When Batgirl’s villainous impostor turned out to be (apparently) male last year, I wrote a review highlighting the queering of the villain, as did a lot of other comics commentators. The writers took to twitter saying they were sorry and had learned something from their mistake. The plot twist in the summer finale of Pretty Little Liars also queered the villain, and also employed a surprise gender reveal as a plot twist. Rather than apologize, the show’s writers have chosen to weave themselves little protective bowers out of their efforts and intentions. So let’s look at the result of those efforts and intentions and break the issue down.
The problem is that in one fell swoop, Cece Drake is revealed to be both a transgender woman and the cruel, warped tormentor of the show’s protagonists for the last many seasons. This plays right into the hurtful trope that trans people are dangerous freaks who can’t be trusted. Also, the trans woman character is played by a cis-gender actress (denying both acting work and representation to trans people).
Pretty Little Liars has been pretty ridiculous and over-the-top in its murdery twists and turns, but at the heart of all that action, it’s been surprisingly, sweetly down to earth about the sexuality of LGBT youth. One of the main characters is a lesbian, and there have been bisexual characters, and unlabeled characters who sometimes do gay things, and characters previously thought of as straight who crop up in same-sex relationships without it seeming odd or noteworthy. The show has had a lot of social media influence and has brought us closer to a world where people don’t even have to come out of a closet, because sexual orientation will no longer be a thing that needs to be announced or declared, for anyone. So, this exploration of LGBT teen sexuality has been a sweet island of understated realism in a swirl of junior soap opera plot points. Not so, Cece Drake’s transgender status. Cece’s trans identity is smack in the middle of the high drama, treated as one of the things that probably wouldn’t happen, like leaving your four-year-old in an old-fashioned mental institution or accidentally burying your teenage daughter alive in your backyard.
The writers clearly had some sense that they were playing with fire. Several things were done to assuage the “queering the villain” mis-step.
- While Ali is covered in heavy paint and powder for the prom, Cece’s own femininity is downplayed—she is wearing minimal make-up, has her hair pulled back plainly, and is wearing an over-sized black hoodie. This isn’t the glitzy hyper-feminized stereotype of someone who was born physically male trying to pass as a woman (which also unhelpfully conflates transvestites with transgendered people).
- Even though Cece has been the girls’ tormentor, she is often a sympathetic character in this reveal episode. She was severely misunderstood and mistreated at many early points in her childhood. We feel for her childhood self. We see how her father rejected her. We feel her pain at coming across her mother’s dead body, and we believe that she earnestly wanted to be part of her own family, however she could.
- Cece’s deceit and misdeeds are in good company. Besides learning how terrible her father was/is, we also learn more about the deceptive actions of many other people in this episode: Sara, Bethany, Mona, and Agent Tanner are also cast in a more sinister light, and none of them is trans. And of course, it’s been long-established that the whole town is full of liars and murderers.
The Casting Dilemma
Cece Drake isn’t played by a trans actor, but that wouldn’t have served the need to surprise the audience. Until it is common for trans actors to play roles that include both trans and cis characters, it won’t make sense to cast them in a role of a secretly trans character. This is a Catch 22 that will hopefully come to an end as trans actors get more work of all kinds, and as writers use trans characters more broadly beyond plot twists and shock value.
Pretty Little Liars used a cheap, tired, harmful trope about trans people and no amount of softening or fancy footwork can make that untrue. You can lift the story out of the societal context and examine it from all sides, but at the end of the day, you can’t pretend the context doesn’t matter—the story doesn’t live in a vacuum.
This plot twist and reveal has been years in the making—the show is in its sixth season and has been wending its way toward this point from early on. In a way, this reveal is like light from a star that is only just now reaching us. Here on earth, in the U.S.A., the conversation about transsexuality has grown louder and wider by leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. And the stories we see have a role to play. A turning point in my awareness was seeing Laverne Cox in the first season of Orange is the New Black, and then flaring up in anger at coworkers talking about how Chelsea Manning doesn’t deserve to have access to her hormones in prison. Caitlin Jenner seems to have been a turning point for my coworkers, who finally stopped saying rude things about trans people after Jenner’s ESPY acceptance speech. Some stories are ahead and dragging us along with them. Some stories–like Pretty Little Liars, at the moment–are coming along from behind. We take a step forward in building empathy, and then stumble backwards when we reinforce gross stereotypes. We can and should call out the laggards, but my hope is that we are all still staggering ahead on this together.