Pretty Little Liars is an American teen drama-mystery that ran from 2010-2017. The show is loosely based on Sara Shepard’s book series of the same name. Throughout the seven seasons, multiple inappropriate relationships were romanticised, the most notorious being a ‘love triangle’ between teenage girls Alison, Aria, and their English teacher Ezra. 

Pretty Little Liars’ principal character, Alison DiLaurentis perpetuates the common myth that teenage girls are more fun to be in a relationship with, as opposed to older women. In this television show, Alison is portrayed as the ringleader and ‘glue’ to her girls-only friendship group. The friend group is entangled in secrets that Alison creates and collects without clueing the other girls in. Whilst the characterisation of Alison portrays her as a self-assured, confident, and independent woman, this is inherently wrong. Alison is actually a child of fifteen, a character specifically written to portray the ‘older than her years’ trope that the media is obsessed with. One of the many secrets Alison is keeping is her relationship with a man known to be nine years her senior. This couple is one of the many illustrated throughout the TV series, with no consequences for the adults, who pray on these young girls. Another illicit relationship that’s shown in Pretty Little Liars comes from Ezra who seeks out Aria, a student of his. The backstory to this relationship only makes it worse, as Ezra had previously been interested in Aria’s friend… Alison. As a teenager myself, I vividly remember feeling outraged with Aria’s parents and their disapproval of her relationship with her English teacher. What does it say about the message being conveyed that such outrage can be invoked in the viewer?

Of course, these depictions of romance aren’t a problem exclusive to Pretty Little Liars but there is something particularly worrying about the glorification of relationships between minors and adults when the target audience is below the age of consent themselves.

This problem is potentially damaging to young women and men too who are being shown immoral, sexist and corrupt relationships. Attitudes which normalise relationships of the sort routinely depicted in Pretty Little Liars have real consequences. According to NSPCC findings, the number of online grooming cases has increased by a massive 60% in the last three years; four in five victims are girls, often between the ages of 12-15. 

Whilst researching the age gap trope, looking to find research exploring the glamorisation of this serious issue, I found numerous book and TV recommendations instead, not to mention many real-life examples that popped up. The illustrations in the media of this trope risk teaching the youth that these are healthy relationships and even the kind that one should wish for. This results in the boundaries between children and adults becoming increasingly blurred. The more these pressures invade the space of childhood, the more young girls believe that they must conform to these standards. Furthermore, the years between being a teenager and, say, being in your early twenties are, for most people, completely transformative. If you’re in a relationship with a large age gap that started when you were under the age of consent, the power difference will be immense. Power matters, not just in our politics and workplaces, but in our families and intimate relationships too. These inequalities are baked in, and that’s the point. In a functional relationship, both partners have equal power, whereas in this type, one person holds the power.

Of course, not every relationship featuring age gaps in the media takes place between adults and minors. But the ones that do are guilty of the hyper-sexualisation of young girls, creating the dangerous narrative that in order to be noticed and loved, they need to be conventionally attractive and sexually available.

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