Pretty Little Liars is the Desperate Housewives for teenage girls. It airs on ABC Family, which is a station that prides itself on stating that it is “A New Kind of Family” on every commercial in which it advertises its series. In the same way women have tuned in to watch the sexy, dramatic and diverse characters of Desperate Housewives, now, young girls have an opportunity to suck in some drama by watching what has been described as a more “teen appropriate” version of the hit show. It seems as though even younger girls than anticipated find interest in this series because the majority of viewers range from elementary school to college age.
The show is based on the creepy concept that a group of very attractive high school girls is being stalked by a dead friend’s ghost. It’s not exactly clear how this happens, but that issue seems to be placed on the back burner. It becomes clear by the end of the first season that no real answer will ever be addressed. Luck for the viewers, there are many more issues that need to be tackled by the characters. A majority of the episodes are about the spooky things that a person named “A” (which they all believe to stand for their dead friend Alison) does to show her beautiful, alive friends that she knows they are responsible for her death (in one way or another). However, one character in particular has been the centerpiece for many episodes. Emily Fields is a character who struggles with the self-realization that she is a lesbian. Because Emily is extremely relatable as the shy girl next door, but also has a very subtle sexy edge to her, it makes her the perfect character to positively introduce the idea of lesbianism to a younger demographic than has been previously done before. It was the intention of her character’s creators to open up this alternative sexual identity to young viewers in a very subtle, mild way that, say, The Secret Life of the American Teenager (another successful ABC series) was unable to touch.
Hegemony is defined as “the power or dominance that one social group holds over others.” (Lull, 61) In today’s world, although there have been leaps and bounds in the positive direction for the “queer” community, there has yet to be much introduced to the younger generation. Shows like Will and Grace are obviously shows that are geared toward a more mature audience.
It is clear that straight is still the dominant lifestyle. Pretty Little Liars is marketed to girls of ages that are just coming to terms with their own sexual identities. To some extent, this is exactly why having a show with a lesbian character is so impacting.
“Hegemony implies a willing agreement by people to be governed by principles, rules, and laws they believe operate in their best interests... Social consent can be a more effective means of control than coercion or force.” (Lull, 63) What better way to ensure that a lifelong message about lesbianism is being reinforced than to weave it into a series marketed to young girls? The popularity of the show speaks for itself. Girls voluntarily tune in every week to see the next juicy episode. The ideals that the show reinforces are transferred into the minds of even the most passive viewer. The show’s writers can easily place positive light on lesbians, counteracting and confronting hegemonic ideals, by building up a character so likable that no viewer could begin to disregard her simply because one aspect of her life is controversial. This is a very powerful tool that the media possesses. For sure, this tool is used when Emily finds her star-crossed lover in season 1 episode 13.
In my opinion, Emily is the most attractive character. She is obviously ethnic, but we do not know what her origin of race is. She could pass as a mix of white, Spanish, Native American, or Asian, in fact. I think that this is a large part of her appeal as a character. She is caring, resourceful, and gorgeous without even trying. She is the most effortless character by far. Without a doubt, there must be many young girls watching her character, praying that they look and act like her when they get to be Emily’s character’s age. All this is indisputably true without even knowing what her character’s nationality even is. In most cases with shows that are supposed to depict reality is some way shape or form, “women of color are tokenized” (Pozner, 98), but with Emily, her ethnicity is used as an unorthodox tool of media. Her character continues to be a main element of the show, yet she is the only ethic one. With the other main characters, it’s quite obvious that they are all very white, typical American girls. Sure, they’ve well above average in looks, but at the same time, they’re boring. Emily seems to have the most casual style, the most laid-back personality and overall seems like the least prissy of their blatantly stereotypical “girly” group of friends. This character build up makes for a universal liking of Emily. It’s not until halfway through the season, when (most) of the audience members have built up a “plutonic love” for her character that we are sideswiped by the idea that she is actually a lesbian.
In episode thirteen of the first season, Emily is dealing with her mother’s reaction to her “coming out.” The look in Emily’s mother’s eyes whenever Emily is around her girlfriend Maya is enough to tell the audience she is in complete disapproval. At one point in the episode after her mother is informed of her daughter being a lesbian, Emily’s mother peeks into Emily’s room to see hers and Maya’s feet intertwined as they giggle on her bed. Emily’s mother bursts into the room, expecting to catch her daughter in a romantic lesbian moment, but is only slightly relieved to see that they are innocently looking at a book and laughing. When Maya tries to comfort Emily’s mother and tell her that nothing was going on besides studding, Emily’s mother disregards her sentiment and instead asks her to call her by “Mrs. Fields” in a very rude way. After Maya feels awkward and leaves, Emily says to her mother that she, for the first time in her life, is ashamed that she is her mother. It is interesting because it is quite obvious that her mother is very ashamed of her daughter simply because of her lack of conformity to a hegemonic society that places straight culture as the dominant one. It is clear that they are both upset with each other, but Emily actually has a reason to be ashamed of her mother’s rude behavior.
This scene shows that Emily’s mother is skeptical about the whole “lesbian” idea. In this moment, she is probably overpowered by the thought of the pornographic aspect of lesbians portrayed by media, instead of realizing the fact that lesbians, like straight couples, aren’t always thinking about sex or having sex; they actually have the ability to enjoy each other’s company.
Emily’s mother represents the audience that is still unconvinced that lesbians and gays “are who they are” at birth. In another scene, Emily’s mother goes through Maya’s bag that was left at their house. In the bag, she finds an Altoid case filled with weed. Immediately, she sees this as an excuse for her daughter’s “behavior” recently with Maya. She goes into Emily’s room to confront her, and she accuses Emily of doing drugs with Maya. “Is this what this has been about?” She says. “Are you stoned?” The more analytical members of the audience can infer that Emily’s mother is almost imploring her daughter to say yes. She is thinking that maybe the drugs were playing a factor in her daughter’s new found sexual identity. We can see in her face that she is thinking about the fact that drug addictions can be corrected while the other reason for Emily hanging around Maya might not be so easily “fixed.” Her daughter being a lesbian is a very scary concept to Emily’s mother, and as a mother, she tries to protect her daughter from something she deems unacceptable. In order to prevent Maya and Emily’s relationship from furthering, Emily’s mother is a key factor in getting Maya sent to Juvi for three months. This reinforces hegemony because it seems as though Maya and Emily are being punished to the extreme for having an unconventional relationship.
Because the young viewers have invested so much in following Emily’s story, they are outraged that her mother could do such a thing. All of the other girl friends in their tight group are all smiles when Emily tells them about her true identity. They couldn’t be happier that she is finally happy with Maya. This group of girls is who the young viewers clearly identify with and emulate as they watch the show. The complete acceptance by Emily’s friends, along with the attractiveness and demure attitude that Emily’s character portrays, reinforces the message to all the viewers that it’s okay to love whoever you want.
Emily’s friends even arrange for Maya and her to have one last meeting before they are to be separated for three months. Their romantic relationship is made completely clear when Emily walks upstairs to the room where Maya was waiting, a meeting that Emily’s friends set up as a surprise for her after Emily had thought Maya was already on her way to Juvi. The room was filled with soft candle light and music. The two held each other close and rocked side to side standing in the middle of the room (this is, of course, supposed to be a family show). As this was all happening, Emily’s friends stand in the living room as the camera cuts to each and every one of their beaming faces. One girl actually says, “I’m officially jealous of Emily’s love life.” This line seals the deal. Hegemony is officially confronted by this statement. A “straight” conventional, beautiful young girl announces that she is jealous of her friend’s unconventional, but real, lifestyle.
Towards the end of the episode, Emily and Maya share one last innocent kiss before Maya must leave and head to Juvi. The music becomes treacherous as the audience gets a view of Maya and Emily from the viewpoint of someone watching through the window. It is very obvious that someone is watching this intimate moment, and we see that there is a camera involved. Because no one but Emily’s close friends and family know about her and Maya, we know that nothing good can come from a stranger peering into the window and snapping pictures of their last kiss. The stranger watches them like they are something to be reveled at and yet tries to exploit them, showing the disdain, yet infatuation the hegemonic society has with people who are not part of the “norm.”
The previews for the next episode show us a glimpse of the struggles that Emily is about to face because of the pictures of her and Maya kissing getting out to the rest of the school. There, it is obvious that most people aren’t as accepting as her close group of friends. The classic “coming out” to those who see her lifestyle as alternative seems like it will present Emily with issues.
In the rest of the season, Emily persists with her head high, self dignity in tact as she continues on with her life without Maya. She even finds another girl who she is interested in. This normalization of lesbianism is exactly what Emily’s character was intended to portray to young girls who are old enough to understand, and for the rest of the viewers, she is just another pretty face mixed up in drama like every other girl on T.V. Hopefully for those girls who are struggling with their own identities and can relate, Emily's character can continue to give hope. She continues to be a good model for what her character was intended.
Lull, James. "Hegemony." Gender, Race, and Class in Media: a Text-reader. By Gail Dines and Jean McMahon. Humez.
Pozner, Jennifer L. ""The Unreal World"" Ms. Magazine Fall 2004: 96-99. Web.