“Pretty Little Liars” recap (5.8): The Repercussions of Rape Culture

 
 

And finally, Ella the Perfect shows back up with Zach to do wedding stuff, and he immediately starts trying to hook-up with Hanna. It’s the grossest. She shows up at the Brew, drunk off her ass and looking for a sandwich, and he invites her in and licks his lips a hundred times and says he always was into bad girls and fondles her. And then the next day, he hops into her car uninvited and puts his hand all over her bare thigh and says he knows she feels the same vibe he’s feeling. Hanna thinks her skirt is too short, that maybe that’s why he came onto her, but Caleb says it is just right. Because Hanna is Hanna, she comes clean to Aria and Emily and Spencer about it, even though it’s the hard thing to do, and they all call her a drunk, attention-seeking, slut-faced liar.

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Also, Toby decides to become a cop.

The episode itself was very well-written and directed beautifully. I was super scared in that horse scene and house break-in scene. But I can’t talk about that very much in this recap because there’s a bigger thing we’ve got to tackle.

You guys know me well enough by now to know how very uninterested I am in participating in this oh-so-over-it, self-congratulatory critics culture that only wants to tear down stuff and snark all over everything because so many critics think they’re intellectually and morally superior to whatever art they’re interacting with. Right? You know me well enough to know what I want to do is dig down into a thing and engage with it in a real and compassionate way. I only want to have fun and be sweet, but right now we have to talk about PLL and the larger theme of rape culture.

Let me preface what I’m about to say with this: I love Ian Harding. I think he’s a real-life hero. I’m not dogging on him as a human or an actor. I think he’s wonderful, and to be very honest with you, he and his sister (who is an amazing queer lady herself) are the reasons #BooRadleyVanCullen ever found traction in the first place. And I love these writers and producers and showrunners. I think they have done more for the queer community than we’ll ever be able to properly measure or thank them for, and unlike so many other TV writers, I trust PLL writers to do right by its audience. They’ll figure this thing out, I really believe that. I also don’t think anyone at ABC Family is perpetuating these ideas on purpose. And the story’s not finished; there’s still a long way to go.

It doesn’t bring me any bit of joy to talk about the thing we have to talk about, but we gotta do it.

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When PLL revealed Ezra as A over in Ravenswood last summer, I don’t think I have ever been so shocked by a TV moment in all my life, not because the story itself was jarring, but because I knew there was absolutely no way for the show to successfully back out of that decision. This wasn’t a 17-year-old boy joining Mona’s shenanigans to try to protect his 17-year-old girlfriend. This wasn’t a Toby thing. This was a grown man stalking a group of teenage girls, all of whom had been his students, and one of whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship with. But it actually got worse than that, because it turns out he wasn’t just surveilling them. Later, he revealed that he seduced Aria on purpose, knowing that she was underage and that he was going to be her authority figure. And then he proceeded to secretly video her and her interactions with her friends for years, never intervening even though they were being emotionally and psychologically tortured—while continuing to sleep with her.

The reason I’m talking about that is because PLL has brought rape into the narrative this season from a couple of different angles. Not the shadow-y, no-name fog of sexual exploitation that’s been prevalent from the beginning. This is a much more distinct thing. This season we’ve got Lucas and Mr. DiLaurentis laying down this gut-kicking notion that Ali was probably raped if she was kidnapped, and this vomit-inducing story about Zach trying to hook-up with Hanna, and this super true-to-life situation about Hanna’s friends victim-blaming her. And if we’re putting a face on sexual assault, if we’re bringing it into focus now, we can’t continue to turn a blind eye to what Ezra did to Aria.

If PLL is going to start a conversation about rape culture, my personal ethos demands that we be real about it.

In the broadest terms, rape culture is the acceptance that the sexual exploitation of women is just an inevitable fact of life. Specifically what it looks like is: Blaming victims of sexual assault for what happened to them (if you hadn’t been drunk/wearing something so slutty/hanging out at this place at that time of day, you wouldn’t have been assaulted); trivializing rape (it was just a bad hook up, you just regret consenting to it, rape jokes); music and stories that perpetuate the idea that women can’t trust their own judgement (“you know you want it”); and narratives that normalize stalking, harassment, and the erasure of female agency.

When pop culture is so saturated with that stuff, rape just starts to feel inevitable.

Now, the way this episode of PLL was written, we are meant to sympathize with Hanna and cringe at the other Liars’ behavior. They’re victim-blaming her, but the show is not victim-blaming her. The show is doing the exact opposite thing. The show is saying, “Hold this girl in your heart because her friends are blaming her and she’s blaming herself for something that was absolutely no-question not her fault. It’s not her job to not get assaulted by a grown man. It’s his job to not assault her.” And obviously that’s correct and obviously the Liars are going to come around to Hanna’s side on this thing.

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But you can’t crystalize that story and still keep Ezra in the fuzzy periphery.

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