06.13.11

Pretty Little Liars’ Student-Teacher Love Story

The ABC Family series returns for its second season on Tuesday after becoming TV’s teen hit last summer. With a central storyline about a student-teacher relationship that viewers are rooting for, Jaimie Etkin argues that it’s bad for girl viewers—and the novelist who created the characters says it’s “extreme” and she hopes they get caught.

Pretty Little Liars’s second season is projected to be “the best thing ever to ever watch on TV”…

…That is, if you’re one of ABC Family’s millions of obsessive, underage viewers celebrating the hit teen series’ return tonight.

The show’s June 2010 series premiere became the highest-rated series debut on record across the network’s target demographics (including 12- to 34-year-old females), beating out Glee’s numbers at the time. And the viewership has continued to climb with more pre-teens and teens getting hooked on the mystery of a dead high school queen bee and the four friends she left behind. 

Their romantic relationships tend to be on the dark side, too. 

Hanna went from bland, blond homecoming king Sean to geeky suitor Lucas, who kissed her while she was unconscious, to bad boy beanie-enthusiast, Caleb; overachiever Spencer could add hitting on her older sister’s boyfriends to her extensive resume; and Emily’s newly-revealed lesbianism led to a dumped jock of a boyfriend and a few doomed-to-a-dead-end female admirers.  

But whatever their scandalous relationships are, they pale in comparison to that of Aria.

In the first episode of Pretty Little Liars, Aria stops by a bar to pick up a cheeseburger and also winds up picking up someone in the process. Within seconds of locking eyes with the bar’s only other patron, Aria learns the good-looking man is Ezra, a recent college graduate who is about to start his first teaching job. After bonding over the pub’s music selection and their shared love of English, Ezra assumes Aria’s in college, which she lets him believe to be true. Soon enough, they’re making out atop the sinks in the pub bathroom.

Days later, when Ezra walks into his first English class and sees Aria’s familiar face among the 16-year-old pupils, Mr. Fitz (as he later introduces himself) lets out a “Holy crap.” After class, she tries to talk to him and convince him to continue their public bathroom romp, but Ezra tells her, “It’s not right. We just can’t.” Initially hurt, Aria comes to understand his perspective. “I would never want to do anything to get you in trouble,” she says before offering a goodbye and turning her back on their relationship with her teacher—but he literally pulls her back in for another kiss. After Aria decides to transfer out of his class, Ezra sees her walking home in the rain and offers her a ride, which leads to yet another make-out session. 

She stays in his class and they stay together. Yes, there are close calls with her parents, other teachers, and other students—but every time, they manage to evade any ramifications.

Of course, the hot-for-teacher trope has been a staple of teen soaps long before Aria was a glimmer in ABC Family’s eye. More than a decade ago on Dawson’s Creek’s 1998 pilot, for example, incoming horny high school freshman Pacey helped a saucy thirtysomething costumer named Tamara find The Graduate at the video store where he worked. When Pacey finds himself in the Aria-esque situation of discovering on the first day of school that Tamara is actually his English teacher Ms. Jacobs, he proceeds to shamelessly flirt with her until she gives in. Eventually, they’re found out and Tamara is forced to face the school board. Though Pacey lies for her, she decides to leave town for good.

More recently, blonde bombshell Serena van der Woodsen’s (Blake Lively) alleged high school relationship with her English teacher led to his imprisonment on Gossip Girl. And in the eternally dysfunctional Upper East Side world, Serena’s ex-boyfriend Dan Humphrey also got caught up in an alleged student-teacher romance with his English teacher Ms. Carr, which led to her getting canned and the two of them eventually making good on the gossip. On the now-canceled Life Unexpected, paranoia about being found out becomes a reality for 16-year-old Lux and her teacher, who is forced to leave town. And on the final season of Big Love, a troubled, brilliant former compound-dwelling girl fell in love with her math teacher with dire consequences.

But with Pretty Little Liars’ first season ending with Ezra announcing his plans to leave Aria’s high school to teach at the nearby Hollis College, he appears to be off the hook for being romantically involved with a student. If so, it’s not because he and Aria were more careful than their television predecessors with their relationship—it’s because audience wants to see it, the show’s executive producer Marlene King is behind it, and the network (which declined to comment for this story, and passed on making King available for an interview) seemingly has no problem with this plotline. 

Yes, ABC Family’s viewers have a voracious appetite for all things “Ezria,” the portmanteau fans coined to refer to the couple in online communities. “People are rooting for it because they realize it’s not a gross thing,” Ian Harding, the 24-year-old actor who plays Ezra Fitz, told TV Guide. “In terms of the physical and adult emotional part of the relationship they’re moving at a snail's pace—I think they’re only feeling each other up—and I think ultimately they’re soulmates and people are realizing that. But it’s a little weird sometimes. I was in New York, in a restaurant, and a [girl who was] very obviously a teenager came up to me and gave me her number and I was like: No! As soon as we left, I trashed it. They’re assuming I'm this person in real life.”

In real life, in fact, Harding is only two years older than Lucy Hale, the actress who plays Aria, which is far from the seven-year gap between their characters. But the fact that Aria and Ezra have yet to see any consequences of their relationship is problematic. “I think we’re supposed to be rooting for Aria and Mr. Fitz, and that kind of gives me the creeps: I can’t get behind a romance that, if consummated, would be statutory rape,” wrote Margaret Lyons in Entertainment Weekly

Whether or not they have slept together is a question  that Marlene King has actually teased to fans: “It’s going to be a mystery for now,” King told The TV Chick.  She has also defended the statutory rape criticism. “Oddly enough, in the state of Pennsylvania, [where the story is set] it's only against the law for a 16 year-old to be with someone over 21 years-old if they're a teacher. It's a weird law, but once [Ezra] goes to Hollis College, it's not illegal anymore,” King told Zap2It. “I think the age of consent in Pennsylvania is 15, so it's not going to be this big, black cloud looming over them.” (Pennsylvania’s age of consent is 16. King did not respond to a request on Twitter to comment for this story.)

And Hale told WetPaint.com that Aria and Ezra will discover in Season 2 they can date—“They actually went and figured out that it is legal,” she said.

Naturally, statutory rape is not the only issue at play here—it’s the idea of an educational authority figure taking advantage of that position. “I want the pervy high school teacher thinking about banging his student to be reminded that even if the age of consent in your particular state says it’s OK, there are other considerations,” wrote Daniel Fienberg on Hitfix.  

One possible other consideration: On Fuck Yeah Ezra Fitz, one of many Pretty Little Liars fan sites, a reader posted about feelings she has for two teachers, one of whom “does feel the same way” and another who added her on Facebook, where he strikes up conversations with her about her private life. The site’s creator replied: “I think you probably should be honest to the teacher you love. I don’t know how old are you, but you should wait until you’re 18 and just be honest with him.” 

Sara Shepard, the author of the book series upon which Pretty Little Liars is based, hasn’t been heavily involved with ABC Family’s adaptation—besides some conversations with Marlene King and visits to the set—but she watches religiously. She told The Daily Beast there hasn’t been a decision with the girls’ relationships on-screen that she hasn’t been happy with; but with Ezra and Aria’s storyline, she said, she has been “a little bit surprised.”

In the book series, the couple has a “fling,” as Shepard refers to it, that ends in Ezra being arrested, fired from his job, and then deciding to skip town. “I think you should look me up in a couple years,” he tells Aria in Unbelievable. “I have to get out of here. You know it, and I know it.”

Aria’s inner narrative goes on: “It was like he was saying that he was the adult, with responsibilities and consequences, and she was just a kid, her whole life in front of her. Which was exactly what she didn’t want to hear right then.”

But maybe it was what Aria—and readers—needed to hear.

“The Aria and Ezra relationship has really been taken to the extreme,” Shepard said of the show’s take on the couple. “I didn’t think it was right for readers to be reading about a student-teacher relationship and encourage that. And I really wanted Aria to move on to another relationship.

“I would have thought that because it is a student-teacher relationship, they would have downplayed it a little,” Shepard continued. “The difference between the show and the books is that they really do make it a very serious relationship. Yeah, there’s a big age difference and yeah, he’s her teacher, but they are really devoted and committed to each other. That’s how it doesn’t seem quite so inappropriate to me and other viewers.”

Nevertheless, she admitted, “In a horrible way, I almost want him to get caught.”

Still, the Ezria fans (or “shippers” as they’re known online, referencing their support of the relationship) say otherwise. So many girls were begging Shepard on Twitter to bring Ezra back in the books; some even went so far as creating petitions. Shepard finally gave in and Ezra reemerges in the series’ tenth installment, Ruthless, which hits bookstores in December. 

“I do treat it differently,” Shepard said regarding Ezra’s return in print, as opposed to his storyline on screen. “Like everything else with Pretty Little Liars, it’s not as it seems.”

It seems, then, that the Ezria hysteria is unstoppable—even to the woman who initially created the relationship. And Marlene King is certainly fueling their fire. In the aftermath of Pretty Little Liars first season finale in March, King tweeted: “All you #Ezria fans chillout peeps. I promise you it will all be okay. Eventually.” 

What she means by “okay” remains to be seen.