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.'”
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.