Over the course of seven seasons, Pretty Little Liars has won upwards of 20 Teen Choice Awards, helped reinvent a cable network (ABC Family, meet Freeform), and was one of just a few television shows instrumental in the live-tweet phenomenon. So why didn't Pretty Little Liars get the recognition it deserved from established television critics and award shows? Throughout its seven seasons, PLL suffered from the mainstream idea that media created for female audiences — and teenage female audiences in particular — are somehow less substantive than media created for male audiences. And the show's lack of official recognition is disappointing, not just because PLL is a great show that has showcased some pretty great performances, but also because it reflects the stubborn misconception that women's stories are not as valuable as those of men.
The show didn't just suffer from gender bias, it suffered from ageism too. Pretty Little Liars is a show about teenage girls, made for teenage girls. It was always going to be an uphill battle to get recognition from, shall we say, more mature Hollywood establishments. Shows geared towards teen audiences, even well-reviewed ones such as Gilmore Girls or Dawson's Creek, rarely appear on the awards show radar. In recent years, shows from The CW — a known teen-skewing network — have broken through, with Golden Globe wins for both Jane the Virgin and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. However, it's important to note that both those shows are about adult women, not teenagers. Furthermore, both shows were showered with critical acclaim from the beginning. Pretty Little Liars, on the other hand, was not.
PLL premiered in the summer of 2010, just on the heels of the first season of The CW hit The Vampire Diaries and three years after Gossip Girl helped revive mystery teen dramas. And while critics were mostly indifferent to the show, some were pretty damning. Most important, however, is the fact that mainstream critics seemed to dismiss the value of the show simply because of its subject: the female teenage experience. A review in The NY Post, for example, reviewed the show as, essentially, one that parents would want to keep away from their children, noting, "there is no socially redeeming value in this series and ... your kids shouldn't watch it if they are too young and impressionable." Even positive reviews didn't make an effort to take the show seriously. A mixed review from The Hollywood Reporter even went so far as to declare potentially successful for an "unsophisticated audience."
Over its seven year run, Pretty Little Liars has consistently been one of the most live-tweeted shows ever, according to The Hollywood Reporter. One might even say that the series reinvented how we watch television (note that PLL premiered two years before Scandal). And yet, in 2014, when it was the third most tweeted about show according to The Hollywood Reporter, the show was still shut out from the more "prestigious" television awards shows (Emmys, Golden Globes, Critics Choice Awards). In fact, that same year Pretty Little Liars star Troian Bellisario wrote a column in THR speaking directly to Emmy voters, urging them not to ignore shows geared towards a teenage audience. "Why is it that with all the different types of shows being recognized this Emmy season, the ones like mine, 'teen shows,' are written off as fluff? Guilty pleasures that are too youthful to exhibit accolade-worthy material," Bellisario wrote at the time.
The problem, as described by Bellisario, is not just unfair to shows that, like PLL, have an enormous impact on society, it's potentially damaging. By dismissing teen shows as incapable of universal storytelling and somehow subpar, establishment Hollywood awards shows and critics send the message to teenagers — specifically teenage girls — that their experiences are frivolous. It tells young viewers that their lives and problems, as mirrored in television shows, are not taken seriously by the adults who review and judge these shows. If the success of Pretty Little Liars should teach us anything, it's that teen shows can make a huge impact, and that shouldn't be ignored.