Controversy tends to follow the ABC Family hit Pretty Little Liars. For most of its run, critics and fans have argued over whether it’s acceptable for the teen drama to depict high-school student Aria’s relationship with her teacher, Ezra, in a positive light. Earlier this month, in its midseason finale, the show gave viewers a new, arguably offensive twist to debate. (Spoilers after the jump.)
In its final episode of the summer, PLL revealed the identity of “A,” the mysterious villain who has tortured the show’s four young protagonists since the series premiere — and, without getting too deep into the show’s labyrinthine plot, “A” turned out to be a transgender woman. Plenty of commentators have outlined everything that was right and wrong about this storyline; as Heather Hogan of Autostraddle wrote in the introduction to a thorough and nuanced consideration of the episode, “Pretty Little Liars made a transgender woman A, and in some ways it was remarkable and wonderful, and in other ways it was painful and damaging.”
In an interview after the finale, PLL creator I. Marlene King explained that the villain, born Charles but now known as Charlotte (and introduced to the show’s characters and viewers as CeCe), isn’t supposed to be unhinged because she’s transgender. “Actually, we tried to be very clear that Charles comes from a very crazy family,” King said. “Crazy runs in the family, I say, and it just so happens that this person, I think, suffered some tragic consequences of a crazy family, but having nothing to do with [being] transgender.”
That may well be true, but even if viewers assume the best about King’s intentions with the Charlotte storyline, it will be very difficult for them to do the same with the language PLL is using to promote it. A tweet posted this afternoon to ABC Family’s official Pretty Little Liars account reads:
The tweet was deleted shortly after it was posted, presumably in response to followers’ protests that referring to a trans woman as “he” and “it” is flagrantly transphobic. But the fact that it was created in the first place is a disappointing, potentially hurtful misstep from a show that has handled LGBT issues well in the past — and a network that has proven itself one of TV’s most progressive, on issues ranging from race to class to disability.
It’s also a reminder that, even in the age of Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox and Transparent, the entertainment industry still has a long way to go in learning how to respectfully represent a wide range of gender identities. After all the conversation Pretty Little Liars‘ plot twist and, now, this unfortunate tweet have generated, it would be wonderful to see ABC Family treat the pushback it’s been getting as an opportunity to bridge that knowledge gap — among both the members of its own team and the network’s young audience.