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Keeping in mind that the show airs on a network called “ABC Family”, contemplate this scene from Pretty Little Liars: lured into a graveyard in the dead of night, four high school girls watch as a stranger broadcasts their murdered, underage friend’s sex tape against the wall of a mausoleum.  Despite the fact that its audience is primarily composed of young women (or perhaps because of this), Pretty Little Liars does not shy away from taboo, shock value, or melodrama.  Pretty Little Liars does not condescend to its teen audience: bad guys evade the good guys, parents behave unethically, and the main characters’ reckless and sometimes illegal behavior is often condoned.  One could certainly make the case that the show is dangerous influence on its target demographic, and this paper will explore this possibility.  Overall, we believed that Pretty Little Liars offers a refreshingly realistic portrait of positive relationships between high school girls, as well as one of the most balanced portrayals of a gay teen currently on television.  While the melodrama provokes and titillates, it is the realistic dynamic between the main characters that draws in viewers from surprisingly varied demographics and makes this show a positive addition to the television line-up aimed at young women.

This paper will examine the appeal and possible ramifications of watching Pretty Little Liars, keeping in mind that its target audience is teen girls, who will have varying levels of media literacy.  Firstly, we will make note of some surprising groups who are interested in watching Pretty Little Liars, citing John Fiske’s “Television: Polysemy and Popularity” to see how this has helped the show thrive.  We will look at the use of violence in the show, with an eye toward how women prefer to engage with violent entertainment, as described by Jeffrey Goldstein in Why We Watch: The Attraction of Violent Entertainment.  We will look at the relatively scandalous treatment of sex on the show, and what skewed perceptions it might present to young viewers.  Other possible negative effects include the show’s casual portrayal of wealth, which we will demonstrate through fashion blogs surrounding the character’s wardrobes.  Further, we note the girl’s non-reliance on the adults in their life, and its particular danger given that the show’s subject matter revolves around cyberbullying.  We will see what measures ABC Family has taken to address this issue in a public service campaign, looking to Singhal and Rogers’ paper on entertainment-education strategy.  In terms of the show’s positive effects, we will look at its balanced portrayal of a gay teen and note the possible public service ramifications of this well-scripted storyline.  Overall, we believe that by not condescending or pandering to its young audience, Pretty Little Liars wins viewers’ trust and is thus able to successfully transmit important messages about tolerance without seeming heavy-handed.  Ultimately, we feel that today’s media-savvy teens can enjoy the outrageousness of Pretty Little Liars while still reaping the benefits of a show that portrays strong, intelligent, and loyal girlfriends.

Pretty Little Liars’ pilot episode opens on a scene of five teenage girls drinking in a barn while a thunderstorm rages outside.  The four main characters are Aria, Spencer, Hannah, and Emily, and with them on this sleepover is their “Queen Bee” leader, Alison.  The girls fall asleep and in the morning, find that Alison has mysteriously disappeared.  The episode then jumps ahead one year to a sunny day: Aria is returning to town after a year abroad to find that the other three girls have drifted apart in Alison’s absense.  When Alison’s body is discovered later that day, the girls start being harassed by a mysterious “A”, who seems to have omniscient knowledge of their lives.  Mostly via text message, she stalks and threatens to expose their secrets, which include: kissing a sister’s fiance, hooking up with a high school teacher, and sharing a home with a bank robber.  With its dark themes, taboo trysts, and misbehaving adults, Pretty Little Liars only loosely qualifies as “family” programming.

Though it airs on cable, Pretty Little Liars is not a niche show; it is widely watched and commented on by its target demographic of young women.  The show airs on ABC Family, a network whose current lineup featuresMake It Or Break It, The Nine Lives of Chloe King, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, programs that all focus on the lives of young women and their social networks.  Pretty Little Liars is the highest-rated scripted series on basic cable for women ages 18-34 and females ages 12-34 (TV by the Numbers).  It’s special Halloween episode brought in the largest audience of ABC Family’s annual Halloween celebration, attracting 2.5 million viewers (Hollywood Reporter).  The show has been recapped by both the LA Times’ Showtracker and Entertainment Weekly’s PopWatch blog, proving that the show has clout with an older audience.

The storyline surrounding Emily Fields, a gay teenager who finds a girlfriend and comes out within the first few episodes, lead to Pretty Little Liars being recapped by the lesbian-oriented blog AfterEllen.com.  These clever recaps embrace the absurdity of the show and particularly focus on Emily’s relationships.  The community following the recaps is fiercely loyal and enthusiastic; they tweet about the show under the hashtag #booradleyvancullen, and the recapper includes some of the funniest tweets in her next week’s recap.

Looking at their twitter pictures, these women appear to be mostly adults, fully aware that they are indulging themselves by watching a teen drama, and thoroughly enjoying it.  In his essay, “Television: Polysemy and Popularity”,  Fiske cites Eco, who argued that “[i]n order to be popular, television much reach a wide diversity of audiences, and, to be chosen by them, must be an open text that allowed the various subcultures to generate meanings from it that meet the needs of their own subcultural identities” (Fiske, 392).  Fiske clarifies that certainly not any meaning can be derived from a show, but surely here, Eco’s reasoning applies.  Given the dearth of realistic gay characters on television today, it makes sense that a tightly-knit online lesbian community would pay close attention to a compelling portrayal of a gay teenager in today’s world, even if the show were to appear on a network that they might typically ignore, as adults.

Since we know that the audience for Pretty Little Liars is primarily women and girls, it behooves us to look at the show’s depictions of violence from a gender-specific standpoint.  As described by Jeffrey Goldstein, girls watching a movie in groups look away when the music suggests impending bloodshed, while boys keep their eyes glued to the TV, reluctant to appear unmasculine (Goldstein, 216).  Unless they are simply performing for the boys, girls appear to be less willing to view depictions of violence.  With Pretty Little Liars, the threat of violence is always present, but on-screen violence is limited and never bloody.  When the mysterious ‘A’ nearly murders Emily, she does it by luring her into a warehouse and locking her inside with a car that is spewing exhaust fumes.  This is disturbing and certainly a terrifying prospect, but also completely watchable for violence-averse girls.  With tweaks like this, ABC Family ensures that Pretty Little Liars is terrifying to women, but depictions of violence on screen will not exceed their “threshold”, causing them to turn away.

Now that we have examined the audience for Pretty Little Liars and seen how the  show has tailored its content this audience, we will look at potential negative effects on that demographic: teen girls and young women.  One potential negative effect stems from the fact the Liars are shown decked out in hundreds of dollars worth of clothes and full make-up in nearly every scene, but that none of this is acknowledged by the show.  Up to and through the current economic crisis, excessive wealth has been the subject matter of numerous successful shows aimed at teen girls: The OC, Laguna Beach, The Hills, and Gossip Girl (like Pretty Little LiarsGossip Girl is produced by Alloy Entertainment).  Each of these shows has an aspirational aspect to its content.  Wealth is practically another character: the camera lingers on infinity pools, gorgeous gowns, and sprawling living rooms.  By contrast, the socioeconomic status of the four main characters is not addressed in Pretty Little Liars.  The fashion that the four Liars wear is so trendy that blogs have sprung up around it, including fashionofprettylittleliars.tumblr.com and fashionofpll.tumblr.com.

These sites shows how much money the Liars hypothetical wardrobes must cost, setting a standard impossible for most teens to follow.  On a show like Gossip Girl, where wealth is acknowledged, a teen knows to separate what she sees from what she herself probably owns.  With the Liars’ town presented as a typical American suburb, this display of wealth is potentially problematic for young viewers.

Another aspect of the show that gives a potentially dangerous impression to its audience is Aria’s romantic relationship with her high school English teacher, Ezra Fitz.  In fairness to this couple, they do meet and hit it off (and make out) before knowing that Mr. Fitz will be Aria’s teacher.  The storylines involving their relationship often center on their frustration with having to keep the relationship a secret.  Only once is it acknowledged that Mr. Fitz could potentially go to jail if the relationship were found out; afterwards, this possibility is ignored.  Nor does any character on the show accept that there might be something inherently wrong with a sixteen year-old student dating an older authority figure.  The show invests these characters with a great deal of maturity in many ways and generally portrays their relationship in a positive light.  Given the collection of fan-made videos featuring these two characters, it is clear that this relationship resonates with teen girls, for better or for worse.  While this storyline provides great blackmail fodder for ‘A’, it romanticizes a very serious issue and leaves the dangerous impression that a secret relationship with a teacher can be a healthy, positive thing in the right circumstances.  It is hard to imagine a real-life situation where a high school student and a teacher should legitimately be dating; in this instance, the Pretty Little Liars has been reckless for dramatic effect.  In the clip below, Ezra makes a speech to Aria’s high school class that is entirely about their relationship, and then they share a romantic moment in the parking lot:

In nearly all cases, Pretty Little Liars preaches self-sufficiency above seeking help from adults, a position that has potentially negative effects for young viewers.  The Liars often feel that they have too many secrets of their own to be able to be  completely honest with their parents, counselors, or even the police.  Instead, they often find themselves creeping about in the woods at night or exploring deserted warehouses, and generally making themselves look guilty in the name of searching for clues.  When they do finally confide in their mutual therapist, the therapist goes suddenly missing.  While the Liars self-reliance enhances the dramatic effect of the show, it does present the dangerous idea that a violent, vengeful stalker is best dealt with vigilante-style.  Particularly given the recent influx of teenage suicides due to cyberbulling, it is dangerous to put forth the idea that a teen should not seek help when bullied for fear of getting into trouble.  On the other hand, one episode includes a scene where a psychologist holds a school meeting directly addressing the dangers of cyberbullying. ABC Family launched a public service anti-cyberbullying campaign.  In their paper on Entertainment-Education Strategy, Arvind Singhal and Everett M. Rogers argue that the effectiveness of the message increases when supplementary materials are included in a campaign (Singhal and Rogers, 346).  While ABC Family uses the liars’ self-sufficiency for dramatic effect, they also acknowledge the seriousness of the issue within the show itself and also through a campaign that extends from TV commercials to facebook.

Another positive effect stems from the show’s nuanced portrayal of an openly gay teenager, Emily Fields.  It is often through Emily, who comes out early in the show, where Pretty Little Liars achieves its greatest emotional resonance.  While GLAAD simply tallies up numbers of gay characters on shows and assigns networks a score based on the ratio of gay to non-gay characters (New York Times’ Arts Beat), it is arguably far more important to look at the quality and content of these dramatizations.  Representation is truly important, but it is characters like Emily Fields, not Deena from MTV’s Jersey Shore, who have the potential to positively impact how teens view their peers.

In showing the specifics of Emily’s coming out, the show gives a potential blueprint to teenagers looking to have this conversation, or unsure of how to respond to a friend who is coming out.  In season one’s seventh episode, before Emily has openly questioned her sexuality, the mysterious, conniving “A” sends Hannah a text message that contains a photo of Emily kissing another girl, presumably intending to cause a rift in Hannah’s friendship with Emily.  Unsure of what to do, Hannah eventually tells Emily that she has seen the picture and asks about her relationship with Maya, the girl in the photo.  In this video clip, Emily and Hannah have the following conversation:

With this encouragement, Emily is able to come out to her friends, who wholeheartedly accept her.  Emily’s friends look at her relationships with women in the same way they regard their own heterosexual relationships.  While Emily’s parents are at first very concerned, they eventually accept her; but from Emily’s friends, there is nothing but wholehearted acceptance, from the beginning.  The potential for education is understood and intentionally utilized on the part of the show’s creator, Marlene King.  Of the characters’ acceptance of Emily, King says, “We all want that unconditional love by our friends and our family. And that’s what we’re creating here. Hopefully it becomes a role model for other people” (Afterellen.com)  The tight-knit friendships among the girls and particularly their reaction to Emily’s coming out provide a model for teens to follow.

Further, Emily’s storyline provides a vehicle for important takeaway information on resources available to gay and lesbian teens struggling with their identity, information which concerned viewers are likely to remember.  In one episode, Emily encourages a girl she is seeing to meet with a peer mentor.  This is an out gay or lesbian youth who has volunteered to meet with teens questioning their identity or struggling with the coming out process.  In a study concerning medical information retained from an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, accurate knowledge of the medical content portrayed increased from 15% to 45%, six weeks after the viewing (Kaiser Family Foundation Study).  If millions of people were able to remember a medical factoid that probably does not directly effect them, it stands to reason that a teen actually concerned with coming out would certainly take note of this type of program, which does, in fact, exist.  Creating national awareness of resources available to gay and lesbian teens is an honorable effect of a melodramatic cable television show.

Perhaps mostly importantly, this sensational show gives a modern, accurate, and positive portrayal of the friendships that exist between teenage girls.  While they were once manipulated by their overbearing friend, Alison, in the present day Hannah, Aria, Spencer, and Emily support and love one another, despite “A’”‘s attempts to pull them apart.  On shows like Sex and the City, female groups of friends often revolve around one character (in that case, Carrie), suggesting a self-centered view of friendship.  On Pretty Little Liars, the four friends are authentically a group, where the friendship between each two is specific and meaningful.  Beyond their expensive wardrobes, flawless make-up, and romantic melodrama, they are fully-drawn, articulate, smart, relatable young women.  Given the amount of crass and pandering television aimed at teen girls, these characters are a valuable asset to the television landscape.