What ‘Pretty Little Liars’ Understands About Female Friendship

I have a shameless weakness for high school television dramas. Since well before I was a high schooler, I was hooked on shows like Dawson’s Creek and Popular, patch working together what high school would be like based on primetime. On nearly all of the shows I watched, high school seemed pretty similar: Everyone was good looking, schoolwork played second string to socializing, and the most important relationships were romantic. Today, nearly nine years out of high school, my TV preferences haven’t matured and (for the most part) neither has primetime high school. Pretty Little Liars – the popular high school drama du jour – fits the mold pretty perfectly. Gossip is currency, beauty rules, and school is hardly more than a social backdrop. Where Rosewood High School stands apart from other TV high school is in the way it deals with character relationships. Rather than building the show’s drama around the predictable choices of romance and girl fights, Pretty Little Liars is built around something criminally undervalued in TV high school: female friendships.

For the unindoctrinated among you, Pretty Little Liars focuses on four teenage friends – Aria, Hannah, Spencer and Emily – as they work to solve the mystery of who murdered their best friend, Allison, and why, directly after her apparent death, they begin receiving menacing and untraceable texts and messages from someone only identifying themselves as “A” – is it Allison? “A” knows things about the girls that only Allison knew: Aria’s father had an affair, Hannah shoplifts, Spencer hooked up with her sister’s boyfriend and Emily is gay. In episode after episode, “A” uses these secrets as blackmail while steering the girls through an endless maze to find Allison’s supposed killer. Their hope is that finding “A” will mean discovering the murderer. Four seasons and countless clues later, “A” is still a mystery and the girls have shared enough secrets and harrowing moments to unite them for TV life. That bond between the four female leads is the show’s driving core.

The four characters that make up the Liars are by no means entirely original. Television and books like the dynamic that four women create (think Sex and the City, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Girls or the original Babysitters Club). But while their molds are admittedly familiar (the girly girl, the free spirit, the tomboy, the brain), and the show’s stakes soap-opera scale unrealistic, their relationships are decidedly nuanced. They are drawn with the cliquish sheen of traditional mean girls, but are portrayed as far more complicated than just pretty, little, liars. To its extreme credit, the show understands the fickle way in which teen girls interact with the world and the girls channel that confusing but familiar dynamic. They are often kind, fiercely loyal, rash sometimes, thoughtful at others and clearly very deeply committed to one another. Their quirks and patterns are more similar to the obsessive and insular way teenage girls interact with friends in real life, than to the catty chatter that dominates other teen shows. Like girls in real life, they also fall prey to groupthink and snap judgments, communally coming to opinions about other people (Mrs. D is suspicious, Shawna isn’t trustworthy) and relying on one another to make decisions as simple as what to wear and as serious as what to say to the police.

Unlike other teen TV queens the girls’ conversations do not revolve around guys. Sure, they talk about relationships sometimes, but their’s it not a bond driven by boy talk. Each Liar has some form of an on-again-off-again romance, but the romance always takes a back seat to the friendship. The structure of the show treats the male characters with the same distance, letting episodes go by with no screen time for the significant others. Also notable for TV high school, the Liars have never gone after the same guy.

In the world of TV teen dramas the Liars friendship stands out as disappointingly rare. In high school TV, the female friends are usually competitive frenemies or used-to-be-friends still trying to make it work. On Dawson’s Creek, for example, Joey and Jen tolerated one another, but just barely. Marissa and Summer on The OC set the tone for their friendship in the series premiere when Summer left a passed out Marissa on her doorstep. Similar frenemy duos populate the TV high school board – Gossip Girl’s Blaire and Serena, 90210’s Brenda and Kelly. A mention worthy standout are Rayanne and Angela on My So Called Life – though it’s been 20 year since that show was on television.

This is not to say that TV is lacking in strong female characters right now, merely strong female friendships. Girls certainly capitalizes on the friendship between the four leads but that dynamic is more often about the dissolution and forced preservation of friendships than the formation of them. Look to shows with older strong female characters, like Scandal, Orange is the New Black, Game of Thrones or House of Cards, and female friendships are replaced by either professions or marriage – much like what sadly happens in real grown up life.

Pretty Little Liars is by no means a perfect show. Characters come and go with little to no explanation and “A” has been teased so many times that at points it’s hard to keep caring. But the show is filling a void and painting a picture of friendship that we too seldom see. These are girls are portrayed within the dynamic of their friend group, and the enormous popularity of the show with viewers proves that this bond is doing something right. This is high school after all. Popularity counts.

Featured image via ABC Family