Top 5 Anti-Woman Myths in ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars”

In need of summer TV,I decided to test out the new ABC Family show Pretty Little Liars. Hey, it’s been a Twitter trending topic for the last day. It must be worth watching, right?

The Tuesday-night show is based on a series of books by Sara Shepard. It centers on a group of four very popular high school girls in the wealthy white town of Rosewood. They spend their time shopping, gossiping, sneaking shots of alcohol and treating less popular girls poorly–normal “girl” activities.

Their clique disbands, however, when one of the girls goes missing. A year later, the four remaining girls rekindle their friendship when they begin receiving mysterious texts and emails threatening to make public their deepest secrets from, it seems, their missing friend. Except her body has just been found.

The tag line for the show is, “Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret”– which begs the immediate question: Are ugly girls equipped to handle ugly secrets, or are they equally untrustworthy, or are they so invisible nobody at ABC Family knows?

After surviving the first two episodes, I can say that only morbid curiosity kept me watching, because Pretty Little Liars is as harmfully sexist as its tag line. The take-away message seems to be that pretty girls shouldn’t worry themselves with issues bigger than their purses, else there will be consequences. The “pretty girls are stupid” myth is prevalent throughout, along with some other decidedly anti-woman content.  Here are the Top Five Anti-Women Myths espoused by Pretty Little Liars.

1. A woman’s primary source of power lies between her legs; sex is a commodity.

The mother of one of the girls (Hanna) promises sex to a cop so her daughter won’t be prosecuted for shoplifting tarnish their reputations (“In a small town like this, what people think about you matters… I buy you everything you need to be popular.”) After delivering on her end, the cop sticks around without, it seems, Mom’s consent. For this show, the price of a misdemeanor is the loss of consent and autonomy.

2. Women are vapid, emotional creatures who can’t be trusted, young women even more so.

Aria, the show’s central character, has been harboring her father’s secret: He had an affair. When her mom demands an explanation for her and her father’s strained relationship, her father’s response is,

She’s a teenaged girl… they’re all moody and unpredictable.

3. Bisexuality just means you’re confused.

Emily is questioning her sexuality. Her plight has the potential to be impactful, but the show employs a male-gaze-centric ‘girl-on-girl’ vibe. Emily will do anything–even engage in excessive PDA with her boyfriend when she’s uncomfortable with it–to not challenge the status quo. We are led to believe that Emily is either a lesbian or simply confused; the show does not (as of yet) give space to a narrative of bisexuality.

4. Bad girls should be punished.

Ali, the ultimate bad girl, the Queen Bee of the school and of her clique, is dead–the ultimate punishment. The other girls are now haunted for their secrets, all of which involve their own mistakes.

5.  A woman’s worth is the sum total of her appearance, social status and man on whose arm she hangs.

The opening credits are a montage of lip gloss, nail polish, eye makeup, hair curls and high heels. The show seems to almost be fearful of a loss of traditional femininity in our society, and it compensates by relegating all the characters to hyper-feminine roles.

Looks like I’m back to searching for a new summer show. Any suggestions?

What do you think of ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars?” Can you find additional anti-women stereotypes? Leave them in the comments below!


  1. Wait, wait, wait. Can we talk about the BIG, GIANT WHITE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM WHEN IT COMES TO THE SHOW?!?!? Hello! The very first opening sense of the first episode was the 16 year old making out with a teacher (soon to be her English teacher) in a bar bathroom in midday (what a 16 year old is doing in a bar God only knows.) WTF, Mate? And she is the responsible one to break it off because get this it might effect HIS career. What???

    Though all the 16-year-old girls are so NOT depicted as 16-year-old girls, they are continuously the more responsible individuals, much more so than their parental units in the show. I mean 16-year-old dating her teacher and she is the one to try to push him away, her mother doesn’t seem to mind if there might be a relationship going on there, because he is “young and cute”. Or the mother more or less prostituting herself so her daughter can get out of a ticket/jail time, or how about the one other 16-year-old’s older sister’s fiance trying to hook up with the younger of the sisters and the younger sister having to be the mature one to turn him away (after turning him on).

    Hey, depicted adults characters grow up and stop groping the underagers!!!

    And the dead girl, at first I liked that a girl was trying to get these other dumbies to get a grip and make moral choices (please, a 16-year-old dead girl has to be their moral compass and text them what to do… wow, if they are taking social ques from a girl six feet under, that is not giving them much credit). But, sadly you come to see that Miss Dead Moral Compass is actually the worst morally motivated character in the show. I may not be the BEST judge of character but I think it is morally wrong to blind a person by throwing a cherry bomb in their face, but hey, that is just me. So if I got texts from the cherry bomb throwing girl whether dead or not, I pretty sure that I wouldn’t take her advise.

    The problems that are stated in this blog are problems yes, but how can anyone ignore the over sexualization of these 16-year-olds, that they are the only individuals in the whole show that make responsible personal choices, and that the moral compass/dead girl is far from a moral anything.

    This show is ridiculous and if my (hypothetical) teenage daughter watched this or god fearing thought that these 16-year-old were what ever 16-year-old girl in American acts, my feminist soul would shrivel and dead. These aren’t positive images of American female youth, they are just once again the over-sexualized, shopaholic, gossiping , stereotypical American girls. So sad.

    Do we, American women and girls, just have no respect for ourselves anymore? For our thoughts and minds, ideas and passions? Or are we just continually repressed into pink media-made girl sized boxes. I know that I am better than that and I know that you are better than that and that all of womankind is better than that. We are more creative, intelligent, ambitious and better than what shows like this (and many others) represent us as. We are the majority of voices on this planet and if that is true I don’t want myself, my daughter, my sister, my roommate, my any woman to grow up believing that if they are not like these snotty teenagers, than they are not right, full, or normal. I am better that this. We all are. Speak up!

    By no means is this a ABC “family” show. I don’t want our teenage youth over sexualized by shows that claim they have ‘family values.’ We obviously come from different families than.

    • Briasotile says:

      I could not agree more. I use this show as a teaching model for how I do not wish my daughter to behave. I cannot believe the comments from parents as see these characters as “role models”. Take it from someone who worked in the criminal justice system for 15 years, wealthy, attractive kids are granted preferential treatment. Also, as a former teacher, if an educator were having an inappropriate relationship with my daughter, there would be no need for the authorities to get involved. It would be handled Cajun Justice Swamp style.

  2. Nice post, Waite! I feel like I should expect better from ABC family but…maybe not.

  3. @Caitlin Kennedy Thank you for the thought-provoking response. I’d like to specifically respond to your points about the “oversexualization” of the young women.

    My “warning bells” sounded, too, when 16-year old Aria gets herself into a pseudo relationship with her teacher. And then in the same time span, Spencer, another 16-year old makes out with her older sister’s fiance, who must at least be 21. I debated how to explore the issue in the blog post, but the question I kept returning to is this: what role should age play in sexual autonomy and reproductive choice? If we go by legal merit, the average age of consent in the US is 16 (, regardless of the partner’s age. Their kisses are scandalous by context (teacher / sister’s fiance) but innocuous enough in action.

    I believe strongly that our society doesn’t put enough trust in our young women. There seems to be a general societal assumption that young women are untrustworthy and incapable of making smart decisions for themselves – especially when it comes to their bodies. This assumption doesn’t, generally, hold true for young men. It makes me think that the immediate discomfort you and I both felt with these relationships in “Pretty Little Liars” stems more from the purity myth that says the worth of a young woman is in her virginity / sexual ‘goodness’ than from oversexualization. I didn’t include the young womens’ relationships in the post because for me, this is one area the show doesn’t espouse an anti-woman stereotype: these women are shown as sexual, not oversexualized.

    For me, the issue in the show presented by Aria’s relationship with her teacher and Spencer’s with her sister’s fiance is with the men. They break contracts of trust – explicitly with their contract and partner, respectively, and implicitly with the community & family, that expects teacher’s to act professionally and fiance’s to respect their loved ones.

    As far as the dead girl as moral compass of the show… I agree with you that she absolutely doesn’t seem to be motivated by any sort of morality. I agree with that so much that I never considered that the intent IS for her to be the moral compass. I think, talking about the show and not the character, that the intent of her messages is simply to keep the conflict and drama alive, which espouses another stereotype: young women are catty and dramatic.

    What do you think?

  4. DaisyDyke says:

    The biggest thing for me is the victim blaming that goes on throughout the entire show. They blame Ali for getting killed by some misogynistic windbag?! Seriously? With no subtly at all just “that’s why she got herself killed” (paraphrasing I hope). They were teaching her a lesson I'll bet, or she was asking for it. Her skirt indicated that she wanted to be buried in her friend's backyard.

    Another huge anti-feminist thorn in the eye of rational thinking womin is the way the men are treated as flawless, impeccable “good” guys, while the womin are blamed for every mishap.

    In response to the commenter above me, the teacher taking advantage of a student has nothing to do with age; it's the power dynamic that's inherently fucked up. That is the very definition of an abusive relationship.

    And as I lesbian I have to say that is some of the worst lesbian characterization I have ever seen. Lesbian womin dressing THAT in sync with patriarchal beauty standards? I'm afraid I'm not quite cynical enough to believe that. And plus the womin look repulsed when kissing each other.

    Awesome article. Had to rant.

  5. The premise of the show is that what looks to be perfect, according to contemporary social expectations, is not always what it seems. The portrayal of ‘perfect’ men and women is juxtaposed with the difficult and complex personal choices each character is forced to make – the very fact that some are morally reprehensible is the foundation of the show and, it must be said, real life. PLL pretty much depicts that every girl, pretty or otherwise, is a whole plethora of things at any one time: intelligent and foolish; well-meaning and bitchy; unthinking and conscientious; calculating and emotional… to name a few. All of these traits are depicted on PLL, and viewers who attempt to see pigeon-holes where none exist are failing to understand the show at a very basic level. There is no ‘pretty girls are stupid’ subtext to the show; that much is clear. As a multi-faceted narrative, PLL provides a superficial storyline for the less intellectually able to follow, and much more to those of us who are willing, and able, to read between the lines.

  6. Feminist Deconstruction says:

    I guess I’ll pay devil’s advocate to this post. You’re right, this show appears to play into stereotypical tropes about women; it features a lot of women who are conniving and sneaky, hyper-feminized and gives little voice or representation of women of different body types and lifestyles. Besides Emily, who becomes the woman of color who is also a lesbian (wonder if this has anything to do with the connection between exoticism and homosexuality).

    However, I don’t agree it’s all black and white. There are SOME feminist ideas in this series. These four girls are shown to be affectionate towards each other throughout the series; besides being pressured by A to betray each other at some points, they SUPPORT and love one another after Alison has died. Instead of turning against each other and playing up that “catty” trope, they try their best to unite and fight against this force called “A.” Their relationships with A also expose the aggression that does in reality exist among popular girls, cliques and among female friends when growing up means being socialized to be passive aggressive females–gossiping becomes a weapon as opposed to the male form of aggression through the fists. All the girls on the series appear to have distinct personalities, a form of three-dimensionality that other shows, like Gossip Girls, seems to lack. Spencer Hastings is competitive and driven to succeed. Aria is an assertive girl who demands her needs from her relationship (not approving of the whole teacher-student dynamic, just sayin’). Emily is a talented swimmer and Hanna has fashion sense and wit (most emphasized in her scenes with Caleb) that rivals whatever “dumb blonde” stereotype she seems to reinforce.

    Don’t forget that girls aren’t the only ones portrayed as evil in this series. It’s a MYSTERY and we have many “evil” guys to balance it all out – Ian, “Toby” seemingly at first, and Noah to name a few.

    That being said, I do wish there was more representation on the show of different types of bodies and lifestyles – a more masculine female, for example, but some might argue that Spencer embodies both the stereotypical competitive masculinity as well as femininity. It’s actually quite feminist that they are able to show that a girl can be both feminine and feminist. Please do not forget that being a feminist doesn’t mean you can’t be feminine.

  7. Madi Swenson says:

    For the first two, the show demonstrates how these things are wrong, and how they are not acceptable at all. Hanna tells the detective off, and guess what, her mom does the same. She knows that it’s not worth it, and that she shouldn’t be using it. Also, Aria’s dad is portrayed as an absolute idiot. We know that she’s not mad because she’s a teenager, she’s mad because he had an affair and asked her to lie. Her being a teenager and/or a female isn’t the actual reason she’s upset.

    Emily identifies as a lesbian later on. I forgot it wasn’t okay to question your sexuality before deciding on a label. For god’s sake, she has a committed relationship with Maya. I wish someone had told me it wasn’t okay to be confused.

    Them dealing with their mistakes is a metaphor for growing up. I’m not saying their consequences are justified, but that’s the premise of the show. If no one were holding these things over their heads, what would the story be? Mourning best friends?

    I wish they had different body types, too, and different portrayals of smart and savvy women. Regardless, there’s nothing wrong with high heels or curls or nail polish.

    I find this show to be surprisingly feminist in a lot of regards. I think you should watch the rest of the show before making these judgments.

  8. I read something far more interesting than this article; one of an opposite viewpoint. It said that “A” – a hard to grasp, unavoidable, intangible, oppressive thing that dictates how they should act and shames them for their sexuality – is one huge allusion to sexism. These main characters would then be doing the opposite of what is (in our society) expected of pretty teenage girls: they fight it. They’re smart, cunning, and face this seemingly indestructible A, despite getting the message that there’s nothing they can do about it.

  9. Obviously this particular review was written in 2010, not long after the start of the series but I just wish the writers of Ms. would have maybe waited a little bit before making such a judgement. This seems to be one of the only shows on TV right now that doesn’t play into dangerous stereotypes about women, POC, LGBT people, etc. While all of the women on the show are drop dead gorgeous, it doesn’t take away from the fact that they are doing something that not many other teenage women are doing on television right now- they are taking control of their lives and their sexualities. Please, before you make another judgement about a show, try to watch a little bit more of it than just the first episode.

  10. Not saying my name says:

    Wow,seriously?Maybe you should make a website and hate on all the other tv shows too.This show is made for entertainment purposes and isn’t real .If you think that just because a teenager sees something on a show he/she’s gonna do it like a 2 year old toddler than i’d rather not live in your house.Seriously,I think there are better things to do than hate on a tv show which isn’t even real.Get a life.

  11. PLL certainly has an element of the “bisexuality = confusion” trope, although I’m not sure that it’s not trying to lampshade that too. But I wildly disagree with most of your other points. The message I see in the storyline about Ashley sleeping with the cop is about sexual coercion and police/male power. I thought the audience was supposed to be outraged by Byron’s attempt to blame the effects of his demanding that his daughter hold something like that inside on her gender. And I’d be very surprised to find that we weren’t intended to root for the protagonists

  12. Which isn’t to say PLL isn’t problematic in other ways. It certainly has an awful approach to consent in a massive number of cases, even if you disregard Aria & Ezra’s relationship

  13. I really don’t agree. I love PLL, please don’t ruin it for me

  14. Aria is no feminist at all. She put Ezra before her friends. Tragic.

  15. Gosh, the series is a misogynistic monster! It’s dangerous fodder designed to drag women backwards. Every time you see Hannah’s one-dimensional mom she’s in the kitchen. I worry that the kids that watch such tripe are being psychologically damaged. The message that all life has to offer a pretty woman is money, clothes, and shoes they can barely walk in – and that there sole purpose is to get a man. I think the bisexual characters are there for young men’s titillation and to keep the idea of young women as sex objects implanted in their heads. Dressing the female actors in all kinds of revealing outfits inc wedding dresses and too much make up is spurious. It appears that the producers are attempting to drag women backwards. When TV gets this blatant I realise that men are terrified of women and the thought of a matriarchal society. Well, I have news for the patriarchal media men – it’s too late! The world is changing and it’s all about going forward for women. Time for equal pay and comfortable shoes!


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Clem Bastow, Ms. Magazine and Cyndi Waite, Caryn Riswold. Caryn Riswold said: RT @msmagazine: Myth#3: Bisexuality just means you’re confused. 5 Anti-Woman Myths in ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars” […]

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