[Content Note: Transphobic representations]
As the #SummerOfAnswers rolled on, my favorite A theory was by Rachel Watkins, who runs the PLL Theorist Tumblr. According to the theory posted on May 22, 2015, A, then believed to be Charles Dilaurentis, would turn out to be Cece Drake, who knew and loved Charles while they were both in Radley, and loved him until the day Charles died. After that moment, Cece decided to play the game, becoming the first A. I didn’t agree with all of it—I’ve always believed that Mona originated the A identity and iconography on her own, like the show claimed, and that whomever almost killed Alison simply used it as a new way to carry on with what they were already separately doing—but it felt satisfying; if the show had ended up doing something like that—and it did—I would have been happier than I would have been with almost any other resolution. I liked Cece as A: not only did I enjoy the character of Cece, she’d been made into a big enough figure in the history of the show to make her a satisfying answer. Granted, she didn’t have much of a reason to torment the Liars, but the same could be said of most other viable suspects, and the series latter de-emphasizing of the high school and family elements seemed to suggest that the Liars’ actual connection to A’s larger motives would be tangential at best.
Other, not altogether dissimilar theories also had Cece as A, but also took the season 5 finale’s revelation that A was Charles (Dilaurentis, as eventually confirmed in season 6) at face value. Charles, the theories explained, was actually trans, and eventually grew up to be Cece Drake. While they kept Cece as A and were more in tune with what the show actually seemed to be setting up—it initially suggested Charles was actually dead before revealing that no, he was still alive—it was an extremely unsatisfying theory, largely because it would mean that the person who had tormented Alison Dilaurentis, the Liars, and increasingly large amounts of people, and who had killed several people during the course of the show, was also the only trans character in the show. Said theory, if true, would be a slap in the face to the show’s many trans fans, to the people who had come to see the show as a (decidedly imperfect) oasis in a universe still hostile to LGBTA people, and to the young watchers who deserve better than to being misled about trans people. No matter the execution, it would make Pretty Little Liars’ universe into one where cis people could be very many things, and trans people would be the one thing they always were in television, killers or victims or both. Even if the show attempted to somehow redeem A the way it had done with its previous villains, there was no guarantee that it would work, and her narrative would never stop reinforcing the idea that trans people are fundamentally dishonest and dangerous, which is the opposite of the truth and an idea that constantly endangers them. Therefore, it seemed too terrible a possibility to contemplate.
So of course, it turned out to be the case.
“Game Over, Charles” is an engrossing hour of television—arguably far more engrossing that it had any right to be. The story of Cece Drake (a.k.a. Charlotte Delaurentis a.k.a. the second “A”), is, much like the story of Alison Dilaurentis (a.k.a. Vivian Darkbloom a.k.a. the first Red Coat) in “A is for Answers,” told in the form of an infodump, with the Liars as little more than a sounding board for the character giving answers away. And yet, much like that earlier episode, it works, carried in large part by a fantastic performance by Vanessa Ray, whom I haven’t seen at all outside this show in what now feels like an injustice. She absolutely sells Cece’s story, to the point where Alison and the Liars’ plea that Charlotte not kill herself seems almost earned. The answers it gives out don’t make complete sense, but they make sense enough, and it’s hard to see them doing better given the circumstances. (Wren? Puh-leeze.)
I said “almost earned.” Both Pretty Little Liars and the pretty little liars at its center are forgiving sorts; the show hasn’t met a stalker it hasn’t wanted to redeem, and the Liars have shown an incredible affinity for learning to live with the people who would harm them. Part of it has to do with their characters; Pretty Little Liars as a whole is a redemption story for the Liars, who, as The Jenna Thing demonstrates, could be damn foul when they wanted to be, and it makes sense for them to want to pay that forward. Part of it simply has to do with the fact that characters like Mona, Jenna, and Alison are some of the show’s most popular characters, and so keeping them around and in the main characters’ orbits makes a certain amount of sense. That said, I believe there is a limit.
Something I’ve come to write about with increasing frequency is the idea that forgiveness is never something one is simply entitled to. The person who has been harmed has no obligation to let bygones be bygones or to assuage the offender’s sense of guilt (not that Cece ever had much of that in the first place; contrition is far from her primary motivation here) and understanding that is a vital part of social justice work. Being the better person is a fantastic gift but a terrible obligation, and it’s an obligation the privileged often impose on the oppressed. Television’s fondness for redemption arcs, thus, is something that bothers me: sometimes they’re just not justified, and I often long for works where a person cuts someone out from their lives and manages to, you know, actually cut that person out from their life.
Take the case of the second “A”, who has terrorized the Liars for some ten months and Alison, indirectly, for two years. She has, in that time, violated their privacy, drugged them, stalked them, framed them as accessories for a murder they didn’t commit and did not in fact even happen, kidnapped them, and physically and emotionally tortured them. No matter how tragic Cece’s story may be, the Liars have, I feel, every right to respond to it with a shrug. After all, their lives have been made hell too, and you don’t see them donning hoodies and proceeding to terrorize strangers.
Pretty Little Liars is, at its core, about the patriarchy, and as writer and fan extraordinaire Heather Hogan consistently notes, about living as girls and women in a world where the patriarchy consistently and purposefully compromises one’s ability to do so. One can argue that, given how one of the most effective tools in the patriarchy’s box is its ability to turn women against each other, it follows that one of the most effective tools is in the battle against it is the ability to recognize that this has happened and come together when everything threatens to tear you apart. And yet, one doesn’t need accept everyone who has been similarly screwed over; the old argument that you don’t have to like or support Hillary Clinton or Sarah Palin simply because they’re women comes to mind. And for all the terrible things Mona and Ezra did, at least the Liars had their previous relationships with those two to fall back on. Cece, meanwhile, is an acquaintance at best, who decided to torture them for what is essentially “just because”. They have a right to be angry, and this episode appears to be doing its best to deny the Liars that, and that’s a problem.
And here is where the show falls into a trap, because as much of a right they have to their feelings, for the Liars to not demonstrate empathy this one person when they’ve forgiven Mona and Ezra Fucking Fitz would have been nothing short of monstrous. Charlotte does what she did because was taught to dehumanize people by her parents, taught that she was terrible and wrong, and was never placed in a position where she could learn to know better. Ezra Fitz did all he did for a fucking book. There’s no comparison between their situations, and for the white male son of privilege to be granted more sympathy than the trans woman who was marginalized all her life would have been the transphobic whipped cream over what is already an already rather transphobic sundae.
Because, yeah: Cece is trans. Had she existed in a show that had trans people instead of a trans person, and those people were presented as being anything like they are in real life—infinitely variegated, far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators, but also far from defined by that—then they may have been able to tell her story without incident. As is, they almost manage it: the story very clearly not about how being trans made Cece terrible, but about how the people who should have loved her the most failed her and left her no choice but to be terrible. Had the Liars—including Alison—not been in the picture as her victims, she would without question be seen as the hero in her own story. I mean, A is basically Batman—a billionaire genius who despite having no superpowers somehow manages to be omnipotent. Who wouldn’t want to follow her adventures? Several years after being just an extra in a hoodie, she’s suddenly interesting again.
One wonders then: was this absolutely necessary? Could A’s story had been told without making her trans? Could Cece’s? Looking at the episode, the answer seems to be both yes and no. Yes, a satisfying resolution to the A mystery could have surely been crafted without making A or Cece trans or making a trans person into the Big Bad; “Charles” could have easily been “Charlotte” from the start, or Cece could have acted as Charlotte’s agent of revenge as suggested in the aforementioned theory. In that respect, Cece’s gender appears to be little more than a way to add a final twist to the mystery, in a way that was rather ineffective, since precisely no one felt that A’s gender was set in stone, even with the Charles reveal.
On the other hand, looking at the episode, one could argue that Charlotte’s trans identity was the entire point. It is Kenneth’s refusal to accept her for who she was that landed her in Radley and exacerbated whatever issues she may have had. It was society’s institutionalized transphobia that allowed Bethany to frame her for the murder of Marion Cavanaugh without any actual false evidence. While one could still weave a story about the patriarchy starring a cis Charlotte, it feels…lesser, somehow. While one could argue that the patriarchy does consider the simple fact of being female akin to being mentally ill, presenting it with the directness that this episode does would have been almost impossible. One can also argue that, in mirroring Charlotte’s oppression to the Liars, the show is affirming her innate femaleness in such a way that can be seen as positive, in another context.
And yet, this is again the problem: Charlotte is not all women. While I don’t wish to actually compare her to the Liars in a round of Oppression Olympics to try and determine who had it worse, the fact remains that a) in a world that more accurately reflected ours, Cece would have an exponentially harder life than the Liars did, so mirroring their experiences is inaccurate in many respects and b) Emily, Aria, Hanna, and Spencer passed through their particular crucibles and became better people in the process, while Charlotte didn’t. And because Cece is not just one among many, but just the one, we’re smack dab in “trans people are worse people” territory.
So let’s say for arguments sake that yes, Cece / Charlotte needed to be trans. While properly telling her story would have been difficult, it was also far from impossible—especially not on ABC Family, where shows like The Fosters and Chasing Life continue the work Pretty Little Liars started in telling the stories of LGBTA people. Marlene King chose not to do so. Given the option to tell multiple stories about trans people and show them in their in their diamond-like complexity and brilliance, she instead chose to tell the one (wrong) story everyone told about them. Assuming for a moment that this resolution was the plan from the beginning—and I personally believe that the fundamentals were decided on earlier than many think—and that the story of Charlotte mattered more than the mystery of A, then Marlene could have cast an actual trans actress to play Cece who could at least have told her that this was not a good idea. That the story was better and more sympathetically told than most is, in many respects, irrelevant.
Oh, and we learn who Red Coat is, too. We didn’t know we needed to learn who she is, given that when we’d last seen her in season 4 we’d apparently learned the identities of the two people to adopt the persona, but given that season 6 reintroduced her as A’s friend and ally, it was necessary to reveal that as well. Personally, I was hoping it’d be Mona, somehow finally managing to enter A’s inner circle: the idea that the former Red Coat was now A at the same time a former A was now Red Coat appealed mightily to my sense of symmetry. But no, instead it was Sara Harvey.
Now, on paper, I could see this working, thematically if nowhere else. When we very first heard about Sara, we knew her as the Alison to her group of Liars. Given that, there is pleasing symmetry to the idea that she adopted the persona Alison herself adopted back in seasons 3 and 4. And yet, it doesn’t work: where Alison was enthralling, Sara was just dull, with no notes to play but shell shock [*]. Natural enough, if it had been genuine—and I had hoped it was genuine—but it did not make for good television; it does not help that Dre Davis, who plays her, has but a fraction of Sasha Pieterse’s screen presence. What’s more, there’s no sense of weight to either the mystery or its resolution. There was no need to reintroduce Red Coat at this point in the game. What’s more, the tiny number of recurring characters currently in play made finding the solution to this “mystery” a no-brainer.
[*] Again with the symmetry, if Sara Harvey didn’t feel like Alison, neither did Alison through most of season 6. This is not a good thing.
Now, apparently Sara Harvey will still be a player after the series’ five year gap, and perhaps her more adult self can work where her younger self didn’t. The reveal, after all, raises a whole lot of questions—how, when and why, mainly—and in theory, allows her to play something more akin to her actual personality, which then has a chance to be more interesting. It’s hard to be optimistic, and the character has by this point spent all the good will she might have had, but still, one can hope.
As for the Liars…there’s really not much to say about them, as aside from Emily punching out Sara and Spencer defusing a bomb—both of which take up less than a collective minute of screen-time—they’re just there as witnesses. They don’t even get to stop A, as much as A, for once, chooses to give up (there’s the sense that she’s going forward with an actual endgame because she’s run out of moves, which suggests, scarily enough, that the Rosewood Police Department may have actually been good for something). The episode ends with a five-year jump, after everyone has presumably finished college without incident and moved on into their professional careers, and perhaps that’s for the best, as the last few seasons have often felt tired, as an inability to consistently continue bringing the over-the-top what-the-fuckery ended up combining with some blatant attempts to stall for time and a shift in perspective away from the high school element to bring us a lot of uninspired pap. Season 6A has been somewhat better in this regard, with the A investigation getting some much-needed direction as it moved towards its endgame, but even still, it’s notable that it’s brought us no particularly interesting new characters, and how several characters—most notably Alison and Emily—have been at their nadirs, so I’m glad the writers have the chance to start over and recharge their creative juices. Heck, at this point I wouldn’t mind a longer hiatus, as production on this show must be exhausting.
I first got into Pretty Little Liars with season 5. I’d previously watched the season 4 Halloween special (Ashley Benson in a corset? Fine, if you insist.) and followed the Fug Girls’ recaps, but it was not until the 100th episode that I began watching regularly, which was enough inducement for me try and catch up by buying the past season DVDs (it helped that the closing of a video rental story made them available at a ridiculous markdown). It was then that I truly became a fan, hunting down recaps and beginning live-tweeting as I watched this often ridiculous, often beautiful, often terrible show, and the many, many wonderful expressions of fandom it has inspired. As the season finale and the A reveal drew closer, it made me excited in a way few things in recent memory have done. Now, I’m uncertain what to do with the series. I’m not sure I can enjoy it any more. I’m not sure if I should still enjoy it.
This is not the series’ first betrayal of its themes and audience. The series has a consistent problem with its portrayal of people of color, and especially when it comes to its black women, who are few in number and also dead. It continuously and consistently romanticizes relationships with inherent power imbalances, starting with Ezra Fitz and Aria, but by no means ending there. Its attempts at making Alison palatable as an actual character rather than a symbol involved walking back her sexual history, implying not only that her sexuality was somehow bad, but also that she, at fifteen, was fully able to consent to relationships with people in their twenties and was therefore an agent instead of a victim. I’ve recently come to think that one of the reasons why Mona Vanderwaal’s romantic love for Hanna Marin remain hidden behind the flimsiest of subtexts is because making Mona explicitly bisexual or gay would mean that every woman to don a black hoodie or red coat in the series (excepting one Spencer Hastings a.k.a. the only one of those to also not be an antagonist) can be fit into the LGBTA banner, which says…something. So it’s not as if I can exactly be truthfully shocked at what they’ve done; it fits with a long-standing pattern, and one which I’ve implicitly enabled by continuing to watch. I can’t say they’ve crossed a line with the finale, because the line was crossed long ago, and I just didn’t care enough to do much of substance about it. What makes this one offense worse than the others? Perhaps it doesn’t matter.
So I don’t know. I managed to quit watching Arrow regularly after they’d killed off Sara Lance, and that was back when the show was still at its height. Still, that show was also incredibly easy to replace, which isn’t something that can be said about Pretty Little Liars. There’s really nothing else like it on television, as the finale once again demonstrated.
Whether I end up watching or not, here’s my one specific wish for season 6B and beyond. I want the show give us trans characters that are not Cece. I want them to be played by an actual trans actors—Tom Phelan, for one, is around, is age appropriate, and has a history with ABC Family. I want them to be as resilient as we’ve seen the Liars be, in a world that constantly searches to police their existence in a way Hanna, Aria, Spencer, and Emily would not even begin to imagine, if the series weren’t so committed to being over the top. I want them to be legitimate love interests worth rooting for, and give them successful love lives, with or without the Liars. I want the writers to use the skills displayed in the crafting of characters like Mona or Paige and have them become fan favorites. Maybe then the show can regain the faith it lost with this reveal…or not: the show is not owed forgiveness, no matter what steps it may take in the future to correct this offense. Sure, maybe doing so could be described as the writers selling out to a small contingent of fans. Sure, there’s no guarantee that they’ll succeed. They should do it anyway. It’d be the most shocking twist of all.