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Freeform's Predator Problem

Did 'Pretty Little Liars' groom us to be groomed?

Please be aware this article contains discussions of sexual perversion, coercion, assault, and grooming. 

15-year-old me may not have realised it at the time, but cable channel Freeform’s YA series Pretty Little Liars (PLL) is one of the most problematic TV shows we grew up watching. Set in the Pennsylvanian town of Rosewood, the series depicts a friendship group of five girls, one of whom goes missing in the middle of the night. We spend the next seven seasons (yes, seven seasons) following the girls as they grow up and struggle with what Freeform decided were the popular problems of 2010: eating disorders, paedophilia, prostitution, and murder. And that’s just within the pilot episode. 

I could spend years talking about the repercussions of PLL’s said obsessions, but for the purpose of this article, we’re focusing on just one: paedophilia. If you’re in the know, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about already. Two of the first relationships established in the pilot — namely between Aria and Ezra, and Spencer and Wren — are utterly immoral. They’re not illegal, because the girls are established as 16 years old, but for someone who rewatched the show recently (for this article, definitely not for procrastination) these relationships are abhorrent. 

Aria meets Ezra in a bar before the first day of her sophomore year. She lies to him, like most 16-year-olds do, claiming to be 18. After a night spent making out in the bathroom, Aria walks into her first English class of the year — and there, standing in front of a blackboard with ‘Mr Fitz’ scrawled across it, is Ezra. Initially, Ezra does arguably the right thing and rejects her — on the grounds of the situation, I might add, and not her age. But they soon fall back into flirtation, then dating, and eventually a sexual relationship. No matter how many times their friends plead with them to stop their “entanglement”, or the life-changing sum of money Mrs Fitzgerald offers Aria, the two just can’t stay away from each other. They’re in love. 

The message Freeform wants to send 15-year-old girls becomes clear: love conquers all, and people like Mrs Fitzgerald stand in love’s way. By manipulating the directing, the staging, the music, and everything non-spoken about the ‘Ezria’ scenes, their message — unfortunately — is potent. 

The problem with Ezra, however, goes beyond his paedophilic relationship with Aria. Firstly, in Season 5, we discover that Ezra moved to Rosewood with the sole intention of writing a book about the girl who goes missing, Alison. This means that he knew Aria was 16 when they met. In fact, he orchestrated their meeting in the pub and bought her a night of drinks in order for her to spill information about her friend’s disappearance. That’s not even the worst part. He had, in fact, met Alison two summers prior while summering in Cape Cod — where they had relations at her ripe old age of 14. 

According to the show, however, he’s a hero: he took a bullet for Aria and provided evidence to the police for entirely too many murders for a town of 7,999 people. Naturally, Aria and Ezra get married in the final episode of the show, their love story cemented as “aspirational”. This also solidifies Aria as the series’ main character, and thus the girl the show suggests is the most interesting, and most popular friend. She’s the perfect girl, and the girl Freeform wants us to be.

Even worse, while Aria and Ezra’s relationship may be arguably the focus of the show, paedophilia (and relationships involving literal statutory rape) crops up many a time throughout the series. 

In another relationship established in the pilot episode, 16-year-old Spencer is targeted by her sister’s fiancé, mid-twenties Wren. When they meet, they hit it off. The staging’s right, the music is romantic, and all too soon Wren has established an inside joke — a little shared secret — with dear old Spencer. That’s step 1. Step 2 is easier: isolate Spencer from her family. By monopolising the sisterly rivalry between Spencer and her sister, Wren paints himself as a saint — Spencer’s hero. By the end of the pilot, he’s already engaged in step 3: initiating physical contact. He begins to offer Spencer massages, under the guise of being a doctor. After another evening where Wren slides his drinks her way in an effort to get her to loosen up at a family dinner, they finally kiss. And that’s just by the second episode. 

Freeform writers knew that what they were doing was — you know — wrong. The show Pretty Little Liars was originally a series of books, heavily problematic in their own right, written by Sara Shepard. But when Marlene King pitched PLL to Freeform, somehow her ideas were even worse than what the show came to be. In the pilot pitches, Ezra Fitz was 26 years old, whereas in the show it’s hinted he’s about 22. Wren was a doctor, making him at least 30, but instead, they frame him as roughly 26 and a medical student, rather than a qualified doctor. Both characters attracted controversy for rogue plotlines but never were they vilified for their age. So why should other 16-year-old girls vilify them for that, either?

In the same way PLL teaches girls that sexual coercion is okay if he’s as hot as Ian Harding (Ezra’s actor), the show also affects male viewers. The obvious narrative is a step-by-step guide on how to groom children. But, I would argue further, PLL also teaches boys that they should be attracted to young girls, that those who stand in their way of a relationship are the people at fault, and that love is on their side. 

This then exacerbates what’s known in the anthropological and marketing world as ‘the Lolita Effect’ — named after Vladimir Nabokov’s 1995 novel, Lolita,  which portrays a love story between a literature professor in his late-thirties, and a 12-year-old girl named Dolores. The effect describes how film, TV, literature, and marketing media all push the ideal woman to be in the image of a child: pink lips, clear skin, hairlessness, big eyes, soft skin, and a small chest. All attributes you famously find in 12-year-old girls. Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars perpetuates this same low-level paedophilic manipulation.

As a victim of sexual assault and coercion, this is a tough topic for me. I am now questioning the extent to which shows like PLL were the reason I stayed with an abusive ex-boyfriend for as long as I did. Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, and That 70’s Show all exhibit the same hypersexualisation of teenage girls that has long frequented Hollywood — in late 20th Century movies like Manhattan, American Beauty, the aforementioned Lolita, and East of Eden. Every adolescent girl was told she was mature, intelligent, and ‘jailbait’ (used to describe people who are under the age of consent but sexually attractive). Are girls primed to follow in these characters’ footsteps? Was I groomed into romanticising age gaps? Was I groomed into accepting situations of sexual coercion? Did PLL teach us to accept predatory grooming? 

The answer to all of these questions is yes. Freeform’s seven-season show not only groomed us to be groomed, but it also taught groomers how to groom us. I think I’ll be sticking to On My Block.

Illustration by: Aimee Robbins

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