Haunted: Mean Teen Girls & "Pretty Little Liars"

Curator's Note

Two compelling and oft-competing anti-heroines occupy the center of ABC Family’s incredibly successful teen drama Pretty Little Liars. The series’ mystery centers on the presumed death of Ali, a blonde queen bee who terrorized her former classmates. Chief among her targets was the nerdy Mona (now also sadly dead), who after Ali’s disappearance transforms herself into a popular girl-cum-villainess extraordinaire. The show revels in its warring anti-heroines with frequent references to their femme fatale predecessors, including episodes that pay homage to classic crime thrillers such as Rear Window and Psycho.

In this short post, I want to focus on the show’s recent Christmas episode, “The A Who Stole Christmas.” The episode, a mash-up of Rear Window and A Christmas Carol, sends the ghost of the recently deceased Mona to haunt Ali, newly revealed to have been alive all along. Re-working the narrative of the dead girl, upon which so many mysteries rely, this sequence features two once-and-future dead girls engaging in a confrontation. Here, the tension between Mona and Ali comes to a head: Mona emerges in Ali’s dreams with big white-ish purple hair, heavy eyeliner, and a dominatrix-like black body suit.

Having left behind her cool-girl fashion sense and her dorky pre-makeover self back in the land of the living, the ghost of Mona finally looks the part of the femme fatale. (Although, femme fatale Mona is also campy and quite funny in Ali’s imagination.) Mona evokes terror in Ali both through her costume and by offering a grim preview of a future in which Ali has died for real--and this time, nobody cares.

Mona also offers Ali something more, something good: a glimpse of Ali’s past via an earlier flashback of Ali’s mother teaching her to lie, perhaps the root of Ali’s evil. Here, the show evokes sympathy for young and presumably innocent Ali via her yellow dress and the soft white light that covers her. This sequence, like many before, suggests that anti-heroines are produced by their social circumstances from parenting to high school and well beyond.

Despite rarely being on-screen together, the Christmas episode is noteworthy because it reveals how Ali and Mona always and already function in conjunction; even in absentia one is never without the other. In pairing the two characters, the show de-stabilizes any singular narrative of evil, perhaps even undermining what it means to be an anti-heroine.


Your conclusion here, in conjunction with my and Barbara’s reaction to Bree’s post yesterday, is causing me to wonder about another possible gender imbalance with our anti-heroes. That is, is a more frequent occurrence that shows with female anti-heroines show – as part of the storyline – the root of the protagonist’s “evil” or trouble? Do we feel a woman’s aggression or demonic tendencies need to be explained they maybe a man’s do not because it is in his nature to be aggressive? And, or, do those explanation storylines get included in female narratives because it adds more emotional content to be attractive as a “soapy” genre artifact? Now, wondering aloud some more, are the soapier dramas more likely to include the sympathetic backstory than the edgier quality tv? Somebody do a content analysis, please!

Thank you so much for your comment, Kathleen! I'm not sure I quite know the answer yet ... But, I'm trying to think about the examples in yesterdays' post and comments, like with Don Draper, for instance. I feel like on Mad Men, much of the drive of the show (in the earlier seasons at least) is finding out Don Draper's origin story as a means to explain his behavior or even with Walter White, so much of Breaking Bad seemed invested (at least initially) in the origin and evolution of his evil. For Don Draper, the backstory, I think makes him or is supposed to make him more sympathetic and similarly perhaps for this is true for Walter White... I think True Detective also does similar work with the white male detectives backstory. Listing all of these, makes me think about how the representational production of evil/the anti-hero appears inevitably raced, classed, and gendered as well (like all these examples of antiheroes are straight white men). In that case, I wonder if female antiheroines get back stories like this at once for the empathetic nature of creating characters like Ali and Mona, suggesting that evil is always produced by clear causes rather than existing in the world. But, also because it is part of the more broad construction of antiheroes? That said, I certainly agree that there are different implications for how these stories about women antiheroines are told though too ... And, in the case of PLL, it definitely adds to the soapy quality while also playing into the show's concern about mean girls, bullying, and the consequences those both produce. Wherein Top of the Lake seems more in some ways in line with quality TV, even if it has clear allegiances to the soap (like Bree noted yesterday), PLL makes no such claims, fully investing in its soap-style storytelling. However, I still need to think about this more ...

From the glass half full perspective, maybe we should be pleased that so much of Mad Men, for instance, revolves around the exploration of Don's past and the origin of his trouble. Maybe we're seeing a new, more androgynous genre where action, plot, emotions and a little soap can all play nicely together. Yes, lots to think about - so thank you!

First off, I really enjoyed your post. PLL is one of my favorite shows on television, mainly due to its camp and popular culture allusions. I think it's interesting that all of the Liars' current motivations and tendencies are explained via flashbacks on the show. Spencer has deep issues with her sister, Aria has problems due to her father's indiscretions, Hannah has body issues due to her past, and Emily has sexual identity issues going back to her relationship with Ali. I think the tendency to show flashbacks to times where characters were socially conditioned or fought against adversity is an interesting aspect of all shows featuring an antihero. I think that the different levels of socio-economic status behind these characters is also interesting in addition to the gender status.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.