By Shanna Bowie
“Once there was a man who hated, feared, and loved his daughter’s body so much that he needed to lock it up, control it or destroy it.”
– Jacob Clifton
The summer finale of Pretty Little Liars aired last week week and fans are pretty up in arms about the A reveal for a variety of reasons (the psychotic transgender twist, all the questions that weren’t answered and all the A’s that could have been). After the Batgirl comic received a similar backlash over a storyline fans saw as transphobic, I cringed to see PLL headed in the same direction but one of my favorite writers, Jacob Clifton, helped me put this into perspective. At the heart of it, Pretty Little Liars has been a show about five girls whose friendship survives in spite of a world that tells them their friendship shouldn’t exist; that they should compete and fight each other rather than support each other. And in that way A was both a reflection of that world and inextricably caught up in those same forces.
What makes Charles/CeCe’s story so tragic but also so very relatable is that every woman has had to navigate those same forces. We discover during the finale that Charles ended up in the Radley sanitarium not because he was a danger to Ali as we thought but because of his gender non-conformity and its danger to the image his father wanted to portray. After Charles is finally able to realize his dream of becoming CeCe, she continues to struggle with isolation from her family and after dealing with her father’s rejection, her mother’s lies and a life in a psych ward, CeCe plays out her revenge on these girls in whom she sees the same qualities. As Clifton writes:
That shame and loneliness are a self-reinforcing feedback loop that only creates more shame and more loneliness, turning any attempt at a roman à clef into a picaresque. And that the system is designed for that purpose: To keep us separate, vulnerable, afraid and ashamed, because if we ever started talking to each other about it we would start a fucking riot.
And even as the finale ends with a jump five years into the future, we see the Liars caught in that same loop they thought they’d escaped. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many of this summer’s shows with strong female leads have similar themes. In Humans and UnReal, which I’ve previously discussed, we’ve seen artificial intelligence as a metaphor for bodily control and also how women play out societal misogyny on each other. So much of what can make Pretty Little Liars frustrating (the never-ending parade of men dating these teen girls, the feeling like we’re repeating the same patterns, the specter of menace that doesn’t always payoff) is also what makes the overall point of this show.
There are always those guys that hover and seek to control and take advantage. We do repeat those patterns again and again and the sense of menace does follow us (and occasionally make good on its promise). While the A reveal may have been clichéd or “problematic” it was also always the way this story was headed.
*All quotes used with permission. For more information of author, recapper Jacob Clifton, please check out jacobclifton.com