there and dress us how it wants and feed us what it wants and torture us into brainwashed compliance. It wants to separate us from each other and, once we’re isolated, play out its entitled, deranged fantasies all over our brains and bodies. Pretty Little Liars takes the real world and crunches it into Rosewood, and now it has taken Rosewood and crunched it into the dollhouse. It makes you sick because you’re looking at the truth. And you know it’s the truth. Spencer says Charles feels familiar. Goddamn right he does.
So, the Liars go to Ali’s “bedroom” and start unboxing her shit to ready themselves for her arrival. They’re thinking it’s Mona, but Emily pulls out an Eiffel Tower statue that makes her know that this is actual Ali’s actual stuff (because of the time with the sunlight in the classroom and Emily’s little polo shirt and the lesbian postcard plans, when Ali was her tender inside self on the outside for one full minute). Spencer finds a toy truck with the initials C.D. carved into it, and that’s when she realizes who Charles is. Aria is hanging up ten dozen of those yellow tank tops, and she sees this etching in the back of the closet where Mona has scribbled with her fingernails into the wood the news that Charles is going to kill her when real Ali gets here. To prove her theory, we cut to Mona in the pit, begging Charles to let her be the best Ali ever.
When the Liars return to their rooms, they find boxes of their own stuff, and also information about how Charles has been tormenting their families. Ashley has stopped drinking wine. Veronica has quit the Special Victims Unit. Ella turned to Byon for comfort. And Pam Fields is catatonic. That last one isn’t really news. Pam’s been pretty much done since that car smashed into her living room. The last time we saw her, she was getting Hanna drunk. The Liars take turns screaming at Charles via the camera in the ceiling — Aria, stricken by the news that her parents might be back together, yells most of all.
Caleb drops off Ali at the kissing rock with her tracker jacker shoes, and she finds a car there, so she gets on in and follows the GPS’ instructions to drive north and take a left. She keeps on following the directions like it’s a doll in her backseat, until she arrives at Tyler State Park and the car runs out of gas. She tries to alert On-Star, but they’re just like, “Oh, Ali, just get out of the car and put on the clothes in the trunk and get to hiking.”
When Caleb arrives at the park, he realizes Ali took off the tracker jacker boots. He cannot believe his plan didn’t work! (Sometimes I think those fireflies damaged his brain, irreparably.)
Caleb goes running into the woods after Ali, and Toby lets Tanner know that Tyler State Park is where they should be heading.
Inside the dollhouse, Spencer explains — via her award-winning l Etch-a-Sketch abilities — that A is Charles DiLaurentis, and so they climb through some air vents to get to Charles’ vault, and find it full of all Charles’ stuff from when he was a kid. Dolls and blankets and cribs and that video of Jessica and him and his brother and sister. Spencer decides the way to get Charles to let them out is to set the whole place on fire, because she assumes he loves these knicknacks so much he won’t let them burn. And that’s what they do. They torch everything.
In the woods, Caleb finds Ali and they’re just about to make a run back to the road when Ali smells Emily’s hair burning and flips out. “Heaven,” she says, “Heaven is on fire!” They find where the smoke is coming from and start scrabbling at the door, just as Charles pulls the fire alarm to put out the flames of his burning childhood, just as the Liars find Mona in the pit, just as the cops arrive in their helicopters. The Liars break free from the dollhouse and run into the arms of their bamboozled loved ones.
Everyone hugs and everyone cries and the cops find Sarah Harvey in there and drag her out.
Off to the side of the woods.
Emily: We keep fucking each other up, huh? That’s not good.
Ali: No, it’s not.
Emily: Me and Paige got caught in a roofie loop once; it was a mess.
Ali: I honestly cannot deal with the image of you and Paige making out right now.
Emily: Is it because you true love me?
Ali: I can’t talk about that right now, either.
Emily: Okay, how about this, then: Who is Charles DiLaurentis?
Ali: That sounds weirdly familiar. If you won’t send me to jail for a murder I didn’t commit, maybe I’ll have time to find out.
Enormous thank yous to Nicole (@PLLBigA) for the screencaps! I’ll see you tonight at 8:00 p.m. for some hardcore #BooRadleyVanCullen action!
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Reading your PLL recaps is like taking a graduate course in deconstructing feminist literature. I always feel smarter after I’ve read them, and like I understand the world a little bit better.
Seriously, though. I’ve had several conversations with my students the last few weeks about feminism and sexism and socio economic standing and racism and all of those things that teachers teach students, even though they say we really teach them “math” or “history” or “chemistry.” And I can feel your influence in what I have to say to them. You are helping shape young lives.
Also, I think your recaps should be required reading to accompany each episode.
Another also, I love that you seem to love Ali now, and I’m going to take the tiniest smidgen of credit for that one. Not all the credit. Just a sliver. ;)
Oh LAWD, you see it now! Alison is Dumbledore!
I’m not saying I’ve been waiting all week for this, but I’m not NOT saying it. Seriously though, I so appreciate your love for this show and the thought, time & love you put into each recap! Thanks for making me feel smarter for watching a teen soap!
– I notice that during the rainstorm that Aria and Mona are leaning into Spencer.
– “There’s something familiar about Charles. It’s like I vaguely remember hiring him to kidnap us all. Nah, I’d have to have an alternate personality to do that.”
– What did the girls see in their rooms?
— Aria saw a corkboard with a layout of how Ezra is a bad person.
— Everything in Spencer’s room had been moved a quarter-inch from where it was supposed to be.
— All of Hanna’s clothes had been replaced with Aria’s.
— Emily’s flannel plaids had been replaced with silk lowcuts.
– Something about how Spencer is reacting just seems strange. She never mentions how Charles might be her half-brother.
– Hanna wants her Mona back. Be still my heart.
– “-A has a soul.” “Say goodbye to your soul.” Can we please stop with the trite dialogue? I know you’re capable of much better.
The show doesn’t feel complete without your recap. Thank you for taking the time to write one despite your hectic schedule and all that glamping.
I’d love to know what two moments you think come close to PLL deploying the male gaze.
I also am interested in the way that Hanna was dressed when she came out of her boggart encounter. I couldn’t figure out why Charles had her in what looked like really bad thrifted clothes. I think I saw a hole in the shirt?!
I also would like to know about the two moments! And I do think it’s interesting that Charles seemed to have the most trouble recreating Season 1 Hanna, given that she herself was basically a recreation of Ali back then, right?
Hey Heather, could you pretty please with Tippi on top write a Fanfiction about the Fanfiction writing contest? It’s my lifeblood.
Also how dare my phone almost spell Tippi wrong?!? First Stahma to stagnation last week on Twitter and now this! Sacrebleu!
Also what were those two instances you were talking about up there? Anything to ever do with that guy we’re not gonna name this season, obviously, but what was the second?
i do love how pro-Alison this recap is lol thanks for writing it heather!
I love your deep critical analysis of this show, but I can never get over the fact that this show has failed in portraying Ezra’s predatory nature accurately and CEMENTING it as such. It’s such a glaring problem that I’m reluctant to sing this show’s praises as much as you do. You do, however, remind me why I’m still so gravitated to this show and these characters, even when the twisted plots get so convoluted that I feel like throwing in the towel.
I getcha there — after it was revealed what Ezra’s motives really are I was done with him for good, and I hoped Aria would be too. But she’s not the smartest liar in the bunch, and she did grow up with Byron as a dad…she’s still got some shit to work through.
Growing up with Byron as a Dad #aproblembutnotarealproblemlikeEzraFitzhas
I struggle IMMENSELY with Ezra every episode. The fact of him makes my soul feel like it is on fire, and not in a good way. I still haven’t reconciled it. I wish he would go away. :(
Me too. I wish the girls were older, or he was just a friend because sometimes he’s a very enjoyable character but the nature of his presence on the show is wrong on so many levels. I was so excited when the writers made him A but all the fucking noise from the Ezria fans undid everything, and as a result made me lose a LOT of respect for Marlene & Co.
I am still wondering why the girls didn’t make a shank out of the shit they had in their room, and together jumped Charles (in a “Blood in Blood out” style) during the creepy prom night, instead of pulling such an elaborate plan? They are always unarmed, not even mace… not even a pocket knife.
Thank you very much, your recaps are amazing ! I would love to watch this with you, it must be so cool :D
Also, sparia is so strong this season 8D
Heather, I love your recaps. I can’t tell you how many times I check to see if they have posted. It’s like a new gift weekly. Although, I do have to comment on your obvious exclusion of Ezra in your recap. While I understand how much you despise this character and his story line I find it perplexing that you wrote him out of your recap. You have handled the tough subjects and undercurrents of the show so perfectly, leading your readers to not only follow the content but the context of the show. Your writing makes us laugh and cry and think and think and think. To sing Marlene (and crews) praises of this amazing show but not include one of the main characters in the recap because the story line is disgusting seems weak to me. I would think you would trust Marlene and her story telling. She has gotten it right so far. Please tell the whole story. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
Your recaps always have scathing insights that I could never imagine no matter how hard I love and try to analyze this show. But I disagree with something here. I don’t think the main theme of the show has ever been male discrimination/”power” over women, not UNTIL the Dollhouse. The way I’ve always seen it, the theme has been the discrimination of women at the hands of other women.
For years Alison shot these girls down and did whatever it took to break them, and make them nothing compared to her. She was the glass ceiling that they could never break through.
Then ‘A’ comes onto the scene and does nearly the same thing, only with the voyeurism that you mentioned of Charles in this recap. But who was this manipulator? Mona.
And even after Charles took over, we still had the antagonistic female figures of Red Coat and Black Widow, as well as the extreme influence Alison continued to have over their lives.
Up until now, the male gaze has been an overall minor topic, exhibited only in the NAT Club, Wilden, Ella’s muffin-man, and to a greater extent in the confined space of Season 4B with Ezra.
You mentioned how girls are taught that their sexuality and self is to be controlled by others, and YES this is most often done by men. But who wanted Emily to be ashamed of her sexuality so she’d be kept in line? Who wanted Spencer to feel like a “skank” for finding pleasure in Ian? Who wanted Hanna to be ashamed of her body? This was all Alison. I’m not saying I have ANYTHING against Alison now, but how can it be denied that the entire backbone of this plot was constructed with girl-on-girl antagonism?
I think the exploration into why females would seek to control each other when they already have a common enemy in the male sex is just as interesting and much more prominent on this particular series. I think your Tina Fey quote goes along with that much more.
I’m not trying to take ANYTHING away from the sick fricking, ridiculous hardships females have endured under males throughout history. I just don’t see much evidence at all that this has been a MAIN concern of Pretty Little Liars. Not until they identified ‘A’ as a male.
I agree, but I think all of that stuff was maybe a red herring – like women are bitches to each other, but because men cast them in that role… Maybe I’m wrong.
Heather, I love you! People have always been surpurrised at how much TV I watch – fur quite a while, I was that nerdy girl whose only furiends are books, and I’ve grown into the nerdy woman who still has literature at the centre of her life. But people look down on TV, and find it weird that if I’m not reading something “high-brow” I’m binge-watching all the shows. The truth is, TV has saved my life. Honestly, really – I’ve been in such dark places and TV has got me through, it’s filled up the gaps until I was okay again and it’s made me so much less alone.
Autostraddle does that too, because I’m with the characters and I’m with you all, and it’s not just me thinking these things. I read something in the “about” page saying that AS know anything can be talked about intelligently – man do you manage that! It’s like efurrything lurking in my brain, all the thoughts I have about this show that I think maybe I could turn into a blog, you’ve had them too, and it’s not just me taking it seripussly / also taking the piss. And I love that you can do all that and have an amazing sense of humour, and queer efurrything.
I don’t know anyone purrsonally anymore who watches this show, but I was just sitting there thinking “omg, they’re all season 1 them, but wtf is hanna wearing – is she season 3 cut-leg her, done really badly…Heather will understand this, and it won’t just be me!”. I’ve had this niggling thought that Marlene could purress the red button and just explode this show into all it could be, all that purrtential that was lurking in the background, all the strength, the female bonds, the resilience, the sinister silences, Hanna being Hanna. I knew there COULD be something like this, but I wasn’t sure ABCF would LET it exist.
But, my goodness, now there’s this Female Gothic nightmare, but it’s also a good dream, because we’re seeing them rip back the veil – THIS IS WHAT WE’VE BEEN SAYING GUYS. When I was studying for my finals (I did English, can you tell?) I listened to a lecture on revenge tragedy, and the professor said “subtlety gets purrivileged ofur unsubtlety, but is it always better? we furget about revenge tragedy because the “psychological realism / interiority of Shakespurr is just deemed BETTER, but doesn’t the UNSUBTLETY have something to say?”. It’s like, yes, we all have brains, but the world views us as these interchangeable purrts, these figures with no interiorkitty. That’s why meta-theatre is so impawtant in those plays – it reminds us that power structures turn efurryone (espusscially minorkitties) into just a body on a stage, and anyone could be playing that purrt. And I love that the show has kind of done that fur this…the literalisation almost has more to say than befur – it’s not denying the interior, it’s just making it clear how the world / the patriarchy view these women. It’s like there’s always been this undercurrent going on, until we got to this, and I’m loving it.
Like the yellow tank-top,anyone can stand in fur Alison – does it matter who is there? And women are squashed into these roles – Mona is being punished fur being Mona, fur not being an idea of an idea of a woman. And that’s what happens to women all the time, isn’t it? Like Butler says, we punish people fur not purrforming their gender correctly. Or Audre Lorde – “if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive”. All women are in that pit to a certain extent. All being eaten alive, sometimes by others, sometimes by the realkitty of themselves that fights with that external archetype.
Also, on what Tammy said – I want to become an acatemic, and I want to teach people the things you teach us here. Yes, I’ll be teaching literature, but I’ll be telling people it’s okay to be them and trying to change the world just a tiny bit whilst doing it. You give me hope that that’s pussible. You make me want to set the world on fur, but more impawtantly you make me feel like I CAN <3
The show pushes its roots as deep as it can. Yellow Top of Doom = saffron robe (arkteia; Cult of Artemis). Fur indeed — bear, however, not putitat.
First time I read your recap. I always heard about it, but haven’t paid that much attention until the guys from Bros Watch PLL Too read a paragraph of this recap on their podcast. It was the part about the dollhouse representing how the world treats us to be whatever it wants was to be and how Charlie really is “familiar” in the real world. I felt obligated to search for it and read it and I’m glad I did!
Normally, when it comes to feminism, homophobia, racism and any subject like that, I get so angry that this kind of ignorance exists and it’s still so present in our lives, that I prefer to try not to think about so much or my head will explode. Also, I’m brazilian and for some reason here I feel we are even more behind on the fight against all of that, most of the time ignorance seems to be winning and have no shame about it… It even became bad to say you’re a feminist, that’s how brainwashed women are, that men don’t even have to fight against us, we’ll do it for ourselves to save them the trouble… So yeah, all of that gets to me in a way I have to keep reminding myself there is good in the world.
Still, I’m happy I read this recap, because the connection you made from PLL (which is a show that I love and surprises me in the best way over and over again… Also, Emison and Paily S2 ) to the “male gaze” and all the webs that still fights to have us so tangled in it… You made me see it in a whole new way and I admire you already for that!
I know I’m not gonna miss any of your recaps from now on!
Ok I’m not even done with the episode yet but like I AM FURIOUS ABOUT THE FACT THAT THOSE GIRLS WERE NAKED. Like, what kind of pediphilia shit was that? It made me really upset. Felt super unnecessary and really grossed me out. This recap is really really good though.