Thursday, July 15, 2010

Mobile Phones in TV (& YA Lit) Depictions of Pretty Little Teen Girls

©2010 Alloy Entertainment, television still from Pretty Little Liars

So, I've been watching Alloy Entertainment's most recent offering, Pretty Little Liars, and I must say it's every bit the guilty pleasure of Gossip Girl (one of Alloy's other hits) or of early seasons of The O.C. It's very much a soap opera, with its impossible plot lines and coincidences, scandalous-to-disturbing romances, and always impeccably beautiful actresses, etc. It also has the usual insane casting found in most TV high school dramas: the actresses playing the 16-year-old Pretty Little Liars are all in their 20s (with the possible exception of Shay Mitchell), the actor who plays Aria's teacher/secret boyfriend is only 3 years older than the actress (he's 24 and she's 21), Spencer and her "much older" sister are played by actresses aged 25 and 26 respectively...the usual silliness which results in everyone looking the same age (since they actually are) and lets writers blur the lines when it comes to in/appropriate behaviours and relationships. But the show also has some interesting things to say about female friendship, and has enough scary moments, thrills and titillating revelations to keep you (well, me, anyway) watching.

One of the things that struck me was the centrality of mobile phones to the show's story lines, action and the characters' daily lives. As in Gossip Girl (especially the first two seasons), and a bunch of cheesy teen horror movies released over the past few years, plot developments often arrive in the form of texts, which the characters receive and must then react to, which in turn drives much of the action. Interestingly, in both GG and PLL the sender of the texts ("Gossip Girl" and "A") is anonymous and threatening. "Her" texts (for in both cases the anonymous sender is encoded/thought of as female) are a source of emotional pain and strife, and/or a catalyst for altercations, confrontations, and destructive behaviours. At the same time, the power of the texts (and their senders) lies in their capacity to reveal and mobilize "truth". In both cases, Gossip Girl and A are seemingly ubiquitous - all seeing, all knowing - and the threat they pose is their ability to expose the characters' lies. And since both shows depict high school as a world of lies, pretense and performance, the characters often see protecting the lies as critical - the only way to preserve their social status, maintain their relationships, be successful, etc.

©2009 Alloy Entertainment: television still of Gossip Girl, courtesy of Videogum

To further complicate things is an underlying morality tale (often, though not always) that "the truth will set you free" - that the immediate pain of a lie revealed is ultimately worth it, that living with the consequences of the truth will make you a better person, bring you and your friends or family closer together, let you escape from the deceit and illusion of harmful high school hierarchies, and of course let you be your "true" self. In both shows, keeping secrets and telling lies is largely what created the trouble that the characters are now in (got themselves into). In PLL, for example, it's strongly implied that if the girls had simply told the truth last summer (when the events driving the show's plot took place), their mysterious tormentor "A" would have nothing to threaten them with and they could go on living their (albeit imperfect) lives uninterrupted.

What I particularly like about the way the shows, and the books before them, don't just include mobile phones but really explore the technology - to the point of occasionally coming close to critical analysis, very nearly deconstructing the role of mobile phones in youth's, and especially teen girls', lives. Pretty Little Liars depicts the mobile phone as taking precedence anytime it rings, to the point of not only distracting the girls from school or social relationships, but overshadowing major events in the girls' lives (e.g. the funeral in the first episode). And this preeminence of the devices -- or rather of the messages they carry -- is very much felt and noticed by the characters. They're disturbed by it and by what their phones are letting in...they try to block the unknown sender, but that causes even more problems (other people are blocked, the sender retaliates, etc.). But the devices themselves are not vilified - in fact, they are a crucial tool for collaboration, for safety and staying in touch. The girls use the phones to call for help, to warn each other, and to rally together to lend support and assistance. A spectrum of facets/uses of the technology are thus explored. The phone can be a source of threat and bullying, but it is more importantly a persistent link to the group.

The show also offers some context to the communicative function of mobile technology, placing it along a continuum of various methods and tools that can be similarly used to bully and torment. In light of the ongoing public discourse around texting and bullying, which often seems to approach this phenomenon as something totally new and totally the fault of the technology, I think this aspect of the story is particularly valuable. When the girls (temporarily) block "A" from calling their mobiles, s/he moves on to more traditional forms of communication - hand written or hand delivered messages, along with video and photographs (which can be digital or not). But this suddenly makes things a lot scarier and more threatening. The message scrawled on Spencer's bedroom mirror in red lipstick means that "A" was in the house with her. As the messages start appearing in increasingly intimate and immediate contexts, the threat is amplified tenfold, and the threat of physical danger all the more tangible. Suddenly the digital texts, though disruptive, don't seem so bad...at least they held an illusion of distance and containment.

©2010 Alloy Entertainment, television still from Pretty Little Liars, courtesy of The Remote Generation

Note: Alloy Entertainment recently launched a new digital division aimed at producing online cross-platform series, which you can read more about here. Seeing as the company started out as an online community turned book packager, and has been a key player in youth market research -based content development, I suppose it's not all that surprising that they (and the creative types they hire to write their books and other media products) spend enough time thinking about information technologies to generate more interesting treatments of them than is usually found on TV (not to mention other traditional media - the way computers and mobile phones are depicted in movies is often laughable).

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