The following article contains spoilers and mentions of sexual assault.
Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin recently aired its season one finale and there is a lot to unpack. There are murder attempts, reveals of secret identities, broken trust, and nonstop thrill. Imogen, one of the new Liars in the reboot, gives birth to her baby after spending the entire season pregnant. A few episodes back, she ultimately decided to give her baby up for adoption after realizing she’s not ready for motherhood. In one of the final scenes of the finale, we find out who ends up adopting the baby.
And it’s fucking Aria and Ezra from the original Pretty Little Liars.
For those of you who may not know, Aria and Ezra are one of the main couples on the original show. Aria, a young teenager, meets Ezra, a fully grown adult, in a bar where Aria pretends to be of legal age. They flirt, make out in a bathroom, and go about their nights expecting to never see each other again. The next day, Aria goes to her high school English class and finds Ezra, who happens to be her new English teacher. Despite this, they continue their relationship. It’s a sick story of grooming, statutory rape, and an unhealthy student-teacher dynamic that’s glorified. Aria is portrayed as the cool teenager who gets to have a scandalous, yet exciting, relationship with an adult rather than a victim who lacked sexual agency. The writers frame their relationship as a forbidden love story where the characters have to fight all obstacles to be together. I. Marlene King, the executive producer and showrunner of the original Pretty Little Liars, even once called them “soulmates”.
TV has a long tradition of showing romantic depictions of student-teacher affairs. It is a problem because it is normalizing the sexual and emotional exploitation of vulnerable young people and makes it difficult for survivors of these situations to be taken seriously. However, it seems like TV shows are finally stepping away from these harmful narratives and showing student-teacher relationships for what they really are: dangerous and abusive. Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin shows this through Tabby, another girl who’s a part of the new generation of Liars. She works at a movie theatre called The Orpheum, and it is her dream to study film at NYU and become a filmmaker. Her boss at The Orpheum, Wes, knows that it’s her dream and has connections to NYU professors since he studied there. Wes serves as a mentor to Tabby not because he genuinely wants to help her pursue her passion, but because he is sexually interested in her. Wes is written as a predatory creep and when he tries to make advancements toward Tabby, she is portrayed as an uncomfortable young girl who wants to get away from him. It is a complete contrast to the romantic overtones of Aria’s and Ezra’s relationship.
Sexual violence overall is a major theme in the Pretty Little Liars reboot. Imogen and Tabby are sexual assault survivors. Angela Waters, a mysterious figure who is connected to the search for “A”, is also a sexual assault survivor. However, none of what the girls experienced is used merely for the sake of the horror genre of the show. While horror has a huge problem in portraying sexual assault, Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin manages to subvert the trope of the female victim by not letting any of the characters be defined by their sexual assault. They’re not just survivors. While Angela commits suicide prior to the show’s current setting, Imogen and Tabby live full-fledged lives and have agency. Tabby particularly establishes her agency through filmmaking — the stories she creates are of women taking back their power. The girls’ trauma is also taken seriously and is portrayed with layers of complexity and grace.
So it feels like a slap in the face when Imogen and Tabby talk about how thrilled they are to drive to Rosewood and meet the highly-esteemed Aria and Ezra, the parents-to-be of Imogen’s baby. It feels like the show betrayed and undermined everything it stood for by continuing to affirm the relationship between Aria and Ezra. It is disrespectful to viewers who experienced sexual violence.
Ironically enough, Imogen would despise Ezra and would have never given her baby to him and Aria if she knew the origins of their relationship. To have Imogen, a survivor of sexual assault whose pregnancy happened because of rape and someone who passionately stands against all forms of sexual violence, allow this couple to adopt her baby is disgusting and, frankly, a poor writing choice. If the writers wanted to make a connection to the original series, they could have had any of the other original liars or other characters from the show be the ones to adopt Imogen’s baby.
There’s been instances where creators go back to a show they worked on and change details or correct any errors they found post-production. If those who worked on the Pretty Little Liars reboot truly cared about how sexual violence is portrayed in the show, they would edit the mentions of Aria and Ezra out of the show. A public apology on Twitter or Instagram is not enough. It may seem like such a small detail that bears no significance to the story, but it disempowers the show’s overall message on sexual violence.