Queer Representation in Pretty Little Liars (SPOILERS)
Where the show gets it right and where they go oh-so wrong.
I could talk at length about this show and have done so with my close friends. This show touches on so many wonderful topics, and it's fun to dissect them all. My favorite thing to talk about is the LGBT+ representation.
Okay, yes, "queer" is a controversial word within the community. A lot of young queer people, like myself, like to use this word as it is inclusive of many identities that don't fall under the (sometimes missing) plus sign of "LGBT+". This can be debated at great lengths, and it's not what I'm here to talk about today.
I want to start with the good. One of my favorite things about this show is the bi representation. There's a ton of it! And the best part is that no one is made to seem weird for being bi! It does seem a bit odd that a small town like this would have so many bisexual people in it, but it's nice to see the representation. So many shows and movies neglect the "B" in "LGBT+", so it's really hard to find any characters to identify with. Seeing so many of these characters is great, and the validity of these characters' sexuality is even better.
Off of the top of my head, I can name three definitively bisexual main characters: Maya, Jenna, and Alison. Let's examine their characters, and how their sexuality is vital to the plot and yet not over-the-top.
Maya is one of the more wholesome characters in the show. Yes, she smokes pot, but she's a good student and a great friend. Most importantly, she's Emily's first girlfriend and encourages her to come out. Her bisexuality is implied straight away when she shows Emily a picture of her boyfriend back in California, yet shows an interest in Emily. She obviously dumps her boyfriend at some point, as she starts openly dating Emily. She does leave the show for a while but comes back in the next season after being released from rehab boot camp. This creates a bit of drama between the two when Emily finds out that Maya dated a guy during her stay. The season after Maya's death, her ex shows up pretending to be her cousin, seeking revenge on Emily for both dating Maya and not being into guys. Sounds wild, right? This whole plot line is important to Emily's growth as a person, and as a side part to the main mystery.
Jenna is undeniably one of the worst characters in this show. She's manipulative, deceptive, murderous, and, oh yeah, a RAPIST. Nice of the writers to gloss over that little fact. There is nothing to ever make me like her, so her bisexuality isn't a ploy to make her #relatable. She is obviously into guys, as she rapes her step-brother Toby for the better part of a year. It's only in an "accident" that left her blinded that he was able to escape from her grasp. She coerces a cop to lie and steal for her and dumps him when it's no longer convenient to have him around. She does find love, though. She falls in love with a beautiful swimmer named Shana, and the two plan nefarious deeds together. Shana's love for Jenna is what drives her to attempt to kill Alison, her childhood friend. Jenna's love for Shana and her grief when Shana dies is what makes you feel temporarily sympathetic to her. She's still a horrible person in the end, and never really gets what's coming to her.
Alison is the center of the show. Literally. She may not be the one we follow for most of the show, but without her "death" the show wouldn't exist. She starts off as a truly terrible person but gradually becomes a wonderful human being. In the beginning, we find out that Emily had a crush on Alison but Alison only uses it against her. It's not until she comes back from the "dead" that Alison appears to show some remorse and decides to explore her feelings for Emily. She slowly becomes a person that we genuinely like and root for as she finally admits her love for Emily. The show even ends with the two getting engaged and raising their twin girls. Emily's love for Alison drives her to believe in her more than anyone else and to help her when she needs it. Honestly, if Emily didn't love Alison so much, there's no way Alison would have lived as long as she did.
Speaking of Emily, she's one of the most important characters. Not only is she one of the main characters, she's also a gay woman of color. She dates multiple people after coming out, and her relationship with her mom is fantastic. Her mom is originally repulsed at the idea of having a gay child but starts to accept her after hearing someone else attack Emily for her sexuality. There are actually a lot of queer women of color in this show, so the representation is amazing.
There are some negatives, unfortunately.
The biggest issue to discuss would be the trans representation. During the show's seven-season run, there has only been one definitive trans character. Just one. While that wouldn't necessarily be something to be outraged over, this particular character is the villain. Her motives even stem from the fact that she is trans.
Her parents locked her in a mental hospital when she was very young partly because of her gender identity. When she was twelve (although her age comes into question when you look at the established timeline), she saw someone murder someone else in front of her and she was blamed simply because she's trans. She was then treated as a murderer and put on unnecessary meds. Her whole life she was kept away from her family because her dad wouldn't accept her, and it gave her an obsession with her little sister. She killed someone to protect her sister and started torturing the main characters because they were fine without her.
The reveal that she was the villain left a sour taste in the mouth of many viewers and fans are still angry about it. How would you feel if you just wanted to see someone like yourself in a TV show that you like only to find out that the character is a homicidal psychopath?
The other big issue with the show is the lack of representation of queer men. It would be bad enough that there are no queer men of color, but the fact that there aren't any queer men at all is striking. I know that the fanbase is mainly girls, but the lack of representation of a large group of people is astonishing. Shows should really try to be inclusive of many populations, not just the main base. How do you expect to gain new viewers if you don't have any characters that people can identify with?
All in all, the show has wonderful representation for the LGBT+ community, and it's bittersweet that the show has reached its end. I can only hope that future shows like this one keep the trend of representation and expand on the diversity that it offered.