This week’s Pretty Little Liars recap is going to be (a lot) different than usual because this week’s Pretty Little Liars made it impossible for me not to talk about that thing I said we were going to talk about a couple of weeks ago. Remember when Lucas and Mr. DiLaurentis were traumatized when explaining that Alison was probably raped after she’d been kidnapped? And remember how I said that gave me a weird feeling and that I needed to put a pin in until I had processed it enough to talk smart about it? Well, it’s time to take out the pin.
A quick overview of this week’s episode:
After Ali’s dad announces his plan to go out of town a few days after his wife was dug up in the hole where his daughter had been previously buried alive, Ashley Marin invites Ali to move in with her and Hanna. Hanna is super not fine with it, especially after Ashley offers up her coveted bath salts (which Hanna herself requested to use one million times!). Hanna gets right to work skipping out on her mom and day drankin’ with Caleb. She doesn’t even come home at night anymore, but Ashley can’t be fussed about that at the moment because Ali is sleeping in the closet and worrying about hearing someone trying to break into the house. Because SOMEONE IS TRYING TO BREAK INTO THE HOUSE.
Or rather, someone actually does break into the house, making Hitchcockian shadow puppets on the wall.
Ashley calls the cops and Detective Tanner shows up, trying to poke more and more holes in Alison’s stories. Ashley has understandably had it up to here with the cops in this town so she tells Tanner to stop being a dick and start catching the one thousand predators on the loose out there. Buuuuut, it turns out Alison staged the whole thing. Not for the first time, she asked Noel Kahn to dress up in a disguise and attack her. She did it so the Liars will at least have one adult who can rest comfortably in her web of deceit.
Over a delicious dinner of Cheetos and root beer, Radley Rhonda tells Aria that Mrs. D was super close with Bethany Young. Like “take her upstate and let her adopt a horse” close.
So Aria sends Emily and Spencer to the stables to do recon, but Spencer’s 11 years of English riding lessons are too highfalutin’ for this ranch. They teach Western here. The standard PLL super-muscled, vaguely-20s-ish white guy is not much help, but Emily and Spencer do find Melissa’s riding helmet in one of the stables. They don’t have much time to sleuth it out because a storm comes and an A traps them in the stall and one of the horses kicks Spencer right in the face.
It’s a pretty bad day of spying all around for Emily; she also can’t get Sydney to believe Hanna was too drunk to know what she was saying when she was talking about New York the other night.
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.
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.
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.
But you can’t crystalize that story and still keep Ezra in the fuzzy periphery.
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.