Scan a list of ABC Family’s most popular titles — Pretty Little Liars, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, The Lying Game — and you might surmise fairly quickly what the network thinks of its largely female cast of characters: they’re a bunch of liars. Assuming ABC Family hopes to be a kind of cultural barometer, a window into American family life, we might conclude that they think the same of real women, too; that is, that we’re all either blatantly deceiving or furtively withholding information from one another.
While it’s tempting to defend our virtues against such damning portrayals, I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t think they’re too far off.
Now before you come after me with your pretty little pitchfork, I’ll state the obvious — I only speak from my own experience and observation — and furthermore, I don't think this characterization is necessarily a bad thing.
Take for example, the four impossibly beautiful best friends who are the title characters of Pretty Little Liars. Aria, Spencer, Hannah, and Emily would rather endure constant threats of humiliation and violence than give up one another’s deepest secrets by spilling their guts to their parents and the police. Their shared skeletons have forged an incredible loyalty and support system between them.
In recent episodes, Aria had lied to her beloved boyfriend Ezra about the fact that he has a son, initially because the child’s mother, Maggie, asked her to. Not only is Maggie a stranger to Aria but she is also Ezra's first love. If anything, you’d expect Aria to expose the truth about the baby out of jealousy or resentment, or to curry more favor with Ezra by juxtaposing her honesty against Maggie’s extreme deception. But Aria is somehow able to empathize with Maggie’s plight and keep the secret, lying to Ezra by omission. That’s some serious Girl Code right there.
Meanwhile, The Lying Game, as its name suggests, is predicated on the elaborate lie shared between its two central female characters. Emma and Sutton are twin sisters, separated as infants and adopted into two very different families in distant geographies. When they are reunited, Emma agrees to assume her twin sister’s identity and step into her life — both of them deceiving everyone around them — so that Sutton can go out in search of their birth mother. Though these young women grew up strangers, this secret brings them together.
There’s something so paradoxically genuine about the bonds formed between ABC Family’s female characters through their shared lies that when these women become too honest with one another, the net effect is often forced and cringe-worthy.
On The Secret Life, for instance, one character, Grace, knows that her friend Adrienne used to hook up with Grace's current boyfriend, Jack. In one episode, the two young women sit around candidly discussing Jack’s style in bed, Adrienne noting that he’s timid, while Grace insisting that he’s passionate. It’s one of those moments you could only imagine two girls sharing long after they’d both been screwed over and broken up with by a guy, not one between a current girlfriend and an ex-flame. In fact, this over-sharing, this unbridled honesty, makes the scene so awkward that their mutual friend, Amy, gets up and leaves.
Thus it seems the more comfortable place for these female characters, as we might have expected, is inside of a secret life. And the notion that a woman has to keep parts of herself hidden is one that resonates with viewers like me. The distinction I’d draw between the lies on- and off-screen, however, is the intention behind them.
In my experience, women lie because we have to, or we think we have to. Rather than lie to protect one another, we lie to protect ourselves. Speak candidly about what's bothering you at work, and you'll be labeled a whiner, or worse, you'll get the ax. Express your honest desire for a committed relationship too early, and you’ll scare him or her away. Be candid with society about your need for birth control, and you'll end up with Rush Limbaugh calling you a slut. I’ve even known girls who’ve kept dates, hookups, and entire relationships on the DL rather than be responsible for the dissolution of their friend group.
In this life, lying isn't necessarily a deliberate attempt at manipulation; most often, it's a means of self-preservation.
To be blunt, I'd actually prefer it ABC Family's way. I'd rather women lie to keep their best friends safe or to preserve their honor. Frankly, I’d even rather we lie to get what we want, keep a secret because it makes us feel sexy or powerful, or hold someone else’s deepest, darkest secret for ransom because that jerk totally deserves it.
I’d prefer that because the alternative is lying because we don't think we have any other choice — that we can’t be our truest selves before the watchful eye of our adoring fans lest we fall out of favor.
If you believe that, you’re really only lying to yourself. But that’s a story for another episode.