attendance statistics

I grew up poor, in the Rust Belt, in an Ohio steel town that has been hemorrhaging jobs and hope for as long as I can remember. I have, to put it mildly, a complex relationship with my parents, one of whom has struggled with addiction my entire life. My grandparents, neither of whom graduated from high school raised me and few members of my extended family attended college. The statistics tell you that kids like me face a grim future. If they’re lucky they’ll manage to avoid welfare; and if they’re unlucky they’ll die of a heroin overdose, as happened to dozens in my small town just last year. Most Americans call them rednecks, white trash, or hillbillies, to me they are friends, family, and neighbors.
—  Hillbillie Elegy, JD Vance

I wish you understood that I am on your side, folks who left these asks this week. Not on Ezra’s side. Not on Ezra and Aria’s side. YOUR side, as women who are growing up/have grown up in this pervasive rape culture, I am writing for you. Every time I call out Ezra’s actions and beg Pretty Little Liars to do better, it’s for you. It’s for all of us. I wrote this thing in a PLL recap a year ago. I got some pushback from a few friends and editors who said, “You can’t publish this; you’re going to destroy the goodwill you’ve built with the PLL creative team!” But I don’t write ‘cause I want access to actors. I am the lesbian Lorax; I speak for feminism! 

Seriously, I’m on your team. Team you. Team us. Team women.

You guys know me well enough by now to know how very uninterested I am in participating in this oh-so-over-it, self-congratulatory critics culture that only wants to tear down stuff and snark all over everything because so many critics think they’re intellectually and morally superior to whatever art they’re interacting with. Right? You know me well enough to know what I want to do is dig down into a thing and engage with it in a real and compassionate way. So it doesn’t bring me any bit of joy to talk about the thing we have to talk about here, but we do have to talk about it, because from where we’re sitting in season five, it seems very much like Pretty Little Liars has got itself a real rape problem.

When PLL revealed Ezra as A over in Ravenswood last summer, I don’t think I have ever been so shocked by a TV moment in all my life, not because the story itself was jarring, but because I knew there was absolutely no way for the show to successfully back out of that decision. This wasn’t a 17-year-old boy joining Mona’s shenanigans to try to protect his 17-year-old girlfriend. This wasn’t a Toby thing. This was a grown man stalking a group of teenage girls, all of whom had been his students, and one of whom he had an ongoing sexual relationship with. But it actually got worse than that, because it turns out he wasn’t just surveilling them. Later, he revealed that he seduced Aria on purpose, knowing that she was underage and that he was going to be her authority figure. And then he proceeded to secretly video her and her interactions with her friends for years, never intervening even though they were being emotionally and psychologically tortured—while continuing to sleep with her.

The reason I’m talking about that is because PLL has brought rape into the narrative this season from a couple of different angles. Not the shadow-y, no-name fog of sexual exploitation that’s been prevalent from the beginning. This is a much more distinct thing. This season we’ve got Lucas and Mr. DiLaurentis laying down this gut-kicking notion that Ali was probably raped if she was kidnapped, and this vomit-inducing story about Zach trying to fuck Hanna, and this super true-to-life situation about Hanna’s friends victim-blaming her. And if we’re putting a face on sexual assault, if we’re bringing it into focus now, we can’t continue to turn a blind eye to what Ezra did to Aria.

If PLL is going to start a conversation about rape culture, my personal ethos demands that we be real about it.

In the broadest terms, rape culture is the acceptance that the sexual exploitation of women is just an inevitable fact of life. Specifically what it looks like is: Blaming victims of sexual assault for what happened to them (if you hadn’t been drunk/wearing something so slutty/hanging out at this place at that time of day, you wouldn’t have been assaulted); trivializing rape (it was just a bad hook up, you just regret consenting to it, rape jokes); music and stories that perpetuate the idea that women can’t trust their own judgement (“you know you want it”); and narratives that normalize stalking, harassment, and the erasure of female agency.

When pop culture is so saturated with that stuff, rape just starts to feel inevitable.

Now, the way this episode of PLL was written, we are meant to sympathize with Hanna and cringe at the other Liars’ behavior. They’re victim-blaming her, but the show is not victim-blaming her. The show is doing the exact opposite thing. The show is saying, “Hold this girl in your heart because her friends are blaming her and she’s blaming herself for something that was absolutely no-question not her fault. It’s not her job to not get assaulted by a grown man. It’s his job to not assault her.” And obviously that’s correct and obviously the Liars are going to come around to Hanna’s side on this thing.

But you can’t crystalize that story and still keep Ezra in your fuzzy periphery.

In the early days of Aria and Ezra, I kept saying the Aria and Ezra thing was only palatable as long as they kept him is virginal and, frankly, feminine as possible; and as long as he was getting out of an authority position over Aria as fast as he could; and but mostly, only as long as Aria was in complete control of the situation. If she had all the facts and was calling all the shots. She had to have 100 percent agency. And I actually thought the show did a really good job with that. We never saw him trying to convince Aria to do something she didn’t want to do. We never saw him manipulating her in any way. In fact, I spent many seasons berating Byron Montgomery for trying to control Aria’s sexual decisions because, in my mind, Aria was in control of Aria’s sexual decisions. Byron didn’t get to decide what happened to her vagina, and neither did Ezra. She had all of the information she needed to make her own informed judgements, and that’s what she was doing.

That’s what the show told me and that’s what I believed.

And then the show told me a different thing and I had to cognitively realign everything I knew about Aria and Ezra’s relationship. The problem is, the show hasn’t (so far) realigned everything it knows about Aria and Ezra’s relationship. There’s this running thread about “oh, but he loved you” and “he’s too romantic for his own good” and “he took a bullet for us.”

And maybe all three of those things are true, but none of those things negate what we now know, which is that Ezra is a full-on predator. He seduced Aria knowing she was underage. He seduced her knowing that he was going to be her authority figure. He took away her agency. And when she finally had all the facts and made the decision to leave him, he tried to coerce her into acting against her best interests by saying things like: “We’re not doing anything illegal, not the way I see it. And, when Aria tried to protest sleeping with him again: "It felt right, didn’t it?”

Look, I love Ian Harding. I think he’s a real-life hero, I really do. I’m not dogging on him as a human or an actor. I think he’s wonderful, and to be very honest with you, he and his sister (who is an amazing queer lady herself) are the reasons #BooRadleyVanCullen ever found traction in the first place. And I love these writers and producers and showrunners. I think they have done more for the queer community than we’ll ever be able to properly measure or thank them for. And I don’t think anyone at ABC Family is perpetuating these ideas on purpose. And also the story’s not finished; there’s still a long way to go. Who knows what will happen?

It’s not Pretty Little Liars’ job to swoop in and fix our culture’s terrifying rape culture problem, but it is Pretty Little Liars’ job to be cognizant of the message it is sending and the audience to which it is sending it.

According to Time magazine’s recent cover story on the crisis of sexual assault on American college campuses, 1 in 5 women will be the victim of rape or attempted rape while attending university, a statistic that is likely much lower than it should be since the Justice Department says only 12% of rapes are reported to authorities. The Obama Administration is currently investigating 55 major colleges for mishandling sexual assault cases. Last year, CNN mourned the loss of a group of college rapists’ promising football careers, instead of sympathizing with the women they brutally gang-raped. This year, James Madison University decided to ban a group of convicted rapists from campus after they graduate. (After they graduate.)

Sexual assault against college-aged women is a pandemic in this country, and those women are PLL’s target audience.

When I was eight years old I started having a terrible feeling that a male member of my extended family was going to try to do something bad to me. He never touched me but he used to come into the bathroom and leer at me when I was taking a shower and make gross, suggestive comments and gestures. I was afraid to say anything to anybody about it because I thought maybe I was just imagining stuff and I didn’t want to get him into trouble and also I knew he was pretty wealthy and helped my mom and dad out with money stuff sometimes.

I felt really scared about it for a long time and then one afternoon when I was watching ThunderCats, Mr. T came on during a commercial and said that if a grown-up was making me feel weird about my body I should tell someone I trusted right away. Mr T. was my hero. And he said it was OK to talk about it. So I got up and walked right into the kitchen and told my mom what I was feeling. She believed me right away, told me it was exactly the right thing to do to tell her, and once she consulted some other people in my family, she found out that guy had a history of predatory behavior but everyone had always been afraid to talk about it.

I hate when people say something is “just a TV show.” I can’t even count how many times TV has saved my life.

Pretty Little Liars is the super most fun — but it’s also hugely influential in the lives of young women. There are heroes here. Heroes like we have never seen before, and I don’t just mean gay ones. And it matters very much where this show lands in the broader rape culture conversation. Not just with Zach and Hanna, not just with whatever happened with Alison, not just with the sinister shadows and foggy insinuations, but also with Ezra and Aria. Maybe most importantly, even, with Ezra and Aria. They jumped off a cliff with his story and there’s no way to baby step backwards back up that precipice. The only way is forward, in a very different direction.

You have all my love all the time, Ezria shippers, even though it doesn’t feel like that’s true.