Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Actress Shay Mitchell plays Emily Fields on the television series Pretty Little Liars. How has the series handled this new depiction of the character, who is now depicted as a character of color?
“She doesn’t look anything like me. I think it says a lot. The girl-next-door isn’t just blond-haired and blue-eyed anymore.” – Shay Mitchell, on her character as described in the books
Pretty Little Liars is a fictional novel series for young adults by Sara Shepard. The series was first published in 2006 by HarperTeen. The story centers around four girls: Aria Montgomery, Spencer Hastings, Hanna Marin, and Emily Fields.
In 2008, the book series was adapted to a television series that currently runs on ABC Family. The story is essentially the same: After the murder of their former “queen bee” Alison DiLaurentis, the girls are tormented by a mysterious person known only as “A,” who threatens to reveal all their secrets from the past and the present. The appearance of some of the cast was not faithful to the original books. In particular, the lead character of Emily Fields is different from her description in the novel.
In the books, Emily is competitive swimmer from a very conservative family. She is very protective of Alison, and struggles with feelings for her new neighbor Maya, who is African American in the books. Emily is described as having pale skin, freckles, and red hair; she also doesn’t wear makeup and dresses like a tomboy. Her very conservative family is openly racist towards Maya.
When Filipina-hapa-Canadian actress Shay Mitchell was cast as Emily Fields for the television series, fans of the book had different negative reactions on forums all over the internet. Some fans said that Shay Mitchell was “pretty, but not Emily”. Others mused about how much peroxide and sunscreen it would take for Mitchell to become “pale” and a redhead like the Emily Fields from the novel. Some wondered how Emily’s parents–especially her mother, Pam–would be racist now that they would not be white.
Fans concerned about the casting of Mitchell as Emily were not mollified by a posted casting breakdown indicated the production’s intent to recruit “Asian, Hispanic, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern or Native American” girls for the role of Emily Fields from the start. One commenter went so far as to write: “If Emily is Chinese that will ruin EVERYTHING.” When one commenter told the rest of the posters on the forum to “stop crying because the producers were trying to appeal to a wider demographic,” the rest of the girls in the forum jumped on her, insisting that maybe she should calm down, that they weren’t being racist because they had lots of Asian, black, and Hispanic friends, and that they were just concerned about the “quality of the show.” (A screen shot of the casting call and the comments can be seen here.)
Mitchell adds diversity to Pretty Little Liars, not only because she is Filipina, but also because her character, Emily, is a lesbian. “I didn’t come out of the closet; I fell out–on my face,” Emily says. Her first relationship on the show is with Maya St. Germain, an adventurous new girl in the neighborhood. When fans originally saw Mitchell in the cast list, they assumed that she would be playing Maya, who was written as African American in the novels. The pairing of Maya and Emily is a progressive step towards the acceptance of interracial LGBTQ couples. Even after Maya’s character was written off the show, Emily’s new love interest is a closeted Caucasian girl named Paige; both of Emily’s relationships have been interracial. ABC Family’s acceptance of Emily’s two interracial, lesbian relationships are indicators of major progress.
Mitchell’s casting in the role of Emily opened the doors for other Asian American/Canadian actors on Pretty Little Liars. Pam Fields, Emily’s mother, is played by Nia Peeples, a multiethnic actress of Filipina, African-American, Scottish, Irish, German, Spanish, and Italian descent. Her father, Colonel Fields, is played by Eric Steinberg, who is part Lithuanian, part Jewish, and half Korean. Instead of being depicted as racist and homophobic, as they were in the books, in the television series Colonel Fields and Mrs. Fields are a conservative, tight-laced military family. Unlike in the books, Emily’s parents do not send her away to an ex-gay program. On the show, Emily’s mother must work to overcome her disgust towards Emily’s sexual preference. The producers have also updated Emily’s parents’ motivations behind their dislike for Maya. Instead of outright racism, the Fields disapprove of Maya because Mrs. Fields finds drugs among Maya’s things.
Emily’s character isn’t stereotyped for being Asian or as a lesbian, although some viewers have noticed that her wardrobe has become more “edgy.” Emily’s character is a sweet girl-next-door, and she doesn’t exhibit any stereotypical lesbian characteristics like a tough attitude or short hair. She doesn’t dress like a tomboy as her character in the books did. There have been no references to her Asian origins so far, but it is still quite obvious that she’s part Asian. Her family speaks standard American English, and her father is a colonel in the United States Army. However, with no acknowledgement of Emily’s Asian background, her heritage could potentially be marginalized, and the significance of Mitchell’s casting could be lost on the audience. It is up to the audience to realize that she is of Filipina descent without any prompts or hints from the episodes.
Overall, Mitchell’s character in Pretty Little Liars is extremely progressive, which makes it a shame that the show targets a limited audience of teenage and young adult American women. The comments on a January 2011 Interview with Mitchell on the site After Ellen had nothing but good things to say about her performance. Other viewers of the TV series say that she is gorgeous or stunning, like in this forum dedicated to her on The Fashion Spot, and make no mention of her ethnic origins. The APA and LGBTQ communities have also embraced her. Comments on her Facebook page contain declarations like “EMILY AND MAYA”, along with articles about her progress opening doors for other Asian American/Asian Canadian actors. In January 2011, Mitchell became the new face of Pantene. It appears that the original racist fan backlash has subsided with the talented performance that Mitchell has delivered along with the rest of the cast, with Pretty Little Liars looking at a second season to start in June 2011.
Our organization’s primary concern is the impact of “racebending” on underrepresented communities. Casting established characters of color with white actors has a huge, harmful impact on underrepresented communities of color and their struggles for representation. On the other hand, casting Emily Fields with an actress of color had no discernible impact on the overall opportunity for white viewers of Pretty Little Liars to be represented by and relate to characters on the show who are white, especially since white actors comprise the majority of the Pretty Little Liars‘s cast. For communities of color, the decision to cast Emily Fields with a half-Filipina actress meant representation and meaningful inclusion in a show that would otherwise have had an all-white leading cast.
For more information, please see what is “racebending” and can the practice have a positive effect?