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Pretty Little Liars knows what it’s like to be a teen girl better than any other show on TV

Pretty Little Liars Freeform
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

TV is about to lose one of its weirdest, creepiest, and best teen shows.

The TV network Freeform, née ABC Family, announced last fall that the current season of Pretty Little Liars will be the show’s last. Tonight, the show will air its midseason premiere, heading into its final stretch of episodes before the series finale.

The news is neither unexpected nor entirely unwelcome, even for fans of the show. The main cast’s contracts were all set to expire after season seven, and none of the cast was likely to return. And the show has clearly been on its last legs for a while: The main characters all graduating from high school last season, after stretching junior and senior years into six seasons, was a pretty clear sign that the end was nigh.

Still, in its prime, Pretty Little Liars was something special. At its heart, Pretty Little Liars is about the terror and paranoia that comes with being a teenage girl and realizing that men are always watching you. It mines the history of classic horror and suspense — especially the work of Alfred Hitchcock — for established tropes, and then uses them to delve into the deepest, darkest, and most primal fears of adolescent girls.

Spoilers for the show follow.

Pretty Little Liars is designed for high school

Got a secret, can you keep it?

Swear this one you’ll save.

Pretty Little Liars has a deceptively simple structure: Five teenage girls are best friends. Their leader, Alison, goes missing. One year later, the remaining four girls begin to receive ominous text messages from some anonymous figure called A. A knows everything about the girls, including all their deepest and darkest secrets, but all they know about A is that A is not Alison.

A wants the titular Liars to suffer. To that end, A goes on to blackmail the girls, frame them for assorted crimes, lure them to various spooky locations to lock them up, and torment them in a series of progressively more elaborate ways.

Over the past seven seasons, different A’s have been unmasked and then replaced by other vengeful A’s — bullied classmates and secret cousin/sisters and shady ex-boyfriends. Alison has appeared to die and then announced that she faked her own death; other girls have become the missing/dead girl in her place. The show could, theoretically, keep on generating new A’s and new dead girls and continue forever — but that approach falters once it’s time for the main characters to leave high school. Because these characters are very specific types, ones that make most sense in the context of a teen soap.

Alison (Sasha Pieterse) is the queen bee mean girl, one who wields secrets like weapons to keep her friends and enemies in line. Spencer (Troian Bellisario, who is to this cast what Leighton Meester was to Gossip Girl) is the driven overachiever with the inferiority complex and the Adderall addiction. Emily (Shay Mitchell) is the closeted lesbian with religious parents. Hanna (Ashley Benson) is the glamorous homecoming queen who used to be fat. Aria (Lucy Hale) is the artsy one who’s secretly dating her English teacher.

It’s to the show’s credit that the titular liars are more than just their stock types, that they’ve developed and grown with the show into three-dimensional characters. (Mostly. I’m looking at you, Aria.) But they are clearly characters designed for a high school show, who speak most clearly to the fears and insecurities of teenage girls. That’s what the show was created to do. And its weapon of choice for doing so is some seriously old-school suspense tropes.

Pretty Little Liars’ first A is the show’s Norman Bates

Better lock it in your pocket,

Taking this one to the grave.

At the end of Hitchcock’s Psycho, when Norman Bates has been caught at last and is safely behind bars, he has one last interior monologue. The camera pushes slowly and steadily in on him, sitting in his cell, as we hear him thinking in the voice of his dead mother. “They’re probably watching me,” he thinks. “Well, let them. Let them see what kind of a person I am. I’m not even going to swat that fly. I hope they are watching. They’ll see. They’ll see and they’ll know, and they’ll say, ‘Why, she wouldn’t even harm a fly.’”

It’s an iconic moment, one that lets viewers in on the true extent of Norman’s psychosis. It’s been parodied over and over in pop culture, but when Pretty Little Liars echoes it, as the show unmasks its first A, it’s not aiming for pure humor. Instead, the moment is right on the borderline of camp and terror.

The first A is Mona, who functions as a kind of mean girl on steroids — she makes Hanna, a recovering bulimic, binge on pig-decorated cupcakes and then sends her to the bathroom to purge; she sends Emily taunting notes about her secret crush on Alison. Mona is finally caught and put behind bars, and at 1:50 in the clip below, the camera pushes in on her, straightjacketed in her cell, as we hear her inner monologue.

“They think it’s over,” she thinks. “Loser Mona’s going to the nuthouse and those precious liars are going home to sleep with their windows open and their doors unlocked. Don’t they know that’s what we want?”

On that final we, the score spikes in horror and triumph: Oh no! Mona thinks she’s talking to someone else!

The we that she’s talking to is Alison, who bullied Mona unmercifully and called her “Loser Mona” before she disappeared. (Alison’s limited imagination for mean nicknames is one of the few completely realistic aspects of Pretty Little Liars.)

Mona successfully makes herself over after Alison’s disappearance, losing her glasses and headgear and buying herself a trendy new wardrobe. She spearheads Hanna’s makeover, pushing her to lose weight and change her clothing and hairstyle until she becomes Alison’s double. When Hanna at last takes over Alison’s spot at the top of the social pyramid, Mona is her best friend and second in command.

But she’s terrified of returning to her old persona as Loser Mona, or that Hanna might abandon her for the rest of the Liars.

So she punishes the Liars for her fears by becoming A, and she takes on Alison’s persona to do it. (Alison, that Hitchcock blonde.) She writes messages in Alison’s voice and uses Alison’s old sign-off. It’s a move very similar to Norman Bates taking on his dead mother’s persona, but the emotional underpinning is entirely different.

Norman was abused by his mother, who told him that women were whores and sex was a sin. He takes on her persona to kill the women he is attracted to, to punish them for making him feel sinful lust. Norman, in other words, is a monster created by women and the terrifying urges they inspire. His psychosis is specifically masculine; he is scary because women and sex are scary.

Mona, in contrast, becomes A to deal with her complex feelings for her mean-girl bully and her best friend. Mona hates Alison, but she also aspires to reach the social power that Alison wielded. She loves Hanna, who allows her to access that social power by proxy, but she also hates Hanna because she knows that if Hanna abandoned her she would have nothing. What makes Mona a monster is the dizzyingly complex power structure of teen girl friendships and social hierarchies.

But Pretty Little Liars uses more than a single specific Hitchcockian suspense trope to play with teen girl fears. More broadly, it uses the tropes of masks, dolls, and, above all, surveillance.

In the world of Pretty Little Liars, you’re always being watched

If I show you then I know you

Won’t tell what I said

Fundamentally, Pretty Little Liars is a show about surveillance culture and voyeurism. Which Hitchcock liked, too — but Hitchcock liked to make the protagonist the voyeur, like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, watching his neighbors through their windows. In Pretty Little Liars, A is the voyeur, the watcher. The protagonists are the watched.

A is terrifying because A can see everything and knows all. A always has the receipts for the Liars’ most incriminating moments — video and texts and conveniently dropped bracelets. The show is full of A-POV shots where the Liars are framed through a window or the crack of a closet door, because A is always there, always watching.

The same goes for more minor villains, like the NAT club. The NAT club is made up of a group of boys just a few years older than the Liars, with NAT standing for “nos animadverto totus,” or “we see all.” And their primary club activity is peering through the windows of teenage girls and taking videos of them changing their clothes — videos that A, of course, uses as blackmail material.

The villains on Pretty Little Liars are always watching, and that’s because, as Scaachi Koul has pointed out on BuzzFeed, rape culture is surveillance culture:

Men watch women in a way we’ve long since normalized. It’s normal for men to watch you when you enter a bar, to watch what you’re drinking, what you’re doing, in an attempt to get closer to you. It’s normal for them to offer you a drink, and when you say no, to press a little further with are you sure, come on, have one drink with me. (When a guy asks to buy you a drink, suggest he buy you a snack instead and see how that goes over.) Men watch women at the gym, at work, on the subway: In any space occupied by men and women, the latter are being watched. We’re so used to it that we hardly notice.

Pretty Little Liars catches its protagonists in adolescence, before this watching has become completely normalized. The Liars are just beginning to realize that as girls, they will always be watched — and they are also just beginning to realize how terrifying that is.

Fans of the show sometimes say that on Pretty Little Liars, there’s something in the water that gives all the women perfect hair and turns all the men into sex offenders. The vast majority of the men on the show are either voyeurs like the NAT boys or else adult men who show themselves to be surprisingly willing to date 16-year-old girls. The Liars are constantly on the receiving end of romantic overtures from teachers and police officers and doctors; their boyfriends are constantly revealed to be spying on them “for their own good.”

At the bottom of all this surveillance and voyeurism is the creeping, horrifying realization that the world has begun to objectify you, and that it will never, ever stop. It will always be watching you and evaluating you.

Creepy dolls and masks abound

‘Cause two can keep a secret

Pretty Little Liars gets a lot of mileage out of creepy dolls and creepy masks. The Liars are forever getting locked into the abandoned children’s ward of a mental hospital so they can find a broken old-timey doll that speaks in code, or finding dummies wearing masks of their faces that have been hanged in effigy.

Those aren’t particularly Hitchcockian tropes; they’re more general horror — think the dolls in the Child’s Play franchise or the masks the villains wear in Nightmare on Elm Street or Halloween. In horror, masks are most iconically used to dehumanize their villains, and dolls to signify the corruption of innocence and the uncanny valley. But on Pretty Little Liars, they’re all about objectification.

All of the A’s like to think of the Liars as their dolls. They keep dolls dressed and styled like the Liars, which they then mutilate, or which they send to the Liars with threatening notes. “I miss my dolls,” says Mona, longingly, after her reign as A is over. A later A traps the Liars in an underground bunker called the Dollhouse and tortures them; one of the things they’re forced to do in the Dollhouse is play tea party.

The A’s also love to wear masks of Alison’s face, and they distribute them widely among their lieutenants and decoys, so that whenever the Liars think that they have finally — finally! — caught an A and rip away their hood, all they see is a plastic Alison face. Or the A’s will make masks of the Liars’ faces, which they then wear to make threatening videos to send to them. Or they’ll put those masks on dummies and mutilate them like oversize dolls.

Dolls and masks are terrifying on Pretty Little Liars because that’s what A wants to turn the Liars into: pretty, passive objects who will do what they’re told and won’t cause any trouble, who are only there to be looked at. A is the patriarchy, and the mask-wearing doll is the patriarchy’s ideal woman.

Pretty Little Liars is dying, but that doesn’t mean it’s disposable

If one of them is dead

Pretty Little Liars has a reputation as a silly, sudsy show, and that’s not entirely unearned. There are lots of scenes where the four protagonists read a text aloud in unison and then make identical shocked faces at the camera; the show has never once explained a plot in a way that makes a lick of sense; it once stretched three months of showtime into 49 episodes, during which time a teenager became a licensed police officer; and it seems determined to go to its grave maintaining that student/teacher relationships can be really romantic.

But it’s also a lot more than a disposable bit of froth. Beneath the campy mayhem is a surprisingly sophisticated look at some of the deepest, darkest fears of teenage girls, one that delves deeply into the horror of realizing that the world is watching you, that it considers you an object. Pretty Little Liars is a show about realizing that the world wants to make you a doll, and about fighting back against it.

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