Was the ‘Pretty Little Liars’ “A” Reveal Transphobic?
Pretty Little Liars took a big risk making CeCe Drake (Vanessa Ray) "A" — and a trans woman at that. Setting aside the ways CeCe's story didn't line up with the show's timeline, the real issue with this twist is PLL has added yet another name to the depressingly long list of transgender villains in media. Was this story, as some are claiming, transphobic?
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It's clear the Pretty Little Liars writers didn't mean to imply CeCe is an evil stalker because she is trans. In fact, the writers went out of their way to make her sympathetic, putting a lot of blame on Mr. DiLaurentis for cruelly locking her in a mental institution rather than accepting her for who she is.
However, while media is making big steps in the right direction when it comes to trans representation, there's a long history of trans villains in movies and TV who are driven by psychopathy connected to their gender identity confusion. These stories are often blatantly transphobic, and by echoing them, Pretty Little Liars inadvertently reinforces negative, baseless stereotypes.
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Divorced from this cultural context, CeCe's story might not seem problematic, but we can't just leave the larger culture aside. There were moments — especially when she was admiring herself in the mirror and talking about how she was almost like Ali's twin — where CeCe played right into these harmful tropes; the writers didn't mean to indicate that CeCe's harmful obsession with Ali was connected to her desire to be accepted as the woman she is, but it was easy to read that way, especially given how many times we've seen similar scenes with hateful undertones.
It's not just us — as you can see by these tweets, many fans were bothered by this twist.
the PLL finale was the worst thing I have ever seen. it was poorly written, totally nonsensical, and absolutely transphobic oh my goddddfather time (@padfootprongd) August 12, 2015
What an offensive mediocre piece of trash tonight's #PLL was! Victim-blaming, abuser-excusing, & transphobic, plus that godawful greenscreenemily m (@zetafiction) August 12, 2015
#CeCeIsA or rather the pll writers wrote in a really gross and transphobic storyline for the sake of shock valuelaurry (@canaryxwest) August 12, 2015
@imarleneking Out of curiosity... Did you think for a second that the incest part was gonna save you from the mental illness trans issue?disAppointment. (@SmartassHerm) August 12, 2015
That said, we shouldn't just ignore what the writers were trying to do here. Pretty Little Liars has always been strong on LGBT stories — Emily's (Shay Mitchell) coming out arc remains one of the best in TV history — and the show is run by open minded, well-meaning creatives, many of whom are LGBT themselves; obviously no one involved here thinks being trans is a bad thing. They clearly put a lot of thought into this story, trying to create a sympathetic villain twisted into the stalker she became by abusive parents. In many ways, CeCe's trans identity was beside the point, other than it gave her father a reason to hate her.
Show director Norman Buckley took to Twitter to defend the plot, explaining that it's really about how abuse begets more abuse, and arguing that part of progress is making complex characters with all sorts of identities, not just morally pure ones:
For me, the themes of #PLL have always been about the ideas of lies and redemption.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
The idea of the shadow, or the ugliness and rejected part of ourselves, has always been a fundamental part of the storytelling.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
I think #PLL always subverts the idea of the nuclear family and tonight's episode certainly did that.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
I don't agree with those that say every LGBT character should be shown without blemish.In fact that's one of the powerful things about #PLL.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
To tell a narrative of abuse begetting abuse is exactly the story that has been told from the very beginning of the #PLL series.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
I am openly gay, and I could tell many stories of gay men's internalized homophobia. To tell stories helps dissect it., which is healthy.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
PLL has a history of redeeming its villains, which is one of the most compelling things about it for me.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
One thing we can all agree on is this: at least people are talking about these issues and taking them seriously, and that is a very good thing.
IMHO the very debate surrounding tonight's #PLL does more to shine light on these issues than would be there without it.Norman Buckley (@norbuck) August 12, 2015
Check out more of Wetpaint's coverage of the Pretty Little Liars season 6 right here: