The Problematic Representation of Mental Illness in Pretty Little Liars: Part Two

Seeing as this week marks the start of Pretty Little Liars season 6B, it would be an excellent opportunity to discuss further the representation of mental illness in PLL.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. WOO WEE WOO WEE WOO (That’s the spoilers siren)

I promised in Part One to discuss individual characters and the presentations of their illnesses, so with that in mind, let’s take a journey:

Firstly, in the initial few seasons it becomes apparent that Hanna suffers from bulimia. She appears to be caught in a binge-purge cycle – which is unaided by Alison’s insistence at calling her ‘Hefty Hanna’. As the show progresses, its clear that Alison was the one who initially showed her how to purge after a binge, and Hanna’s focus is resolutely on becoming thin and popular. It’s massively evident that she has issues with her body, and flashbacks peppered throughout the show depict her character covered up as though she is ashamed. A while back I read this amazing article on food horror within the Pretty Little Liars series, and it seems to me that the entire environment portrayed within the show is not conducive to eating disorder recovery – yet Hanna turns to shoplifting and the issues of the binge-purge cycle disappear without anyone actually confronting her issues, or any of Hanna’s problems resolving themselves either.


Mona was placed in Radley after it was revealed – initially, for all the Liars aficionados – that she was A way back in Season 2. She’s heavily medicated and as Season 3 commences, it becomes clear that she has somewhat regressed to a child-like state, as she spends a vast majority of an episode tending to dolls. This episode, however, was entitled Crazy.


I know I harped on about this in the last post, and I know I’ve mentioned before that I do genuinely love PLL as a TV show, but young girls, young guys, people who are in their formative teenage/young adult years, are also watching this show. They are watching and taking in the fact that mental health issues = crazy. Not only that, they are watching and assuming that all mental health facilities look like Radley. From some extensive online research into the Pretty Little book series, it has become apparent that the emphasis on Radley was something that the producers and writers at ABC placed upon the TV series. Radley was, for the duration of the book series, closed and defunct.

Moreover, Mona was released from Radley after some time – serving a sentence? Was it a prison? She’d committed crimes, but was seemingly certified ‘insane’, suffering from hallucinations and other, ‘typical’ ‘crazy people’ problems. To me, it’s almost a lazy way of explaining a character’s behavior. Putting emphasis and drawing on ‘crazy’ tropes in a contemporary TV series only serves to alienate fans of the show who may themselves suffer hallucinations, or have spent time inside a psychiatric hospital. Upon release, Mona was able to seamlessly reinsert herself into school life, and able to diligently work towards getting into college, which severely contrasts Spencer’s experience with Radley.

Spencer suffered some form of nervous breakdown that was never really explained (as mentioned in part one), but her experience were notably different to Mona’s. Upon her release, there were several episodes where her mother mentioned the fact she had been in Radley would be a mark on ‘her resume’, implying that her mental health history would need to be disclosed on her college applications. Granted, I am not fully familiar with the American college application system, but I do believe everyone has a legal right to not have to disclose mental illness difficulties on any form of application, particularly in the case of a minor; which at 17, Spencer was most definitely. Not only that, the chastisement didn’t make much sense. Mona, who had served a much longer ‘sentence’ in Radley, got into four – count them – Ivy League colleges. Why would Spencer’s 72-hour in-patient assessment  stop her from obtaining a place in college, when Mona, who was treated like a crazed social pariah for months on end, is, by all accounts, ready to take on the world one Ivy League at a time?

Not only that, but Spencer’s addiction to amphetamines was regarded as yet another barrier to obtaining a college place – not the addiction itself, but rather, the ‘shame’ of having had a drug problem at such a young age. It was revealed throughout the show that she had previously had an amphetamine addiction during the time of Alison’s disappearance at the beginning of the show. However, this is one aspect of mental health representation that I actually respected, in a way. Often those suffering from addiction are not shown any sort of sympathy, despite the overwhelming evidence that addiction, more often than not, has a dual-diagnosis of an underlying mental health problem. Spencer’s issues with drugs were shown in the harsh light of reality, where the average high-flying, upper-class family would rather condemn the struggles of a family member than help them. The only reason I was able to swallow any of this was the presence of Dean, her drug abuse counselor, who is the quiet angel-in-disguise that serves as a form of conscience, in a way. His character never, at any point, declared himself able to ‘fix’ Spencer, or absolve her of her issues, but rather quietly guides Spencer toward recovery. I often feel these sort of storylines do not work unless there is a supportive character, or a way of presenting the story which shows that the situation the addict/sufferer is in is deplorable, but that the audience is aware and on the side of the addict/sufferer. While the addiction story was well played out, there is a lot to be said for the treatment of Spencer, and Mona, throughout the series.


On Wednesday, Season 6B landed on Netflix and myself and the girls sat down to watch it over Facebook, keeping a running commentary on what was happening. I am delighted that, 5 years on, Radley is finally closed and now a restaurant, as in the book series. What I am not delighted about, however, were the final few digs thrown in to close the poking-fun-at-mental-illness thread that was a prevalent aspect of the past few series.

Hanna and her mother are sitting in the courtyard of what was once Radley, and Hanna calls it a ‘squirrel factory’. Ashley bristles, and corrects her by saying they prefer to use the European term ‘sanitarium’ which is wrong because a) the English/European word is sanatorium, and ‘sanitarium’ as a word is exclusive to North America, and b) sanitaria within the western world were abolished before the 1950s to be replaced with mental health clinics and hospitals. There are long-term mental health facilities across the US under various titles, but none of those use ‘san’ anything, with the exception of Sanatorium, Mississippi – which was named after a hospital specialising in TB isolation.

Then, the girls meet up, 5 years after they’d last parted. They’re bonding over cocktails, and one of them, maybe Aria, could be Hanna, I honestly can’t remember, quips ‘you’d think they’d have ‘special’ cocktails in a place like this’. Years and years of friendship, and the girls are bonding over making fun of mental illnesses? Really? After everything they’ve been through, all the flashbacks (which is totally PTSD) Aria,  and probably most of the others, have had,  Hanna’s eating disorder, the time Spencer spent inside Radley…. The girls are rekindling their friendship over ‘Manic-Depressive Molotovs’ and ‘Bipolar Martinis’. Not even beginning to mention that manic depression and bipolar are the same thing.  To me, it seemed to drive yet another wedge between the audience and whatever world the writers/producers live in, and it fell in bad taste. The culmination of what could be essentially described as a tumultuous sisterhood fell flat in two sentences of something that barely passes as a joke. For me, it soured the episode to the point that it was almost my only takeaway from all the hype surrounding the new series. I am looking forward, in some respects, to seeing where things go in the remainder of 6B and into Season 7, but part of me feels if the condemnation of mental illness as ‘craziness’ continues, my avid viewership is going to quickly dwindle due to feelings of alienation.



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