*spoiler alert – this post references events in Season Five!*
My wife keeps asking me why I watch PLL, and telling me I have no leg to stand on when I mock her TV preferences (which include a lot of reality television).
It's true that there’s a lot to critique in the writing and acting of PLL, but no where else on television is there a show dedicated to so many women (let’s face it, these aren’t exactly high school girls), in which their relationships to men are so secondary. The main obstacle in these ladies’ lives is not snagging a man, or keeping him, or reading his mind, or any of the other inane topics Sex in the City or even Scandal tackled week after week. Despite its predominately female cast, I’m pretty sure SITC doesn’t pass the Bechdel test. (And I've already blogged about the feminist problems with Scandal.)
The ladies of PLL are primarily concerned with blackmail, surveillance, and stalking. And when the conflict is girl-on-girl, it’s nothing like the cat-fights most female conflicts are reduced to. And it’s not over a man. It’s about agency and control.
In a culture that denies girls the opportunity for physical violence, female conflict plays out in social ways – some call it social aggression. But in PLL, the social aggressor – Alison – is the one everyone gangs up on, the one no one likes, the ostracized one. And what starts as social aggression is allowed to grow into full on physical aggression. Week after week the Liars confront (and enact) forms of aggression traditionally reserved for men. By the beginning of season five, two of them have killed someone. They are allowed a wide range of expression including not just feminized emotions but raw anger, calculated strategy, and defiance.
Their moms are professionals. There’s an inordinate number of lesbians in this small town in Pennsylvania. When the show is far-fetched, it’s not because a woman has thrown herself behind a potted plant to spy on the guy she likes; it’s because the writers seem not to understand how time works.
These ladies have each other’s backs. They don’t turn on each other or compete with one another in manufactured ways. It’s them against the police, school administrators, and other systems of authority that deny young women agency. And they’re going to come out on top.