Is Pretty Little Liars, on ABC Family, One of TV's Most Progressive Shows?


Last night’s finale of Pretty Little Liars made the biggest reveal in show history. We finally know who has been terrorizing the Liars since Mona was sent to Radley mental institution at the end of Season 2; additionally, the mysterious figure is a transgender woman and not a single character on the show batted an eyelash about it.

For those unfamiliar with this wildly popular ABC Family series, let’s debrief: The show follows four girls in high school whose queen bee, Ali DiLaurentis, was seemingly murdered before the pilot (and, seriously, if you have any intention of ever watching, SPOILERS ABOUND) and are subsequently harassed by an anonymous figured called A blaming them for Ali’s death, among a cavalcade of other indiscretions. Eventually, trust is restored in the group—they are all liars, after all—and the torment becomes just for torment’s sake. The series, based on novels by Sara Shepherd, has been on the air since 2010 and has included a multitude of characters who could potentially be A. (And for many, even after last night’s enormous reveal, there are so, so many unanswered questions, even for a show that adores a red herring.) However, these unsolved mysteries feel inconsequential to how progressive the show has become.

While it often deals in magical reality—there is access to technology that no one seems to be rich enough to have or smart enough to use; a character who is that savvy was, at one point in the series, possibly a ghost—when politics are introduced into plotlines the characters take them seriously enough that they affect the audience in a remarkable way, even subconsciously. When it was revealed last night that Cece Drake not only picked up the A Game after its arbiter was sent to Radley, but that she is a trans woman and Ali, who is also her sister, doesn’t even blink, it helps to normalize trans identities. It’s the same culture of writing that affords Liar Emily Fields the same romantic follies as any other high school student and never makes her being a lesbian a tragedy… on the network that hosts The 700 Club.

One of the ways that ABC Family introduced this narrative without completely shocking its core audience was by airing Becoming Us, a reality show about a Chicago-based family whose patriarch is a transgender woman. But, historically, when a villain is trans, the character is not allowed the same pathology of cisgender villains (see: The Crying Game, shit, even Ace Ventura: Pet Detective). Even though ABC Family has aligned itself as pro-LGBT and unafraid to deal with teen and young adult issues across the board in its programming, is there still something dubious about having one its marquee franchises’ most evil character be a trans woman?

“There’s a big shift in how transgender villains are handled,” says Hugh Ryan, Liars fan and founder of the Pop Up Museum of Queer History. “It used to be: If you were trans, that was the reason you were a villain, like Sleepaway Camp or The Wasp Factory. [With Pretty Little Liars], the blame is actually shifted and it’s about [Ali’s father] Kenneth not being able to handle who [Cece] was. There’s a shifting of responsibility, it’s about how we express and access a transgender person. Obviously, Cece is still a psychopath, but it’s not, ‘You’re a psychopath because you’re trans’, it’s ‘You’re a psychopath because of how people treated you.’”

Of course, it isn’t perfect. (Can anything be right now?) But there were subtleties within Cece’s reveal that highlighted the strife of transitioning while doing little to sensationalize it. In a flashback to Cece’s childhood, we are shown a moment at Radley where she and oft-mentioned character Bethany Young are cavorting on the roof. Longtime fans know this is also where Liar Spencer Hastings’ boyfriend and former Rosewood PD officer Toby Cavanaugh’s mother allegedly committed suicide. When Mrs. Cavanaugh appears on the roof, the girls refer to her as a “goody two-shoes,” which, theoretically, could be because of her disapproval of Cece, then know as Charles, and her penchant for wearing women’s clothing. Ultimately, it is Bethany who pushes Mrs. Cavanaugh from the roof and then shifts the blame to Cece, using her gender dysphoria as a motive. That is a lot of meat for what is technically a kids’ show, but it opens the door for how progressive programming can be if it wants to, even at its most mainstream.

Hugh Ryan also notes that there other ways the scriptwriters have pushed intersectionality on the show by not sticking to the books, from which they have long trailed. “In the books, Emily is white,” he says. “I thought it was interesting to make her character of color. Even though it isn’t really dealt with or what that means in [an affluent town like] Rosewood, I thought that was an interesting shift.” In fact, there is a grip of unacknowledged racial diversity within Rosewood, all a part of this muted sense of progressiveness within Pretty Little Liars. Those choices are also why last night’s reveal is a landmark for the show, despite disappointing many fans for not being scarier.

“They humanize Cece. She isn’t this nameless, faceless villain. We get her backstory, we get her life, we see who is, we see all of the things she’s subjected to,” Ryan says. “I think there are some issues like, What hormone blockers was she on that she looked like how she did. There were some parts of the storyline that were fantastical and unbelievable—but this is a world where a ghost showed up on the doorstep [of Liar Hanna Marin’s house]. It gives them some latitude.”

Claire Lobenfeld is a music and culture critic living in NYC.

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