The ABC Family television show Pretty Little Liars, also known as PLL, is probably the most successful show on the channel to date.
The series has broken massive amounts of records, including the record for the most tweeted about television show.
Also, each season finale has been the night’s most watched telecast on their air dates. However, what I find more ground-breaking about this show, is that one of the main characters is a gay female; something very uncommon in modern television.
This revolutionary step in visibility of homosexuality has surprisingly not caused PLL’s ratings to decline.
Broadcast statistics show that Pretty Little Liars target demographic is of females ages 12 to 18. With all these record-breaking ratings, it would appear those young women are invested in a character who is a lesbian.
According to Communications Scholar Bonnie Dow, most networks dispute that audiences find difficulty in accepting and relating to a lesbian character, yet Emily Fields is one of the most favored out of the four main characters of the show.
I believe and am excited that Emily is a step toward increased visibility of lesbians in media, especially within the teen demographic.
Although PLL is mostly a work of fiction—with a story line about a woman who is murdered but mysteriously comes back to life—still feel that the show truthfully portrays young lesbian couples.
However, I do believe this show does not accurately portray the life of a lesbian girl in high school.
ABC Family premiered PLL on June 10, 2010, with a total of 2.48 million viewers.
When the show first aired, we were introduced to Emily in a cabin in her friend’s back yard.
At first, Fields comes off as shy and very quiet, but we learn that she loves to swim and is active on the school’s swim team.
She is not your typical lesbian character that is usually stereotyped with lesbian woman, however. Emily does dress more “sporty” than the rest of the girls, but her character is not overtly “masculine.”
Her homosexuality is introduced right away, but at first it is depicted as more of a girl “experimenting,” rather than actually defining herself as a lesbian.
As more episodes aired, viewers of the show learned that Emily was in love with her dead friend, Alison, who the show’s mystery revolves around.
The writers use this as a segue to open up more details of Emily’s sexuality. That’s when we meet Maya.
Maya was Emily’s first girlfriend on the show.
The couple seemed to have a normal relationship. They hold hands like everyone else in the school, kissed in public and even went on dates.
Emily and Maya are treated as a normal couple, despite the fact they were two girls. Recalling the section episodes when Emily did date Maya, I remember that they kissed at least once in every episode Maya was featured in.
The series even has lesbian love scenes, but not the ones we are used to seeing on television.
Eventually, Maya has to leave town to go to rehab. The night before, she and Emily have a final moment together. This scene could have been depicted as clearly made for the male eye; a steamy sex scene between two women.
However, Emily and Maya’s last goodbye was sweet, romantic and not visibly sexual. It was implied that couple had sex and the scene was used as a testament to Emily and Maya’s love for each other.
However, once Maya leaves, this isn’t the end of Emily’s love life.
Another trailblazing factor of Emily’s story line is that she continues to pursue and date women even after her relationship with Maya ends. Emily begins to date a woman named Paige, which gets serious as time goes on.
The writers of the show made it a point to emphasize that when Emily and Paige said, “I love you,” to each other for the first time, it was a special moment…
The couple is seen sitting in Emily’s room having an argument. The conversation turns into a passionate ramble about how they feel about each other. They profess their love for each other, and kiss. This scenario is one that can be described for countless story lines of heterosexual couples in mainstream media.
Emily and Paige’s passionate confession of love for each other is treated the same way. The moment these two share is seen as intimate and loving, not sexual or the two women are out to seek pleasure.
According to Communication Scholars Charles E. Morris and John M. Sloop, gay kissing is usually silenced in most adult mainstream media. However, Pretty Little Liars always displays visual rhetoric of lesbian kissing in almost every episode. Given the visual invisibility of gay and lesbian characters, there is an invisibility of gay and lesbian intimacy as well. Seeing Emily and Paige share moments like these generates more visibility of visual rhetoric of gay and lesbian intimacy.
Despite PLL’s accurate depiction and creation of visibility for lesbian couples, the show neglects the social aspect of being a young adult lesbian. When Emily is forced to “come out” to her three other friends, Aria, Hanna, and Spencer by a police officer, her friends are not shocked, do not question, or even console Emily. She tells them and then it turns into a verbal dispute against the cop about something completely different. Then Emily starts to be more open about her relationship with Maya, publicly holding hands and kissing.
Everyone around Emily accepts her. Her sexuality never brings Emily challenges besides in her family life. Her sexuality is usually the punch line to most of the jokes on the show. I believe the writers are down-playing homophobia so they can focus more on her romantic life.
Emily does have problems with her family, but it is only discussed within maybe four or five episodes of the show. Her “coming out” is down-played, and her homosexuality is pretty much ignored by the other students. What I believe this factor of PLL creates is an invisibility of homophobia, which is just as bad as invisibility of homosexuality.
Although there have been improvements, society has a long way to go before there is full visibility for homosexual men and woman. I am happy that Emily from Pretty Little Liars is a great start to visibility of homosexuality to be a regular occurrence.
If you still don’t believe there is an invisibility of homosexuality, think of the last time you saw two men having sex on cable television as graphic as you would seen a man and a woman having sex. That’s what I thought.
Matthew can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org