Pretty Little Liars started airing on ABC Family in 2010. It focuses on a group of teenage girls, their mysterious bully, A, who blackmails them by threatening to reveal their secrets and the disappearance of one of their friends, Alison. Now the show is slowly but surely coming to an end, something I genuinely don’t know how to feel about.
The thing is I kind of loved Pretty Little Liars. Its premise was fun – a bit like Gossip Girl, except darker – and the main characters were quite compelling despite initially fitting perfectly in the molds of stereotypical teenage girl characters. There’s the artsy Aria, Hanna, a typical high school blond beauty, the academic overachiever Spencer and Emily, the closeted sporty lesbian.
But at this point, it’s sort of become a drag. When the show went on hiatus last August, after the tenth episode of the last season had aired, I felt more wary than excited about its return. And when the show actually came back, I realised I had been right to have been wary, as most of the episodes left me profoundly annoyed.
Of course, I’ve been wondering how this happened. How did a show that was sometimes silly but enjoyable manage to become so profoundly frustrating? Here are the eight main problems I’ve identified:
I: Ezra and Aria’s relationship
One of my fundamental problems with Pretty Little Liars exists essentially from the very first episode onwards when Aria randomly hooks up with an attractive stranger in a bar only to find out that he’s her English teacher the next day. The two of them start a relationship regardless of the student-teacher dynamic that makes their relationship illegal, the age gap and the concerning power dynamic within it.
The relationship causes a number of problems for Aria over the seasons ranging from being blackmailed by A as well as other students, the need to sneak around, and fights with her parents and friends. They break up multiple times over the course of the series but keep coming back together.
There’s a fairly obvious problem with all of this: Aria is 16 when her relationships with Ezra starts while he is 29. The age difference is a problem in itself. While the age of consent in Pennsylvania is 16, the law only allows under-18-year-olds to only have sex with other minors, not with adults.
Additionally, Aria and Ezra are in completely different places in their lives. Ezra is a college graduate with a full-time job who lives by himself and, because of his job, has full control over his money. Aria is a student with no disposable income who lives with her parents. Ezra’s absolute independence, as well as the fact that he is more mature than Aria, creates a power imbalance in their relationship that is very difficult to balance to make the relationship healthy.
Then there’s the fact that Ezra is Aria’s teacher which adds not only another layer of illegality to the relationship but also deepens the power imbalance. And due to the illegal nature of their relationship, Aria originally can’t even tell anyone about it, leaving her isolated from her friends and family.
The show barely acknowledges any of these inherent problems; instead, most of the problems that arise in Ezria’s relationship are caused by A, Aria’s parents trying to break them up, or other outside influences. Of course, they overcome them, again and again, to stay together for a majority of the series. Ultimately, Pretty Little Liars is normalising a pretty unhealthy relationship dynamic while never even acknowledging how unhealthy it is.
However, things get worse. During the fourth season of the show, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer become suspicious of Ezra and start investigating him, with Spencer leading the investigation. At the same time, Spencer is struggling with a drug addiction. When Ezra realizes both of these things, he reveals to Aria that Spencer is addicted and had been to rehab in the past, something he knows because he has access to her files as her teacher, turning Aria and the other girls against Spencer.
During the same season, it is revealed that Ezra also dated Alison, who lied about her age, before she disappeared. She had told him about her friends, including about Aria, and Ezra recognized her when they first met at the bar in the pilot episode of the show. Ezra originally had moved to Rosewood to write a true crime novel based on Alison’s disappearance and started collecting information on all of the girls for his book. Even dating Aria was originally for research purposes, though he stopped writing the book when things got serious between them. Ezra only started writing again when they broke up in season 4 but stopped again when they got back together.
Aria is understandably angry and disgusted and breaks up with Ezra. However, at the end of the season, he saves the girls from A on a rooftop in Manhattan and gets shot in the stomach while doing so. In the first episode of the fifth season, it is revealed that he survives his gunshot wound and tells Aria who A is. She then rushes to help her friends who she realizes were trapped by A and kills A in the process. Over the course of the season, Aria and Ezra grow closer again as Aria tries to deal with the trauma of murdering someone. Ultimately, she forgives him for stalking her and her friends, lying about his intentions to her to write a book about them and essentially taking advantage of her, and they get back together again.
Ezra’s original behaviour – getting into a relationship with one of his students and isolating her from her parents and friends in the process – is intensely questionable by itself, but the fact that he knew Aria was underage, went to the school he was going to teach at, and still pursued a relationship with her makes him a predatory creep. The fact that he and Aria still get back together over the course of the fifth season is further normalizing a deeply messed up relationship and essentially pushing the idea that predatory behaviour is acceptable if only the person loves you.
Fascinatingly enough, while the showrunners seem to either be unaware or willfully ignoring how deeply unhealthy the entire relationship is, some of the actors are not only aware of it but also fairly open about their dislike. Troian Bellisario, who plays Spencer, explicitly said that she can’t get behind the relationship because it is bad and unhealthy and teaches people bad relationships. Ian Harding, who portrays Ezra, calls him a “statutory rapist” and describes their relationship as illegal.
In the middle of season 6, Aria and Ezra break up as Aria leaves Rosewood to go to college. However, after a five-year time jump, Aria returns to the town and ultimately to Ezra. They get engaged at the end of season 6 and over the course of the second half of the seventh season, Aria starts to work with the newest incarnation of A, A.D., against her friends to get her hands on a police report that she filled out about Ezra but never filed. When Aria reveals this to him, Ezra says
“You still have doubts about me ― about whether you can trust me or not. Maybe there’s some part of you that has never forgiven me for taking advantage of you and your friends for the sake of a book. I wish that I could change history, but I can’t. I fell in love with you Aria, and this is where we are now, and I truly believe that we are stronger for having weathered those storms. Don’t you?”
And Aria essentially does forgive him, because according to the showrunner, she and Ezra are soulmates. Considering that said showrunner, I. Marlene King, also said that there would be three weddings over the course of the final episodes, it is more than likely that a predatory statutory rapist and the woman he got into a relationship with when she was a teenager end up together. And that’s, honestly, messed up and inappropriate.
II: Killing off Maya
Maya St. Germain is introduced in season 1, first as a friend of Emily’s and then as her love interest. She moves to Rosewood, where the entire show takes place, and into the house in which Alison, the friend that connected Aria, Hanna, Spencer, and Emily, lived. Essentially, Maya helps Emily come to terms with her own lesbianism, deal with her feelings for Alison, and come out to her friends and parents.
Later in the first season, Maya is sent to a Christian rehab camp called True North because Emily’s mother found her weed and alerted Maya’s parents. During Maya’s stay there, the relationship between her and Emily begins to fizzle out, but when Maya returns in the second season, they resume their relationship after some initial difficulties. However, Maya’s parents threaten to send her back to True North after they find an old joint in her room and she runs away. Emily tries to contact her but fails at first, until she starts receiving texts by Maya. However, in the last episode of the second season, Maya’s body is found behind the house she used to live in.
In the third season, Maya’s cousin Nate shows up in Rosewood and befriends Emily, who is investigating Maya’s death with the help of her friends. At the same time, Emily and her ex-girlfriend Paige start to become closer again despite Emily still grieving Maya’s death. Nate and Emily befriend one another and ultimately spend a weekend at an inn where they were supposed to meet Maya’s parents. However, something seems off and Emily discovers that Nate is actually Lyndon James, Maya’s ex-boyfriend, and stalker. He killed Maya out of jealousy and also wants to kill Paige in front of Emily to punish Emily for taking away Maya but is killed by Emily in self-defense.
The problem with the Maya murder subplot is threefold. Firstly, it barely ties into the main plot of the show because A isn’t responsible for Maya’s murder and it doesn’t bring the characters closer to finding out who A is. It mainly causes Emily, who has at that point lost two girls she was in love with, intense amounts of grief.
Secondly, Lyndon James is described as mentally ill and his mental illness is used as the reason for his behaviour. This is part of a running theme in Pretty Little Liars: evil people are evil because they are mentally ill. Mona Vanderwaal, for example, who is revealed to be the original A at the end of season 2, is diagnosed with a personality disorder that made her act the way she did.
We at The Fandomentals talk a lot about the importance of representation and the stories we tell. Mentally ill people are one of the groups that receive absolutely abysmal representation. All too often, mentally ill people are cast as scary, dangerous villains precisely because of their mental illness. Reality is vastly different: mentally ill people are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. But Pretty Little Liars portrayal of mentally ill people is just using a basic, overdone and harmful trope.
Thirdly, Maya St. Germain’s death is the first in a pretty long list of dead sapphic characters on this specific show. We might all remember the so-called “Spring Slaughter”: that phase of 2016 when 19 women-loving-women characters died on our screens. According to Autostraddle, from 1979 to 2017, 181 lesbian, bi or otherwise same gender loving female characters died on different TV shows – a massive number considering how few wlw characters there are on TV in the first place.
Pretty Little Liars is definitely one of the worst offenders on Autostraddle’s list. Three of the five wlw characters that showed up on the show – Maya St. Germain, Shana Fring, and Sarah Harvey – are dead and Alison DiLaurentis was supposedly dead for the majority of the first part of the show. There are only six other shows on the Autostraddle list that match or exceed those numbers: Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries and the Spartacus franchise with three each, the German prison drama Hinter Gittern, which killed off five women loving women, and American Horror Story with six.
Ultimately, Maya’s death didn’t add anything to the show – if she and Emily couldn’t have remained together, Maya could have just as easily remained a runaway from her family, hiding but living happily in San Franciso. Instead, she was killed off in a way that started a lot of concerning trends within the show.
III: The entire Charlotte DiLaurentis reveal
The main plot of the show has always focused on the mysterious A, who tortures and blackmails the girls, and the question of who they are, as well as solving Alison’s murder/disappearance. The second season revealed that Mona Vanderwaal, a girl Alison relentlessly bullied before she disappeared, had orchestrated all of it due to her personality disorder. However, during the third season, while Mona is institutionalized at Radley Sanitarium, A returns and begins tormenting the girls again.
The new A is referred to as Big A and uses a team of people over the course of three seasons to torture the girls, implicate them in murder, and ultimately kidnap and imprison them in a dollhouse where Big A is also hiding Mona and where they have to do Big A’s bidding. At the beginning of the sixth season, the girls escape after setting the house on fire. They then spent the first half of the sixth season figuring out who Big A is based on clues in the dollhouse.
And this is where it gets nasty. Big A, who met Mona at Radley, is revealed to be Charlotte DiLaurentis. The family connections are a bit complicated: essentially, Charlotte was born to Mary Drake, Alison’s aunt, who had also been put into Radley and was adopted by Alison’s parents, Jessica and Kenneth DiLaurentis, because a woman who had been institutionalized was not fit to raise a child.
Charlotte was assigned male at birth and named Charles, but started to express her real self at a young age. Due to this and an incident where Charlotte tried to calm baby Alison by putting her in a warm bath that seemed to her father as if she was trying to murder her adoptive sister, Charlotte was locked up at Radley as well.
With the help of her adoptive mother and aunt, Jessica, Charlotte ultimately escaped Radley and assumed the identity of CeCe Drake which she used to befriend her adoptive siblings, Jason and Alison. Due to a number of circumstances, she became involved in the “murder” of Alison that led to her disappearance and made Jessica put Charlotte back into Radley. There, she met Mona from whom she learned all about the A game. Charlotte escaped Radley with Mona’s help, returned to Rosewood, befriended the four girls as CeCe Drake and tormented them as Big A, first as punishment for supposedly being happy about Alison being gone and then to draw Alison out of hiding because she assumed Alison would return if her friends were in danger.
When Alison does in fact return at the end of the fourth season, Charlotte, aka CeCe, leaves Rosewood for Paris but ultimately returns as she has become addicted to the game, and torturing the girls, which is why she kidnaps and imprisons them. Her identity is revealed during the mid-season finale of the sixth season when she attempts to kill the rest of her family members and herself in a bomb that is disabled by the four girls. Charlotte is readmitted to Radley but released after the five year time jump and murdered, which prompts Uber A/A.D. to appear and blackmail and torture the girls to force them to reveal who killed Charlotte.
I already mentioned that Pretty Little Liars has a bad habit of making evil characters mentally ill and evil specifically because of their mental illness, which is true in this case as well. Additionally, with the “Charlotte is CeCe is a trans woman is A” reveal, the show fully throws itself into the “evil trans woman” corner in which, for example, Silence of the Lambs already stands.
But of course, this isn’t the only gross misstep the show engages in when it comes to how they handle Charlotte. She’s not only an evil and deceitful mastermind because of her actions as Big A, she is also deceptive and tricks her both of her adoptive siblings/cousins by introducing herself as CeCe. While her friendship with Alison is mainly harmless, she also starts an incestuous relationship with Jason, Alison’s older brother, adding another layer of creepy messiness to an already messed up portrayal.
All of this is made even worse by the fact that after Charlotte is supposedly redeemed through her treatment at Radley and released, she dies. Tuesday’s episode revealed that she hadn’t even been redeemed; instead, she tricked the doctors at Radley and her sister into releasing her so she could continue playing her games. Though her death was ultimately an accident that resulted from a fight between her and Mona, it’s portrayed as ultimately justified because she was incapable of changing.
Pretty Little Liars messed up big time when it comes to how they dealt with Charlotte. Making the big bad of the show a mentally ill trans woman is bad in the first place, but it seems like the writers went out of their way to make Charlotte as creepy and dangerous as possible by including the incest and making her responsible for Alison’s semi-murder. A dead evil trans woman is definitely not something we need more of on TV.
IV: Hanna’s character development after the time jump
Hanna Marin is one of the main characters of the show and part of the original group of friends tortured by A. At the beginning of the series, she is the typical queen bee of Rosewood High: into fashion, blunt, occasionally a bit tactless and not exactly bright. However, it quickly becomes clear that Hanna is actually quite insecure, partially because she used to be chubby, struggled with an eating disorder, and Alison made fun of her for it, and partially because of her parents divorcing.
She is genuinely kind, befriending the outsider and yearbook photographer Lucas and standing up for him when Mona, another one of her friends, and her then-boyfriend make fun of him. Later, she offers the new guy at school, Caleb Rivers, a place to stay in her own house because he had been living in the school due to the poor situation with his foster family. She’s also deeply loyal and willing to go to great lengths to protect those she loves, like selling most of her belongings because her mother’s financial situation is dire or shutting down a teenage bully when she volunteered at a church youth group.
The problem is that after the time jump and over the course of the sixth and seventh season, Hanna, unfortunately, becomes a lot more unlikeable. Part of it is that the blunt snarkiness that was endearing when she was a teenager seems annoying and tactless with an adult woman. Another thing is that Hanna seems to have become a lot more self-centered.
For example, after the time jump, Hanna is engaged to a man named Jordan when she returns to Rosewood, where she meets Caleb again. He and Hanna had a relationship for most of the previous seasons but broke up during the time jump because their lives were moving in different directions. When Spencer approaches Hanna to reveal that there is something developing between her and Caleb and to essentially ask for Hanna’s permission to pursue it, Hanna gives said permission but later kisses Caleb despite still being engaged to Jordan as well.
Another example is when Hanna decides to kidnap Noel Kahn because she is convinced he is A.D., who kidnapped and tortured her in the season 6 finale without telling any of the others about it. She decides to torture Noel to get a confession on camera, but Noel escapes and takes the camera with him. As the women have a flash drive that incriminates Noel, they set up a meeting but are lured into a trap that ultimately ends with Spencer getting shot in the shoulder. One episode later, Hanna yells at Spencer for being tempted into playing a board game that A.D. sent them to blackmail them which they had agreed to ignore and thus endangering all of them.
A third example is Hanna’s ungratefulness towards Mona and Caleb who are both trying to help her get her own fashion brand off the ground. Mona hooks Hanna up with a senator’s daughter who wants to wear one of Hanna’s dresses to a gala, but Hanna remains snappish and rude to Mona and barely even thanks her. She also consistently brushes off Caleb when he tries to calm her down as she becomes nervous about the dress the senator’s daughter wants to wear.
Ultimately, this isn’t as big of a problem as the three other ones I’ve listed so far. It doesn’t normalise unhealthy and creepy relationship or further incorporate deeply problematic tropes. It just ruins a character I used to like. At this point, Hanna’s consistent snappishness makes me almost want to skip her scenes.
Of course, these are far from the only problems I have with Pretty Little Liars, and as the final episode moves ever closer, so does the publication of the second half of this analysis piece.