On the surface, Pretty Little Liars is a series about bullying. That is, after all, what A, in all the villain's iterations, is to the five Liars: A mean girl determined to wreak havoc on their social lives. Armed with catty texts, the very first suspect for black hoodie was Queen Bee Alison DiLaurentis (Sasha Pieterse) herself — until it was revealed that Alison was actually dead in a ditch somewhere. (Well, that was someone else — but really, just go with it.) When the real A was revealed, it became clear that the Liars weren't that far off: the person behind the black hoodie was Mona (Janel Parrish), herself a newly-minted Queen Bee, who desperately wanted revenge on the girls who made her own life a living hell.
PLL could have been a show about girl-on-girl crime — the hurt that young women inflict on one another in order to stay on top of a social order. Early in the series, Alison herself muses that "girls fight much dirtier than boys" when asked if a scratch on her face came from a boyfriend. Yet the show quickly proved it wasn't about pitting the Liars against one another. It wouldn't get glee out of "cat fights" between its leads, a la Gossip Girl's never-quite-ending war between alleged BFFs Serena (Blake Lively) and Blair (Leighton Meester). Slowly but surely, PLL proved that it was here to tackle something else.
A show that features a core group of powerful ladies — who cross all moral lines — might not seem like a takedown of the patriarchy, but Pretty Little Liars never fails to remind its audience of how men often pull the strings — even when it seems that the women are being most manipulative.
It starts earlier than you might think. During the first season, Emily (Shay Mitchell), a young woman struggling to come to terms with her attraction to girls, is assaulted by her boyfriend Ben (Steven Krueger) in the locker room. She has stopped being the girlfriend he wanted, and he has decided to take what he feels he's owed by her. Wren (Julian Morris) hits on Spencer (Troian Bellisario), despite being her sister Melissa's (Torrey DeVitto) fiancé and 24 to her 16 years. Then, of course, there's the Ezra (Ian Harding) and Aria (Lucy Hale) romance, which — though celebrated by the show in its seventh season — must be remembered as an initially predatory relationship. It turns out that Ezra, Aria's one-time English teacher, knew she was 16, and didn't care: He was using her to gather intel for a book.
By the seventh season, the stakes get higher: Alison's husband, Dr. Rollins (Huw Collins) medicates her and locks her away in a sanitarium — but only after driving her to believe that she is truly insane. It's gaslighting at its most diabolical, especially since Alison has since shed her mean girl skin. Her being punished by a bad man feels particularly cruel and gross — but it should remind the audience that Alison's behavior has little to do with how men treat her.
There's a certain bait-and-switch that Pretty Little Liars deploys quite frequently. During season 5, it was revealed that "Charles DiLaurentis," Alison's secret sibling, was the one who stole the A game from Mona. Yet — in a controversial twist — the real reveal was that Charles was actually Cece Drake, a.k.a. Charlotte DiLaurentis (Vanessa Ray), Alison's transgender older sister. As complicated (and, yes, problematic) as the reveal was, Pretty Little Liars didn't declare Charlotte the story's ultimate villain. Instead, Charlotte told the Liars that her pain stemmed from her father Kenneth DiLaurentis (Jim Abele), who so hated his child's gender identity that he locked Charlotte away in a mental institution.
The way in which Pretty Little Liars shows the true reach of Kenneth's power over his family is perhaps the darkest element of the series. Charlotte's gender identity is not an "issue" (nor should it be) for anyone else on the series — specifically, the other women — but it is a huge one for Kenneth. His wife, Jessica (Andrea Parker), is so terrified of Kenneth learning that she has been providing her daughter Charlotte with dresses that she demands Alison become an expert liar in order to avoid the wrath of her husband. It is, essentially, where Alison's story begins: She becomes a master manipulator in order to circumvent the power of a man who, in many ways, has controlled her mother.
Alison learns to live by the lie, and uses her femininity to attract (and, often, manipulate) the men on the show. And yet Alison almost never really comes out on top: she merely presents an illusion of control. There's a reason that the show peppers in plenty of Lolita references — including very literal scenes in which Alison's "ghost" is reading Vladimir Nabokov's novel. In the novel, the "Lolita" is very much a victim of power dynamics. On Pretty Little Liars, men, — and, specifically, older men — almost always hold the cards.
Alison's entanglements with older men, at first, seem to play to her advantage: She boasts of her maturity any time she's captured the attention of an older guy, something that the Liars were envious of once upon a time. However, PLL makes it abundantly clear that these relationships are about the man taking advantage of the younger, vulnerable girl — not the other way around, as Alison herself might have once thought. While on the run, Alison brings home a pseudo "boyfriend," Cyrus (Jake Weary), to the abandoned house where she has been staying. Alison has always tried to stay in control in her romantic relationships, but no amount of snarky comments or mind games can stop Cyrus from stealing Alison's stuff, throwing her against the wall, and dragging a knife across her thigh. The attack shatters Alison's illusion of control.
Upon her return to Rosewood, long after her attack, Alison begins a relationship with Detective Holbrook (Sean Faris), the cop investigating her kidnapping story. Alison attaches herself to him with the intention of saving her own skin, and Holbrook becomes enraged when he learns that Alison has used him. Holbrook finds Hanna (Ashley Benson) and berates her for helping Alison "play" him. Quickly, the conversation turns predatory — though, earlier in the season, Holbrook has seemingly rebuffed Hanna, who had "accidentally" kissed him during a vulnerable moment.
"Oh, did she tell you to kiss me?," Holbrook says as he comes closer to Hanna. "She did, didn't she?"
But Hanna lays it out on the line — and kicks her would-be attacker.
"You don't get to play the victim here," Hanna shouts at Holbrook. "You're the grown-up police officer. She's just a girl."
It's that statement that we should remember. As strong, brave, and smart as the core group on the show is, the world still sees them as both "girls" and liars and manipulators. The second part is deeply gendered: The Liars are constantly referred to as "bitches" when they are really just trying to keep their head above water. Even when the Liars tell the police about being stalked, harassed, and abused by the anonymous villain, they are rarely believed — or, the information they provide is quickly used against them in order to benefit an officer with a nefarious plan.
Yes, Pretty Little Liars is more complicated than its metaphors. (Just try to untangle the Uber A mystery before the final 10 episodes air.) But it does speak some simple, elegant truths about the way women are treated in society. It's not that they can't hold power; rather, when they exert it a little too much, someone will be lurking around the corner to put them back in their place.