“Pretty Little Liars” Has Now Killed More Queer and Trans Women Than Any Other TV Show

Spoilers from last night’s episode of Pretty Little Liars, “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” 

Sara Harvey was a terrible TV character. A one-dimensional scarecrow of a TV character that Pretty Little Liars‘ writers shoehorned into Emily’s life as a flimsy love interest who robbed her of the chance to share the resonant romantic beats the other Liars have enjoyed for the past two seasons, and for the sole purpose trying to add weight to Sara Harvey’s reveal as the deus ex machina of six entire seasons. She was Black Widow. She was sometimes Red Coat. She was Charlotte’s main accomplice in her underground dollhouse. Why? Who knows. Sara Harvey is dead now. She died in the bathtub, a wink to the audience who dubbed her “Shower Harvey” because her entire personality consisted of taking showers.

Pretty Little Liars has now killed more queer and trans women than any other TV show, edging out True Blood with last night’s episode. Maya St. Germain, Shana Fring, Charlotte DiLaurentis, and Sara Harvey are all dead. Alison DiLaurentis was dead for a while, and even though the show resurrected her body in season four, it didn’t resurrect her character. When Alison DiLaurentis was dead, she one of the most complicated, engaging, hyper-charged female characters in TV history. When Alison came back to life, her redemption arc turned her into a passive, impotent, unrecognizable do-nothing (in between tossing her in jail and literally torturing her). Shana, Charlotte, and Sara: Queer and trans psychos who had it coming to them. Alison: Queer reformed psycho it’s okay to root for now because she’s a Good Girl who has paid the price for her autonomy.

I didn’t like Sara Harvey. No one liked Sara Harvey! But Sara Harvey wasn’t a real person walking around in the world like a piece of untoasted white bread; she was a flimsy TV character who was barely sketched out and never colored in, and then murdered.

Juxtapose that with the other main event of “Wanted: Dead or Alive”: Ezra Fitz proposed to a woman he stalked and preyed upon when she was his underage student — a woman he seduced when she was 16 years old with the full knowledge of his imminent authority over her — and she said yes.

In between the stalking and the proposal, Ezra took a bullet for the Liars. He almost died trying to save them. After passively watching them get tortured during his time as their teacher, he sprang into action in later seasons and tried to help the Liars track down A. When Aria left for college, he fell in love with another woman and suffered through her tragic death, a thing that occurred while they were working together to build houses for poor people in underdeveloped countries. He’s a Good Guy who made a bad decision, don’t you see? But he’s spent years “making up for it.”

Except here’s the rub: Ezra Fitz isn’t a real person either. He’s a fully realized TV character who was drawn in permanent marker and colored in like the promise of a rainbow on a cloudy day.

Maybe that you’ll say Ezra Fitz is a main character on Pretty Little Liars and has been since day one, and these queer and trans women who’ve died have all been supporting or guest characters. And it’s not like men haven’t died on this show too. This entire season revolves around the death of Dr. Rollins.

But we live in a world where white men are humanized simply because they are white men. Brock Turner wasn’t Accused Rapist Brock Turner in headlines; he was Stanford Swimmer Brock Turner, or Olympic Hopeful Brock Turner. After Dylan Roof committed mass murder in Charleston, news outlets reported that “He was very quiet, very calm. He didn’t talk. He sat down here very quietly. He was not problematic.” For reasons I can’t even explain, I know that John Russell Houser sold used car parts and owned a bar in south Georgia. How many times must I have read or heard that? It’s easier to recall those facts about his life than the number of people he shot at a theater the theater in Lafayette, LA. As Rebecca Traister noted in her brilliant New York Magazine piece, “Why Do We Humanize White Guys Who Kill People?”, when Robert Louis Dear was arrested after terrorizing a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, the New York Times referred to him as “a gentle loner” and the Washington Post “conveyed a kind of tenderness, with its description of Dear as ‘adrift and alienated.'”

Traister continues:

It matters because it shows us all the ways in which we live in a world made for and shaped around white men. And in aggregate, when the statues are of white men, the buildings and cities and bridges and schools are named after white men, the companies are run by white men and the movie stars are white men and the television shows are about white men and the celebrated authors are white men, the only humanity that is presented as comprehensible — the kind that succeeds and fails, that comprises strength and weakness, that feels love and anger and alienation and fear, that embodies nuance and contradiction, that can be heroic and villainous, abusive and gentle — is the humanity of white men.

We cannot even escape that reality in a fictitious TV show with five female leads written by a group of people directly dialed into its feminist fandom.

Shana Fring worked in a Halloween store, stalked the Liars, and now she’s dead. Sara Harvey took a lot of showers, stalked the Liars, and now she’s dead. Charlotte DiLaurentis was locked away in an asylum for being trans, stalked the Liars, and now she’s dead.

Ezra Fitz has had a hard, complicated life. He made some good choices and some bad ones. He filmed the Liars without their consent. He took a bullet for them. His mom’s name is Diane and he loves The Great Gatsby. He drinks beer with his pie and he loves old movies. Last night he asked the girl he statutory raped to marry him and she said yes. He picked her up and twirled her; what a romantic triumph!

When you really shake Pretty Little Liars down to its core, the storytelling crutch it has leaned on again and again is: pinning a bunch of mysterious nefarious actions on an underdeveloped queer or trans woman and then murdering her. Sara Harvey was a terrible TV character. Everyone hated her. Not because she was written to be hated, but because she wasn’t written at all.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1021 articles for us.

49 Comments

  1. Obviously the Ezra proposal was going to make us all lose our shit in this corner of the internet.

    But if PLL has killed more queer and trans women than any other TV show it is because PLL has *HAD* more queer and trans women than any other TV show. And it’s a show about murder. And the systemic and arbitrary terror that women and girls have to endure in a patriarchal world. All wrapped up in an exploitative homage to classic Hollywood.

    Despite how terrible Ezra and all the other white guys are, I think it’s still worth to acknowledge the fact that this show is remarkable in its centering of female experience.

    • That is a point I come back to when this show is savaged. Yes, it has so many problems, so many, but it has been more fearless about including queer women than any other show on US TV and it was the first, and until Clarke Griffin the only show with a queer lead character. So this always tempers my anger over stuff they do wrong but it doesn’t erase it.

    • I think *how* a show includes women and queer people is just as if not more important than the fact it includes them. If the show has only included them to make them scapegoats or paper-thin characters, has it included them at all, or reinforced the notion that queer women are disposable?

      • “I think *how* a show includes women and queer people is just as if not more important than the fact it includes them. If the show has only included them to make them scapegoats or paper-thin characters, has it included them at all, or reinforced the notion that queer women are disposable?”

        AMEN TO ALL OF THAT, AnnaY!

    • True, one can also say that all the other Liars were given substantial relationships and Emily has gone through so many girls/women with Paige being the only one to last more than like five eps. Therefore there were tonnes of queer characters but it was just a revolving door and after a while it kinda felt like trying to fill a quota and two substantially developed queer characters would have been better than fifteen under developed cameos imho.

    • “But if PLL has killed more queer and trans women than any other TV show it is because PLL has *HAD* more queer and trans women than any other TV show.”
      *** Exactly. While I *HATE* what they did to Charlotte (tho’ are we *sure* she’s dead? I continue to hope for a “Mona”), isn’t it good that — well, no, not “good”, but … I don’t know becos this isn’t an experience I can really relate to (being gay or trans), but it feels like invisibility is even worse?
      Please, if I am wrong, someone tell me, but even tho’ they often treat their non-straight characters horribly, at least Liars *HAS* non-straight characters. And for every one they kill, there’s an Emily, a Paige, a Samara, a wosrname (weed chick at the coffee shop) … and there’s Alison and Mona (who are … questionable?) and Jenna.
      And they kill off a lot of straight folks too, so it’s not like it’s just targeted at the non-straight people. Again, I may be way off base here (and please educate me if so), but it seems like Liars treats their non-straight characters the same as their straight ones — at least the secondary (or below) chars. Anyone can be good or bad, regardless of sexuality (and I still say the ultimate Big Bad is Mr DiLaurentis — aka: The Patriarchy). It feels like this is a step up from the cliche of the “depraved homosexual” that so many other things have shown us over the years?

      — Yes, I am male. But please, don’t hold it against me; I promise, it wasn’t my fault. —

  2. This. Article. Is. Perfect. Because it’s what we’ve all been thinking the entire time!!! I’m so tired of this show, and I’m done trying to endure this painstaking justification of white straight men in wait for Emison to finally happen (and of course it can’t now, after everything)

    Thanks for putting it all into words, tho xx

    • Is the epidemic of queer, trans, and POC women being murdered a joke to you? Stories matter, the media matters. When every story bolsters the idea that white men are complete, complex, three-dimensional people who must be understood through a lens of that complexity and women, POC, and LBT women in particular are one-dimensional villains, scarecrows, or paper dolls made to serve someone else’s story you are bolstering the notion that we are somehow less than fully human and less than fully worthy of our rights and our dignity (and yes, not being murdered).

      So, no, this isn’t a fucking joke to me because people are dying.

  3. This must have been really hard to write Heather but thank you for doing it. This show is such a strange mixture of good and bad. Pretty much impossible to love like you wish you could but also hard for me to just write off entirely. *sigh*

  4. Time for us to stop giving them our time and attention. This show has made it clear that people like us are the inevitable carnage that this show rests on.

    I’m done giving my time to shows that pull this crap.

  5. I gave up on this show after that bullshit finale last season. I could no longer look past the massive plot holes and ridiculousness of the characters.

    Anyways, I will forever be impressed with your ability to write an articulate take down of a show in less than a week.

  6. I think what I dislike most about Sara’s death was her being in the bath. How did they expect us to react to that? Did they think we’d go ‘LOL, Shower Harvey died in a shower, what a hilarious twist!’ and completely ignore that they had killed off yet another queer character? The Bury Your Gays trope doesn’t just apply to characters that are fan favourites – it doesn’t matter how unlikable Sara was, she still shouldn’t have been killed off in that way.

  7. This is all very important, but AHS has killed about six: one in season 2, two in season 4, and between 3 and 5 in season 5 though that one gets tricky to quantify in terms of what killed means. They’re all on the big list. Is that show not mentioned because some were minor characters?

    • It’s actually not mentioned because I’m tallying that show by individual stories, so like Coven is one and Hotel is another one and whatever all the rest were. Because they are like different shows, really, even though there’s a lot of actor overlap.

      • OK that makes sense. They do take place in the same universe though, we’ve seen characters cross over into other seasons and even be killed when appearing in a different season. My biggest fear about that show is they’ll bring back my favourite Lana Winters and gratuitously kill her on some future season.

  8. I hate to be critical of Heather. But when you literally lead the chorus of a character’s hatedome, yo don’t to them complain that the show does what it usually does hated character.

    Frankly Sara’s fictional blood is on your hands. No one would have disliked her if you didn’t.

    • That’s bananas. The whole point of this article is that Sara was a hated character — by me and by so many other people — because she was nothing more than a stick figure, and one that represented the moment in time that PLL stopped treating Emily’s love life with the same care and weight with which it treated the other Liars’ love lives. There are so many solutions to that problem that don’t involve killing her off. She could have been given storylines to make her a more three-dimensional character. She could have simply been written off. PLL has never had any trouble just abandoning characters it doesn’t need anymore. Not only is it disheartening that her death comes in a year of record-breaking deaths for queer women on TV, and on the heels of the backlash of losing Charlotte, and with the full knowledge of fan reaction to the deaths of the other lesbian and bisexual characters on this show; but it also fits into a larger pattern — again, as I have outlined here — of under-developing queer women and then killing them.

      The idea that I’m the only reason people disliked Sara Harvey is ridiculous, and the idea that I am somehow responsible for her death — well, you’re onto something there, but not in the way you think you are. If I’d been more vocal about the damage of Maya’s death waaaaay back in season two, maybe this wouldn’t have become a pattern. That’s something I take full responsibility for and regret deeply. But I have made my feelings well known about queer character deaths since then in multiple widely read pieces.

      If the PLL writers really bent to my will re: murdering characters, Ezra Fitz would have been dead years ago.

      • Heather it’s a huge deal for you to feel that responsibility, but I think all the writing you and Riese and others have done this year on those deaths has made such an impact. It’s a shame it’s too late for all the recent deaths to have been avoided but you’ve told the world that the pattern can’t be ignored or stood for and then been proven depressingly right.
        I do wish you would make your feelings on the last few episodes of POI known for related reasons! I know the show is over now and it’s unlikely this crew will go there again anytime soon, but this was such an important show and it’s sad that the Autostraddle archives don’t feel complete on it.

    • OMG OMG i WISH heather could godmod characters on television shows. Television would be SO AWESOME

      wait. HEATHER. are you the reason there’s a new Harry Potter book AND movie? what is this sorcery??

      Can you bring Wren back for an episode and kill him next?

  9. Thank you, Heather. As always you articulate these issues better than anyone.

    But I’m curious, have the PLL writers/producers ever explained why *they* don’t think Ezra is a statutory rapist/sexual predator? Are there any other critics/media calling them out on this? Why does it seem that they’re getting a pass on this?

    • One weird thing that happens (which I think heather has probably mentioned before) is that the actors playing the adults and the teenagers are often the same age in real life, and so the relationships seem fairly normal. But in real life – like, I worked with fifteen and sixteen year olds when I was twenty-one to twenty-seven, and it was so very clear the we were VERY different ages, it was so very clear that they were children.

  10. Regardless of how you feel about Sara, I think we can all agree that Emily now having 3 murdered love interests is a problem. How many of Aria’s love interests have been murdered again? Oh, right, zero. Ditto with Hannah. Spencer maaaybe has 1 if you wanna count stupid Ian, which I personally wouldn’t. Emily also lost her father, which again, none of the other three have been subjected to.

    If Jenna and Sara were more-than-friends as the subtext has been suggesting, she gets the distinction of being the third significant other of Jenna Marshall’s to be murdered, making her and Emily tied for the most dead S.O.s. Meanwhile, since becoming canonically queer, Ali has lost her mother, her sister, and her husband, at least two of whom turned out to be horrible monster people who tortured and abused her. (the third may or may not have been a monster on par with the other two, but she definitely did bury Ali alive that one time, so.)

    Both Ezra and Toby were revealed to be surprise!twist villains – both of which would’ve caused Aria and Spencer to experience a profound sense of loss, but in the end, the show couldn’t or wouldn’t follow through with either. Why is that? Why are the queer characters the only ones who are allowed to have their loved ones killed? What does that say to an impressionable audience like PLL’s?

    I’m so sad about this. What a hugely disappointing turn in what had otherwise been a truly redemptive season…

  11. I gave up on this show a long time ago for various reasons so I don’t have much to say about them killing yet another queer character because I’m frankly not surprised by it. I was pretty much done with them after the way they handled the CeCe storyline. Both in the writing of it and how they responded to the criticism afterwards.

    I do want to once again complain about the Ezra Fitz of it all though. I am not the least bit shocked that Ezra and Aria are probably going to live happily ever after at the end of this series. They have been a problematic pairing from the start but the teenage girls who watch this show eat them up and the writers have pandered to that vocal fanbase for years. They are the original Captain Swan, sucking the life out of the female half of the pairing to the point where I have no interest in her anymore. And I get the feeling that if Ezra Fitz didn’t look like Ian Harding people would not be excusing the abuse of power and inappropriateness of him engaging in a relationship with a minor. I know “it’s just a tv show!” is a common counterpoint whenever this comes up but if it’s not that deep then why is the PLL fandom so pressed over every other character’s behavior? Particularly the female ones.

    One of my major pet peeves about tv shows that are clearly aimed at teens and/or have a majority teenage or younger fanbase is when they write their lead male characters in such a way that we are supposed to sympathize and excuse all manner of atrocious behavior towards women and consider them the moral heroes of the show we should ship with those same women. Chuck on Gossip Girl(who started off the show attempting to rape a girl *swoon*). Damon on The Vampire Diaries. Bellamy Blake on The 100. Ezra Fitz on PLL. And the list goes on and on. Once a show demonstrates to me that they actively want you to root for these physical, emotional and sometimes sexual abusers knowing full well who is in their audience then I am out as a viewer. I’m a little less critical of shows(only a little) that do this that are aimed at a mature audience and are on a subscription cable network. But these shows are aimed at kids and IMO should be more responsible about the messages they send. The majority of PLL’s fandom is made up of pre-teen/teen girls. As a rule, if you are not going to let your female characters get away with the same amount of bullshit that you extent to your male characters or outright shame and punish them for their choices instead then you have failed and can GTFO of my DVR. I’m over it.

  12. One thing I hate is when people justify that a woman was killed because “she was a villain, she had to die”. Because, no, she doesn’t *have* to die. That’s what reception storylines are for, we see them all the time with villain men. So often that we’ve come to expect them, and when they don’t get redeemed the fandom rages (see: Ward and his annoying fans in Agents of SHIELD). But when a female villain dies, we all think is the natural end for her character.

    I don’t know this character and I don’t care how much she was hated. There was always the potential for her to be redeemed and turned into an interesting character.

    More Roots and less Camillas is what I’m saying.

  13. This season actually started off so well – I had such high hopes fore where it was going. Offing Elliot so quickly, Emily’s multiple love interests, the rumours about Charlotte potentially not being dead. And then this. They can’t pretend not to know. There was NO REASON to brig Sara Harvey back, except to kill her. She served no purpose in her few scenes in this season.

    I’m so sorry the show keeps doing this to you, Heather. But thank you so much for calling them out for it.

  14. I’m only going to comment on the “burying your gays” accusation, because that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Shana and Charlotte were villains, and you might even say that they got what was coming to them (I mean, Shana tried to burn five girls alive, and I’m not even going to recount of all Charlotte’s crimes, which include attempted murder and framing people for murder). “Straight, white, male” villains die on this show just as often (Wilden, Reynolds, Ian, Rollings, just off the top of my head). All I heard when Lexa from the 100 died was how the complaint is that when there are so few gay characters, it hits very hard when one dies. But you can’t blame that on Pretty Little Liars when almost half the characters are gay or bi. And, I mean, yes, this show has lost a lot of lesbian or bi characters (Shana, Maya, Sara, Charlotte), it has more that are alive to this day (Alison, Emily, Jenna, Talia, Samara, Paige and Sabrina, just off the top of my head). In my opinion, as a lesbian, this show actually does almost everything right when it comes to representation (though I suppose it could use a gay male to mix it up a little). I mean, it has queer villains, queer characters with ambiguous morals, queer characters on the side of good. This is a silly complaint.

  15. I agree with this, but only to a certain extent. When had it ever been confirmed that Sara was queer? Her fling with Emily was a complete hoax, something she and Charlotte did to mess with Emily’s head. When she said she really did care about Emily? You don’t have to be gay to care about the well being of someone of the same sex. So, I don’t think Sara should be counted as being a queer character, but yes to everything else.

    Especially the fact that most of the queer people that they’ve killed off have been women of color.. Or just generally speaking, most of the people they’ve killed of have been poc.. Maya, Shana, Lyndon, Garrett, Charlotte.

    I’d really like to here Marlene answer to why a statutory rapist can be seen as a night in shining armour, but we can get any queer/poc character that aren’t there to be the temporary to Kenedy friend that inevitably gets killed…

    • We don’t know if Sara’s flirting with Emily was a hoax or not. Unless the writers comments on it we’ll likely never know. But Sara was definitely flirting with Jenna in episode 5, suggesting that Sara wasn’t straight.

  16. I feel like things are presented in a very twisted way here. Yes many queer women might have been killed in the show but let’s take into consideration that for everyone of them there have been about two non-queer characters killed. It’s a teen drama show, murders happen and it obviously has nothing to do with a character’s sexual orientation. Also, I’ve seen so many people blaming the writers for making the main villain of the show transgender. I understand that if this is taken a certain way it can look very offensive but the whole message was that the reason why Charlotte ended up the way she did was because she was never loved and accepted by those around her. It was a message about what can happen if there isn’t acceptance, because hate breeds hate. Most of what is mentioned here as “evidence” of PLL’s negative representation of the LGBTQ community is twisted. I could very well write an entire article about how PLL has killed way too many white men and has made them look like predators.

    • I don’t want to speak for everyone but my perspective is that specifically of the character development of the queer women were lacking and especially in terms of Emily’s relationships. All the other Liars had far more involved and develop love interests. Comparatively there was a point where Emily was flitting from female to female and while that is dating, the fact that for the most part it was only Emily that dated around it seems to send a message of less repute in queer relationships.

      The point about twice as many non queer people dying is like the argument that more white males are killed by police than black males. When you have a disparity in population you have to compare percentages not just raw numbers. That stat means absolutely nothing to me without the context of how many queer and non-queer characters have appeared on the show.

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