Pretty Little Liars Has A Problem With Statutory Rape We Need To Discuss

Update: Tonight Pretty Little Liars took home a surfboard at the Teen Choice Awards for Choice TV Show: Drama — something they’ve done every year since 2012. To be clear, there are so many reasons why this show should have won (there was cheering in our office when it was announced), and I was rooting for it as our resident-R29-recapper of the show. Yet, this just emphasizes how many young people are tuning in each week, and taking notes from the relationships on the show — reminding us all why the presence of statutory rape on this show needs to be addressed.
This story was originally published on July 20, 2016.
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On last night's Pretty Little Liars, Ezra (Ian Harding) proposed to Aria (Lucy Hale). I know most fans were cheering — this is one of the most-loved couples on the show. (Even executive producer and showrunner Marlene King has called Ezria the "end game.") But I was pissed and feeling cheated. If you read my recaps you know that I love the show, but that I have a huge problem with its persistent use of inappropriate relationships: namely, when a grown man dates an underage girl.
Many TV shows have used these relationships to add some drama and score ratings. It's almost always the same dynamic of a grown man and underage girl, although there have been some notable exceptions that flip the gender-role script — for example Tamara (Leann Hunley) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) on Dawson's Creek. However, few shows have used these May-December relationships as often and without consequence as Pretty Little Liars.
The most prominent example is the Ezra and Aria romance. Ezra was Aria's high school teacher when they started dating — she was only 16 — that alone was creepy. The backstory only made it worse. He had previously hooked up with and romanced Aria's friend, 15-year-old Ali (Sasha Pieterse), until the night she disappeared. As if that wasn't bad enough, he was also using Aria as material for his book on Ali, hoping for the next Gone Girl-esque best-seller. We are supposed to believe that he truly fell for Aria, but it's hard to get past the fact that a grown man put surveillance cameras on his girlfriend and her friends, all of whom were still in high school.
Somehow, the only people who ever have concerns about the relationship are Aria's parents, and even they give in. The pair — known to fans as "Ezria" — was beloved from the beginning. I figured the writers and fans would change their alliances once Ezra's lair was revealed. He was literally sitting in a creepy apartment watching unauthorized surveillance cameras of four underage girls. Yet the characters forgave him, the writers forgave him, the fans forgave him. I was just repulsed.
When they broke up as Aria graduated, I was thankful. We could move on. Five years later, Aria is no longer underage, so when they got back together it wasn't illegal anymore. But their history is still there. Last week, Liam brought it up. He rightfully called out the relationship for being inappropriate and accused Ezra of taking advantage of a student. These things are all true. Ezra left to figure out how he felt about those "criticisms." I was hopeful. Maybe people were understanding the consequences after all. Nope. He came back and proposed. Actually, he told her to listen while he talked (so essentially, "shut up") before he asked her to commit to him for life.
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I just couldn't believe that moment — the first time the Ezria relationship is accurately described —was used as a catalyst for a proposal between the two. But, considering all of the inappropriate relationships the series has served up, I shouldn't have been surprised. Here's a look at Pretty Little Liars' history when it comes to grown men and high school girls. Let's just hope that when Ezria gets married, they don't mention how Aria aced both English and Human Anatomy with Ezra.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
Spencer (Troian Bellisario) was used in the beginning of the show as the go-to character for age-inappropriate relationships. Ian (Ryan Merriman) made out with her when she was a sophomore in high school. He was in college at the time. Oh, he was also her sister's boyfriend.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
Ian wasn't the only one of her sister's boyfriends that seduced Spencer. She also ended up making out with Melissa's (Torrey DeVitto) fiancé, Wren (Julian Morris). He had graduated from medical school — so he was in his late 20s — and she was just starting her junior year of high school.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
It turns out that the summer before Ali went missing, she ended up being kissed by multiple over-aged men. She wrote love letters to a man who was rumored to have gotten her pregnant, referred to as "Board Shorts." Later, we found out that Board Shorts was detective Wilden. It's hard to tell exactly how old he was, but considering he also forced Mrs. Marin (Laura Leighton) to date him, and he was an officer when Charlotte (Vanessa Ray) was a teenager, he would be in his mid-30s. The fact he's a police officer only makes it worse.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
The same summer of Board Shorts, Ian also started hooking up with Ali. So, he's a cheater and a statutory rapist, twice over. The fact he was also recording videos of the whole town — including Ali and all of her underage friends — as part of the N.A.T. club just made him creepier.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
The most innocent of the age-inappropriate relationships was Ezra and Ali. I will give Ezra the benefit of the doubt here. He had no idea how old Ali was until later. Yet, the fact he knowingly got into a another relationship with one of her friends is a problem.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
It's not just Spencer who caught Wren's eyes. He also tried to start a romance with Hanna (Ashley Benson). Yes, he tried to hook up with the friend of one of his exes, the little sister of his ex-fiancée. If that is not complicated, I don't know what it is. He was a doctor, and he used treating her as a chance to flirt. Not only was the age gap an issue, but the whole beginning of their relationship was an abuse of his position.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
It's not just The Liars who were halves of age-inappropriate couples. Jenna (Tammin Sursok) also dated a police officer in his 20s — Garrett (Yani Gellman). Garrett apparently saw no need to hide his relationship with a high school student, even though he was a member of law enforcement.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
Aria's father was always against the Ezra and Aria relationship, but he was a huge hypocrite. One of the original secrets that Ali used against her friends was that Mr. Montgomery (Chad Lowe) was cheating on his wife with one of his students. He moved the family to another country in order to "try and make things right," but picked back up with the then-graduated student once they moved back.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
In the last season, the writers seemed to realize they needed to take a stand against creepy men. I respect that. Mrs. Montgomery (Holly Marie Combs) moved on from her cheating ex-husband with coffee-shop owner Zack (Steve Talley). Right before they were supposed to get married, Zack sexually harassed Hanna (Ashley Benson). But the storyline felt forced and too little too late considering all of the other relationships people should have spoken up about.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
When Aria's parents freaked out about Ezra's age, she ended up in the arms of another college graduate — not really what her parents had in mind. Not only was Jason (Drew Van Acker) considerably older, but he's also the older brother of her missing friend.
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Image: Freeform/Eric McCandless.
That leaves us with the (perhaps) newly engaged. (Aria's response was left as a cliffhanger for the next episode.) Not only did the couple secretly date for most of Aria's high school years, but they went on public dates and even danced at school dances together in the later seasons. Ezra was eventually fired from his teaching position, but was later brought back on. It seemed like everyone forgot that it's not okay for a high school teacher to date his students.
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