In the early days of Aria and Ezra, I kept saying the Aria and Ezra thing was palatable as long as they kept him as virginal and, frankly, feminine as possible; and as long as he was getting out of an authority position over Aria as fast as he could; and but mostly, only as long as Aria was in complete control of the situation. If she had all the facts and was calling all the shots. She had to have 100 percent agency. And I actually thought the show did a really good job with that. We never saw him trying to convince Aria to do something she didn’t want to do. We never saw him manipulating her in any way. In fact, I spent many seasons berating Byron Montgomery for trying to control Aria’s sexual decisions because, in my mind, Aria was in control of Aria’s sexual decisions. Byron didn’t get to decide what happened to her vagina, and neither did Ezra. She had all of the information she needed to make her own informed judgements, and that’s what she was doing.
That’s what the show told me and that’s what I believed.
And then the show told me a different thing and I had to cognitively realign everything I knew about Aria and Ezra’s relationship. The problem is, the show hasn’t (so far) realigned everything it knows about Aria and Ezra’s relationship. There’s this running thread about “oh, but he loved you” and “he’s too romantic for his own good” and “he took a bullet for us.”
And maybe all three of those things are true, but none of those things negate what we now know. Ezra seduced Aria knowing she was underage because he was obsessed with another underage girl. He seduced Aria knowing that he was going to be her authority figure. He took away her agency. And when she finally had all the facts and made the decision to leave him, he tried to coerce her into acting against her best interests by saying things like: “We’re not doing anything illegal, not the way I see it.” And, when Aria tried to protest sleeping with him again: “It felt right, didn’t it?”
It’s not Pretty Little Liars‘ job to swoop in and fix our terrifying rape culture problem, but the show does need to be cognizant about the message it is sending.
According to Time magazine’s recent cover story on the crisis of sexual assault on American college campuses, 1 in 5 women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape while attending university, a statistic that is likely much lower than it should be since the Justice Department says only 12% of rapes are reported to authorities. The Obama Administration is currently investigating 55 major colleges for mishandling sexual assault cases. Last year, CNN mourned the loss of a group of college rapists’ promising football careers, instead of sympathizing with the women they brutally gang-raped. This year, James Madison University decided to ban a group of convicted rapists from campus after they graduate. (After they graduate.)
Sexual assault against college-aged women is a pandemic, and those women are a huge part of PLL‘s target audience. The other part is younger teenage girls, ones who still have high school teachers, and the message they’re receiving (as much from ABC Family’s hashtags as the show itself) is that being targeted, seduced, stalked, and made to question your own judgement by a super hot teacher is actually romantic. And, you know, it’s not even really an age thing. I know, in my own personal life, children who have been raped and elderly people who have been raped. Rape doesn’t discriminate by age or race or anything else, really.
When I was eight years old I started having a terrible feeling that a male member of my extended family was going to try to do something bad to me. He never touched me but he used to come into the bathroom and leer at me when I was taking a shower and make gross, suggestive comments and gestures. I was afraid to say anything to anybody about it because I thought maybe I was just imagining stuff and I didn’t want to get him into trouble and also I knew he was pretty wealthy and helped my mom and dad out with money stuff sometimes.
I felt really scared about it for a long time and then one afternoon when I was watching ThunderCats, Mr. T came on during a commercial and said that if a grown-up was making me feel weird about my body I should tell someone I trusted right away. Mr T. was my hero. And he said it was OK to talk about it. So I got up and walked right into the kitchen and told my mom what I was feeling. She believed me right away, told me it was exactly the right thing to do to tell her, and once she consulted some other people in my family, she found out that guy had a history of predatory behavior but everyone had always been afraid to talk about it.
I hate when people say something is “just a TV show.” I can’t even count how many times TV has saved my life.
Pretty Little Liars is the super most fun — but it’s also hugely influential in the lives of women. There are heroes here. Heroes like we have never seen before, and I don’t just mean gay ones. And it matters very much where this show lands in the broader rape culture conversation. Not just with Zach and Hanna, not just with whatever happened with Alison, not just with the sinister shadows and foggy insinuations, but also with Ezra and Aria.
The other thing I need to say here is that I’ve glorified Jenna Marshall over the last few years and what she did to Toby is a huge problem too. Rape doesn’t just affect women. And I’m truly sorry I’ve glossed over that.
I love this show a whole lot. I trust these writers a whole lot. I’ll never have the guts or know-how to be a Hermione Granger, but my Neville Longbottom-ness requires me to follow my conscience, even if that means a Petrificus Totalus is coming right for my face. I didn’t want to write this and I second-guessed myself so much that I reached out to like 10 women asking them if I should include it in my recap. Out of all 10, eight wrote me back with stories about being sexually assaulted. I asked my girlfriend and she said, “You could soften up your tone, but isn’t that what is always demanded of women talking about rape in any way, shape, or form? Even when it’s a real rape that actually really happened to her? So I don’t want to tell you to soften the tone at all, because it’s nonsense that we always have to soften our language when it comes to rape culture. Dance like delicate flowers around this horrific thing, when we should be driving a bulldozer over it.”
So. Yeah. Hanna, what Zach did to you was fucking awful and not your fault. Aria, a guy doesn’t have to be a lip-licking creep, twirling a cartoon mustache to be a sexual predator. Liars, Hanna needs a hug. Writers, I love you and I believe in you and I am counting on you.
What did you guys think of this week’s Pretty Little Liars?
Huge thanks, as always, to Nicole (@PLLBigA) for the screencaps.