By Rose Yndigoyen
Earlier this year, Malinda did a post breaking down diversity in young adult bestsellers. Among the interesting things that came to light was that no matter how you break down the combination of “best selling” and “diversity representation” the Pretty Little Liars book series by Sara Shepard is a major player at that intersection.
The diversity represented in the PLL books is mainly embodied in the character of Emily Fields. Over the course of 16 books (with a few more on the way) Emily has questioned her sexuality, questioned it again, and had serious relationships with both boys and girls. The fact that Emily and her complicated queerness are an integral part of one of today’s most popular young adult series is interesting. The fact that the arc of the entire series is arguably fueled by the tension inherent in young feminine characters actively embracing their sexuality is fascinating. The fact that it’s all wrapped up in a fashion conscious, murder happy prep school setting is just damn fun.
Emily is one of four girls who make up the core Pretty Little Liars characters. The girls fall along pretty typical teen lines — Aria is the artsy one, Hanna is obsessed with fashion, Spencer is an uptight overachiever. And Emily (perhaps too typically for the one who ends up kissing girls) is the sporty one, a swim champion and good girl a little bored with the straight(laced) life. The girls were friends, and then they weren’t. When their queen bee Ali went missing a few years ago, they drifted apart to their personal dramas. But when they start receiving menacing messages from “A” who seems to know all their deepest darkest secrets, they find themselves involved in each other’s lives again, trying to figure out who has it in for them and what really happened to Ali.
Emily’s secret is that she likes girls, of course. Early on in the first book, Shepard makes it clear that Emily is lukewarm about physical contact with her boyfriend Ben but much more heated up over the new girl in town, Maya. Over the course of the next few books, Emily breaks up with her boyfriend, begins a relationship with Maya, and reveals that her friendship with Ali involved a little more-than-friendly kissing, all the while being tormented about her big gay secret by the ubiquitous A. Emily is eventually publically outed by A, rejected by her family and sent away to a conversion camp for de-gaying. Spoiler alert — that doesn’t work.
The troubling bit comes just as readers might think that Emily’s great gay life is getting of the ground. Just as her parents accept her and she reunites with Maya, Emily finds herself attracted to a boy, and a devoutly Christian boy at that. She hides her lesbian relationships in order to date him.
Now, in real life, real girls sometimes have this problem. Some girls who are bi really have to figure out how to handle the fact that they’ve already struggled to get people to understand their same-sex attraction, and now they have to struggle to get people to understand that’s not the whole story.
But in the glittery-deadly world of Pretty Little Liars, some of the nuances of Emily’s bisexual narrative are lost in the rollicking mystery plots. And the loss can make her queer identity feel erased. And, although she is clearly depicted as feeling attracted to girls and guys, the character doesn’t actually use the word bisexual to describe her identity. And maybe she’s not bi, maybe she’s pansexual or fluid or would prefer some other identity marker. But without seeing the character discuss it further, the takeaway for the reader is a bit muddied, and Emily’s position on the spectrum of sexuality depends on how much of her story you read.
But if Emily isn’t finely shaded, she is equal. The other girls’ complicated sexual and romantic relationships, and their own secrets — eating disorders, explosive tempers, older men — are painted with the same broad, salacious and admittedly entertaining brush as Emily’s story. And it is undeniably something notable in queer representation to have a bisexual main character (and the many queer girls she falls for) in a best selling young adult series.
And Emily’s impact on queer girls in popular culture is magnified many times over by the hit television show based on the Pretty Little Liars series.
Television Emily identifies as a lesbian, and show runners have said they have no plans to explore a bisexual identity for her. Emily is also brown (played by Filipino/Irish/Scottish actress Shay Mitchell) instead of white, and more confident and assertive than she is in print. The result is an incredibly likable character that is both easier to relate to and easier to admire than she is in the books.
But the fact that this really successful redux involved an erasure of her bisexuality is, well, flat-out evidence that bisexual invisibility is a real thing.
The show trades in a bit of the prep school sheen of the books for a noir aesthetic. And by adjusting some of the racial lines and socioeconomics of Rosewood, the show manages to ground the world of Pretty Little Liars in a warmer, slightly more realistic landscape. Rounding out the cast and the plots with a variety of characters that are equally likeable and suspicious, the show simultaneously keeps things mysterious and gives viewers a community that is a bit more diverse than in the books. In particular, queer female characters and their storylines (Note the plurals! Google Paige McCullers!) have been handled with care and dexterity, snagging the show two GLAAD award nominations for Outstanding Drama Series in its four season run.
Taken as a complete phenomenon, Pretty Little Liars echoes one of the series main themes — glossy surfaces can have surprising depth.
Rose Yndigoyen is a writer and archivist in New York City. Her short stories have been featured in T/OUR Magazine and the anthology Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South. She is a co-creator and co-host of the podcast Pretty Little Recaps. Rose is working on her first novel, a queer young adult love story. Rose lives with her wife in northern Manhattan; they are currently foster moms to two awesome kids. Follow her on Twitter @queerfortheory.
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