thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Being Brunette: PLL and the Dangers of Policing Identity

In ABC Soaps, feminism, Pretty Little Liars on September 4, 2014 at 7:52 am



Melissa Sexton

Pretty Little Liars’s Spencer Hastings and Hanna Marin occupy opposite poles within their fantastic friend foursome, as Sarah Todd wrote about earlier this week. These girls also occupy opposing sides of a binary that defines women in terms of either their looks or their minds. Hanna Marin is supposed to be the “dumb blonde” and Spencer Hastings is supposed to be the “smart brunette.” The two aren’t just different; their differences define each other. But lately, Sarah argues, PLL is breaking down the characters’ strictly defined identities. With Hanna acing the SATs and taking a leading role in the group’s ongoing investigation of Ali, A, and all related mysteries, the show pushes against the reductive way these stereotypes and Hanna’s own friends try to define and limit her.

But if the strict division between smarts and looks is breaking down in Hanna’s favor, what does that mean for Spencer? While Hanna has rocked her “dumb blonde” title unphased and full of confidence, Spencer has been constantly anxious of losing her “smart” designation. She’s over-caffeinated and overcommitted, trying to hold down spots on the lacrosse team and the Quiz Bowl, to secure herself early admission to U Penn–the university all the other Hastings attended–and to pad her résumé with awards and laurels.

This competitive drive, as Sarah points out, can make Spencer particularly invested in putting Hanna’s intelligence down. But to simply label Spencer as the mean one of the group seems, to me, to simplify the complicated story of friendship and mutual self-definition that PLL explores.  Sarah brilliantly points out the show’s deconstruction of “patriarchal archetypes,” and my hope in writing this is simply to build on her analysis by telling the flipside of Hanna’s story.

Spencer’s meanness is as much a product of reductive definitions as Hanna’s dumbness. It is the result of women being told that they have to choose one aspect of their identity and protect it at any cost, blurring their true complexity in favor of fitting in safely.

After all, if the “dumb blonde” is a pervasive stereotype within our culture whose antithesis is the “smart brunette,” there’s also a reverse story: the “fun blonde” whose antithesis is the “scary brunette.” While intelligence can be read as the positive part of this characterization, the “smart brunette” is also portrayed as excessive and threatening. While “dumb blondes” like Hanna might be dismissed as immature, superficial, and clueless, “smart brunettes” like Spencer get called undesirable, neurotic, uptight, and controlling.

This characterization of the brunette plays on old dualities from sentimental literature, where virtuous blond virgins squared off against threatening brunette seductresses. Take away the sexiness, add an extra dose of caffeine to the seductress’s latent ambition, and voila: the ball-busting, hard-talking brunette who, it turns out, nobody likes.

The best modern day example I can think of is the rivalry between Elle Woods and Vivian Kensington in Legally Blonde. Both girls are incredibly rich and privileged, but Elle is a blonde Hollywood darling and Vivian is a brunette East Coast socialite. Vivian is mean, condescending, even cruel to Elle – all, we see, because of her great insecurity about the fact that she’s engaged to Elle’s ex-boyfriend. Vivian spent her life working to get into Harvard Law School; Elle got there by chasing her ex and flaunting her looks.

Still, the film is entirely unsympathetic to Vivian in its joking version of the triumphal blonde narrative. Elle’s seemingly trivial interest in fitness videos, fashion, and hair care allow her to win an important legal case, ultimately besting her brunette nemesis and winning her friendship in the process. Vivian, meanwhile, loses her fiance and learns to smile. This narrative sets old stereotypes against each other and only complicates one of them; while the blonde is revealed as secretly smart, the brunette is revealed as truly manipulative and mean.

But perhaps meanness is partially a result of the limited stereotypes themselves. After all, these women were battling about power. And each of them had power in a different arena. In the arena of relationships, Elle was the clear heavyweight; her sexiness and fun gave her a power Vivian lacked. In the arena of school, Vivian held all the cards. Elle was the sympathetic underdog only because the story was set in the competitive world of law, where brains usually trump beauty. Reset the story in high school, and we see Vivian as the powerless geek going up against Elle, the powerful blonde cheerleader. Neither stereotype is truly more virtuous than the other. Instead, stereotypical blondes and brunettes carve out arenas of power and influence where each expects to win. Subversions of these stereotypes often boil down to little more than a girl crossing the line in the sand and winning unexpectedly: blonde powerhouse lawyers and brunette geeks-turned-swans.

When these subversion stories are more than morality plays, there can be real pain for the losing character. Take another pairing Sarah mentioned: Serena and Blair from Gossip Girl. Again, both women are incredibly privileged, attending private schools in New York and coming from families flush with cash. But the blonde Serena has a sex appeal and charisma that help her move more easily through life, as her friend Blair complains. Blair, on the other hand, has been told her whole life that she is the smart one of the two. She’s avoided bullying and social isolation only by becoming a bully herself. While such insecurity shouldn’t excuse meanness, it might at least help explain it.

If you’ve been told your whole life that a) your real value is your smarts and b) having those smarts automatically negates your ability to be feminine, sexy, and fun, then your world gets shattered when someone like Serena proves that some people can have brains AND beauty. It seems unfair: wasn’t being “ugly” and “no-fun” the price you paid for your intelligence?

In the case of Gossip Girl, the situation was particularly poignant because Serena (like Elle), while intelligent, didn’t earn entrance to the Ivies through hard work and test scores but through her looks, charm, and celebrity. Both Elle and Serena discover their intelligence only after getting special treatment for their looks. Feeling like the world wasn’t going to give her anything, Blair decided to beat her way to the top. While her meanness sometimes takes my breath away, so does her vulnerability and loneliness. Being smart isn’t always all that wonderful in a world that thinks women shouldn’t really be smart after all.


Luckily, PLL seems thoughtful about this potential pitfall – the risk of beating up on the brunette to make way for the triumph of the blonde. Just as the show sets up Hanna as a dumb blonde only to subvert that definition, so too does it set up Spencer as a smart/scary brunette and then complicate her image. While Spencer’s inclusion in the group of “pretty” little liars suggests that her character is allowed to be somewhat feminine and beautiful, she is still often portrayed as the one that is all neuroses and no fun. Even a joking comment like Hanna’s insistence that Spencer’s vocabulary makes her scary reproduces this equation of intelligence with a lack of likability. While Spencer mocks Hanna for her poor vocabulary choices, Hanna mocks Spencer because her idea of sexy is a stake-out rather than stilettos. That is, weirdly enough, Hanna also has some investment in reproducing the smart/dumb, brunette/blond dichotomy. Why? Because, in contrast to Spencer, she has succeeded in achieving coolness, which she actively sought in the years after Ali’s death. Hanna became a “dumb blonde” so that she could stop being “hefty Hanna.”

Meanwhile, though uncowed by Ali and her mean nicknames, Spencer faced other demons; she became a “smart brunette” to try and live up to the looming example of her sister Melissa and the impossible demands of her family. These limited but constructed identities give each girl a sense of power in a world that tells her she is insufficient. And, as Sarah said, within the larger context of the four girls’ friendship, the narrow identity of each girl reinforces the identities of the others. The girls as a group are constantly telling Spencer to chill out, lay off the coffee, stop being so worried all the time. So, if Hanna’s “dumbness” serves as a foil for the “normal” intelligence of the other three girls, Spencer’s uptightness serves as the foil for their social normalcy. Hanna is less reasonable than the other three; Spencer is less fun.


By setting up and slowly eroding these characterizations, Pretty Little Liars is totally invested in breaking down patriarchal archetypes, and in finding a way to do so that doesn’t finally pit the girls against each other. Sure, they face tension as their comfortable roles unravel and they get into each other’s space. But both Hanna and Spencer ultimately have to recognize that each has sought power in her own way and each might need to push beyond comfortable self-definition. After all, the show warns, the danger isn’t just brains or beauty; the danger is going too far into one stereotype and asking one aspect of yourself to define your entire self-worth.

Spencer’s feverish battle to prove her academic superiority and her over-reliance on her sleuthing intelligence sent her to Radley. Meanwhile, although Hanna gained social power by becoming the school’s “it girl,” she also suffered from bulimia and got caught up in a shoplifting addiction that put both her and her mother at risk. Each girl is ultimately asked to consider who she would be if the identity that helps her cope gets taken away. Who is Aria, the artsy romantic, if she loses her true love? Who is Emily, the team-playing athlete, if her body ceases to function competitively? Who is it-girl Hanna if she loses the money to dress herself or if she’s forced to eat cupcakes and be “hefty” again? Who is Spencer if she can’t get into the school of her dreams and if she even starts to lose her mind?

In the end, the show doesn’t pick one girl over the other, but instead highlights the danger of the stereotypes themselves. Lest we miss this point, the most extreme characters of the show manage to embody both stereotypes, revealing them as equally dangerous. We have Mona, the scary/smart brunette par excellence who also succeeded at becoming incredibly popular; and we have Ali, the popular/dumb blonde who also masterminded a complicated double-life. Mona in particular reveals that you can’t win (for long) by simply subscribing to these reductive scripts.

That’s the lesson both Spencer and Hanna are learning; the exciting thing about Pretty Little Liars is its characters learn these lessons together, without one ultimately winning out over the others.  Perhaps that is part of the power of four as opposed to the tension of the frenemies twosome: every seeming dichotomy is diffused by difference and complicated by people who make the poles look a little fuzzy.

Sarah talked about how the girls are each their own kind of smart, and I think the girls are also each their own kind of sexy and fun. Maybe Spencer doesn’t need to put on stilettos to be sexy, but she can embrace her dark Lauren Bacall while Hanna embraces her flirty Marilyn Monroe. Maybe it’s OK if Spencer thinks fun is drinking too much coffee and re-organizing her mother’s legal briefs, or if Spencer’s idea of a hot date is a stake-out with Scrabble. And maybe real female friendship can help with this process of self-realization, even if that help is challenging and painful and scary.

When we love someone who is unlike us, maybe it threatens our vision of what “pretty” or “smart” are, but maybe it also helps us embrace parts of ourselves we thought were worth dismissing or hiding or changing. And when we have close friendships with other women, maybe our expanding care for each other can threaten patriarchal definitions that say women should compete for beauty and intelligence, stereotype each other as too sexy or too boring, too ditzy or too serious. I know that’s what real female friendships have done for me, the smart-scary brunette who learned to love both a good night out dancing in stilettos and a late night alone typing about gender stereotypes over tea.


Related Posts:

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

Pretty Little Liars and the Power of Four

True-er Detectives: ‘The Bletchley Circle,’ Lady Sleuths, and Friendship

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