Scroll To Top
Women

Op-Ed: Hitchcock, Hot Moms, and Other Reasons I'm Obsessed with 'Pretty Little Liars'

Op-Ed: Hitchcock, Hot Moms, and Other Reasons I'm Obsessed with 'Pretty Little Liars'

Op-Ed: Hitchcock, Hot Moms, and Other Reasons I'm Obsessed with 'Pretty Little Liars'

Tonight we bid farewell to Emily, Spencer, Hanna and Aria for three more months and I’m already missing my not-so-guilty pleasure.

TracyEGilchrist

Tonight we welcome back Emily, Spencer, Hanna and Aria for three more months and I can't freaking wait. If you don’t know who those four characters are then you are obviously not one of the many adults obsessed with, and perhaps in the closet about ABC Family’s soapy thriller Pretty Little Liars. The show revolves around a clique of girls whose queen bee is murdered, leaving the girls vulnerable to the machinations of a team of hooded, tech-savvy blackmailers, extortionists and would-be killers who work under the name “A.”

Full disclosure – well, partial disclosure. I am a woman of… let’s call it a “certain age. That is to say that I am not PLL’s target audience—or am I?  To provide some context, when I was in high school, like the teen characters in this part-Nancy Drew/part-Hitchcock series, kids were dying their hair pink, blue, or whatever shade of Manic Panic they could grab, and getting earnestly maudlin listening to The Smiths -- kind of like they are now, but without the irony. 

I share my obsession with Pretty Little Liars with my 15-year-old niece, who lives near Atlanta. During premieres and finales we Facebook each other about it. “Happy A Day,” or “Happy BetrAyal Day” we write to each other. She’s a high school freshman on the cheer squad. I’m an often-curmudgeonly editor of a lesbian website who’s too tired to cheer about much of anything most of the time, yet we share our love of PLL. Last year my friend at Warner Brothers got the show’s stars Shay Mitchell, Troian Bellisario, Ashley Benson, and Lucy Hale to autograph two cast photos. One was to my niece, the other was to me (my friend surprised me with the pic. I'm not that much of a crazy fan girl and yet I'm waxing on about the show). The photo is tacked to the wall of my office, and yes, I display it with some irony. But mostly, I’m as sincere about my love for PLL as I can be about anything.

As an avowed shipper of PLL I’m well aware of the show’s many attributes, but when pressed to explain to my colleagues why I’m posting another PLL clip, story, spoiler or Shot Of The Day of its stars, I feel some degree of shame—although, down deep, I know I shouldn’t. The series, based on the young adult novels by Sara Shepard, is the only destination television that I currently watch other than The Good Wife. On Tuesday night I’m on the couch, remote in hand, ready to promptly rewind if I miss a beat, a nod or a clue to the mystery of A. But I’m also hard-pressed to explain how a knotty soap about a clique of unrealistically easy-on-the-eyes (they’re not called Homely Little Liars after all), high school-aged fashion icons is one of the smartest shows on television, wrapping up themes of friendship, loyalty, first-love, cyber-bullying, and coming out in a package that includes unabashed, thoughtful homages to some of cinema’s greatest works.

A few months back, Entertainment Weekly ran a cover story on PLL and it’s social networking prowess entitled “The Surprising Power of Pretty Little Liars: How this Twisty, Over-the-Top Teen Mystery is Changing TV.” Relieved when I saw the article I tweeted, “Thank God for this. Proof I'm not just an old weirdo obsessed with a teen show. It really does have more going on than meets the eye!”

 

 

EW’s cover story focused primarily on how the series --which, at its core is about cyber-bullying, surveillance and vulnerability in the digital age -- is setting new bars for social networking standards. The PLL social networking phenomenon is a new kind of meta in which the show’s themes are reflected in real cyber life at any given moment on Instagram, Twitter and Keek.  Just tweet at producer Marlene or one of the four stars and they might just retweet you. They’re plugged in like no other show out there. While PLL boldly takes viewers to new heights on any given social networking site and the absurd mystery sustains viewers much like Revenge’s excellent first season, the root of its appeal lies in its self-reflexive, un-ironic, love of literature film and mostly in its lovable characters and truthful story telling. 

Pretty Little Liars’ creators Marlene King and Oliver Goldstick have made no secret of their obsession with Hitchcock -- they end each season with a Hitch-themed episode.

Janet Leigh in Psycho (1960)

Hanna (Ashley Benson) in PLL's Season 2 Finale 

But in recently reviewing one of the early episodes I discovered they’d paid homage to my all-time favorite filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni with a full-on nod to his most famous film Blow Up. On the surface, Shay Mitchell’s character Emily struggles with coming out while falling for Maya (Bianca Lawson), the girl who moved into the Liars’ dead friend, the Queen Bee Alison’s, old house. Emily and Maya share their first kiss in a photo booth at a popular guy’s party. By the time they’re done with their kiss, A, the mysterious, hooded and gloved blackmailer, has stolen the photos. Later, the photos appear on A’s wall in a scene that echoes Blow Up, which is about a mod fashion photographer who captures a photo of what may or may not be a crime.

David Hemmings in Blow Up (1966)

Emily and Maya's photo booth photos PLL Ep. 1.3 

The crime of course is in the eye of the beholder. As it turns out, Emily’s snogging her female classmate in a photo booth is met with various reactions. Her friends, the Liars, who are really the nicest mean girls ever, accept her without question, while Emily’s mom (played by Nia Peeples) struggles to understand. The photos can only be used against Emily if she believes what she sees is wrong. On the surface PLL paid slick homage to Antonioni, but at its heart, the scene got to the crux of Emily’s coming out dilemma.

 

 

While the Blow Up reference is one of my personal favorites, the series is rife with literary and film odes, but never without context. In season one alone the girls read To Kill a Mockingbird and Madame Bovary, with the novels’ themes of morality echoing in the Liars’ lives. And Hitch may be a touchstone for many a PLL plot, but it’s never gratuitous. For instance, Emily works at Rear Window Brew, the local coffee shop in their hometown of Rosewood, Penn. -- as a side note, the not-so sleepy town in Hitch’s Shadow of a Doubt is Santa Rosa. The Rose in Rosewood is likely no coincidence. At its shallowest level Rear Window Brew is a blatant Hitchcock nod, but dig deeper and it’s the hub of Rosewood, the fishbowl of the small town where the girls are continually under surveillance. Think of the neighbors across the way from Jimmy Stewart’s (Jeff’s) apartment where he watched them day and night with the help of an ever-growing lens. The girls cannot escape that scrutiny at the Brew, in Rosewood, or in a world of social media.

Of course, PLL is not the first teen show to invoke classical Hollywood, or even foreign cinema. Joss Whedon was the king of infusing Buffy the Vampire Slayer with goodies for nerdy cinephiles. Buffy had a Luis Bunuel Exterminating Angel episode for God’s sake! But PLL has brought obsession with cinema to new heights (Vertigo pun intended). One of PLL’s directors, Norman Buckley, an avowed lover of melodrama, has spoken at length about the show’s many allusions. He’s filmically referenced Rear Window, the French film Le Plaisir, Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, and Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. Earlier this season he blocked a scene with Hanna (Benson) and Toby (Keegan Allen) at a church dance, a frame-for-frame recreation of the 1938 Barbara Stanwyck comedy The Mad Miss Manton.PLLers curious enough to research where the series’ multiple allusions derive from are treated to an impromptu education in classical Hollywood cinema. And for film buffs like me who spend weekends at The American Cinematheque double features, PLL offers loads of celluloid-themed treats.

I’d be remiss not to mention the show’s cast at large. While all of its young stars, girls and boys included, are fetching in their own right, the series also boasts moms whose appeal hearkens to the generations before this one. Children of the 80s will remember the timeless Nia Peeples (Emily’s mom Pam) from Fame the TV show. Again, attempting to not quite reveal my age, I will say that one of my earliest same-sex crushes was on Peeples at a time when there were no gay characters on television, and now she plays mom to the show’s teen lady-killer. For children of the 90s PLL features the excellent Laura Leighton (Melrose Place) as Hanna’s sexy, single mom. And Aria’s mom Ella is played by Holly Marie Combs (Picket Fences, Charmed), who is often the show’s voice of reason. Producers were smart in casting parents who had deep roots in pop culture from prior generations. I know I absolutely tuned in at first in part to watch my early crush Peeples.

Vintage Nia Peeples 

Curiosity about Peeples may have spurred me to check out PLL halfway into its first season, and the filmic allusions, the twisted mystery brimming with gasp-inducing cliffhangers and the solid love and camaraderie among the four leads definitely lend to the series’ rich texture. Ultimately though, PLL keeps me coming back with its solid, thoughtful coming out story. As heady and pseudo-academic as I can try to be over my love of PLL, the plain and simple truth is that the gay storyline is as heartfelt and authentic as any I’ve seen in pop culture.

Nia as Pam Fields and Shay as Emily Fields

As a child of fairly open-minded parents in Connecticut, my coming out was as easy as they go really, but kids of my generation still hungered for LGBT representation in a time before Ellen,The L Word and South of Nowhere, and I was one of those kids. I’ve worked in gay media for 11 years and I waitressed and managed at an LGBT bookstore/café in Hartford in the ‘90s. I experienced New Gay Cinema first-hand as it unfolded, but there’s no fully atoning for the lack of representation when I was a kid. I’m both happy for and envious of the young queers today who get to claim Emily as a role model. And if it’s not enough that PLL’s young LGBT viewers had Emily’s coming out as inspiration during its first season, PLL’s season two featured her now girlfriend Paige (Lindsey Shaw) struggling with internal homophobia only to emerge as one of the most loyal and adorable lesbian characters and girlfriends in TV history.

Paige and Emily 

As infinitely cute as Nia Peeples was to me when she was on Fame in her leotards, leg warmers and gold hair bands, I still longed for something I didn’t know existed. PLL fills that void, not only for young people grappling with their sexuality, but for people like me who still long for representation. PLL is retroactive validation in a pretty package with a deliciously outlandish central arc, and as A might text, "I just can't get enough of it bitches." 

Like SheWired on Facebook. 

Follow SheWired on Twitter. 

Advocate Channel - The Pride StoreOut / Advocate Magazine - Fellow Travelers & Jamie Lee Curtis

From our Sponsors

Most Popular

Latest Stories

author avatar

Tracy E. Gilchrist

<p>Cinephile, cyclist, proud cat lady and unabashed Pretty Little Liars guru.</p>

<p>Cinephile, cyclist, proud cat lady and unabashed Pretty Little Liars guru.</p>