This article was co-written by Valerie Anne and Heather Hogan.
Pretty Little Liars fans have had a week to recover from the rock ‘em sock ‘em season three finale, and while the dust has settled on much of the drama, I confess that I am still slack-jawed over the big reveal of “A dAngerous gAme.” No, not the reveal that Toby is alive. Or the reveal that Red Coat is Alison DiLaurentis. I am still experiencing residual shock over the confession that Jenna Marshall and Shana Costumeshop are in a romantic relationship. A relationship that brings Rosewood’s queer female character count to eight (plus a lesbian bar full of pink drink-ers). It’s a number that makes me wonder if Pretty Little Liars is the best lesbian show ever.
Quantity alone can’t make such a claim. You also have examine the quality of the queer characters Pretty Little Liars has presented over three seasons, and factor in the social impact of those characters, and of the show as a whole, if you really want to call it the “best ever.”
Emily Fields is, of course, the center of Rosewood’s gay universe. She is also a three-dimensional character whose lesbianism is a non-issue.
When we met Emily in season one, she was confused about her sexuality, and she had a friend who wasn’t helping the confusion by being hot and cold with her. She was afraid to come out to her parents, and rightly so, since her mother freaked out about it, but she chose to live her truth and ultimately Pam Fields became her biggest supporter. On the flip side, when she came out to her best friend, Hanna simply said, “You were Emily dating Ben, and now you’re Emily dating Maya. We love Emily; no one cares who you’re with.” And when Emily finally confessed to her friends that she had also been in love with Alison, they didn’t come unglued about about her Big Homosexual Feelings; the simply acknowledged it and added it to the pile of flashback puzzle pieces they use to solve mysteries.
Rather than indulging in a PSA about all the ways a coming out can go wrong, Pretty Little Liars demonstrated that sometimes things can go right. At a time when stories of gay teen suicides due to bullying were at an all-time high, Emily Fields infused a young queer culture with hope. And her friends were a shining example to LGBT peers about how to be a friend to a lesbian. (Read: exactly the same way you be a friend to anyone else.) Spencer, Hanna and Aria showed appropriate amounts of surprise when Emily opened up to them, which is natural and expected, but then they shifted right back into normal friend mode. Because being a lesbian is normal. They accepted her girlfriends the same way she accepted their boyfriends: skeptical at first because almost everyone in Rosewood is a murderer, and then with open arms.
Once the word was out that Emily was gay, it was never a Big Deal again. The writers never told the audience: “Hey, Emily the Lesbian is dating a different girl now!” Instead, they organically introduced multiple love interests into her world, and Emily went about life, being herself, trying not to get kidnapped, killing a guy now and then, and making out with people to whom she was attracted — just the same as everyone else.
In fact, the number of Emily’s love interests on the show speaks to how progressive her story is. She was in unrequited love with Alison DiLaurentis. Then, she fell deeply, fully in love with Maya St. Germain. She was confused by, drawn to, smitten with, and then also in love with Paige McCullers. She really liked Samara Cook. Shana Costumeshop gave her face-blushing feelings. Emily has gotten her swerve on with more people than the rest of the Liars combined.
Season three saw Emily settling into a relationship with her longtime crush Paige McCullers, a character whose story has been fleshed out more than any of the other love interests on the show (except for series regular Ezra Fitz). Paige’s flashbacks about being bullied by Alison, her internalized homophobia, her struggle to come out, her eventual acceptance of her sexuality, and her pursuit of Emily resonated so strongly with AfterEllen readers that they voted her 2012’s Best Lesbian/Bi Character in our annual Visibility Awards. In one of the show’s most poignant scenes, Paige visited Emily after going on a date with a boy. Through tears she said, “If I say it, out loud — if I say ‘I’m gay,’ everything is going to change.” And Emily smiled and simply said, “Yeah. It will.”
And yeah, it did.
Also notable in season three was the introduction of Rosewood’s lesbian bar, and Hanna’s subsequent pride at being an object of lesbian affection. She enjoyed the Pink Drink attention so much that she even objected to Shana not flirting with her.
Pretty Little Liars has also done really interesting things with the Kinsey scale. On the one side, they’ve given us Emily and Paige, both of whom seem to identify as full-on lesbians. On the other side, they’ve given is the other Liars, who seem to identify as full-on straight women. Maya St. Germain was right in the middle, a young bisexual woman who was into people as opposed to gender. And then, sliding along in various directions, there are characters who seem to be label-free and sexually fluid (or maybe opportunistically queer?) like Alison and Jenna. It’s a testament to the show’s nonchalance about sexuality that characters can reveal their queerness, suddenly and without explanation, and the audience doesn’t even flinch.
But what about the show’s cultural impact? The only other TV show to boast more gay lady characters than PLL is The L Word. Obviously, TLW was a revolutionary program whose longterm effects on pop culture we’ll never be able to truly quantify. But in terms of basic ratings, the highest-rated episode of Showtime’s lesbian drama didn’t crack one million viewers, while the lowest-rated episode of Pretty Little Liars raked in 2.3 million viewers. PLL‘s pop culture reach also extends far beyond the television: It owns social media. Pretty Little Liars is the most-tweeted about show of all time. During the season three finale, it became the first show in history to break one million total airtime tweets.
Much of PLL‘s Twitter experience is shepherded by the show’s stars, all of whom have more than one million Twitter followers, and two of whom are gracing the covers of popular teen magazines right this second. Shay Mitchell, Lucy Hale, Ashley Benson, and Troian Bellisario are beloved; they have serious social capital to spend; and they each extend as much warmth and affection to the lesbian characters and couplings on their show as they do the straight characters.
So, too, do the show’s writers, including openly gay creator Marlene King, and the show’s recurring guest stars, like AfterEllen favorites Lindsey Shaw and Bianca Lawson.
I’m not suggesting that Pretty Little Liars is a better lesbian show that The L Word simply by nature of out-ranking it in viewers and tweets and celebrity popularity. For one thing, TLW aired on premium cable, and for another, Twitter was barely an infant during TLW‘s final season. We didn’t know how to watch TV and type at the same time back then. But I am suggesting that PLL‘s real-time social impact extends far beyond TLW‘s. It is more watched, more talked about, and its stars have a much bigger influence on attitudes about social issues.
It’s no coincidence that among Pretty Little Liars‘ target demographic, 80 percent of people support same-sex marriage.
Of course, Pretty Little Liars has had its moments of scaring us — and not in an “OMG, what’s in the trunk?!” kind of way. On three occasions the show has skirted awfully close to the kind of TV tropes that have been plaguing lesbian and bisexual women for decades. There’s the Every Lesbian Dies trope, the Lesbian Falls for a Man trope, and the Imminent Death for Black Characters trope.
To the PLL creative team’s great credit, none of those tropes played out in ways we are accustomed to seeing. When Maya died, it was traumatic for us and it was traumatic for Emily, but the writers used her death as an emotional anchor in the following season and, in fact, the mystery of her murder provided narrative structure for twelve episodes. Neither did the writers use Maya’s death as an excuse to keep Emily from having a romantic relationship. After an intense mourning period, she was able to find hope and happiness again with Paige. And while we’re often infuriated when we see established lesbian characters question their sexuality, Emily’s season three kiss with Lyndon James/”Nate St. Germain” was not about sex or romance; it was about shared grief. And then she stabbed him in the gut with a knife.
As for the Imminent Death for Black Characters trope: Maya died, and it was a significant loss, especially for queer black women who rarely see themselves reflected on-screen. And the show responded to the criticism. Season three introduced us to Shana Costumeshop, a black lesbian who dated Paige and now dates Jenna and seems to have a big story coming her way in season four. Normally, I’d say that it’s a tired cliche to make the black woman the bad guy, but half the fun of Pretty Little Liars is rooting for the bad guys. We’re gaga for Jenna Marshall and Mona Vanderwaal, and I’m sure we’ll be gaga for Shana Costumeshop before it’s all said and done.
So, is Roswewood, PA really home to the best lesbian show ever? I think so. I think Pretty Little Liars the is code for something very, very gay.