Pretty Big Problems: Pretty Little Liars, Rape, and Artificial Consent -The Toast

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Spoiler alerts galore.

I follow Lucy Hale on Instagram. For those that don’t know who she is/don’t obsessively read US Weekly, Lucy is the actress who plays Aria Montgomery on Pretty Little Liars. The other day she posted a picture of herself and Ian Harding, the actor who plays Ezra Fitz, Aria’s high school English teacher and her rapist.

I had a strong reaction to seeing their smiling faces, one of total disgust. I could not separate the actor from the role he plays on PLL. I suspect that this is due largely to the fact that the predatory role he plays on the show is not addressed in any way, and that his ongoing abuse of Aria is framed as a normal, consensual “relationship.”

Some background on this TV show. PLL focuses largely on the lives and resplendent manes of four high school students who are dealing with the aftermath of the murder of a close frenemy, Alison DeLaurentis. Aria, Emily Fields, Hanna Marin, and Spencer Hastings are trying to solve this mystery, generally while wearing clothes more expensive than I care to think about. There is love, heartbreak, sex, texting, and a mystery villain named A. Opportunities for informative flashbacks (filmed through a gauzy filter) abound. The show drops the ball on all kinds of things, from its near-total lack of diversity* to the fact that the ongoing sexual assault of a student is framed as a fine romance. I enjoy PLL with relish; it is so lacking in any components of critical analysis that I have the option to call out any of them, or think about none of them, every time I tune in on Netflix.

On the show, Ezra is not framed as a rapist. He is not framed as a child abuser. He is framed as the equal partner of a high school student, a student he teaches. This is almost certainly deliberate, and these representations of Ezra as a partner, rather than a rapist, work to centre the idea that Aria is capable of giving consent in this context. Let me state in no uncertain terms: Aria Montgomery is not capable of giving consent to her adult teacher. In Pennsylvania, where the fictitious town of Rosewood is located, there are clear laws about sexually assaulting minors over the age of consent when perpetrators hold power over these minors.

Prior to December 20, 2011, “teachers who had sex with students who are over the age of consent — which begins at 16 in Pennsylvania — were probably only going to face charges of corrupting a minor, a misdemeanor calling for up to five years in prison.” With the passing of Senate Bill 1183, the state of Pennsylvania now includes teachers in the state’s institutional sexual assault statute, and therefore any teacher who sexually assaults a minor is committing a third-degree felony. If convicted of this crime, he or she may serve up to seven years in prison and may have to register as a sex offender for up to ten years. The show began filming prior to the passing of this law, but even before Bill 1183 was passed, Ezra was committing a sex crime against a minor that could have landed him in prison for up to five years.

“How can a show completely ignore the ongoing sexual assault of one of the main characters?” you might ask. Good question. I wanted to know too. So I took a closer look at Ezra and Aria and how they’re portrayed in the series. It’s my belief that PLL pushes the message that Ezra is somehow non-threatening because he’s emotionally immature, making him more of a peer to Aria than an authority figure. Aria is presented as “mature” for her age, as the instigator of this assault (which is legally impossible – this is victim blaming at its worst), and as the true holder of power in their relationship. The characters’ interactions with one another are written in such a way to convince viewers that Aria is giving Ezra what I would call “artificial consent.” Sinister, no?

Let’s talk about how Ezra is presented in the show as Aria’s social and romantic peer, instead of as a criminal abusing a child.

  1. When Aria and Ezra first meet outside of school, Aria is deliberately vague about her age, discussing an interest in studying English. It’s suggested that Ezra believes she is a college student. The two find they have a lot in common, and end up having what the show presents as a hot makeout session in the bathroom, but what is in fact a sexual assault. The show implies that Aria has purposely misrepresented her age, that Ezra has been bamboozled, and that Aria is therefore the instigator of this assault.

  2. The next time Ezra and Aria meet he is introducing himself as her new English teacher. He’s real pissed that Aria “tricked” him into assaulting her. Again, Ezra is portrayed as the one who has had power exercised over him.

  3. Aria is also depicted as an irresistible siren. How could Ezra possibly resist her charms? PLL implies that of course he could not, and Ezra engages in an ongoing cycle of sexual abuse. Ezra is an adult. Aria is not. Ezra is Aria’s teacher. He is raping her and it is his fault alone.

  4. This whole INTERACTION is shown as a relationship between equals, or even between a mature teenager and her devoted man-child. Aria often considers ending the relationship and even does call things off for brief periods of time. Ezra throws tantrums about her relationship decisions in the form of thinly-veiled English lectures (these scenes are particularly delightful and outlandishly melodramatic). Aria gets to call the shots. Ezra is immature. He is going through “emotional puberty.” Ezra loves Aria and wants to be with her forever and ever. Rainbows, puppies, kittens.

  5. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.

  6. Real talk.  Out of all of the adult men on the show, other than the dads (and this is a show for teenagers; no one cares about the dads) Ezra looks younger than every male lead–he’s clean-shaven and baby-faced, and this is no accident. He reads younger than the high school love interests – I’m looking at you, Caleb Rivers and Toby Cavanaugh. Aria looks to be at least Ezra’s age. This works both to normalize this situation, and also to present Ezra as a child, non-threatening and incapable of victimizing Aria for four drama-laden seasons on ABC Family.

  7. When Aria’s parents find out about this ongoing assault they are appalled, although not appalled enough to call it what is it: rape. The show frames Aria’s dad’s anger at Ezra as a victimization of Ezra in some way. You see, his anger could negatively affect Ezra’s employment, or even publicly reveal Ezra’s ongoing abuse of power (oh no, consequences for committing a third degree felony!). Viewers are meant to identify with Ezra’s fear of being punished for a crime that he considers a relationship. The parents are overreacting in this characterization to what viewers are supposed to see as a normal relationship that Aria actively fights to continue.

Because I can’t even adequately begin to articulate my outrage about the subject, I expected some kind of public outrage about the awfulness that is this totally disgusting situation. Yeah, no. Much of the online responses to Ezra Fitz the rapist talk about the exciting scandals or mention the issue only in passing.

Even a website available as a resource to parents who want to know what their children are watching doesn’t warn about the normalization of the sexual assault of a child. Instead, it discusses a “teen’s love affair with her high-school teacher” leading to “some intense physical encounters that stop just before the act itself.” *makes face fitting the definition of outrage*

(As a side note, this website also “warns” concerned parents about a sexual relationship between two female leads in the same problematic sentence that frames Aria and Ezra as having a “relationship.” Consenting sexual relationships between teens of any and all genders, gender identities, and sexual orientations are not something that I would consider warning parents about, as healthy expressions of teenage intimacy. But to highlight a consensual same-sex relationships next to a warning about child abuse, is not okay. So not okay.)

So what does this effort to conflate the rape of a child with artificial consent mean in real life? I have a few theories. Let’s start with my own experience:

I was the victim of sexual harassment by two different adult supervisors at a job I held as a high school student. This harassment was laced with racism (“women from [insert country here] are sexually submissive,” “women from [insert country here] all look like this, and that turns me on”), in addition to the ongoing racism I experienced from a third supervisor (“my friend isn’t Black, but he has horse hair, like yours”).

In one case my thigh was rubbed as I was being harassed. Another time a supervisor confronted me in his home (where I was stuck after I could not get a cab home after a work-related Christmas party), in just his underwear, bargaining with me about what level of sexual activity I might be willing to engage in with him.

“Well, if we can’t have sex, can we at least make out?”

“If we can’t make out, can we at least kiss?”

“If we can’t kiss, can we at least cuddle?”

The few adults I told, including those in the school system, were cynical. They thought that I was just “seeking attention”. The few friends I told were not especially supportive either. I felt ashamed, like this was my fault, and it was made clear to me that I wasn’t supposed to talk about this. When it became publicly known that I had told other adults about this abuse, I was fired. For years I didn’t talk about this, because I felt that I had done something wrong. I had not.

These men all held power over me, yet, I was made to feel like I was in some way at fault, that I wanted what was happening to me, or that I had even made it all up. Like Aria, I was a child, and these men were adults. Like Aria, I feel that I was depicted as the instigator in some way, and also that there was no narrative available to me where I was being victimized, and be supported through my victimization, or through my desire to speak up about what happened afterwards.

I feel like rape culture and victim-blaming in the media is something that we all know about. However, if you are looking for a refresher, or for an example, this article received lots of attention in feminist circles, as it hit the trifecta of victim blaming. The article, discussing multiple incidences of the rape of an 11-year-old by a number of adult perpetrators, focuses on the negative impact of the trial on the perpetrators and community to the exclusion of the victim, attempts to shift blame onto the victim by portraying her as looking and acting older than she is, and also describes rape as sex, which wrongly implies that an 11-year-old child was able to willingly participate in her assaults.

So, the ongoing sexual assault of Aria Montgomery by Ezra Fitz in PLL both reinforces a narrative that blames victims, and forwards the idea of consent in situations where it is impossible for an individual to give it. It feeds into a culture that silences survivors of abuse, lest they invite more shaming. And it romanticizes the rape of a minor by an adult exercising control over that individual. It asks viewers to see a terrible, ongoing cycle of abuse as a relationship to both envy and aspire to.

Rape happens often in situations where one individual holds power over another. I don’t ask for this reality to be made entirely absent from pop culture TV. I just want to have a better conversation about it when it is portrayed. Give me the drama, the impossible scenarios, the escape from reality. Give me the pretty little lies.

But don’t lie about the big things. Not about the things that reinforce patriarchy, that through the intersectional nature of oppression, impacts those experiencing multiple marginalizations at rates considerably higher than other populations. Call rape what it is, so viewers are given an opportunity, even on the fluffiest of shows, to examine their ideas about rape and rape culture for the real-world incarnations of what has been misrepresented as a romantic TV subplot.

* These are my observations in terms of lack of representation of racialization, and of skin colour diversity and ethnic diversity within racialization, lack of representation of people with disabilities, problematic representations of people with mental health challenges, no representation of transgender folks, limited representations of lesbian, gay, and bisexual folks, representations of body size diversity only in stereotyping, shaming, and blaming contexts, and a lack of income diversity. This is by no means an exhaustive list, just some of the issues of diversity in PLL that come to mind.

Jessie is a perpetual grad student, studying all the social justice issues. She is a lover of all food (cheese is the only food, also bacon), critical analysis of everything all of the time, and really bad TV shows.

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