A journal of television and new media

Universalized Pathology: How Pretty Little Liars De-contextualizes Bad Behavior for Profit
Camille DeBose / DePaul University

pretty little liars quartet

Pretty Little Liars Quartet

Pretty Little Liars is a murder mystery currently airing on ABC Family. A mystery set in a town like many other tele-visually imagined small towns filled with large homes, good schools and the requisite “woodsy” area conveniently available for soul searching, romantic rendezvous and the occasional cover-up. While the plot revolves around the suspicious circumstances of a missing girl, the mystery is nested within instances of behavior like sleeping with one’s English teacher, shoplifting, fire bombing a neighbors home and sexually aggressive overtures undertaken as performance to prove one’s heterosexuality. Teen drama on television is not new nor unwelcome. I relished the chance to watch “after school specials” as a kid. They were my introduction to issues of race and class. They were a window onto child abuse and teen pregnancy. They took instances of what we would call deviance and placed them in context. Pretty Little Liars doesn’t do this. This bad behavior is not presented as extraordinary, but in fact is simply the window dressing meant to establish the main characters, a quartet of sixteen year old girls, as they go about trying to solve the mysterious identity of “A”, their tormentor by text and deed. Pretty Little Liars is also one of the most watched shows on ABC Family with season two debuting on June 14th.

 

Aria Discussing Her Relationship with Her Teacher

The series begins with an act of theft by Hanna. In what has become standard operating procedure for affluent, blonde, suburban girl characters, she steals a pair of high priced sunglasses. Her subsequent arrest is deftly managed by her mother. She sleeps with the arresting officer. Our introduction to Aria is a chance meeting at a bar (her presence at the bar is puzzling given her young age but we can bracket that detail). She meets a dashing young man and they swiftly move from chatting to having sex in the restroom. This man turns out to be Mr. Fitz, the new English teacher. Aria discovers this on the first day of school. The discovery does nothing to quell the passion between the two as the relationship continues throughout the first season. Scenes of seduction between teacher and student play out in ways not consistent with Humbert Hubert’s “nymphette” Lolita, but instead the pop cultural evolution of Nabokov’s character. The student insists, cajoles and demands the relationship continue while the teacher caves each time to her demands, unable to summon the apposite response which, for most, would be to end the relationship. While the blogosphere and discussion boards question the relationship with respect to the age difference and whether it is “icky” or “hot”, the larger, more pertinent issue of unequal power dynamics between student and teacher as well as the profound failure of Mr. Fitz to adhere to a duty of care is overlooked.

Spencer

Character of Spencer

Emily and Spencer round out the quartet. Spencer, a painfully thin, athletic and academic overachiever seems unable to set physical or emotional boundaries where her sister’s fiancés are concerned. However, her character overall seems to be a voice of reason to the group. Emily is presented as an emotionally unstable neurotic who resorts to teasing sexual aggression aimed at her boyfriend in an effort to prove her heterosexuality to herself more than anyone else. Throughout the season she resolves to concede if not embrace her sexual identity as lesbian and come out to her parents. Her father accepts her. Her mother patently rejects her. It is worth mentioning that the question of Emily’s sexuality is the one issue, in the show, that is handled with some modicum of respect and sensitivity. Somewhat. While working through her own issues, Emily befriends the quiet and peculiar Toby who is recovering from an incestuous and abusive relationship with his step-sister Jenna. A relationship Jenna makes clear she will not allow to end.

 

Discussion of Fashion on the Show

Pretty Little Liars presents a world teeming with desire and intrigue, and they look good doing it. Entertainment Weekly has recently lauded the cast as “The Best Dressed.” The mystery and excitement work as a delivery system for cosmetics, clothing, handbags and even E-bay. The high production values, soft focus and color correction keep the characters awash in a seductive glow, while the cliffhanger endings keep the viewer wondering. The more outrageous the behavior the more likely the number of viewers will rise. But, while initially the histrionic displays draw the viewer in, the abundance of bad behavior across the story landscape begins to redefine the extraordinary into merely ordinary. How questionable is “bi-curious” exploration lubricated by a few puffs of weed compared to making out with your sister’s betrothed? How bad is stealing sunglasses compared to setting a neighbor’s house ablaze? How bad is having sex with your teacher compared to killing someone?

characters color corrected and bathed in light

Characters Often Color Corrected and Bathed in Light

In Media literacy, the reflection hypothesis asserts televisual representations of women are, in large part, a reflection of current societal values but I find this theory unable to reconcile the extreme level of exaggeration present in Pretty Little Liars. Instead, I find the show to be part and parcel of a growing trend to hypersexualize and commodify young bodies in an effort to entice young viewers, captivated, titillated and perhaps stupefied by the spectacle, to expend large amounts of their growing purchasing power. This becomes problematic when considering media as pedagogic. In the show pathology becomes universalized, normalized, acceptable if not through explicit cheerleading then implicitly through the heavy silence begging to be filled with cogent discussion on incest, theft, power, gender and rape. There is a wonderful, albeit disturbing, teaching moment during the final two episodes that primes us for discussion on young men being coerced into sex by young women through manipulation. The opportunity is wasted.

In an age where the number of viewers translates into ratings which then impacts advertising revenue (commercial as well as product placement) pedagogical considerations are pushed aside. I assert, to our detriment. In what could be considered a clarion call Giroux12 (2009) insists: “ American youth are commercially carpet-bombed through a never-endingproliferation of market strategies that colonize their consciousness and daily lives. Multibillion-dollar corporations… now become the primary educational and cultural force in shaping, if not hijacking, how young people define their interests, values and relations to others..” (p.2). The characters of Pretty Little Liars live in bedrooms that look like the Pottery Barn catalog. They own sleek laptops with custom skins and meet to chat in an ultra modern cafe. Do we ask too much of the children we call “teens” to be repulsed by the pathological while knowing they will be attracted to the visual, aural and emotional? Through the production and dissemination of this decontextualized pathology we run the risk of redefining socially appropriate behavior. We pervert the process by which young people develop the skills to imaginatively address problems they will inevitably encounter in their social worlds.

“Childhood ideals increasingly give way to a market-driven politics in which young people are prepared for a life of objectification while simultaneously drained of any viable sense of moral and political agency.” (p.3) Young bodies are being “expropriated and colonized” for profit leaving no room for a nuanced exploration of the behavior on display. (Giroux, 2009) If television is Virilio’s Museum of Accidents then Pretty Little Liars is the revelation of a future fraught with a species of moral decay made all the more insidious by its invisibility. It is the subtext and the background. Secondary and unimportant.

Now. To be fair. The real issue could very well be I am getting old. At 37 I’m quickly approaching “ancient.” Perhaps my reading of the show is too rigid. In the meantime, stay tuned for The Lying Game by Sarah Shepard (author of Pretty Little Liars). If the tagline is any indication, “Pretty girls don’t follow the rules, they make them,” it should be a real treat.

Image Credits:

1. Pretty Little Liars Quartet
2. Spencer
3. Homecoming

Please feel free to comment.

NOTES

  1. Giroux, Henry (2009). Commodifying Kids: The Forgotten Crisis, Perspective. Retrieved from http://archive.truthout.org []
  2. Giroux, Henry (2009). American Youth in the 21st Century: Pathologized, Criminalized and Disposable. Retrieved from http://www.alternet.org []

Comments

  • Al Martin said:

    There also seems to be an argument here that can be made for beauty as cultural capital. It seems (and I’ve never seen the show) that their behavior is in many ways allowed because these characters work within hegemonically defined notions of beauty.

    While many of the conventions of the show originate from the notion that it is a soap opera, it would be interesting to how its viewers interact with the text and what takeaways they observe.

  • Camille said:

    Indeed Al, cultural capital considerations are key here. Beauty as capital (Pretty) as well as emphasized femininity as capital (Little). Perhaps these capitals work to mitigate our concern with the more raucous aspects of the show in our role as critical viewer. It’s also interesting that you mention the show as progeny of conventional soap opera. Do our expectations of teen, soapy, drama prevent us from ever reaching the level of critical viewer? The show is fascinating in subject matter but also in the particular timing of its production. It comes at a time when the teen market is being heavily rhapsodized as a gold mine on one side while critics like Henry Giroux are yelling that attention be paid to what he sees as the commodification of youth on the other.

    I’ll stay on the lookout for a group of viewers I can query. For now, the few I’ve found “love, love” the show. They find it dramatic and over the top, but in a fun way. That worries me. Not much. Just a little.

  • jessalynn said:

    Thanks for this article! I think it’s important though to recognize that teen viewers of this show have agency and may watch for a variety of reasons, including the fantasy world that the show creates. Yes, the show is problematic on certain levels (promotion of normative bodies, consumption,etc), however, we must recognize the ways that other elements — fashion, mystery, and even the representation of ‘bad’ girls – may provide pleasure for teens who do not necessarily understand the show as aspirational or realistic. Placing this show within the context of postfeminist media culture may also provide some key insight into the kinds of representations found on the show, and situate this analysis within a key cultural climate.
    -jessalynn

  • Yael said:

    I second Jessalynn’s apt observation of the show’s non realistic, over the top, at times almost parodic, elements. The show tells a gothic tale of “ghosts” and “haunting” without resorting to the by now almost unbearable tales of sexualized vampires as teen idols.
    As such, its freshness is to be welcomed, rather than censored. Not all teen TV needs to be didactic. In fact, I believe none of it should be. Teenagers,like adults,are consumers –of culture, among other things. And I believe they may prove more discerning and less gullible than the writer of this article thinks they are.
    The show presents itself, both overtly and covertly (by its styling and careful fashion detail) as a form of “guilty pleasure”, one not only teens can enjoy. It does not purport to educate, but to entertain. If that is such a bad thing, then surely all commercial TV is a “big” evil, compared to these “little” indulgences in the naughty and the preverse.

  • Camille said:

    Thank you Jessalynn and Yael. These are very interesting comments and beg clarification. Jessalynn you mention a postfeminist media culture but I’m not sure I understand what you mean. One stubborn stumbling block to a comfortable understanding of feminism is the failure to recognize the many wonderful species of feminism. Thus, a postfeminist media culture is unclear to me. Which feminism are we “post”? Perhaps you can expound? I would also love to hear how this show sits within that framework.

    Yael. I’m not sure I call for censure of any kind here. I think context is all that’s needed.


    “As such, its freshness is to be welcomed, rather than censored. Not all teen TV needs to be didactic. In fact, I believe none of it should be. Teenagers,like adults,are consumers –of culture, among other things. And I believe they may prove more discerning and less gullible than the writer of this article thinks they are.
    The show presents itself, both overtly and covertly (by its styling and careful fashion detail) as a form of “guilty pleasure”, one not only teens can enjoy. It does not purport to educate, but to entertain. If that is such a bad thing, then surely all commercial TV is a “big” evil, compared to these “little” indulgences in the naughty and the preverse.”

    I also hope that you haven’t mistaken a word limit as a lack of understanding or commitment to media scholarship. Commercial TV isn’t big, bad or evil but series creators do in fact create with intent. This show in particular was conceived by a book packaging company and given to the author to write.

    “Teenagers, like adults, are consumers of culture”, of course they are. They are consumers of food and drink as well. Some food and libation they have open access to and some are limited until we can teach them more about it. Context. There is no magical age at which minds become clued in to something (rape, incest, theft, secrecy, sexuality). They don’t know it until they know it. Is it not appropriate to ask the question? Are the issues presented in this show done so in a way that normalizes pathological behavior? While a program may not purport to be educational that does not negate its pedagogic function. This article asks us to consider a need for balance. Not censorship, context. I’m very interested in what seems to be an almost exuberant “letting go” of “teens.” This age range coincides with one of only two times in the human life cycle when the body and mind are flooded/bombarded with chemicals. Tumultuous is an understatement. A stage when the brain, body and social self are literally in flux. Don’t mistake my critique of this show to be indicative of my lack of respect for kids aged 11-18. Indeed I have the utmost respect for this particular stage of life.

    Teenagers have agency, of course they do. Is their agency impacted by media, peers, mediated peers? I think it is. Giroux certainly speaks more strongly than I here but I appreciate his aggression. While it is an unpopular stance, I’m convinced it is a necessary one. This show is a “guilty pleasure”? Who’s?

  • Yael said:

    The “guilty pleasure” is mine. And I’m no teengager. But I still think that there’s room for such shows. Incidentally, I happened upon the “coming out of the closet” scene, and it is, as you’ve shown, quite nuanced. As for the other issues the show presents: shoplifting, an affair with a teacher, seducing the sister’s boyfrieds, I think it does give us enough psychological and social detail which allows us to see the root causes of the behavior (parents’ infidelity and divorce, past trauma, absent father, etc). So I don’t think the show celebrates these abberant behaviors. But it does show it for what it is, without moralizing or condemmation.

  • Colin said:

    I find it interesting that adults concede their finding “guilty pleasure” in consuming this show yet miss the author’s point about the commodification of these young bodies for that specific purpose.

    This show is not “fresh” it is simple in its lack of complexity and intended purpose.

  • Secret said:

    Aria and Ezra didn’t have sex in the first episode. They just made out.

  • Kiana said:

    Pretty Little Liars among countless other teenage shows of our current time put together a group of attractive young, middle class people trying to solve problems. It tells us every day people that: yes we too have issues we go through in life. Although often times their issues are minor or extremely exaggerated.

    Shows like Pretty Little Liars, The CW’s Secret Circle, Lying Game and Vampire Diaries give the allusion that teenagers are really adults. They live the lives that we do as adults, making their own decisions, having reckless sex, sleeping over their boyfriend/girlfriend house and planning their own life without consulting a guardian or parent figure. I guess this does happen in real life but there are not many shows that counter that image: teenagers going to school, doing homework, casually dating and dealing with the angst of high school. Instead they are solving murders, dating vampires and discovering that they are a witch. I guess that is why it is television. The storyline and plot must be intriguing or interesting for the audiences, a sort of escapism from their own lives.

    You stated: those who are a “growing trend to hyper sexualize and commodity young bodies in an effort to entice young viewers, captivated, titillated and perhaps stupefied by the spectacle, to expend large amounts of their growing purchasing power.” I totally agree. But isn’t that the point of all products of the cultural industry? Creating something that is enticing, electrifying and leaves you wanting more?

    I do agree “in an age where the number of viewers translates into ratings which then impacts advertising revenue (commercial as well as product placement) pedagogical considerations are pushed aside.” These show in could perhaps shape and enforce culture to young people and sway them in the wrong way. These shows can also, as I stated, just be used for entertainment or an outlet from your own life. However, it becomes problematic when there is nothing to counter these images and the impressions young people can receive from these messages.

  • Camille said:

    Kiana,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree. We often engage in television viewing as an escape and I like many of the points you make here. I’d like to engage a couple of them.

    The storyline and plot must be intriguing or interesting for the audiences, a sort of escapism from their own lives…

    What we consider “intriguing” or “interesting” is culturally constructed and defined. We are taught what is acceptable and what is taboo so here I’m asserting that some programming exploits the boundaries of what is “acceptable” in an effort to capture the attention of this particular demographic.

    I totally agree. But isn’t that the point of all products of the cultural industry? Creating something that is enticing, electrifying and leaves you wanting more?

    No, I wouldn’t say so. There is an industry whose attention is turned lustily toward teens and their purchasing power, but overall, cultural artifacts function to transmit the values and prescriptions of the society/culture producing them. We could say that cultural artifacts are, by their nature, pedagogic. They are meant to teach and inform, not necessarily titillate. We can experience awe and wonder by watching Planet Earth. We may want to plant a tree afterward but we won’t want to buy a new handbag or pair of shoes. I think there are a great many stories on television and there’s a great deal of escape to be had, but I’m also interested in interrogating why we see such particular stories produced for teens and why they are so loaded with sex, consumerism, and pathological behavior. You actually included a great list of shows above (tremendous amount of alcohol consumption in Vampire Diaries). Overall, I’m not interested in suggesting people not watch. I’d like to see people watch with a more critical eye. Again, thanks so much for chiming in.