Thursday, February 23, 2012

Pretty Little... Lesbians?

Every so often, a television show goes on air that defies all social norms. The next show to present this shock value is ABC Family’s hit show Pretty Little Liars. With over three million viewers worldwide, this cult phenomenon’s outstanding audience allows it to be an influential show. An interesting aspect of Pretty Little Liars is that it introduces the issue of lesbianism in our modern society. The show follows one of the main characters named Emily Fields, played by Shay Mitchell, and her struggles with being an Asian-American lesbian who has to deal with coming out, getting acceptance, and being in an interracial relationship. In aiming to connect it with the articles by Barbara Smith and Paula Gunn Allen, I analyzed that Pretty Little Liars goes against all preconceived notions of homosexuality in the media and displays how we as a society are becoming more accepting of homosexuality and different races than ever before.

Pretty Little Liars is about Emily and her four best friends, who deal with the murder of their friend Alison. These girls are on a mission to find Alison’s murderer while being tormented by “A,” an unknown character that constantly invades their privacy by sending harassing text messages and hacking their internet accounts. While this is the bigger picture, a smaller aspect of the show is how Emily deals with her sexuality. Emily is portrayed as being “manlier” than the other female characters by being the sporty competitive swimmer with a low maintenance appearance. Although the portrayal of lesbians in the media is to be masculine, Emily’s character is not exaggerated to be a “butch” type of lesbian. She still acts like a girl, wears make-up, and assimilates well with her heterosexual peers. In doing so, Pretty Little Liars aims to promote the acceptance of homosexuality instead of highlighting its distinction from heterosexuality.

Emily’s coming out process was not as big of a deal as it would have been in other television shows. The show displays Emily’s underlying attraction to females from the very beginning, and brings it to light when she meets Maya, her neighbor. Once Emily realizes her attraction to Maya, she decides to come out to her family and friends, most of who accepts her whole-heartedly. According to Allen’s article “Lesbians in American Indian Cultures,” the modern lesbian is seen as different from other citizens of society. This is not the case with Emily, who is shown to be as normal as possible despite her sexuality. Pretty Little Liars goes against normal views and tries to pass off homosexuality as something that is commonplace.

Not only does Pretty Little Liars try to normalize homosexuality, it also presents the intersectionality of race and sexuality. While everyone accepted Emily, it took a bit of convincing for her parents to fully accept their daughter’s newfound sexuality. Emily’s Asian descent forces her to deal with her culture’s strict view on homosexuality. Asian cultures strongly believe in heteronormativity and creating future generations in their families, which is not an option for homosexuals. Emily struggles to convince her hesitant parents to accept her, especially her mother, who refuses to believe her daughter is a lesbian because she expected grandchildren in the future. Eventually, Emily’s parents cared more about her well-being and accepted her new sexuality.

Going with the intersections of race and sexuality, Pretty Little Liars also goes one step further and creates an interracial lesbian couple. Emily is Asian American, while Maya is African American. In Smith’s article “Homophobia, Why Bring It Up?,” it is mentioned that homosexuality is considered a “white” problem with which the majority of other races do not associate. Again, Pretty Little Liars goes against this view and integrates an interracial relationship along with homosexuality, which influences viewers to be accepting of both.

In conclusion, Pretty Little Liars goes against society’s views by creating a show that portrays homosexuality as something that is normal. By integrating race and sexuality into a show that deems it as customary while breaking all preconceived notions of lesbians and their position in our modern society, it is apparent that the media and our society is slowly becoming more accepting of homosexuality and its intersection with race. The articles by Smith and Allen both convey the view that lesbians of ethnicities other than Caucasian are essentially invisible in society, and Pretty Little Liars goes against these claims. I believe this show portrays where our society is gradually heading: seamlessly assimilating homosexuals and straying from our heteronormative views.

Works Cited

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Lesbians in American Indian Cultures” from The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Beacon Press, 1992.

King, Marlene. Pretty Little Liars. ABC Family. Television.

Smith, Barbara. “Homophobia, Why Bring It Up?” from The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. ed Henry Ablelove et al New York & London: Routeledge, 1993.


  1. Speaking as someone who has never seen Pretty Little Liars, I am glad that lesbians are being better represented in the media, but it is unfortunate that different gender expressions are not being represented. By having Emily be portrayed as a “normal” girl who fits in seamlessly with her heterosexual friends, this show ignores the problem of gender expression among lesbians who do appear to be more butch. Although homosexuality in itself may be becoming more accepted, there is further discrimination among gender expression which is this; “Looking gender normative is vital to social acceptance” (Wilchins 56). It is easier for Emily to be accepted because she fits into the generally accepted portrayal of a female, whereas a more butch lesbian begins to push into the physical appearance of a man. Of course, any step towards acceptance is welcome, but it can not be overlooked that this acceptance is only being shown towards the “type” of lesbian who’s gender expression is the closest to that of the typical heterosexual female, and therefore the easiest to accept. Masculine women, effeminate men, and trans individuals still face an overwhelming amount of prejudice and discrimination because they do not fit in with these gender norms. Acceptance of lesbians is a wonderful thing, but only if members of every gender expression are going to be accepted as well.

    Wilchins, Riki. "Deconstructing Trans." Print. Rpt. in Comp. Joan Nestle, Clare Howell, and Riki Wilchins. Los Angeles, California: Alyson Publications, 2002. 55-66. Print.

  2. This blog poses so many different things to really think about and examine closely which is great! One of the main things that I got from this other than this show showing cultures can be more accepting and that this should be the direction that we are heading towards, I also admired how it shows that not everything can be peachy when it comes to family especially because of ethnicity. Her gender role was conflicting with her friends, and with her family, not only her sexuality. Gender role makes such a big difference sometimes. One can identify with homosexuality, but as long as they stay confined to their gender role, it’s not seen as THAT bad. But when they break the barriers of both sexuality and gender roles, that’s when it becomes something that people are concerned about. In an example with Fredd, “The doctor suggested at various moments that Fredd may be experiencing a severe case of tomboy identification and that he may change his mind about his gender identity once his sexuality developed within a female adolescent growing spurt (Judith Halberstam, “Butch/FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum” from Female Masculinity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998)”. Acting outside of one’s gender role can sometimes just be seen as a phase because it is not normal to act ‘masculine’ if you are a female or vice-versa. But what people fail to understand is that gender is completely different from sex. Gender roles are socially constructed, mainly being instilled by family values, that make it seem like wearing make-up, shopping, cooking, liking ‘girly’ stuff is normal for girls, and sports, videogames etc… are considered for guys. It has been instilled in us as normalcy. Once we’ve come to accept that this is merely a social construction and not something that’s supposed to be ‘natural’ or ‘right’, we can move forward as a society.

  3. As an avid watcher of “Pretty Little Liars”, I could not agree more with this post’s argument that the show lacks representation of a realistic lesbian community. Emily herself is a beautiful young lesbian woman, who is only encountered by other beautiful lesbian women. The only other lesbians we see in the show are the three other women that Emily date, all who happen to be beautiful and demonstrative of the ‘lipstick’ type of lesbian. The fact that the show does not even provide the audience with any other type of lesbian besides the ‘girly, fem’ type, gives the impression that that is how our society works. The failure of the show to acknowledge other types of lesbianism, such as ‘butch’, can lead viewers of the show to think that this is how all lesbians actually are in the LGBTQ community. The show’s failure to demonstrate coming out of different types of lesbians besides the ‘fem’ type gives the impression that we live in a perfect world filled with beautiful girly girls who love others just like them. This is an example of the idea of ‘isms’ that Smith addresses in her article “Homophobia: Why Bring it Up?”. There is not just one type of lesbian, but rather: “some of us are women and people of color and working class and poor and disabled and old,” (Homophobia, 101). The representation of the lesbian community in “Pretty Little Liars” contributes to this idea of ‘isms’; by allowing our society to believe that all lesbians are of one type: young, beautiful, and fem, we fail to recognize that there actually are more than just one type of lesbian.

    Smith, Barbara. "Homophobia: Why Bring It Up?" 99-102. Boston: Combahee River Collective, (1997). 101.

  4. I am prefacing this comment with the statement that I have never seen the show Pretty Little Liars. I am unsure of the exact context and the specific way the portrayal of Emily was handled. That being said, I was not as impressed with the description as the author seems to be. Something that stood out right away was the idea throughout this post that being “a ‘butch’ type of lesbian” is contradictory toward “act[ing] like a girl” and “assimilat[ing] well with her heterosexual peers”. That Emily is relatively well accepted in the show certainly indicates where society stands, but not in the same way presented in this article.
    That it is considered more ‘normal’ for a lesbian to act like a stereotypical female shows a growing acceptance of non-heterosexuality, but not of gender identity and expression, which has often been a factor to invoke violence (Van De Meer). A solid movement in the right direction will be when someone like Emily is able to be present in a television show without needing to wear make-up, and when the claim that lesbians are portrayed as being “manlier” in television can be true without negative connotation. Especially when lesbians in high-profile shows (see Santana in GLEE) do tend to be more feminine, it is a shame to see shows go only part of the way-- dip their finger into the realm of butch but quickly cover it up with a seemingly contradictory ease of fitting in with more girls with more typical gender expressions.

    Theo Van de Meer “Bashing a Rite of Passage?” in Culture, Health and Sexuality, Vol. 5 No. 2 pp 153-165.