I am a recovering mean girl. I was in a girl clique in high school, and I’ve regretted some of our habits (matching T-shirts, exclusive sleep-overs, incessant gossiping) ever since. That’s why binge-watching Pretty Little Liars over the last several months has been such a jarring experience: It made me remember why being in a clique was fun in the first place.
The show, which starts the second half of its fourth season on Tuesday evening, is among the most-watched series in ABC Family’s history: More than three million people tuned in for the summer finale in August. Nielsen SocialGuide reports that 637,000 people tweeted about the episode 1.9 million times. Liars does particularly well with women aged 12 to 34, who made up about two-thirds of the audience for the summer finale; predictably, a good portion of that group was middle- and high-schoolers.
Why has the show struck such a chord with younger women? For one thing, it’s hard to resist the murderous plot twists and “OMG moments,” as the show’s creator calls them. But the inner world of the show also has an irresistible draw: It invites viewers to feel like part of an unfolding drama, an intimate circle of secret-telling, a group of people like them. (My roommate and I are constantly arguing about which one of us is more like Spencer, the slightly prissy, overachieving brainiac who is clearly the best character in the series.) Much like being in a clique, watching the show makes you feel like you’re living an “OMG”-worthy life.
Admittedly, this is a little alarming, considering how twisted the world of Pretty Little Liars is: Four teenage best friends—Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer—drifted apart after the murder of their best friend, Allison, but they reunite when they all start getting untraceable texts from someone who calls herself (himself?) “A,” ostensibly standing for “Allison.” This mysterious stalker somehow knows all of their deepest secrets, and as the four friends try to solve the murder, “A” threatens to reveal all of their lies and misdeeds. For a group of 16- or 17-year-old girls, they’ve certainly committed their fair share of sins. Aria secretly dates her English teacher; Spencer breaks up her sister’s engagement when she makes out with the fiancé; Emily lies to her parents about getting into college; Hanna seems to steal compulsively. “A” mocks the girls as they endure one dramatic incident after another: Getting trapped in a wooden box with a dead body and almost pushed out of a moving train. Being drugged and framed for digging up Allison’s corpse. Having to stab and kill a stalker after being kidnapped and chased through the woods. And, obviously worst of all, breaking up with a whole roster of love interests who fall prey to A’s vengeful pranks. (Before she died, Allison was undoubtedly the craziest of them all: She once threw a bomb into a neighbor’s garage, blinding a girl.)
The name of the show teases viewers with one idea of what the characters are like: deceitful, annoyingly pretty, malicious. But what’s remarkable about Pretty Little Liars is that the four “liars” aren’t one-dimensional mean girls at all—they’re sometimes kind, sometimes thoughtless, often generous, and often judgmental. Aria, Emily, Hanna, and Spencer fall into the murky territory between mean girls and stereotypical “nice girls” (think Rory Gilmore), which makes the show seem much more authentic.
The four friends clearly care about each other a lot, and for the most part, they act like decent people. Despite their shortcomings, the “liars” mostly try to treat others well: Hanna goes out of her way to befriend Lucas, the school’s yearbook editor and prototypical nerd. Aria offers to babysit when her boyfriend/former teacher discovers that he’s the father of a five-year-old kid. Spencer hawks her sister’s wedding ring to buy her broke boyfriend a truck so that he can get a job. (Okay, maybe that last one doesn’t count.)
But they also fall into some of the hallmark patterns of clique-y mean girls. They’re collectively suspicious of kids who strike them as weird—like Mona, the nerd-turned-prep who desperately wanted to be friends with Allison. They throw occasional dramatic fits, like when Emily tells off Jenna, the girl who Allison caused to go blind. And most potently, the girls are guilty of overwhelming groupthink about the other people in their lives—they are deeply convinced that a different person killed Allison in basically every other episode.
Surprisingly, though, in a time when bullies get vilified on the Internet and weird kids are celebrated on television, Pretty Little Liars has turned a textbook girl clique into a group of heroines. Unlike Mean Girls, it’s not didactic—it doesn’t seem that viewers are supposed to conclude that the girls are mockably dumb or cruel for being part of an exclusive group. The show seems pretty self-aware, as the characters often poke fun at their own stereotypes. Yet it embraces the idea that girls can grow from having a tight-knit group of girlfriends—a somewhat radical stance for a post-Mean Girls world.
Pretty Little Liars’ portrayal of how girls talk to each other and think about their social experiences seems authentic, rather than defiant or designed to teach viewers a lesson: The girls are highly sensitive to one another’s feelings, and each is constantly checking on how the other three are coping with the various dramatic episodes in their lives. They build intimacy by trading stories about the minutiae of their daily lives, listening patiently and enthusiastically to even the smallest of their friends’ stories. And while it may seem mean-spirited to delineate a clear “us” and “them,” their relationships are strengthened by knowing exactly who their best friends are and aren’t.
The show also sidesteps stereotypes about high-school romance and its seemingly antagonistic role in relation to friendship. The girls are neither “too chaste” nor “too slutty,” neither too commitment-oriented nor too hookup-oriented. They churn through a lot of boys and girls—and how awesome is it that the show includes a non-stereotypical lesbian?—but one thing stays constant: Boyfriends and girlfriends are second-string to best friends. By later seasons, a few of the beaus band together to help the girls battle “A,” but their social lives revolve around the four friends. The “liars” are a magnetic vortex that reorients all social interactions toward themselves.
Jealousy, of course, abounds: All of the characters seem to jump to nefarious conclusions any time they see a significant other talking to someone of the opposite sex. Relationships end quickly and a little unreasonably, although often under the pressure of A’s bullying. And, admittedly, there’s an element of glibness in how the three straight girls deal with their boyfriends, which could be characterized (perhaps unfairly) as a “pretty girl” way of treating boys: Hanna leaves her boyfriend alone during most of their homecoming dance because she’s out sleuthing for “crucial” clues to Allison’s murder; she doesn’t even show up to get crowned homecoming queen. Aria flakes on her boyfriend/former high-school teacher while they’re at a birthday party, a not-so-great way to thank the 24-year-old for showing up at social function for high schoolers.
Individually, though, these romantic relationships seem authentic—in both good and bad ways. The couples fight sometimes; implausibly, one of Emily’s girlfriends even tries to drown her—and that’s before they get together. For a show so focused on girls, it’s wonderful that the boys aren’t one-dimensional—they talk about their emotional conflicts openly and often. And perhaps that’s just another part of the slightly uncomfortable believability of the show: It captures what kinds of damage emotionally immature teenage girls can inflict, but without demonizing them.
None of this is to say that all gossip is good, that all pretty girls are in cliques, or that all dramatic girls deserve a break. But Pretty Little Liars reminds viewers that girls form cliques for a reason: They’re comforting, supportive, and fun. In a perfect world, all exclusive in-groups would be open, welcoming communities.
But the world isn’t perfect, and neither are the “liars”—that’s what makes them believable. Sometimes, girls are mean. Sometimes, girls lie. And much of the time, those same girls are also decent, likeable people who care about doing the right thing. It’s a sly trick for the show to offer up a defense of cliques in the guise of a murder-thriller, but it’s also smart—this layer adds depth to a show that’s all about evoking the “OMG.”