Pretty Little Liars Is Not About Relationships — And That’s Why We Like It
Credit: Andrew Eccles/ ABC Family    

Pretty Little Liars

Pretty Little Liars Is Not About Relationships — And That’s Why We Like It

With the 100th episode of Pretty Little Liars just around the corner, director Norman Buckley took to his blog to muse about Pretty Little Liars’ popularity, asking: Why do viewers continue to watch a show that so actively procrastinates solving its central mystery? Shouldn’t viewers’ frustrations outweigh their fascination? Inspired by Norman’s convincing argument that Pretty Little Liars endures because it is more than a Dead Girl Show or an Angsty Teenage Romance, we delve into our own reasons for loving PLL, a show that is so much more than the sum of its guilty pleasure parts.

Mood over plot. Norman argues that Pretty Little Liars continues to fascinate because it is about emotion rather than answers, and we totally agree. PLL is about that feeling of being a teenager when the whole world seems against you, and the adults just don’t seem to understand. The ABC Family drama takes that angsty paranoia and gives its teenaged protagonists the agency to explore it, to fight against it, to indulge in it. And it does all of this in a female space all too often policed by patriarchy — both in reality and in TV’s depiction of reality — giving young women the agency they deserve and are so often denied.

Pretty Little Liars Is Not About Relationships — And That’s Why We Like It
Credit: ABC FAMILY/Eric McCandless    

Though the real-life teenaged girls who make up much of Pretty Little Liars’ target audience may not realistically have to worry about murder plots, they do have to worry about growing up in an America that still treats women as less than — in salary, representation, and control over our own bodies, to name a few examples. What young woman can’t relate to the fear that her life is being controlled by some faceless force, intent on keeping her quiet, afraid, and powerless? What young woman wouldn’t embrace pop culture examples of strong, female protagonists who fight against that controlling force?

Social media as fan agency. One of the aspects of Pretty Little Liars that sets it apart from many other shows is its massive social media presence. PLL is the most tweeted about show of all time. This engaged online presence is a dual result of a smart social media plan on the part of the show’s creators and producers, as well as the reality of a young, media-savvy fanbase. This show is proof that TV has entered an Age of Engagement.

For many viewers, watching a television program is no longer a fixed event that takes place between a scheduled hour every week. It is an activity that the viewer has control over, and that spills over onto Twitter, Tumblr, and YouTube. Though a significant portion of TV watchers still watch their favorite shows in a more old-fashioned way, those viewers are probably not watching Pretty Little Liars. In the creation of fandom, PLL fans — and that distinction between a “viewer” and a “fan” seems important here — are mimicking the same acts of agency the Liars themselves make within their fictional world. In this way, PLL’s lack of solid answers may even work in its favor. It gives fans the opportunity to fill in the blanks themselves, to make the story their own through through well-researched speculation posts, fanfiction, fanvids, etc. It also creates an invested, engaged viewership that is not so easily lost.

Female friendship as the most important thing. Shows about young women are so often conflated to their love lives, with all other facets of the protagonists’ identities acting as complements to their romantic identities. In another example of patriarchal policing, female friendship is often presented as less important the female protagonist’s romantic relationships — or, worse yet, depicted as a competition for a man’s affections. Pretty Little Liars takes that formula and actively subverts it. Yes, the Liars have romantic relationships — a few that even break the heteronormative mold — but those relationships are not the be-all and end-all of the Liars’ stories.

In fact, the relationships the show and the Liars themselves treat as the most important are the Liars’ friendships with one another. These girls are one another’s main support system in a way that is rarely seen on TV. The Liars tend only to be completely honest with one another, and worry about the state of their friendships before they do the state of their romantic relationships. In a television landscape teeming with shows that flatten female protagonists to the state of their love lives, Pretty Little Liars is downright subversive. We wish there were more shows like this one.

Why do you think PLL is so successful? Why do you love it? Sound off in the comments below!

Kayti Burt is a contributing writer for Wetpaint Entertainment with a penchant for all things pop culture. Follow her on Twitter and Google+!