thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Feminist Fabulists: Telling Stories, Changing Perspectives, and “Pretty Little Liars”

In ABC Soaps, feminism, Perspective, Pretty Little Liars on September 16, 2014 at 7:59 am

Phoebe B.

The villains and heroes of a story often change depending on who’s controlling the narrative. Consider the many recent re-thinkings of classic stories from the evil characters’ perspective.

Wicked, for example, re-tells the Wizard of Oz from the Wicked Witch’s (aka Elphaba’s) point of view. In so doing, an entirely different story is spun: a young girl discriminated against for her skin color fights an unjust system, only to be cast as “wicked” by the Wizard’s corrupt administration.

Similarly, Disney’s newest princess fairytale re-imagines Maleficent (masterfully played by Angelina Jolie) in the titular character as a woman scorned—her majestic wings violently stolen by the King, her former childhood sweetheart. As narrated by Aurora, Maleficent’s supposedly evil nature—and by extension her violence—is filtered through a rape-revenge fantasy narrative. The film casts her anger and desire for revenge as rooted in trauma rather than the product of pure evil—a move that doesn’t function to justify her violence but rather explains it.

Both re-tellings further complicate familiar narratives by foregrounding relationships between women that don’t fit within patriarchal structures. Sleeping Beauty’s re-telling of Maleficent’s story, outside the confines of her father’s violent ideology, reveals that the theoretically bad fairy was Aurora’s true protector, a complex person capable of love. In Wicked, a similar relationship of rivals is recast as a best friendship and alliance between the “good” witch Galinda (aka Glinda) and Elphaba.

This is the trick of perspective: when we flip it and re-imagine stories from the viewpoints of outsiders, we begin to see the dangers of limiting ourselves to just one narrative (check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s beautiful Ted Talk for more on this.).

Like Wicked and Maleficent, the ABC Family series Pretty Little Liars foregrounds perspective, casting doubt on the reliability of any singular narrative and particularly those that attempt to frame women within patriarchy. But it goes even further in championing the multiplicity of narratives that emerge in communities of women, suggesting the importance of reclaiming and re-writing our own diverse stories.

Pretty Little Liars (PLL from here on out) is an exercise in disruptive, unstable, and feminist narration. The campy yet dark teen drama follows the friendship of four young women—Aria, Spencer, Hanna, and Emily—in the wake of their friend Ali’s disappearance and presumed murder. In the memories of the girls and their parents, Ali was a manipulative and terrifying queen bee, hoarding her friends’ secrets as weapons to control them. The girls idolized her for making them feel as if they were a part of “something special,” but they feared her in equal measure.


Chief among the show’s concerns are the relationships between the four main liars—a bond forged in the wake of their friend’s death and as a response to the terrorizing force of A, a mysterious, seemingly omniscient constellation of stalkers who follow the friends’ every move. But the show is also focused on how women’s stories are told and who gets to tell them. More than anything, Pretty Little Liars is about the girls’ fight to regain their agency—to control their own narratives—and the instability and unreliability of a singular narrative or narrator.

From the outset, the viewer’s knowledge of mean-girl Ali is entirely filtered through the perspectives of her classmates and neighbors, all of whom hated her for one reason or another. She blinded a girl who posed a threat to her alpha status, tormented the school nerds, blackmailed parents, lied about everything and carried on romances with other people’s boyfriends. Her four friends’ feelings about Ali are more complex, but even as they mourn her loss, they know there are clear reasons to loathe her. Then, in the show’s last mid-season finale, Ali reappeared alive and well years after she was supposedly murdered. The episode also was notable for one major reason: it unfolded primarily from Ali’s perspective.

Quite suddenly, I realized how much I’ve taken the four liars’ perspectives for granted. I trust them implicitly as narrators—after all, they are the show’s protagonists and the victims of A’s harassment. But before they were liars, they were mean girls. As Ali’s devoted followers, they thought little about those they allowed her to hurt, from high school nerds Lucas and Mona to their siblings, parents and beyond. This means their perspectives are not to be implicitly trusted as the truth, or valued over those of the show’s potential villains.

Ali’s return to Rosewood was her first opportunity to respond to the narratives that others had created about her and viewers’ first chance to see the story-world unfold from her perspective. She may not be more sympathetic—she still lies with great ease, she threatens and slaps Mona—but she definitely became more human. At the same time, she disrupted her friends’ grasp on their own lives by revealing new information about what happened the night she disappeared—a development that suggests the truth may lie somewhere in between their many competing perspectives.

Like her supposedly evil fairytale counterparts, Ali is not simply a one-dimensional villain. Ali’s perspective builds allegiance and community between the girls before it later begins to the destroy them. Not only does she trust them with her secrets, it is generative and restorative for the group to understand that Ali is also vulnerable. She needs them to help her complete and control the story of her own life. Even so, as we learn at the end of the season, Ali’s unique perspective should not be trusted: she may or may not be a violent sociopath.

Ultimately, on PLL, power lies with whomever controls the narrative. This power is held violently by the shadowy A, whose threats propel narrative action and forcibly dictate the girls’ lives. A instructs Hanna, a recovering bulimic, to eat a half-dozen cupcakes, manipulate a school nerd’s affections and betray a friend’s secret. However, obeying A’s orders fails to keep the girls safe. In fact, A’s violence only escalates as the series progresses—A frames Hanna’s mother for murder, nearly kills Aria on a train, runs a car into Emily’s living room, and most recently frames Spencer for murder, among other nefarious actions.

But it’s not only A who tries to coerce the girls by framing their stories around a mysterious and malevolent agenda. The men of the show frequently try to coerce the four friends and shape the girls’ stories around their own ideas and plans. Aria’s inappropriate boyfriend Ezra (her teacher!) infiltrates the group of girls as research for a true-crime book about Ali’s disappearance. In so doing, he co-opts the girls’ stories for his own gain. A smarmy detective uses his legal authority to coerce Hanna’s mother to have sex with him; in exchange, he drops shoplifting charges against Hanna. Spencer’s father refuses to give her information about the night of Ali’s disappearance and demands that she stop asking questions. In PLL, we learn to suspect that all male characters will eventually pressure the girls into offering something that they are not willing, or able, to give.

At the heart of PLL is the girls’ resistance to these kinds of disempowering, coercive narratives. Their shared counter-narratives, rooted in their friendship and love for one another, protect them from a world that is terribly hostile to their presence. Yet in the aftermath of Ali’s revelations, the girls are no longer the story’s clear-cut heroes.  The only stable force in the show’s world remains the friendship between the girls, which serves as a source of comfort, collaboration, and ultimately as their only defense against A.

In demonstrating that all its characters are fabulists of one sort or another, and in foregrounding individual perspectives without claiming that any one might offer a holistic truth, PLL—like recent re-workings of old fairytales—casts light and doubt on what it means to tell, claim, and control a story. Furthermore, by making A perhaps the most consistent narrator of any characters on the show—predictably cruel and seemingly omniscient—the show suggests the extraordinary violence and terror of narratives that frame us without our consent.

In PLL, as in Maleficent and Wicked, our heroines disavow patriarchal relations in favor of friendship and love between women. From those relationships, new and diverse stories emerge that dismantle the need for any singular narrator. Just as the retellings of Maleficent and Wicked highlight the forces that determine how stories are constructed, so too does PLL play with and defy our narrative expectations. As PLL returned from hiatus this summer, picking up where Ali’s tale had left us a few months ago, its whole story-world had come undone. In so doing, the show just got better.

Perspective matters deeply to storytelling. And perspective is incredibly political. But these few alternative perspectives do not suffice, as all of them center on solidarity between white women. We need more diverse stories that continue this work, demanding that we reconsider the grounds on which many of our stories—even the ones discussed in this piece—are crafted and told. The more we embrace stories that shift perspectives while disavowing white, able-bodied, heterosexual subjects as the norm, the more we can learn to tell ourselves stories that challenge and dismantle racist and patriarchal narratives.

  1. Reblogged this on Phoebe Bronstein and commented:

    New post up on GLG! On Feminist Storytelling …

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