“Never trust a pretty girl with an ugly secret.” - A

By LindsAy RitenbAugh

I’ll admit it. I’m 29 years old. I have a full-time job and a Master’s degree. And every Tuesday night (or Wednesday morning when my schedule does not permit), I am glued to ABC Family or Hulu catching the latest episode of Pretty Little Liars. I’ve gotten roommates, cohort mates, friends, and coworkers addicted and have cross-country conversations as we watch together. If you haven’t already, watch it marathon style like I encouraged you to do for Orange Is The New Black—trust me, you won’t be disappointed. The amateur acting may be a struggle to stomach and the plot may seem outlandish and predictable, but there’s something about the way the tangled web of lies unravel that keeps me coming back every week.

Photo retrieved from Google Images

For those of you not familiar with the show, it began as a sleeper summer hit in 2010 based on Sara Shepard’s junior adult novels of the same name. PLL (as it is affectionately been dubbed by preteens) chronicles the missing person story of a high school mean girl named Alison, whose disappearance quickly evolves into an apparent murder investigation. Four teenagers from different walks of life (yet for the most part upper class white women) come together as a result of each person’s varied but unique involvement with Alison during middle school. At Alison’s funeral, these four girls begin receiving messages from a blocked number. Text, emails, and threats disguised as notes in their lockers show up repeatedly as the first season progresses. Could it be Alison speaking from the grave? Is she still alive? The show jumps from past to present often, slowly unraveling clues to help the audience solve the mystery of the person(s) behind the mysterious “A” sending these cryptic messages. It seems like “A” is always a step ahead of the “protagonists” in the story, and although impossible, appears to be everywhere like Roz from Disney’s Monster’s Inc.

Always watching.

Photo retrieved from Google Images

Although the Season 4 summer finale just concluded and we were left with a cliffhanger to leave us guessing until October 22, I cannot ascertain if Alison is actually dead or alive. And I still don’t know who “A” is, although I have my assumptions. The storyline is complicated, twisted, and sometimes childish. Yet I can’t get enough.  

Why do I share this guilty pleasure with you? What could Pretty Little Liars possibly have to do with Student Affairs you ask?

“I know everything.” - A

I was riding home from work on the train and was catching up with a friend in Florida who had just finished watching the finale. We were texting back and forth our detailed reviews and opinionated thoughts/predictions regarding the ending scene. I couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that we were actually having civil discourse over a show like Pretty Little Liars. Her response is part of what prompted this blog post (and a post on Instagram regarding our seemingly petty conversation):

Having intelligent conversation about theories regarding a
pubescent focused television series is totally legit.

I laughed out loud but she was absolutely right. Don’t even get me started on the notion that this storyline has ties to literary classics like To Kill a Mockingbird in that the character(s) are parallel to Boo Radley. And a mental institution that continues to reappear as the setting for many characters is also named Radley. Don’t believe me? Google the hashtag #BooRadleyVanCullen. (You’re welcome.)

Privilege, like in many television series, is also a recurring theme in the show. Spencer, one of the main characters, shared this in the most recent summer finale:

                                                                Hanna: It’s privileged information.
Spencer: I’m the embodiment of privilege. I got this.

I also sense a little student development theory. In 1986, four female psychologists performed a study that brought light to the development of women and ways in which they can find their voice and authority. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule concerned themselves with why women often doubt their own abilities, both intellectually and socially. This study was different from other cognitive theories in that it focused primarily on women and their cognitive development of self, voice, and mind.

The five perspectives were silence, where women were without a voice and words were weapons forcing them to accept the status quo; received knowing, where words were no longer weapons but women were still dependent on authority to provide them with knowledge; subjective knowing, where women began to recognize themselves as authority; procedural knowing, where rules were needed to better understand the authorities who were no longer considered negative; to constructive knowing, where women were no longer silenced and finally able to interconnect the self, voice, and mind (Love and Guthrie, 1999).

Take a look at the women affected by the wrath of “A.” The drama ensued by these puzzling clues and wild goose chase tactics do nothing but raise more suspicion than answers. By processing through the lens of Belenky et al.’s Women’s ways of knowing, I would venture to say that these women are stuck somewhere between silence (Get it—because they’re sworn to secrecy? I’ve got jokes) and received knowing. Although they talk and use every means of communication available in the present day, they are being paralyzed with fear by each word shared by “A.” They are easily manipulated and used against one another to help the mysterious antagonist(s) achieve their master plan of high school domination. Laws are broken, hearts are torn apart, and families are often divided due to “A” and the chilling secrets s/he uncovers at will. What’s more is that “A”—if indeed a woman—cannot possibly be interconnected with her self, voice, and mind. In building “herself” up by tearing others down, one can assume that “A” feels authority in the perspective of subjective knowing but does not know how to effectively harness the power of voice.

I have complete faith that this teenybopper series will keep millions of other fans and me guessing when it returns to television in October. I no longer watch this show expecting to find answers. I had joked with the friend mentioned earlier that I planned to scream out in frustration at least once in the last five minutes of the last episode. Surprisingly, I did so twice. I look forward to seeing this compelling drama series unfold, and for the fictitious characters’ sake, hope that they can one day overcome the authority of “A” and practice procedural knowing. This theory, however, works primarily because the cast is comprised mostly of female characters. I’m curious how this theory and others like it within Student Affairs can be used when taking into consideration transgender persons.

“But that’s a whole different blog post.” - L

What television shows make you tick?
Have you noticed student development theories in other storylines?


Belenky, M.F., Clinchy, B.M., Goldberger, N.R., & Tarule, J.M. (1986). Connected teaching. Women’s ways of knowing: The development of self, voice, and mind (pp.214-217). New York: Basic Books.

Guthrie, V.L., & Love, P.G. (1999). Women’s ways of knowing. Understanding and Applying Cognitive Development Theory: New Directions for Student Services (J-B SS Single Issue Student Services) (pp.17-27). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Student Affairs - the First Years

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