The worst advice I ever got was to not write that Ezra Fitz is a monster. “You’ll piss off the people who work on Pretty Little Liars and read and tweet your stuff,” was the reason, and it was a terrible reason, and so I wrote (continuously) that Ezra Fitz is a monster. It did the opposite of alienating me from (most of) the people who work on Pretty Little Liars. And to the great credit of their creative team, the harshest criticism I ever leveled at the show — in my recap of last summer’s finale — only opened up their world to me even more. Between season 6A and 6B, I talked with dozens of people who make PLL a reality: writers, producers, directors, publicists, crew members, even the wife of someone who drives a golf cart on the Warner Brothers backlot. They reached out to me over and over with one message: Thank you for loving this show as much as we love making it, and for forcing us to acknowledge its place in the larger cultural conversation.
Well, no. That wasn’t the only message. Not by a mile, really. It was the main message. But also I got to sit across tables and talk on the phone and email and message with these folks about how gosh dang much they love making stories, and how important it is for them to get it right, and how it pains them to get it wrong. They want to do good and I know they want to do good because they have shown up again and again for me, both personally and professionally, to offer support and encouragement and candid explanations for how their particular sausage gets made. I watch them, day after day, advocate for politics and policies that move forward a progressive worldview, that make queer lives better.
I’ve been writing this recap for five months. I’ve been writing it since the moment I found out PLL had chosen to kill off Charlotte, grappling incessantly with the knowledge of the goodness of the folks who made that decision and the reality that is was a deeply, irrevocably damaging one that was going to contribute to a culture of pain and fear for my transgender sisters. 12 trans women had been murdered in the U.S. in 2015 when I started writing the Pretty Little Liars 610 recap; 13 trans women had been murdered in the U.S. by the time I finished writing the Pretty Little Liars 610 recap, just ten hours after I started. In total, 23 trans women were murdered last year, most of them black women, which means — as Mey and I pointed out in our end-of-year piece Violence and Visibility: Transgender Women On TV in 2015 — that we wrote more obituaries for trans women in 2015 than recaps for any single show we covered.
Here’s another thing true thing we wrote in that article: “Not all visibility is good visibility. The three main tropes used when writing about trans women are: 1) That trans women are deceivers, liars, and mentally unstable. 2) That trans women are acceptable targets of violence. And 3) That it’s tolerable to misname and misgender trans women (which, of course, dehumanizes them and provides justification for violence against them).”
Those things, those tropes, PLL has done them all now, every untrue stereotype about trans women, every untrue cliche, and they murdered Charlotte too. “He, she, it!” Hanna called her. “He, she, it!” Pretty Little Liars official Twitter declared just days after the summer finale. No, Hanna didn’t know Charlotte was trans at the time, but the writer who penned that dialogue sure did. “He, she, it” was already part of the show’s cultural DNA. “He, she, it” is why trans women are murdered in real life.
There was a time when Pretty Little Liars helped create the most fun and most safe place for queer women to participate in TV culture. The #BooRadleyVanCullen community that sprang up around watching the show together is unlike anything I have ever been a part of. Not only did I meet some of my dearest and most important real life friends because of it, but also it became very obvious that the queer women who participated in that conversation were speaking to a show that was listening to them, and the show was talking back, both on-screen and in real life. We’ve never had anything like that. Ever, ever, ever. Never, truly never, have we ever had something like that in our lives. I see now that it wasn’t sustainable, but when we were in the throes of it, I couldn’t have predicted the way the culture was going to shift so dramatically under our feet.
If you pulled out my memories of the last six years, since this show began, and swirled them around and poked them apart in Dumbledore’s Pensieve, what you would see on one side is a collective feminist voice uniting around speaking up against sexual predators, pushing back against the entitlement of straight white male privilege, demanding accountability for police officers who exploit women, crying out against the devaluation of black bodies, and a growing awareness of the horrific violence committed against trans women in this country. And you would see Pretty Little Liars stepping in those holes just as real life events and circumstances caused our voices to coalesce around those causes.
And on the other side of the Pensieve you would see pieces coming off the chess board in Rosewood as the creative team and the network and the studio hear the crowds of young girls sending up their rallying cries for Ezra and Aria, Caleb and Hanna, Toby and Spencer, and as those decision makers watch the Teen Choice Awards and People’s Choice Awards roll in. You would see the feints at allowing the men on PLL to face consequences or be bad guys or play a part in the larger real-stakes narrative of the show — but instead you would watch a black bisexual women be killed to advance Emily’s plot, a black queer woman be killed to advance Aria’s plot, only one original love interest written off the show (the lesbian one), a queer character introduced as a love interest for Emily for the sole purpose of serving as the answer to nearly every evil question, a trans women revealed as the ultimate bad guy, and now a trans woman murdered to advance the plot of everyone else.
On a show anchored by the narratives of five women, the men were rendered off-limits; the only place for real narrative consequences was the place that was queer.
At the PLL New York Comic Con panel and at the PLL Paley Center event this year, I watched thousands of young women cry for Ezria like the Beatles, and I just wanted to grab them all up in a hug like I did when I was forcing my feral kittens to learn to like human touch and yell, “I hate Ezra because I love you I hate Ezra because I love you I hate Ezra because I love you” over and over and over until they understood the real world rape culture ramifications of his continued existence. I wanted to pull in everyone who was outraged about the plot holes after the #SummerOfAnswers and squeeze them until all my love and knowledge transferred itself into their bodies and their outrage centered on the fact that trans women were being killed at a rate of once every other week and the Charlotte reveal was going to continue to perpetuate stereotypes that lead to trans women being feared and maligned and murdered in real life.
It was a mind-blowing experience being at those events. I have never felt more like an alien, hurled down to earth to participate in a society that looks like me but is not me. (And I’ve felt like an alien a lot in my life.)
You know what else I wanted to do while I was there, though? I wanted to introduce them to our Trans Editor, Mey Rude, who is one of my very best friends and one of the warmest and most generous women I have ever met in my entire life. I’ve known Charlotte was going to die since almost the moment the summer finale was over, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell Mey about it until two days ago. When was the right time? After she finished writing another obituary for a murdered trans woman? When she had finished writing about Houston’s Prop. 1 taking away the rights of trans women to use women’s restrooms? When she had finished writing about the horrific trans-themed episode of Law & Order last year, or the way Ryan Murphy wrote another incredibly harmful trans woman, this time on American Horror Story?
I chased the FedEx truck down the road a couple of weeks ago to get my driver to give me the box of homemade tamales Mey baked and overnighted to me, and as soon as I got back inside in front of my laptop, the new Pretty Little Liars promo poster was here: four sexy women sashaying around town with a dead trans girl in a coffin. Was I supposed to tell Mey about it then, eating the food she cooked for me with love in her very own kitchen? I wanted to introduce Mey to those Pretty Little Liars fans and to everyone who works on the show and I wanted to say, “I love this woman, I love her, she means so much to me, and you are making her life scarier and sadder and more dangerous, do you know? I’m afraid of losing this woman I love if you keep up this thing with Charlotte.”
(What are Ezria fans afraid of, I wonder.)
The main thing Mey Rude and I have in common is we would rather be wrapped in the warm blanket of stories we love than feel outraged and heartbroken about stories that hurt us, any day of the week.
And so here we are: Good people have made some harmful decisions on a show that has meant more to me than … well, you know how much it has meant to me, and if you don’t, I’ve written about half a million words about it on the internet, and you can see it for yourself. “It’s just a story” is a lazy lie and no writer really believes that. Oh, they’ll say it to try to sidestep responsibility, but writers become writers because they have been deeply affected by the power of story, because they have known the magic and they want to wield it. I’ve looked into the tear-streaked faces of some of the people who tell this show’s stories, fallible and full of love, and they mean something to me too. I have touched their hands with my hands and thrown my arms around them because they did change my world. Oh, they changed my world for the better! I know you because of Pretty Little Liars and that’s how you know me; what a gift!
Humans needs stories as much as they need air and water, and minorities most of all. We need to see happy endings to know happy endings are possible. We need to see someone form constellations out of the unrelated points of light in our life so we can make sense of who we are. And for a very long time, Pretty Little Liars has been that to me, to so many of us. It’s not the only show on the block anymore. (All the queer shows on TV can’t be contained to a single block anymore.) I don’t know if the two sides of reality in my Pensieve can even be reconciled. This show isn’t written for me; I was too old to be a Becomer when even when the pilot aired a thousand years ago (I don’t even know what DryBar is), but I think maybe what this world needs is less of queer critics boycotting things and more of queer critics continuing the conversation about things that trouble them.
Maybe. Maybe that’s naive. Maybe it’s wise. Maybe that’s what I’ll do for now. I don’t care about scoring points, that’s not who I am. I don’t care about Calling Things Out. I believe, truly I believe, that most storytellers aren’t out to get us. I think many of them live in a bubble in Los Angeles and are doing the best they can with the information they’ve exposed themselves to, trapped between what’s good and right, and what sells shampoo. I want stories to work their magic inside of me and to work their magic on the world beyond my reach. I want to love my stories with a wide open heart. I want my stories to love me back. I want to talk to Pretty Little Liars like I always have done, and I want them to talk back. I want us to understand each other. We already have this magical translating parrot here; maybe she can lead the way.
Five Years Later
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Settled comfortably into her queer identity and waiting patiently for Emily to return to Rosewood to show her a thing or two she learned in college. Occasionally pulling a heist with Mona for old time’s sake, wearing masks of each other’s faces and sometimes masks of their own faces, once in a while, that mask of Emily’s face. Running a chartered plane courier service up and down the eastern seaboard in her very own twin prop. Co-pilot: Pepe the Gravedigger.
Where she actually is after the time jump: Teaching at Rosewood High, drifting off into memories of her former gayness while reading Shakespeare to her class. Visiting with Charlotte whenever she can and failing to notice that Charlotte’s doctor is another authority figure doubling as a fucking creep in her life. Advocating for Charlotte to be released from the hospital and loving her sister, loving her sister, loving her sister. Mourning her too, while her friends get drunk on Hanna’s dime at the new Radley Sanatarium bar and fail to notice she’s been murdered.
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Gay. Gay and wearing suits and doing a Slytherin job while pretending it’s a Ravenclaw job. Supporting the independent political aspirations of both of her parents in the hopes of parlaying their future influence and name recognition into her own career on The Hill. Plans to be President of the United States of America by the time she’s 37.
Where she actually is after the time jump: All of those things except the gay parts (supposedly).
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Planning her wedding to Paige McCullers and working on her memoir (Glass In My Hair: An Autobiography of Acting Normal Bitch) while Paige trains with the U.S. Olympic swim team. Tapas on the regular with Missy Franklin, and sometimes whole pizzas too. Late night texts and inside jokes with Hanna, a perfected empanada recipe, a plan to teach and coach swimming when she finishes her MFA.
Where she actually is after the time jump: Working in a hotel bar, serving Mai Tais to tourists. Addicted to the pills Pam’s not counting. One dead dad.
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Living in a loft in Dumbo, doing her Art, riding a unicycle around Brooklyn to buy artisanal toothpicks and toilet paper from men sporting handlebar mustaches and slim-fit, knee-length pantaloons. Thinking about how she should have kissed Spencer once, twice, three times at least, back in high school, and wondering how long it would take her to pedal her little one-wheeled wonder on down to Washington D.C. The country is ready for a bisexual president, right? Oh, the mural she would paint in the Lincoln bedroom! Oh, the photos of decapitated dolls she would hang on the walls in the Queens’ quarters!
Where she actually is after the time jump: Publishing books and unafraid to say she’s still super traumatized by being stalked and preyed upon for many years of her teenage existence. No, no, not the stalking and preying her teacher did to her. That guy’s fine. All he did was seduce her when she was a child, and follow her around and record her every move with hidden cameras in every nook of every cranny she ever frequented. No, it’s Charlotte’s torture that still gets to her (quite rightly) on the red line when she’s riding home from work to her miserable lonely apartment. (Not Ezra’s torture, though; let’s be clear about that. He loved her!)
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Starring in The Devil Wears Prada in real life.
Where she actually is after the time jump: Starring in The Devil Wears Prada in real life. Plus, substituting gin for milk when she douses her bowl of Cheerios every morning.
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Working for the CIA, doing black ops missions around the world, singlehandedly destroying terrorism and keeping the global markets in check. Dozens of passports at her disposal, billions of dollars, shimmying up walls in Prague and sliding down ropes into trap doors in Bangladesh. Sending back a thousand-dollar bottle of wine because it’s not good enough and listening to Hamilton on her iPod while practicing kickboxing and thinking fondly of the time she stabbed Kung Fu Jake in his feet.
Where she actually is after the time jump: Dogging Spencer’s steps in D.C., but owning the Slytherin nature of her career, hoping at once to best Spencer and get into Spencer’s power suit pants. Planning for the inevitability of being Spencer’s White House Chief of Staff.
Where I hoped he’d be after the time jump: In jail.
Where he actually is after the time jump: Wallowing around in his manpain like a pig in mud, completely befuddled by the fact that bad things happen to women in this world, despite having surveilled the Liars for years and witnessing them being stuffed into boxes and run under by cars and locked in clown houses and doll houses and fun houses and house houses and murdered with regularity. His girlfriend Nicole was kidnapped when he was doing the Lord’s work down in South America, just building houses for the impoverished like the Great White Hero he always has been, just being a Good Guy, not deserving anything bad, and she was kidnapped. So if you understand that, ARIA, why don’t you go ahead and explain it. Some people have real problems.
Toby Cavanaugh and Caleb Rivers
Where I hoped they’d be after the time jump: Married.
Where they actually are after the time jump: Engaged.
Where I hoped she’d be after the time jump: Treated with dignity, afforded the same opportunities for redemption as the rich, handsome, straight white men on this show.
Where she actually is after the time jump: Dead.
Season 6B (and beyond?) is a whodunit, as in: Who killed Charlotte DiLaurentis? The Liars had planned to bounce after her trial, but Lorenzo ambushes them outside the funeral and tells them they’ll need to stay for questioning. Where are they now? Where they’ve always been, but with disposable income and different hair. Maybe they’ve learned to turn on lights when they enter a room. Maybe they know how to work window blinds now. Is it 2016 or is it 2021? Because by 2021, I firmly believe every woman will be gay. I also firmly believe Sara Harvey will be revealed as nothing more than a figment of our collective imagination by then. Hope breeds eternal misery, but I do it anyway.
Thank you to Nicole (@PLLBigA) for the screencaps and for always helping me stay grounded.
If you want to buy a #BooRadleyVanCullen t-shirt, with 100% of the profit going directly to the Sylvia Rivera Law Project to help trans folks, you can do that here.