One of the most fascinating parts of Alison’s return to Rosewood so far in season five of Pretty Little Liars is her dynamic with Emily, because it’s super confusing. Emily has always been in love with Alison, and it’s never been clear what the deal is on Ali’s end, although in the past she made some disparaging comments – about Emily and other queer girls, as addressed in my previous post – and seemed to like the admiration more than anything. Now that Ali is back, she’s initiated the first steps of some kind of relationship with Emily, but since we have no idea if Alison is evil or whatever, we don’t know if she’s really interested, or just trying to preserve Emily’s loyalty. It’s totally possible that Alison is completely straight and has been using Emily all along – but it’s also possible for Alison to have been using Emily without being straight.
Pretty Little Liars likes to emphasize the difference between boys and girls in a variety of ways. Ali herself tells Emily that kissing Emily is just practice for the real deal – boys – in a flashback, a line that comes into play several times later on. In terms of sexuality, Ali seems to see boys as real and girls as a game. When Alison appears to Spencer in Radley, they slow dance together; Ali wants to pretend they’re getting ready for Spencer’s first boy-girl party, and she says, “No one ever tells you that the practice is so much more fun than the real thing.” This could suggest that Ali prefers girls, but societal expectations tell her that she should be interested in boys.
Emily says that she thinks that Ali didn’t know how to love anybody, and that she just “collected love” from the people around her, but Ali did so differently according to gender. Alison wanted boys to like her. She felt validated by boys’ appreciation and desire, because it conformed to social norms. She could outwardly brag about it. When it didn’t work out, Alison became upset – for example, she says that she wanted Spencer to break up Melissa and Ian because Alison thought that Ian really liked her, and in a flashback, after Ian says that Alison means nothing to him, Alison claims that their relationship was just her “killing time while [she’s] waiting for someone better to come along.” It’s possible that Alison really liked Ian, but the relationship overlapped to some extent with her involvement with both Ezra and “Beach Hottie,” and she was explicitly not having sex with Ian or Ezra. (More on Beach Hottie later.)
I would argue that Alison didn’t really like these boys, but sometimes she let boys have power over her, and was upset when they didn’t want her, because she was supposed to according to social pressures. However, Alison was not supposed to like girls, and didn’t like that she felt drawn to them, and therefore she fought not to let girls have power over her, and instead fought to control them. I think Alison is drawn to, and scared by, powerful girls who challenge her.
Emily is not an example of this – instead the situation with Emily was similar to Ali’s situation with boys, in that she was “collecting love” from Emily, but rather than validation, there was an added element of excitement and power, because Emily was a girl. Emily was a way for Alison to tell herself that she wasn’t interested in girls, because she could kiss Emily without it meaning anything. Emily was safe. However, like Alison got upset when boys didn’t like her, Alison got especially jealous when her power over Emily seemed to be at risk. When Jenna and Emily are making eyes at one another in the first Halloween flashback episode, Ali makes a nasty comment to Emily – “Were you wishing you could taste her cherry chapstick?” CeCe also points out that she thinks Alison was afraid of Paige, possibly because Ali knew that Paige was interested in Emily, and knew that Paige could take Emily away from her. Ultimately, though, Emily was not a challenge for Alison in the way that other girls were.
Ali’s relationship with CeCe, though not fully addressed as such in the show, can also be read as particularly, narcissistically homoerotic, and is described repeatedly as “intense.” CeCe is introduced when Spencer asks which boyfriend got Alison her new charm bracelet, and Alison brushes it off as a gift from “just a friend” who Spencer doesn’t know. Initially, Alison seems to have an extreme sort of hero-worship for CeCe, who is dating Ali’s older brother, but the situation becomes much more complicated and “toxic” and “obsessive” as Alison and CeCe “[wear] each other’s personalities,” dressing up like one another to confuse people, particularly Alison’s mom. CeCe winds up essentially working for Alison when Ali is on the run, and in the end CeCe needs to flee under a shared fake identity. When CeCe leaves, Ali says. “I just realized this might be the last time I ever see you.” “Don’t be so dramatic, Ali,” CeCe replies. “You know us. You know we always find a way back to each other.” Noel Kahn interrupts, “Is this the part where you guys kiss?”
The relationship with CeCe and Alison is complicated because they are on the same side, although there is doubt about CeCe sometimes. There is also a power balance to the relationship that often doesn’t exist in Alison’s relationships with girls. It’s possible that such a codependent dynamic was born out of the fact that they were impressed with one another, and saw similarities in one another, and sought to control one another through a manipulative closeness. Alison attempts to initiate something similar with Jenna in the Halloween flashback episode that introduces her, although Jenna doesn’t go for it.
Though Alison considers boys the real deal when it comes to sexuality, when it comes to fighting, both the show and Alison seem to think of boys as a game and girls as the real deal. At one point, Noel Kahn says, “Bad boys have nothing on mean girls. Guys have a fight, throw a punch, it’s over. Girls don’t fight fair. They gang up, keep secrets, plot. They can cut with a look.” Throughout the show, there are numerous scenes between two girls that are a combination of flirting and fighting. (Remember when Paige tried to drown Emily though?)
The first few scenes with Alison and Jenna are particularly and dangerously flirtatious – and Jenna does make flirty faces at Emily, and Ali is jealous, so it’s totally fair to read homoerotic subtext here. Ali politely and scarily tells Jenna not to show up to the Halloween party as Lady Gaga, because Ali will be; Jenna thanks her sweetly for the advice and then doesn’t listen. Next Alison basically says that if Jenna will be her friend/minion, she won’t destroy Jenna, and Jenna laughs her off. Alison senses that Jenna is a threat in a variety of ways. Jenna’s got similar taste, and she’s not afraid of Alison, and she’s also not afraid to outwardly show interest in Emily. When Jenna won’t settle for a dynamic potentially similar to the one Alison has with CeCe, Alison plans The Jenna Thing™. Jenna doesn’t become another queen bee for Alison to compete with or be compelled by, and Alison maintains her control.
The Halloween flashback episode also introduces Mona beginning to stretch her queen bee wings through a brief flirtation with Alison – “Do I know you?” “No, but you will.” – but at this point in time, Mona is not yet on Alison’s radar as a real challenge. (There’s even a moment where Mona tells Jenna she looks better than Alison, and they both acknowledge that they’re not under Ali’s spell.) However, Alison clearly recognizes that Mona serves as somewhat of a mirror to her, and she sees the potential in Mona to be powerful too, so when Mona helps Alison leave Rosewood, Ali gives her tips to help Mona become like Alison in her wake. Mona is drawn to Alison too, despite Ali’s torturing her, which is made obvious by her Ali shrine/A lair.
During the scene when Mona helps Alison leave town, she strokes Ali’s hair and kisses her forehead. While Mona recreates herself in Ali’s imagine, she helps Hanna do the same, which Hanna later says is because “Ali was gone but [Mona] wanted her back.” Mona essentially crafts a version of Alison that will work with her instead of against her, a twin queen bee that she can manipulate and receive support from, similar to the dynamic between Ali and CeCe but much less balanced.
There’s quite a lot of homoerotic tension between Mona and Hanna too, with Mona making innocent comments early on, telling Hanna she’d think about “doing” her if she wore a certain dress, and then later on, after the A reveal, teasing that she and Hanna were “this close to getting [their] first kiss” while Mona was dressed up as Hanna’s boyfriend. Mona’s jokes about Hanna seem more serious, though, when keeping in mind the level of Mona’s obsession with Ali.
When Ali returns in the fifth season, Mona and Alison are essentially set out to destroy one another. Mona wants to get back at Alison for all of the torture she inflicted in the past, now that Alison is real and whole again, rather than something that Mona has idealized and demonized, and now that Mona’s positive feelings have been shifted onto Hanna. Alison tries to claim that she’s “not a threat” to Mona, but she knows that there is no way to manipulate the relationship into something beneficial, mutually or otherwise. Instead. Alison focuses forming a positive relationship with Emily again.
At this point, Alison at least appears to show some vulnerability when it comes to Emily, claiming that in the past she had lied when she said their relationship was one-sided. She admits that “those kisses we’re just for practice.” However, it’s likely that Alison is bullshitting, that Emily never meant anything to Ali. It’s still possible that Alison had revelations about her sexuality while she was away, though. At the very least, she’s become comfortable taking her relationship with Emily out into the public sphere to a degree; even if it’s an act of manipulation, it’s still a calculated shift in how Alison wants to present herself.
We have no idea what Alison really got up to while she was gone for those two years. It’s possible that nothing significant happened for her romantically or sexually. Actually, it’s possible to read season five Alison as still being a virgin. We know for a fact that Alison wasn’t having sex with Ian or Ezra, and yet supposedly she was having sex with Beach Hottie during that time, when she was 14/15. Yet CeCe admits that Alison’s pregnancy scare was only alleged; perhaps Alison just wanted to impress CeCe, or she was even jealous that CeCe was dating Alison’s brother rather than spending time with her.
We also know that Alison is all about being performative, and that she loves to pursue and be pursued by guys, with the dance being more important than the actual relationship. Alison wants people to be into her, and she wants to withhold from giving them what they want. Actually having sex might, in Alison’s eye, be giving away the mystery, or putting an end to her game. I think it’s likely that Alison hasn’t actually felt she’s had a good enough reason to grant anyone permission to have sex with her, particularly if she hasn’t figured out where her real interests lie yet.
The most important thing to keep in mind when it comes to queering Alison DiLaurentis and Mona Vanderwaal is that we’re probably never going to get a definitive answer about either of them. Mona’s dead, and her sexuality was never questioned enough in canon to justify further discussion of it in-universe. When it comes to Alison, she’s the biggest Liar of them all, and I’m sure the show will end with us still wondering whether most of what she ever said was bullshit. Even if the show tries to make a definitive claim about her one way or the other – regarding her sexuality or basically anything else – I’m sure I’m not alone in that I flat-out won’t believe it.
Essentially, we’re never going to get explicitly, believably told that Mona or Alison is straight, which is something that’s pretty unique to Pretty Little Liars, because most shows don’t allow that level of ambiguity. It means that we should have fun with the ambiguous characters we do have, and sit around thinking about how likely it is that Mona and Hanna used to practice kissing (um, Mona totally could’ve been lying about almost having their first kiss that night, okay), or how Ali made up Board Shorts because she had a crush on CeCe, or whatever. The show’s never going to tell us not to, and that’s why I love Pretty Little Liars, even if it does have its issues, both when it comes to sexuality and otherwise.