Pretty Little Liars’ Transphobic Secret

18431815488_bf0b39219d_zLast week, makers of the teen drama/thriller/mystery series Pretty Little Liars revealed the identity of the show’s vicious villain, “A.”

“He, she, it, bitch,” as one of the liars so problematically foreshadowed, is ring-leader Alison’s long-lost brother, Charles, who transitioned to a woman, Charlotte, while living in a psychiatric ward and now goes by the name CeCe Drake.

In short, “A,” the villain who has threatened, stalked, kidnapped and murdered girls on the show, been labeled “crazy” by characters, fans and makers of the show alike, is a transgender woman.

What may seem like a progressive decision—including a trans character on a teen drama—is in fact one more instance of transphobia on television. As many dismayed fans and bloggers have pointed out, the trans villain trope has been used over and over in film and television (think Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, Lt. Lois Einhorn in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, or the various portrayals of transgender killers on crime shows such as CSI and Law and Order).

GLAAD reported that between 2002 and 2013, the representations of “54 percent of all trans characters on episodic television were outright defamatory…while 19 percent of tracked episodes included trans characters in the role of murderers or villains.”

Considering that negative representations of trans people in film and on television are so frequent they merit annual reports, you would think that a showrunner in 2015—especially one with ties to the LGBT community, like Pretty Little Liars creator Marlene King—would have thought twice before casting a trans villain.

Well apparently King did—for three-and-a-half years. When asked directly about the history of trans people being cast in “devious,” manipulative roles, King responded adamantly that her show was not playing into that trope, while simultaneously exposing just how out of touch she is with trans issues:

We tried to be very clear that Charles comes from a very crazy family. Crazy runs in the family, I say, and it just so happens that this person, I think, suffered some tragic consequences of a crazy family, but having nothing to do with [being] transgender.

Let’s start with King’s decision to misgender CeCe Drake. Her response wasn’t a slip, but a conscious choice if she’s been writing this character for years. Before the big “A” reveal, the show repeatedly called back to Charles: CeCe signs off letters to her family with “Charles,” she dresses in a tux and a mask and she leaves clues for the girls to discover her former identity, but not her present one.

One fan wrote in an impassioned open letter to King, “I certainly wouldn’t cling on to my ‘male identity/past.’ I would not dress up in a tux. I would not leave blocks out with my old name on them. There is NOTHING realistic about what you have done. In fact, you’ve upset me. You have not helped progress the cause.”

Many fans feel similarly, particularly about the blurred lines between CeCe’s identity, her mental state and her villainous actions.

King tries to make it very clear in her statements that CeCe’s “crazy” tendencies have “nothing to do with [being] transgender.” But the show isn’t so clear on this. CeCe went to a psychiatric ward for one of two reasons: 1) her father was aware of her evolving identity and wanted to put her away, or 2) she maliciously put her baby sister Alison into a scalding bathtub. The former reason has everything to do with her being transgender, the latter, everything to do with her being deranged.

Putting aside the obvious—that something has to be wrong with your mental state to threaten, stalk and murder people—the show does nothing to make a distinction between CeCe’s identity and her villainous track record.

“If the writers and producers wanted a trans character, why make her the villain?” asked a writer for Planet Transgender. “In a world where the number of trans women killed is increasing each year, do you really want to promote the idea that trans women are not to be trusted, that we’re out to hurt people for our own psychotic ends?”

As cable television’s number one show among viewers ages 12-34, PLL has a responsibility to portray its characters, particularly minorities, in a conscientious manner. Parodying trans people as devious, deceptive villains has long been part of our media’s culture. In an age when positive and realistic portrayals of trans people, along with trans rights and activism, are finally making their way into mainstream entertainment, it’s unfortunate to see a show like PLL use its popularity to hinder the movement.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Public Photos licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

Julia RobinsJulia Robins is a Ms. editorial intern and a graduate of William & Mary. Follow Julia on Twitter @julia_robins.


    1. As mom to a transgender man, and have watched PTL all the way thru, I think this interpretation is a ridiculous over reaction. Many trans children/youth waver with the fluidity of their gender choices. Not everyone is rock solid from the start- but how presumptuous to assume everyone is the same. Mental illness not withstanding. Mental health affects everyone.

      It’s also a work of fiction that has showed the light and dark side of every character- adult, youth, authority, professional, parent, sibling, gay, straight, amd everything in between. To condemn the whole series by this revelation seems an opportunistic platform. Dissappointed in the extreme position.

    2. It is clear, in my opinion, that the overall problem with CeCe is that she is a villain. It follows that in order to avoid outrage, criticism, or protest (justified or unjustified), an underlying theme of the article is that any and all minorities (transgender individuals included) must, as a matter of principle, never be shown to be the villain or have flaws. That is transphobic.

      Also, lest we forget we are talking about about a show about 20-somethings playing rich pretty teenagers, in situations that are simply unreal. The premise of the show is murder, built upon a foundation of lies, sex, and, yes, MORE MURDER for which there never seems to be any consequences to the characters’ actions. Thus, to the criticism that this hinders progress in a time when transpeople are getting “realistic” portrayals, I respond that there is not realistic about PLL.

      To the criticism that a transgender person would not “cling” to her former identity, while you are probably right in that fact, it presumes that we are dealing in reality. But again, a show with such an outrageous premise never claimed to be a mirror for society or what should or does happen. The clues are techniques, solid techniques in my opinion, that brought the FICTIONAL story from point A to point B.

      Finally, YES, this trope has been used again and again and again. But this criticism is more rooted in bad storytelling rather than being “transphobic” at the article’s title suggests. I disagree with this article whole heartedly.

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