Behind That Controversial "Pretty Little Liars" Transgender Reveal
Executive producer Marlene King and star Vanessa Ray talk to BuzzFeed News about the "A" reveal that shocked some viewers and upset others.
After seasons of taunting, stalking, and mind games, Pretty Little Liars finally revealed the identity of "A" — the masked assailant who has long tormented Aria (Lucy Hale), Spencer (Troian Bellisario), Hanna (Ashley Benson), Emily (Shay Mitchell), and Alison (Sasha Pieterse) — on Tuesday night.
Throughout the series' current sixth season, it's been known that Charles DiLaurentis — Ali's brother, long presumed dead — was behind all of the Liars' hell, but it turned out, in Tuesday night's Season 6 mid-season finale, that "A" was none other than CeCe — short for Charlotte — Drake (Vanessa Ray), who was given the name Charles at birth.
Yes, CeCe is Ali's transgender sibling.
While some fans found the reveal lacking — as it didn't adequately explain all of the show's complex mysteries — others were more concerned that the twist played into a long history of pop culture linking sociopathic behavior with transgender individuals.
And that worry was always front and center in the mind of executive producer Marlene King, who wrote last night's episode, "Game Over, Charles." "I didn't want people to think that this person was a villain because of their gender identity," she told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview. "She was a villain because she came from a very, very crazy family, so genetically she is probably a little crazy too. It was really important to us as a show and to the studio and the network that people took away that message exactly. We didn't want to go backwards for the trans community, we wanted to go forward."
Ray agreed in a phone interview with BuzzFeed News. "Being transgender had nothing to do with her being a villain," she said of CeCe. "I think the lesson we can learn is that if you neglect or torment somebody, which I believe Charles/Charlotte was, at a young age — whether that be by parents or [society] — if you treat somebody like they're nothing, chances are they will treat others like they're nothing as well."
The idea to make CeCe/Charlotte transgender was decided upon nearly four years ago, and King was prepared for some backlash. "I knew we had so many years to build this story and make it layered and not what it could have been. We were pretty confident we would get a few negative responses — and there are negative responses from people who just don't want to see transgender on TV at all," she said. "To be honest, I see a lot more of those than people who were upset about a transgender villain. I think, again, we're bringing more awareness to the subject and, really, humanizing Charlotte. ... I have actually received several tweets and comments from trans fans of the show who loved it. It's all been very positive."
And when the Pretty Little Liars writers broke the story, it was before the world met Caitlyn Jenner, before Laverne Cox was a household name, and before ABC Family aired Becoming Us. It's a turn of events King watched with great excitement as it not only spoke to America becoming a more inclusive place, but because it — in many ways — prepared audiences for what they were going to see on her show.
"I think it's a wonderful, wonderful world that's becoming a better place for trans people," she said. "But I thought, I don't want people thinking we did this because of that; that we just jumped on the bandwagon. The timing was just meant to be."
King also took a moment to clarify one of the loudest complaints: that a cisgender actor was playing a trans character. "I knew people were going to ask why we didn't cast a trans actor but four years ago, that really wasn't an option we knew about," she said.
For Ray, discovering the truth behind her character was an exciting, albeit, terrifying prospect — mostly because the secretive nature of the show meant she only learned this all-important backstory at the table read for the episode. She set out to do as much research as she could in the short amount of time between learning CeCe's truth and having to perform it.
"I talked with a lot of friends who are transgender," she said, emphasizing that she didn't really alter her performance style after reading the script. "I didn't want to play at that and I didn't want to play up that fact. I read a lot about what it was like coming out to their parents — and if you did it at a young age or an old age — and also the thing I kind of noticed across the board is that they knew from a young age. They knew something wasn't quite clicking the way they were being encouraged for it to. That was really helpful for me when I was reading the script."
And that homework will become even more important moving forward, as Ray and Charlotte will become a much bigger part of Pretty Little Liars when the show returns in January for the second half of its sixth season.
"I'm so supportive of this character and this story," Ray said. "I wondered if people would see the honesty we put into her. I was so anxious and nervous and hoped the performance would live up to what people wanted it to be. I think some people were not satisfied with CeCe being 'A,' but I hope they're at least satisfied with the thought and care that was put into it."