thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

In girl culture, misogyny, Pretty Little Liars on February 27, 2014 at 6:52 pm

ImageSarah T.

The four of us sit in the grass by the farmer’s market. Together we form a baseball diamond, a compass rose.

Chelsea wears a printed sundress. Her short hair is perfectly mussed; her mouth is a red cupid’s bow. When I first met her I thought she was so glamorous that it was a little intimidating. As it turns out she’s fiercely loyal and easy to trust, the kind of friend who’ll usher you into the kitchen when you’re feeling sad to cook you a bowl of pasta. She’s equal parts sass and Southern sympathy as Melissa acts out scenes from last night’s party.

Melissa’s proud and fiery and mostly legs, equally comfortable pitching a tent in the middle of a rainstorm and spinning across a dance floor with a perfect cat’s-eye. I love listening to her tell stories because she always acts out all the parts. Now she waves her arms over her head, forms her hands into claws and growls.

Phoebe mock-recoils with a laugh. She’s warm and poised with bright blue eyes, quick with comebacks and questions and bear hugs, and sure about the things she loves in a way that makes her habits contagious. Spend enough time with her and you won’t be able to understand how you ever lived without over-salting your salads and speed-walking for at least an hour a day.

As for me, I’m fresh off a breakup. My bangs are awkwardly short because I was too depressed to tell the stylist when to stop cutting. It’s an appropriate look, as I am pretty sure I’m having at least three identity crises simultaneously. But together with these three women, for what seems like the first time in weeks, I don’t feel like crying.

We were all friends before that day—just not as a foursome. But after the afternoon at the farmer’s market, by unspoken agreement, we become automatic. We gather at Chelsea’s apartment to help her pack for a move across town, drinking frozen banana smoothies and fishing through old photo albums. We sprawl across each other’s couches and watch Gossip Girl and Center Stage while ignoring piles of papers to grade. At the high-stress wine and cheese nights our graduate school department throws as a kind of academic Hunger Games, we huddle up for brief periods to take courage from each other’s faces.

I imagine us wearing magic rings like the kids on Captain Planet. Instead of a blue-and-green superhero come to save the world from toxic waste, with our powers combined we generate power, more and more of it. I wonder if other people can see how a current moves between our four points when we’re in the same room. I think my ex may look a little scared when he spots us around campus in our various formulations, and while I bear him no ill will it makes me happy to see it. After all: We’re a girl gang now. Our bodies are our blades.


American culture considers it unseemly to spend time with a set group of girlfriends past the age of 23 or so. People roll their eyes at the sight of six women striding in arm-linked pairs down the sidewalk or swapping tales over mimosas at brunch. The assumption is that either they’ve bought into a bubble-headed Sex and the City fantasy or else they’re too immature to break free of the Mean Girls clique system and find a partner. Grown ladies, the thinking goes, should be too busy and serious with the trappings of adult life to seek out one another’s collective company on the regular.

Make no mistake: this disdain for Ya-Ya Sisterhood-style friendship is a tool of the patriarchy. We’re taught to believe that groups of women are silly precisely because a minor revolution occurs whenever they prioritize spending time with each other. When women get together, they assign each other a level of importance that threatens the hell out of a system that desperately wants us to believe that heterosexual romantic relationships and children should be our sole focus.

The truth is, people get freaked out when they contemplate all the things that might happen when a group of women really talk to each other. What if they swap weapons and classified information like a group of secret agents gone rogue? Or form a spontaneous witch coven, just for example?

In the right combinations, we will.

“When the four of us are together,” Phoebe told me once, “I sort of feel like nothing bad can happen to me.”  We were treading water in a lake in the Berkshires, just past the depth where our feet could touch bottom.

I let my legs float up so that I was lying on my back, looking up at a hot stretch of sky. “Me too,” I said.


Of course, bad things can happen to you no matter how safe your girlfriends make you feel. There’s no television series more aware of this fact than Pretty Little Liars, a feminist noir fever-dream of a show currently masquerading as a guilty pleasure on ABC Family.

The series follows four high school girls as they grapple with the aftermath of their former ringleader’s disappearance. Just as the missing girl’s body is discovered, the friends begin receiving threatening text messages from a person called A—an omniscient, omnipresent force determined to use their secrets against them.

At times these events seem like they must be a town-wide conspiracy. Over and over again, the girls are betrayed by people they thought they knew. Boyfriends, best friends, parents, sisters, teachers, coaches: no one is above duplicity. This is especially true of the men on the show. Literally every male character over the age of 18, with the exception of one girl’s dad, is at least somewhat shady. Most, at a minimum, have no qualms about trying to get with teenage girls. The Liars can trust each other, some of their moms, and pretty much no one else.

As with any good foursome, the Liars’ distinct personalities create equilibrium. Fierce, determined Spencer has been gunning for the Ivy League since preschool: she plays to win. Emily shares Spencer’s work ethic, but she’s gentler and more forgiving. A true athlete, she plays for the team. Aria is a pint-sized artsy type, eager to grow up as fast as she can. And Hanna, my favorite, blurts out inappropriate wisecracks and has no idea how to pronounce the word “fjord.” But she’s intuitive and compassionate each time she encounters a person in pain.

The show communicates the easy intimacy between the girls in understated moments: Hanna resting her head on Emily’s shoulder and asking her to be her date to a school dance; Aria sprawled on Spencer’s bed, helping her pick an outfit to wear to a college interview. While the girls define themselves against each other, they also allow one another room to grow. Emily gets steelier over the course of the series, while Spencer learns to let her guard down. Hanna has spent the latest season surprising her friends with a newly-discovered knack for sleuthing, inspired by her love for James Patterson novels. (“Is Travis reading them to you?” Spencer demands warily.)

But as strong as their individual friendships are, the girls are at their most knock-down awesome as a group. The show loves to film them moving as a unit, capturing the intimidating spectacle they create when they’re together. Bursting out of four bathroom stalls in unison or flanking each other on their way to the latest in a very long series of funerals, the Liars are a vision of overpowering femininity: decked out in tall boots and statement necklaces, game faces at the ready, hair blown out and curled. No wonder the entire town of Rosewood, Pa., wants to tear these girls apart from each other and make them vulnerable. They are thisclose to running the world, if it would just ease up for a minute.

Even the closest of friends are bound to get on each other’s nerves sometimes. When a protective, nosy Spencer follow Emily to a secret meeting and winds up ruining it, she catches the brunt of Emily’s rage. Hanna is caught in the fallout between the two girls: “Emily is so pissed at you that she’s pissed at me for not being pissed at you,” she tells Spencer. And when Aria’s older boyfriend suggests that she needs to distance herself from her friends and put their relationship first, Aria—who wants more than anything to be sophisticated—agrees. Adult women don’t need girlfriends, you can practically hear her reasoning. She doesn’t stop to think about how women lose power by restricting emotional intimacy to the bounds of romantic relationships. She has no idea how isolating it can be when there’s only one person in the world who’s allowed to know you.


The four of us don’t live in the same town anymore. I was the first to go, departing from grad school for a job in Massachusetts and then moving on to New York. Next Melissa left to teach at the top of a mountain. A year later, Phoebe got a fellowship in Atlanta; Chelsea’s writing her dissertation and finishing up school.

We keep in touch with emails and texts and Skype dates and phone calls, and we manage to see each other from time to time in various combinations. We all write for this very blog. I still miss my friends with everything I’ve got.

Sometimes when pangs for the crew get too strong, I turn on Pretty Little Liars and imagine I’m with them by proxy. Many episodes end with the image of the Liars clustered around their cell phones, reading the next threatening text message from a stranger who wants nothing more than to make them suffer. The power of four can’t keep A at bay. Yet every time they show up for each other they make themselves stronger, and their enemies become a little less so.

Not long before I left Eugene, the four of us went wine tasting for my 28th birthday. Sandwiched into Chelsea’s Mini Cooper, we danced in our seats to Rihanna as we bumped up gravelly roads. At the vineyard we wanted a picture of all of us together, but there was no one else around to take it, so we kept confusedly swapping the camera between us, rushing in and out of the frame. Out past the patio where we were glugging dry rosé there were hills and more hills, soft grey clouds, not a single car or house in view. We were flushed and giddy with each other’s company, living inside our own mythology, watching it grow. I felt like we might all go on forever.

Related links:

Quiet Times: Ladies, Friendship and “The Good Wife”

An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and the Reclamation of Lydia Bennet

  1. Your description of the current moving between us in a room…it reminds me of that great line from “Frances Ha,” where Frances is describing how she wants to make eyes with someone across a room and know they are her person. And then her person ends up being her best friend! Y’all are my people 🙂

  2. God, I LOVE this. I love everything about it.

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