(Spoilers for Power Rangers ahead.)
So in my Power Rangers review, I happened to write the following:
A good amount of time is spent on Kimberly’s angst, and on how her recent actions have alienated her from her social circle, and made her begin feeling a measure of self-hatred. When we’re told what the inciting incident to all this is—she maliciously shared a nude pic of a classmate to humiliate her, it feels a bit out of proportion to her response, but that’s just me an adult and official old person. She believes this makes her horrible, and that’s what matters.
It got some critical feedback, which is good, not only because it means that somebody read the review and cared enough about it to disagree, but also, because there’s a lot worth criticizing in the statement, notably, the suggestion that sharing a nude pic of a friend–a female friend, at that–is no big deal.
To be absolutely clear, what Kimberly did is objectively terrible, and Kimberly is right to characterize herself as terrible for having done it*. I know this, I knew it when I watched the film, and I knew it when I wrote the review. Despite this, my main takeaway from that scene, while watching it for the first time and writing about it, is “Kim, you sweet, beautiful overdramatic child.” The terribleness of it doesn’t really come across on any emotional level, and I’ve spent some time since then thinking of why that is the case.
Part of it is my own damn fault, of course, for not immediately seeing all the angles even when made plain and empathizing more about the character I cared about rather than the ones she’d harmed. Another part of it, though, is the way the film deals with that moment and how it characterized Kimberly in comparison to the people she betrayed, and, more in general, with the film’s portrayal of Kim as a mean girl in the larger context of mean girls on film and TV. If Kim’s actions don’t feel as the big deal they are, it is because as terrible as Kimberly’s betrayal of her friends and general slut-shaming (and, technically, illegal distribution of child pornography) are, they are positively dwarfed in that larger context.
Pretty Little Liars starts out with the girls having blinded a classmate, and is steeped in blackmail and murder. Riverdale is headed in that same direction. Mean Girls has Cady manipulate Regina George into altering her body in unwanted, possibly irreversible ways. Heathers was all about murder, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer had its characters slut-shame as casually as they breathed. And it’s not the antagonists that do this–or rather, it’s not only they who do it. It’s (also) the heroes, the ones we’re made to root for, while being all glamorous and pretty and sympathetic, without the self-recrimination Kimberly displays during her confession, in stories where the effects of their actions tend to be downplayed, victims tend to be less affected the more time we’re meant to spend with them, and forgiveness is granted with disturbing ease. Taken together, it has a definitive desensitizing effect, making the terrible feel not so, or even awesome at times. Mona Vanderwaal may be a killer and blackmailer, but damn if I don’t love every bit of her.
And really, the film itself doesn’t help. Kimberly’s victims aren’t really characters, they’re extras whose main quality is being catty in a way designed to draw sympathy away from them and towards Kimberly; they are pissed, and rightfully so, but they do not seem harmed. And we really don’t get to see pre-epiphany Kimberly, which means we’re left to draw our conclusions from the version we see on screen.* All of which makes the confession scene feel unbalanced, with only Naomi Scott to sell it. As mentioned in the review, she succeeds, to some degree, but perhaps not all the necessary ones.
The thing is, though, that none of that should matter. Kim is clear about what she does, and what she does is terrible. And yet it does. There are a lot of dimensions to Kimberly’s story, and those dimensions all got the short shrift in my review, and my thoughts were expressed in the worst, most dismissive and harmful form–one that I, for all it’s worth, apologize for.
* There’s one moment in the film where we get an unvarnished hint of what Old Kimberly may have been like, and that’s the moment when she takes pleasure at seeing her former friends’ car wrecked during the Goldar battle, perhaps not considering that she and her friends were a few feet away from being squashed. There are a lot of arguments that one could make about that scene, as it goes on to suggest a whole lot of things about Kimberly’s story arc that don’t really get elaboration, and make it feel as if its missing some necessary pieces rather than simply unfinished, as, say, Trini’s. That said, I’m not sure I see that ambiguity as a flaw, and I hope it’s something the writers either intentionally included or noticed after the fact, and that it gets more development in subsequent films. It deserves to.
(Content Note: Transphobia; Transphobic Narratives)
The best scene in “Of Late I Think of Rosewood”, the premiere for the second half of Pretty Little Liars’ sixth season, takes place in a courtroom, where the Liars are being compelled to testify as to their mental state regarding Charlotte Dilaurentis, a.k.a. Cece Drake a.k.a. Red Coat a.k.a. A, in order to determine whether she should be set free. Charlotte’s sister has asked the Liars to live up to their name and testify that everything is hunky-dory, and because the Liars are all too used to dancing to Alison Dilaurentis’ tune, they agree. Aria even has prepared script and everything.
And then, Aria says no. Abandoning her prepared remarks, the littlest liar asserts that no, she is not okay, that the scars she obtained during Charlotte’s nine-month reign of terror are nowhere near fully healed, and that she does not feel safe. It’s quite possibly her best scene in the entire history of the show, and, in a world that consistently asks its underprivileged to Get Over It and forgive and forget transgressions enacted by more privileged peoples and institutions—a world in which women are consistently asked to forgive how the Patriarchy has arrayed things against them and to “act normal, bitch” because #NotAllMen—it can be considered a rather powerful, brave statement.
[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.