“Pretty Little Liars: Original Sin” sparks conversations about sexual violence

By Riley Dauber

Opinion Editor

The much-anticipated reboot of teen drama “Pretty Little Liars” began airing this summer on streaming platform HBOMax. Episodes of “PLL: Original Sin” were released on a weekly basis from July 28 to August 18, 2022.

The show follows five girls living in the fictional town of Millwood, PA. In the first episode, they receive threatening text messages from an anonymous “A.”

Everyone who has seen the original show knows exactly where this is going. “A” knows the girls’ secrets, and will spend the season blackmailing and torturing them. Viewers were able to see this song-and-dance routine play out on ABC Family from 2010 to 2017 when the show originally aired.

But instead of falling back on old tropes, “PLL: Original Sin” focuses on a new mystery that intertwines the girls’ lives with their mothers’ high school drama.

A major difference between the two shows is that, thanks to the change in streaming platforms, the reboot takes on a darker tone and mature audience rating, giving the creators the opportunity to effectively discuss issues like sexual assault.

Teen dramas attempted to take on serious topics in the past, with everything from gun violence, mental health, suicide, and addiction making an appearance. Many did not succeed, and even the original “PLL” failed to discuss Hanna’s eating disorder, using throwaway lines and insignificant plot points.

The main reason why teen dramas struggle to portray these topics is because of tonal issues.

According to an article by Arielle Bernstein for The Guardian about “13 Reasons Why,” “The series has now spent two seasons trying to have its cake and eat it, doubling down on its insistence that it’s an essential show that takes teenage pain seriously, while also turning those same issues into a melodramatic soap opera.”

In comparison, “PLL: Original Sin” possesses a darker tone and is serious in its depiction of sexual violence.

“The girls’ trauma is taken seriously and is portrayed with layers of complexity and grace,” Lily Alvarado said in an article for Autostraddle.

The shift in tone and topic works because creators Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Lindsay Calhoon Bring were inspired by and horror films. The plotlines and framing of scenes draw inspiration from films like “Carrie” and “Halloween,” and Tabby, played by Chandler Kinney, loves movies.

She also criticizes the violence against women in horror and the subgenre of exploitation films, where a survivor of sexual assault, typically a woman, seeks revenge on her attackers. These critiques are relevant to the show, as Imogen, played by Bailee Madison, and Tabby are survivors of sexual assault.

 “While horror has a huge problem in portraying sexual assault, ‘PLL: Original Sin’ manages to subvert the trope of the female victim by not letting any of the characters be defining by their sexual assault. They’re not just survivors…Imogen and Tabby live full-fledged lives and have agency,” Alvarado said.

Even though the show references many famous horror movies, Aguirre-Sacasa and Bring are able to improve upon the depiction of sexual violence in these films. Tabby and Imogen bond over their experiences and handle their trauma in different ways.

The portrayal of survivors in “PLL: Original Sin” is well-written and thought-out. Both creators clearly care about the characters and their stories, and viewers can see Tabby and Imogen grow throughout the season as they speak up about their experiences.

Sexual assault is currently an important topic to discuss on television given the recent #MeToo Movement and the overturning of court case Roe v. Wade, as Imogen’s assault results in her pregnancy.

When she finds out she’s pregnant, her mother supports her decision to keep the baby. Imogen reconsiders, however, when her mother commits suicide in the first episode. She decides to put the baby up for adoption, and her decision shows the importance of women’s choice in a pregnancy.

As for Tabby, she tackles her trauma through filmmaking and her love of movies.

“Tabby particularly establishes her agency through filmmaking – the stories she creates are of women taking back their show,” Alvarado said.

In episode six, the two characters share a touching moment when they realize they’re both survivors. After Tabby explains what happens to her, Imogen says, “Something happened to me too.”

By showing both characters opening up to each other and forming a bond, the show is able to emphasize the importance of using one’s voice and speaking up when it comes to sexual assault.

It brings awareness to the issue while also showing how sexual violence directly impacts teenagers, which Tabby mentions in episode eight.

“The content in my story, sexual assault and the trauma that comes with it, is something young women deal with 24/7. It’s the reality we’re living in, and you can’t ignore it,” she says while discussing her original short film idea with her teacher and principal.

Tabby wants to include these themes in her film, but the principal will not allow it. The show itself does not shy away from its depiction of sexual assault, while also including a content warning at the beginning of each episode.

Content warnings allow viewers to learn what topics will be covered in the show and reconsider if they will tune in, and it’s refreshing to see “PLL: Original Sin” utilizing them so effectively.

Each episode also includes resources following the end credits. The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network’s National Sexual Assault Hotline and the Crisis Text Line are provided.

The show sheds light on sexual violence and its effects, and encourages those who may be struggling to speak up about their experiences.

In an interview for Entertainment Weekly, show creators Aguirre-Sacasa and Bring discussed the importance of telling these stories of survival.

“It’s a tricky story to tell. It’s an ambitious story to tell in a heightened horror slasher show. And I’m really proud of that story,” Bring said.

Many fans of the original show can agree that it was campy and melodramatic. It didn’t take itself too seriously, leaning into the soap opera twists and plotlines in the later seasons.

To see the reboot, take on stylistic choices, a darker tone, and slasher inspiration, as well as discussions of sexual assault and the effects it has on survivors, makes for a thoughtful and engaging viewing experience.

RAINN’s resources and hotline are available at the following number: 1-800-656-4673

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