Because teen TV is leading the charge in small-screen LGBT representation
Since Pretty Little Liars (PLL) premiered in 2010, the show’s resident gay character Emily Fields has been through the ringer, mainly at the gloved hands of the liars’ hoodie-clad, omniscient, tech-savvy tormenter A. And while Emily’s tribulations in not-so-sleepy Rosewood have often made for nail-biting TV viewing it’s her thoughtful coming-out story that has ushered Shay Mitchell (pictured), the actress who plays her, into the annals of recent LGBT TV history for portraying a happy, well-adjusted teen who just happens to get more than her share of the ladies.
At its surface ABC Family’s PLL is all mystery wrapped in teen angst, but at its heart it’s about substantive coming-of-age issues, including coming out. While Emily’s coming out to her mom (played by Nia Peeples), was bumpy at best, it was a barely a blip with her fellow liars Hanna, Spencer and Aria, a reaction that’s indicative of a generational shift in acceptance of gay characters and speaks to what’s driving the proliferation of LGBTs in teen fare like Degrassi, Greek, and Glee.
“I think that we’re so much more accepting than even my parents’ generation, and obviously the generations before that,” says 24-year-old Mitchell. “I think the younger generations are the ones that are, well, demanding to see [LGBT characters] on TV. It started with Degrassi and now it’s our show, and then hopefully, it will be more and more shows where it’s not even just one character.”
Early on in her career as Emily she was asked the question of whether or not LGBT characters should be portrayed on a network aimed at teens, namely ABC Family.
“My reaction to that was, ‘OK, but there are also a lot of kids that are super young and in middle school that are realizing what it is they like and don’t like,’” Mitchell says. “Actually a lot of [young teens] have told me that they can relate to my character, so, thank you, and yes, it should be on ABC Family.”
Emily is based on the character in Sara Shepard’s wildly addicting Pretty Little Liars series of young adult novels, but Mitchell has made the fashion-forward jock and all-around nice girl her own since she landed the role, portraying Emily like just one of the girls and eschewing the notion that there’s stigma attached to playing gay anymore.
A Toronto native who began modeling in her teens, Mitchell says the playing gay question continually arose when she first climbed into competitive swimmer Emily’s Speedo two years ago.
“I’m really blessed to be raised in a family that told me love is love and treat everybody how you want to be treated,” Mitchell says. “When I saw that I was playing a character that was gay, or likes girls, or may change her mind, or whatever, I was like ‘OK, cool.’ That would have been like telling me, ‘Your character wears sunglasses.”
Mitchell adds that she hopes acceptance evolves to the point where playing gay is no big deal.
“You wouldn’t ask Lucy Hale [Aria on PLL], ‘How does it feel playing a straight character?”” Mitchell says.
It was PLL’s producers’, namely show runner Marlene King’s, handling of the character of Emily as fully assimilated into the group that, in part, drew Mitchell to her.
“Emily is just like the other pretty little liars,” she says. “The thing I loved most about how they [PLL’s producers] spoke to me about her character was that they said, ‘When you look at this poster [PLL promo], when you see a picture of all four of the girls together, not one stands out to be, oh, that’s the gay character, that’s the lesbian one.”
Mitchell adds that Emily’s entire package was attractive to her as an actor, as Emily is generally considered the “sweet one” in the group of not-so-mean girls. But it’s also Emily’s big heart that makes her a terrific role model not just for LGBT teens but also for girls in general.
“Emily is Emily and she is a great person because she’s loyal to her friends and she’s got a drive to her that shows, like, in her swimming,” Mitchell says. “She has a passion for that. She wants to make people feel better, and all of those things make her a great person.”
While Mitchell says she wishes for a time when being or playing gay is not at issue she adds that she’s grateful for the opportunity to play Emily, which has not only afforded her the opportunity to work with LGBT organizations like Tthe Trevor Project and the No H8 campaign but has also allowed her to cozy up to several young actresses, as Emily has become quite the lady killer, with no fewer than three girlfriends in two seasons.
“The fact that I get to work with such amazing actors who all play my girlfriend — I love that part too,” Mitchell says, adding that she’s beyond thankful for her job.
Mitchell, who is “happily single,” jokes that she wishes she had as many possible love interests in her life as Emily does, but she also defends her character, asserting that Emily is not a player.
“She came out quite recently and she’s just figuring out what it is she likes. I think that it’s good that she’s having fun,” Mitchell says. “She’s never mean or playing the field or lying to any of [her girlfriends]. She’s doing it in a very honest way.”
For the better part of season 2, Emily explored a longer-term relationship with her girlfriend Maya (Bianca Lawson), even saying “I love you.” But as things tend to go in Rosewood, her world was blown apart during the finale when Maya, who’d been missing, was hauled away in a body bag. In the interactive world of television these days, the cliffhanger set the Twitterverse ablaze with fans distraught over the end of Emaya (the mash-up moniker for Emily and Maya).
Fan feedback ranged from those who said the finale had them in tears over Maya’s purported death, a scene made more poignant by Emily’s breakdown at the loss of her first love, to those who quickly moved on to wondering what’s next for Emily.
Mitchell, an ardent tweeter, who has also launched a website that features style, etiquette and travel, says that while fans were shocked over Maya’s death they were also concerned with who would be Emily’s next girlfriend, a reaction that implies that fans are wholly accepting of Emily’s sexuality.
While Mitchell won’t say who Emily’s next girlfriend might be, that is, if PLL producers have even let on or know at this point, she does say that she and Lindsey Shaw, the actress who plays Emily's newly out-of-the-closet former love interest Paige, is a good friend.
“I love Lindsey Shaw more than anything,” Mitchell says, adding that she especially enjoyed the season two finale in which a tuxedo-clad Paige approached Emily at the masquerade ball.
“I loved that last episode because of getting to dress u p… when Paige came in and tapped me on the shoulder, I loved that scene,” Mitchell says. She adds that Lindsey was “super hot that day.” “I was like, ‘Seriously,’ Lindsey?’” Mitchell says of laying eyes on Shaw in her tux.
A role model not just for gay teens but also for empowering girls in general, Mitchell is passionate about her work with the Somaly Mam Foundation, which aims to end sex trafficking around the world. She’s traveled to Cambodia to Somaly Mam centers and appeared in PSA’s to create awareness about the heinous practice of enslaving young girls for sex.
Not one to just sit back upon hearing of the atrocities of sex slavery and of Somaly Mam’s work to expunge the practice, Mitchell got involved, taking two of her best friends with her. “I set up to meet Somaly in three of her centers, to meet all the girls,” Mitchell says. “We brought a film team down with us so I could shoot PSAs because, yes, I loved going there and seeing the girls but I also needed to bring something back home with me so other people could see it.”
Mitchell says she knows she has a calling to help others but is also quick to realize her newfound fame is a tool to bring awareness to issues important to her. “If I get an extra light shined on me from having an acting career and I can directly shine it back to what Somaly is doing, then that’s amazing,” she says. “That is really why I wake up every morning thinking this is what I’m supposed to do.”
Regarding her status as a role model, Mitchell is humble, and yet her generosity with both causes and her friends is admirable. She’s built a website that acts as a resource for young women but also serves as platform for her friends in a section titled “Right Hand Gals,” where five of her female friends have a place to showcase their passions and talents.
“I really want to empower women to learn as much as they can and not depend on having to find a boyfriend or be in a relationship, and to just enjoy life,” Mitchell says, adding that she fully advocates women supporting each other, as evidenced by her “Right Hand Gals” column.
“I’m single, happily single. I have amazing girlfriends and I’m having a really fun time. I know how hard it can be in high school, especially in high school, for these girls. I want them to know they the can do it on their own,” Mitchell says. —Tracy E. Gilchrist