There's no question in my mind that Pretty Little Liars is a feminist show. Not only is the series told from the perspective of four young women, but it's also the rare show for teens that depicts the friendship between these women as strong, healthy, and supportive. Even Alison —who the other liars reunite with despite her past as a "Regina George on steroids"-level mean girl — is shown as more complex than her effortless hair and past cruelty would suggest. The women are both the greatest heroines and the greatest villains on this show, and both types of characters are given equal depth and complexity: So why do we always hear the term "bitch" thrown around on the show? Don't scoff at the term: Pretty Little Liars is reclaiming the word.
The show's Big Bad is the elusive villain A, and this mysterious figure loves to call the girls "bitches" in his texts. The insult is painfully commonplace for a clique of pretty high school girls. Don't like that girl who just won Prom Queen? Oh, she's a bitch — it's a surefire way to dismiss strong, confident women who do something you don't agree with. Big A attempts to control these women in part by cutting down their confidence and reducing their identities to that of "bitches." But the more that these women hear the term, the more that they've come to reclaim it — so take that, A.
In Season 6, we learned that a man named Charles DiLaurentis is the one running the A-Team. Yes, there may be a woman he is working with, but for all intents and purposes, this is a man's game. That means that a man has been attempting to control these women as his own personal "dolls," and it initially started with texts that read things like "Act normal, bitch." But now, in Season 6, the tables have turned: the girls have begun to refer to A as a bitch, despite knowing full well that the identity behind the black hoodie is a male.
At one point when the liars are stuck in the dollhouse, Hanna fires back to a camera that Charles has installed and says that she doesn't care if Charles is a guy — as far a she's concerned, he's "still a bitch." Hanna says a similar line in the first two minutes of the Season 6A finale, "Game Over Charles," telling the hoodie figure "You've been such a bitch to us."
For a show that uses the B word often, it's also a show that is de-feminizing the insult. The word "bitch" is a gendered insult: Calling a guy a bitch typically means he's a person who is behaving in a feminine way, whereas calling a woman a bitch is a way of shutting down someone who is strong. On Pretty Little Liars, the term is used in the same way for all of the characters, regardless of their gender.
It's not going to stop the word from being used to silence, dismiss or belittle women, but it is important that, on this show, the word isn't used specifically for that. It's empowering for the women on this show to be able to throw the word back at the person who uses it to cut women down. It's a small way that Pretty Little Liars is evening the playing field between the liars and their tormentor, but it's also illustrating a more important point: gendered insults shouldn't be tolerated.
And for more discussion of PLL's feminist themes, check out Bustle's podcast, Taking This One To The Grave:
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