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Monday, December 10, 2012

I just always seem to find new layers (Pretty Little Liars spoilers)

Yesterday Gail Simone confirmed that she'd been kicked off the Batgirl title--VIA EMAIL--and that the "Death of the Family" crossover arc would be her last issues. I have no more fucks to give with DC as far as taking up space on my personal blog is concerned, so if you'd like to read my thoughts on this matter, head here.

In happier news, Pretty Little Liars returns in less than a month and ever since I started watching it (so...since Thanksgiving weekend) I've been wanting to write something about why I enjoy it so much. What else am I going to do in the interim but overanalyze and rewatch, right? The thing with this show is that I didn't expect to actually enjoy it; I just figured it could fit into the gap left by Gossip Girl as fun, trashy, content-free television. Happily, that is not the case! Superficially PLL is a soapy teen drama, full of shoplifting, improbable outfits, deadly secrets, on-again-off-again romances, and familial troubles, but beneath the trappings and tropes is a pleasantly subversive show. Most strikingly, PLL provides something that is all too rare in pop media: an apparently-bulletproof core of female friendships. In most TV shows in this ouvre, whether or not one or all of the girls would turn on each other would be a major and probably ongoing plot point; this never comes up in PLL. Even toward the middle of season three, when Emily believes her girlfriend Paige is innocent and the rest of the Liars do not, their friendship isn't killed or even really shaken. All involved acknowledge that they're at odds in this matter, and go about trying to find out the truth, business as usual. Spencer, Hanna, and Aria's main concern is keeping Emily safe, not proving her wrong. The narrative actually plays into this in season two, starting off an episode with the four apparently squabbling and squaring off, only to reveal that they're fake-fighting in order to play A (their mysterious anon threat) by using A's constant surveillance of them against him/her. The idea that the four friends will ever "break up" is basically unfathomable. For my money, instead of taking interest away from their interconnected relationships, this baseline of faith adds tension. Will there ever be something A can throw at them that will make one of them crack? Why is it so important for them to remain friends? Is the glue of their relationship just Ali, or something more? Where is the line between close friendship and insular co-dependence?


Another area in which PLL deviates from the norm is in romance. Perhaps most notably, one of the Liars is gay, with more than one relationship and nearly as many intimate scenes with her girlfriends as the other Liars have with their boyfriends. Emily's coming-out experience is given lots of depth and time on the screen, and her relationships are as plot-significant as Spencer, Aria, and Hanna's. None of the girls are shamed by the narrative for their sexual choices--not even Aria, when it would be so easy for the characters around her to slam her with the "daddy issues" label--and none of them are punished in any regard for having sex (at least not yet...it remains to be seen what Toby's angle is).  PLL deals fairly with its male characters as well as the female ones, and I was especially fond of the initial portrayal of Lucas, who was allowed to be a decent human being instead of an opportunistic Nice Guy, though his current personality status is up in the air. You could argue that Hanna's first encounter with Caleb falls under the "sex turns men into monsters" trope, but she makes the decision to walk away, rather than having Caleb love-and-leave her. Their ongoing relationship is unusually equitable, with the only power imbalances coming from the secret-keeping that is the show's backbone (and thus can't really be done away with), and refreshing in its portrayal of a "bad boy" character who a) doesn't need to be "tamed" because he isn't actually a bad person and b) is forthright about his feelings. Interestingly, the show also goes hard for older man/younger woman relationships (Spencer is involved in some degree with all of her adult sister's boyfriends/fiances, Aria is in a relationship with her English teacher and also has some weirdness with Jason DiLaurentis, and it's implied in the mid-season finale of season 3 that the deceased Alison DiLaurentis had some sort of relationship with Byron Montgomery, Aria's father, as well as other older guys). But, again, the show doesn't present any of the girls as victims--not even Ali--and it's consistently implied or shown outright that Aria and Spencer hold the power in their relationships, rather than being preyed upon by adult men. A might try to hold the Liars' relationships over their heads as bait or threat, but the narrative itself is on their side. Toby, eventually Spencer's boyfriend, is a survivor of a pretty fucked-up relationship with his (villainous, oddly compelling) stepsister Jenna, and it's also pretty rare to see a male rape survivor on a "family" network show. His experience and its effects have yet to be fully examined on the show, but given the Big Reveal of season 3 so far, I'm betting the latter half will go into the wherefore of Toby's actions.

Finally there's the Hanna/Ashley relationship. Hanna is my favorite character and a good part of the emotion behind that is how she interacts with her mother, Ashley Marin. Truthfully, all the girls have really interesting relationships with their mothers, but Hanna and Ashley hit a bit closer to home, possibly because it's just them in the house, which is something I relate to. They have many shared attributes: fashion sense, pride, stubbornness, protectiveness--and they also have a certain armor that covers an instinct for generosity. After Spencer and Veronica, Ashley and Hanna are the pairing where it's easiest to see the mother's influence on the daughter, for better or worse. Watching their relationship develop in two and a half seasons has been far more rewarding than six seasons of Lily and Serena backstabbing each other and then falling back to "but we love each other because we're family" on Gossip Girl. Perhaps not as quippy as Rory and Lorelai or as moving as Joyce and Buffy, but certainly as cutthroat as Lily and Serena, Hanna and Ashley are up there in my pantheon of favorite moms and daughters. Here's hoping for a bit more inspection of Hanna's relationship to food and her mother's relationship to sex (no, really, I do wonder a bit if her romance with Pastor Ted will wind up being similar to Hanna's with Sean).

Pretty Little Liars isn't a perfect television show, but it's more than adequate as  both an engaging drama and commentary on pop culture and the socialization of teenage girls in the US. It presents a realistic situation for many teen girls wrapped in the ostensibly ridiculous premise of a friend's murder: that a person's entire world is watching them, waiting for them to screw up, itching to take them down or shame them in any way possible, gossip about them, be cruel to them or force them to be cruel to others, present them with an array of impossible choices. That is teenagehood for many girls--a claustrophobic atmosphere of nerves, indecision, judgment, and fear. At worst, PLL normalizes bad behavior--shoplifting, lying, blackmail, bullying (an accusation lobbed at many teen shows and one I don't have much time for); at best it invites discussion about those behaviors and their roots through the exaggeration and heightened stakes of the Liars' world.

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