Friday, February 24, 2012

Pretty Little Poison: The Beauty Myth in one of ABC Family’s Newest Hit Shows

One of the most popular current shows targeted towards pre-teen and teenage girls is Pretty Little Liars. The main storyline of the show involves a group of four used-to-be misfit high school girls who are dealing with the tragic death of their beautiful and popular ring-leader: the girl who transformed them from outcasts to cool. As they grieve their best friend’s death, the girls get a series of texts from an anonymous ‘A’ threatening to expose all of their ugly secrets. In modern day pop culture, this is one work that exemplifies today’s beauty myth.
The title, itself: Pretty Little Liars evokes a sense of glamor and femininity and the opening credits of the show emphasize this fact. For the majority of the opening theme, the camera is focused on girls applying lipstick, curling their hair, donning high heels and painting their nails. This corresponds with Naomi Wolf’s points in “The Beauty Myth”. In her writing, Wolf states that: “We are in the midst of a violent backlash against feminism that uses images of female beauty as a political weapon against women’s advancement…” Pretty Little Liars may be promoting this concept to influence its female viewers into complying with this myth; the purpose of such notions in order to retain a male-centric “status-quo”.
In flashback episodes of the show, when the story takes us back to Hanna, Emily, Aria and Spencer’s misfit days, the girls seem to worship Alison. It is clear that they are hanging on to her every word.  This proves to be true when in multiple times during the two seasons of the show, they can perfectly recite quotes said by Alison from the distant past. Why did they revere her so much? Again, the beauty myth is the answer. According to social convention, women today should be thin, beautiful and glamorous. Alison embodies all of these things. She is thin, she is seen by many at Rosewood High School as ‘beautiful’ or ‘perfect’, she is rich, and she wears designer clothes.
One specific episode details the life of the character Hanna Marin, who, before an amazing transformation, was known as ‘Hefty Hanna’ in relation to her size and shape. She would binge eat as a result of depression and try to hide her food from her friends. Alison finds out about these binges and shows Hanna how to throw up, thus Hanna becomes bulimic.  Fast forward to present-day Hanna Marin who is the new popular girl in school, replacing Alison; she is thin, beautiful and privileged just like the girl she once idolized. Her dark past she has put behind her and she has stopped binging and purging now that she is at her ideal size.
In an episode of particular significance, the ever-looming ‘A’ threat forces Hanna to go to a bakery and pick up a box of cupcakes. There are about half a dozen in the box and she is instructed to eat them, lest disaster ensue. Enter best friend Aria Montgomery who stumbles upon Hanna and her unfortunate circumstance whereby Hanna confesses the truth about her eating habits. Aria goes on to express how dangerous this is and how strong Hanna is for overcoming this personal demon.
Hanna’s weight loss is glamorized within the series and it cannot be denied that her “methods” for this transformation are also subsequently glamorized. What this message promotes to the viewers of the program is that a.) eating is bad and b.) having an eating disorder such as bulimia is a perfectly legitimate way to lose weight, so long as you “get better” once the weight is gone. Essentially, it seems to imply that you should do whatever you have to do to fit into the social constructs of beauty.
In “The Beauty Myth”, Naomi Wolf states that with the rise of feminism and the sexual revolution, “…the weight of fashion models plummeted to 23 percent below that of ordinary women, eating disorders rose exponentially, and a mass neurosis was promoted that used food and weight to strip women of [a] sense of control.” In the storyline of the Pretty Little Liars episode, ‘A’ becomes the uncontrollable force in this situation, echoing Hanna’s former uncontrollable bulimia and forcing her to re-live the past. This reminds her in a very haunting way that she should not stray from social convention. It could even be “dangerous” (the situation entailing that if she doesn’t comply with ‘A’s demands, ugly secrets will be revealed, courtesy of ‘A’ him/herself).
Spencer Hastings is a character within the series who deals with the myth of beauty in a very different way, but with the same overall ideas in mind. Spencer is notorious for being the competitive one who always has to be the best or the most successful. She has been shown in episodes as having the most rivalry with her older sister Melissa and Alison DiLaurentis (who is later revealed to be her sister, as well).This rivalry takes root in Spencer’s jealousy of these two women because they are the most beautiful in her family and successful because of this (e.g. Ali is popular and looks like a model, Melissa is beautiful and successful in both academic areas as well as marital and reproductive areas). She often complains that she is never good enough compared to her sisters and has frequent outbursts of rage targeted towards them.  In “The Beauty Myth” Wolf illustrates how success in the contemporary world is directly linked with a concept of beauty. In order to be successful, you must also be beautiful and since her sisters are more beautiful, they must also be more successful. It is in Spencer’s nature to be the best and so this situation does not rest well with her.
These are but a few examples of how the show relates to the current constructs of beauty in society. Significant occurrences within Pretty Little Liars which provide supporting evidence of the beauty myth are in abundance throughout the series. With the right analysis these become evident quickly and serve to both point out the faults in the beauty myth while also promoting it.

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