The troubling issue with the ‘PLL’ finale that we really need to talk about

The summer finale of Pretty Little Liars gave fans a fairly decent amount of our promised answers. Most importantly, it revealed the identity of A, the masked figure who’s been terrorizing Aria, Spencer, Hanna, Alison, and Emily for years. If you’d rather not yet know who A is, stop reading now.

A was revealed to be Cece Drake, who has shown up in a variety of mysterious circumstances over the course of the series and has long been suspected of being, at the very least, on the A team. The majority of the finale was exposition as Cece explained how and why she acted the way she did against the main characters. We learned that Cece is actually Ali’s sister and Jason’s twin — we also learned that CeCe is transgender, though that word was not used once in the entire episode. Indeed, the treatment of the trans storyline was a disappointment; a leaning on damaging stereotypes of trans people as dangerous and other. It is particularly disappointing given the incredibly positive way in which the series has treated other issues of sexuality and gender identity.

Throughout this season, fans have learned about Ali’s hidden older sibling, Charles, who was locked up in the Radley mental institution for allegedly attacking Ali as a child. Cece explains that she transitioned from Charles to Charlotte (nickname Cece) while in the institution, and that her identity was part of the reason that she was sent there, as her father did not approve and wanted any excuse to kick her out.

Cece is one of very few trans characters on a major cable show. Not counting Caitlyn Jenner, who is obviously not a character, only a few shows, including Ugly Betty, Glee, Degrassi and ABC Family’s The Fosters include trans characters. On the internet, Transparent and Orange is the New Black are doing big things in featuring trans story lines. It’s a decent list, but obviously short.

Pretty Little Liars, despite its sometimes laughably unrealistic plotlines, has been known to handle progressive topics well. For example, in the first season, Emily has a wonderfully written arc where she comes to terms with her sexuality (she is gay) and comes out to her friends and parents. It’s done in a realistic and gentle way, without making it contrived or PSA-like. Since then, Emily’s love life has never been treated with kid gloves. Her relationships are treated with the same devotion and respect as the love lives of any of the other girls.

Which is one of the reasons why it was so shocking to see the A reveal. To have one of television’s few trans characters be one of television’s biggest “psycho bitches” (to borrow a term from Hanna) who has been locked in a mental institution and obsessively attacks a group of young women is extremely problematic. It perpetuates a stereotype of transgender people as mentally unstable villains, as GLAAD has documented. It also manipulates the situation in a disturbing way, using transgender identity as a gimmicky plot twist. As Jessica Lachenal wrote at The Mary Sue: “The world really doesn’t need another story about a ‘crazy trans woman.’ I promise. Society does that enough on its own. To create stories around this dangerous trope is not only hurtful, it’s lazy. You’re essentially parroting how a lot of people already feel about trans people and preserving the status quo.”

Pretty Little Liars did get a few things right in featuring a trans character, though. First, it clearly showed that transgender youth are at risk of serious discrimination in their own homes. A disproportionate amount of homeless youth are LGBTQ, according to a 2010 report by American Progress, and they often leave home because of family conflict.

Cece’s father refused to accept her as she was, and it’s this that is shown as the catalyst for Cece’s destructive behavior. This nuance shifts the narrative away from Cece being the bad seed because she’s trans. As Hugh Ryan, founder of the Pop Up Museum of Queer Sex, pointed out when speaking to Jezebel, that nuance slightly advanced the narrative. It’s not, “‘You’re a psychopath because you’re trans’, it’s ‘You’re a psychopath because of how people treated you,’” he said. Still not great, we say.

Moreover, when the lead characters, including Ali, find out that Cece is trans, they don’t question her gender identity or act more shocked about this reveal than any of the others. They accept Cece’s story and come to sympathize with her while they hear it out.

Still, these subtleties don’t save the show from the highly-problematic message: The villain is trans and acted out, in part, because she is trans. We certainly do not, and did not, need another negative image of trans women in pop culture.

Pretty Little Liars still has at least 30 episodes left, according to creator I. Marlene King. Perhaps in that time, the show will become more responsible in how they depict Cece and trans characters more generally. But we’ll have to wait and hope for the best.

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[Images via ABC Family]