WARNING: This post contains major spoilers for the season six summer finale of Pretty Little Liars, including the definitive identity of A. Proceed with caution!
Last night, after five years, 130 episodes, a clue-giving parrot, a grave-digging dog, a Cheetos-chomping raccoon, at least one literal witch, and eleventy hundred billion barns and dolls, Pretty Little Liars finally revealed the identity of the omniscient, omnipresent A. It was Cece Drake. Her real name is Charlotte DiLaurentis.
The story goes that once upon a time, Jessica DiLaurentis brought Alison home from the hospital and Charlotte loved her sister with her whole entire heart. So much so that when Jessica and Kenneth inevitably neglected and ignored Ali, the way all Rosewood parents do, warp-zoning in and Out of Town and getting into tangled up adulterous messes with Hastingeses and digging around in the backyard with contraband shovels, Charlotte decided to take care of her baby sister. Charlotte taught baby Ali about all sorts of things: cartoons and nursery rhymes and rerouting her IP address through a series of triangulated portals to anonymously bypass government firewalls.
One day when Kenneth and Jessica were being particularly absent, baby Ali started crying, so Charlotte decided to give her a bath to help her feel better. Unfortunately, Charlotte almost drowned her, due to being a small child with small hands and small muscles who was unable to hoist a human person into a tub and keep her afloat. Well, Kenneth rushed up in the nick of time to save Alison, and like all grown men in the town of Rosewood, blamed a young girl for what what was very clearly his own mistake. He blamed her so much that he had her locked away in Radley like she was some kind of murdering psychopath.
Well, but there was this one other factor: Charlotte DiLaurentis was assigned male gender at birth. She knew she preferred girls’ clothing and wanted to be called “her” and “she,” and Vernon DiLaurentis did not like that one bit. He locked her into Radley Institute for the Criminally Insane and never once went to visit her.
Yep, A is transgender.
You know the rest of the story, even though you don’t know you know: Charlotte became great friends with Bethany Young in Radley, because Bethany encouraged her to present as a girl, a thing that was made a lot easier because every time Jessica DiLaurentis bought Ali a new dress or a new scarf, she bought Charlotte one too. Unfortunately for young Charlotte and good ol’ Marion Cavenaugh, Bethany wasn’t stuck in Radley for the reason Charlotte was: because in the whole world, and Rosewood especially, no one cares about a woman’s side of the story when a rich white guy is saying a different thing. Bethany was in Radley because she was an actual dangerous person, and so when Marion stumbled up to the roof one night, Bethany just pushed her ass right off. Bethany told everyone Charlotte murdered Marion, and hey, who’s going to believe what a trans girl has to say? (Are you sensing a theme?)
So, Jessica paid off the Radley board to make it look like a suicide and took Charlotte away. They wove together a tale about how Charlotte killed herself, they buried her dead name in a real grave. Jessica checked her back into the worst mental hospital in history with her real name with her real gender. She never stopped visiting her daughter, never stopped believing her or believing in her, never stopped loving or supporting her. And because Jessica understood that the way you get into UPenn is not, in fact, to give your application to a stranger in the woods outside a rager at Noel Kahn’s cabin, she got Charlotte admitted to college.
Charlotte came home to Rosewood one weekend, a grown up and very bored university student — because Charlotte had always been a genius, she knew everything everyone was trying to teach her already at her Ivy League University — and met Jason. She told him her name was Cece and he loved her without knowing why he loved her, and suddenly she was back with her family, even vacationing with the whole gang one summer and spending every minute she could with Alison. Jessica was pissed! Super pissed! But what was she going to do?
Finally the summer of DiLaurentis family bliss ended and Endless Labor Day rolled around. Alison was out and about, doing things. Flying her plane up and down the east coast, from Philadelphia to Savannah, playing in golf tournaments with Ian and blinding Jenna Marshall with firecrackers and wrapping a do-rag around Toby’s head and carting him off to jail and giving Emily snow globes with secrets stashed inside and visiting the kissing rock and making sex tapes with one of the million predators in town and renting storage lockers to stow away her lunch boxes full of incriminating flash drives and rubbing her friendship bracelet all over Toby’s DNA and visiting Jenna in the blindness hospital and getting almost hit in the head with a hockey stick by Garett Reynolds and almost hit in the head with a boomerang by Byron Montgomery and almost hit in the head with a brick of weed by Jason. Ali went to the Beyonce-themed sleepover in the Hastings barn, drugged her friends, sneaked off into the night, and was walloped in the noggin by Charlotte and buried alive by Jessica.
See, Charlotte thought Alison was Bethany because everyone was wearing that same shirt that summer!
Charlotte was devastated and so was Jessica, but only because they didn’t know Ali’s spiritual gift was holding her breath for hours at a time, or that an elderly magic-eyed seer from Ravenswood was on the way over to pull Ali out of the ground.
Sometime later that night, the opposite thing happened: Mona arrived and saw Bethany and smacked her in the back of the head with a shovel, thinking she was Ali. And sometime after that, Melissa wandered up and saw a dead body and buried it in the already-dug grave on the off chance Spencer had murdered the girl.
(One of the main lessons of this finale is: When you’re going to kill someone by hitting them with a shovel, do it in the face so you can make sure you’re murdering the correct person.)
Mona had been A the whole time, see, torturing Alison because of how Alison tortured her. And then when “Ali’s” body was found, Mona started up the game again, aiming at the Liars this time. She ended up in Radley, as you know, to quell her adrenalized hyperreality, and that’s where she met Charlotte. Charlotte hated the Liars because of how she felt like they took her sister away from her, and so while Mona was drugged up and her brain was pliable, she spilled all her A beans to Charlotte, and Charlotte took over the game.
Charlotte came back to Rosewood calling herself Cece Drake. And while she was doing that, she was also Being A. She was doing it to punish them, yeah, but also because she believed Alison wasn’t dead, and she knew she could smoke Ali out of hiding if she just set her best friends on fire enough times. It worked! Finally, Alison came back, fully resurrected, and yeah, okay, sometimes Charlotte maybe choked her with her own scarf and stuff, but she had to make it look like she was as angry at Ali as she was at the Liars, and anyway, it’s not like she killed the Liars.
Mona ran under Hanna with her car and they’re still friends!
Well, and that’s the story. All of this information comes tumbling out of Charlotte’s mouth as she explains six seasons of this show to Alison, and also to the Liars and Mona, who are watching on a holographic plasmatic projector in a laser beam-shielded room they arrived in through a portal in the Forbidden Forest at Rosewood High School’s prom. Charlotte thinks maybe she’ll jump off the roof after she’s finished flashbacking and expositioning, but Hanna and Ali beg her to please not do it, and so she does not.
She hops down. She says, “Game over.”
And then the Liars go off to college after a group hug full of every love.
Pretty Little Liars made a transgender woman A, and in some ways it was remarkable and wonderful, and in other ways it was painful and damaging, and we should talk about all of those things, because when we love something that has resonated so deeply with us, it deserves our empathy but also our hard wisdom.
I’ve been recapping Pretty Little Liars since day one. I came to it the way we all came to it, knowing it was based on a book series where Emily was bisexual, and with ABC Family telling me it was about fashion! and secrets! and Ian Harding and Keegan Allen’s abs! What I didn’t know at the time, what none of us knew, including the show’s creative team, I’d wager, is that Pretty Little Liars would change the entire ABC Family brand, pushing it to become the most queer network on cable TV, and that the show itself would use those fashions and those abs as a gateway to explore some of the most subversively queer and feminist themes in the history of television. If you think this show is about silly little girls doing silly little things, that says way more about the patriarchal lies you’ve bought into than about the show itself.
The most fascinating thing about recapping Pretty Little Liars from the very beginning has been watching how much our cultural tectonic plates have shifted during the last five years. When Pretty Little Liars premiered in 2010, the queer community was still reeling from Proposition 8, California’s voter-mandated revocation of marriage equality. Same-sex marriage was only legal in five states. Emily Fields came out and went to prom with Maya during a summer that will always be remembered in the LGBTQ community for its devastating pandemic of queer teen suicides. It Gets Better launched one month after the season one summer finale of Pretty Little Liars.
There were very few queer female character on TV during PLL‘s first few seasons, but the creative team chose to do a really risky thing: They decided to treat the queer women in Rosewood they way they treated all women in Rosewood. It wasn’t just Emily who was queer. It was Alison, it was Maya, then Paige, then Samara, and on and on. After Paige said out loud that she is gay, in what was one of the most authentic and stunning coming out scenes I’ve ever seen, PLL portrayed all queerness as a non-issue. Emily’s girlfriends came and went. They died like everyone else died. They lived like everyone else lived. They were psychos sometimes, like our beloved Mona Vanderwaal. Treating minorities equally in every way is PLL‘s ethos, and while it has led to some upsetting and dubious choices (the murders of two black lesbians, for example), it has allowed the show to transcend our gut reactions to many harmful tropes.
If we’re going to talk about how A being transgender fits in with that larger pattern, we need to talk about what the world looks like for transgender women at this moment in time. This is the most important thing I’m going to say today: Transgender women are overwhelmingly the victims of the most violence in the LGBTQ community. Of all queer people murdered in 2013, 72 percent were trans women and 67 percent were trans women of color. Last week, a black trans women, Amber Monroe, became the 12th trans woman of color to be murdered in the U.S. this year. As if that wasn’t devastating enough, transgender women have the hardest time of any folks in the LGBTQ community gaining access to fair employment, housing and healthcare. They suffer higher rates of depression and suicide than any members of the LGBTQ community. And they are by far the most underrepresented group of queer people in pop culture, which means that every single time a trans character or person arrives on TV they are shaping society’s perceptions of what it means to be trans in huge, maybe even unchangeable-in-this-generation ways.
I can’t and won’t only analyze last night’s reveal through a dispassionate, academic lens when my trans sisters are being murdered and beaten and denied access to their most basic rights. We do not consume art in a vacuum. Storytelling, more than any other artistic medium, has cultural consequences that reverberate beyond what is calculable. I’m also not going to flip out and start breaking stuff. I assume good intentions when it comes to Pretty Little Liars‘ writers; they’ve proven in many ways to be great allies to our community. However, the fact that Ezra Fitz is still walking around in this world as a protector and hero and viable romantic interest proves how tone deaf the play callers can be. Children defend him to me, you know. Young straight teenage girls tell me it’s okay to be stalked and preyed upon if an adult man really loves you, and they believe it because ABC Family refuses to force Ezra to face consequences for his actions because they want to sell face cleaner.
We should talk about the harmful transgender stuff first. Our trans editor, Mey Rude, talked through this episode with me last night for a long time. I’m going to amplify all her thoughts and feelings here. (And as we continue to discuss this episode, I encourage us all to remember that when trans women speak to trans issues, it it the job of non-trans folks to be quiet and listen.) The hands down most damaging trope about trans women is that they are deceitful. That they get into romantic relationships by lying about who they are, by withholding information, and tricking people into loving them. Many, many people truly believe this lie and use it to justify murdering, and sexually and physically abusing trans women. That’s a real life one-to-one correlation. The media portrays trans women as deceptive monsters; real life people kill and beat real life trans women.
That Charlotte DiLaurentis seduced her own brother under false pretenses is an egregious storytelling offense. The “deceitful trans person” and “depraved transgender” trope are used more often than not when trans people are represented on television and in film, as we’ve seen in shows and movies including but certainly not limited to Glee, The Crying Game, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Family Guy, and Lost Girl. This is how the media teaches us to hate and fear transgender people. The result is deadly.
I want to quote something Mey said to me last night that I think is really important: “They mostly did a good job of making her villany not directly tied to her transness, but there were a few times when I felt like they crossed over to being like, ‘Oh, she’s crazy and trans and look at how those two things cross over.’ [The audience] might have sympathized with her when she talked about her unloving father or being locked up and being declared insane or not being able to be herself, but when she became a deceiver she didn’t really have a chance at being anything else anymore.”
Some of that overlap is apparent when Charlotte is holding Ali captive in her lair and she pulls out her dolls and starts stroking them and talking about how much she likes playing with them and how she enjoyed having them in her dollhouse. When Mona says that Charlotte’s parents made her A, we can of course see that Jessica and Kenneth teaching her about lying and deception in her most formative years is what Mona means, and if we look deeper we can see that anyone subjected to that level of aggressive inertness would not have any sense of boundary-integrity, but I think that knowledge is probably lost on the majority of PLL‘s audience who used the visual cue of Ali looking at Charlotte like she’s crazy to interpret that scene.
Another huge huge huge problem is that after the show already knew Charlotte was transgender and would be revealed as A, it kept having characters refer to her as — it makes me want to throw up, typing this — “he/she/it/bitch.” And of course when I woke up this morning, I had dozens and dozens of messages on Twitter and Tumblr referring to Charlotte that way. The writers gave these transphobic people that language, just handed it right to them, and now it’s everywhere. Just like Hanna Marin saying she was a-okay with Emily being gay made a generation of young teenage girls okay with themselves/their friends being gay, Hanna Marin saying “he/she/it/bitch” about a trans woman makes it okay for young teenage girls to say that about trans women. Even inside the show, they were misnaming and misgendering Charlotte after she made it clear who she was.
The argument is: How were the writers going to exposit five seasons of supernatural hijinks without using her dead name and exploiting these tropes? But then: If they couldn’t explain it without doing that, they should have found another way to tell the story.
I don’t think it’s a big secret that PLL didn’t have this thing planned out from the beginning. When it came time to finally pull the trigger on revealing the identity of A, they wanted to come up with something that was both surprising and could shoulder most of the zigs and zags they took over the years. That’s fine. It makes sense that’s what you have to do when you’re telling a serial story like this. But when you’re talking about one of the most oppressed and abused minority groups in the world, you have to be more careful when writing your story backwards.
That’s not the whole thing, though. It’s very important and I beg you to take it to heart, but there’s another side of it, too.
At its core, Pretty Little Liars is a story about the way men assume ownership over women’s bodies, strip away their agency, deprive them of their of autonomy, deny them subjectivity, and silence them. It’s a story about how female victims are blamed for the crimes perpetrated against them by men. It’s a story about existing for the male gaze. But it’s also a story about found family, and the blazing blue power of women’s relationships with each other. It’s about dancing like nobody’s watching, even when you know somebody’s watching. It’s about being a woman and getting up and getting dressed and putting on your makeup and eating eggs with your mom and drinking coffee with your soul sisters and going to work and going to school and living living living despite the constant, incessant battle that is raging around you for control of your body and your sexuality. It’s about losing that battle, over and over, and huddling with your friends in the rain until you’re strong enough and brave enough to get up and fight it again. It’s a love story about four women who are empowered by their intimate knowledge of each other and abiding affection for each other.
It is the most ridiculous show on television. It is also the most queer. And the most true. In the middle of season three, Jenna Marshall summed up the central message of this show and the struggle of women every where: “I feel a lot safer when I’m in charge of what happens to me.”
The true villain of Pretty Little Liars is Kenneth DiLaurentis, and in painting Charlotte as a sympathetic character who was the ultimate female victim of the grossness of the patriarchy, the show elevated the very best things about itself. Kenneth DiLaurentis is the embodiment of transmisogyny and the head of Rosewood’s mighty beast of patriarchal oppression. The Liars don’t forgive Charlotte because they feel sorry for her; they forgive her because they see themselves in her. They are fighting the same thing. Masks on masks on masks on masks, performing for the male gaze, clawing for authenticity and freedom.
The best moment of the episode for me (and Mey thought this too) was when the flashbacks finally gave way to Vanessa Ray playing Charlotte, when a woman was playing a female character, and that character was finally, fully presenting her true gender to the world. Jessica saw Charlotte for who she was and continued to buy her the same clothes she bought Alison and fight for her to be herself, and that was really wonderful too. When Alison called out for her sister not to jump and used her real name — “Charlotte, please don’t! — it was deeply moving. All the masks were off and Alison reached out for who Charlotte truly was with an open, forgiving heart.
Finally, of course, there’s the fact that Mona Vanderwaal is the best and most beloved character on Pretty Little Liars. This is important for lots of reasons. The first is that one of Pretty Little Liars‘ other central themes is redemption. Paige McCullers, for example. And Alison. And but most importantly: Mona. I think the writers and producers were legitimately shocked to see how the audience forgave Mona for being original A and how much we fell in love with her singular brand of loving psychosis and how deeply we grieved her death. I think the writers made that juxtaposition and thought that if Mona could become so important to us and so cherished, Charlotte could become that as well. It was the absolute best best best decision to give that job to Vanessa Ray, who carried the episode on her shoulders with a masterful performance. There is something very Janel Parrish-y about her, a dazzling mix of vulnerability and power. Cece Drake is the only other character who has ever enchanted us like Mona.
The thing about Mona and Alison that gets us, I think, is that they made themselves hard and mean because it was their only way to fight back against the brutal world. And Charlotte is that too.
The show went all in on drawing us into her story and helping us empathize with her and understand why abandonment and abuse and being raised by pathologically lying parents and being confined to a horrific mental institution led to her becoming A. It was those things and those things only that caused her to be a villain. That’s the message they show was blasting as loud as it could. You have to blow up damaging tropes to destroy damaging tropes. We need minority villains (who are not villains because they’re minorities) for true equality. But while I was writing this recap, a 13th black trans woman was found murdered.
We will be talking about this decision for months and probably years. Pretty Little Liars will live on in conversations about queerness and feminism and trans issues for as long as Buffy. We will talk about this show’s revolutionary successes and we will talk about its abysmal failures (Ezra Fitz).
Hey, did I tell you Sara Harvey was both Red Coat and Black Widow? What was her motivation? Where did she come from? Who is she and why why why? No one knows, but you may have heard Emily slugged her right in the face with her fist when she found out. I like seeing Emily punch and stab bad guys as much as everyone else, but this was a dud of a story. Their relationship never had any feeling behind it because she was a vanilla vessel brought in to be a cog in the #SummerOfAnswers, and so no wonder their whole storyline felt like a paint-by-numbers kit. The impact of her was literally zero. It bums me out that Emily’s final weeks of fifth senior year, and all the coming-of-age moments that blew past with it, were wasted on Sara Harvey. Here’s hoping the time jump gives us something real and resonant again for our favorite lesbian killing machine.
+ Did the moms ever get out of that basement?
+ Who killed Jessica DiLaurentis?
+ Who Killed Ian?
+ Who is Beach Hottie?
+ What was that disastrous thing on page five of Ali’s autopsy report?
+ How did Marion die when Charlotte was a little kid but also be alive when Alison was kissing Toby?
+ Where is Jenna? Where is Lucas? Y’all, where is Noel Kahn?
+ Did Charlotte put that snake in Spencer’s dressing room and then SAVE her from it? Total Mona move! Vanderpraise!
In five in-show years, the Liars will converge on Rosewood, where Alison DiLaurentis teaches Act Normal, Bitch classes at Rosewood High. Someone will be after her, a “he.” She will be dressed like a stepford situation that will scare the fuck out of you and with a new last name that suggests she’s please-god-no married to man whose name she took. Aria will be wearing a Lego city printed onto a dress, Hanna will be wearing another one of those inexplicable wigs, Spencer will have very divisive bangs, and Emily will be dressed like devastation.
Here are 24 actions you need to take to help trans women of color survive. And don’t tolerate any transphobia or transmisogny in your social media feeds either.
Thank you one badrillon gazillion thank yous to Nicole (@PLLBigA) for being the greatest evangelist for these recaps and the screencapper every recapper dreams of having. Here’s to another season survived, friend!