Set at a prestigious Chicago ballet school, Tiny Pretty Things follows newcomer Neveah (Kylie Jefferson) as she joins the school amidst the mystery of who pushed one of the dancers, Cassie Shore, off the roof. Running alongside this are a myriad of smaller stories involving illicit relationships (including a teacher-student affair), eating disorders, islamophobia, sexual assault and drug addiction. While the main plot doesn’t bring anything more to the teen drama table (we’ve all seen Pretty Little Liars), the sub-plots are more progressive. The show deals with issues rarely seen before in this genre, though it touches on too many of these issues to deal with any of them in depth.
Take Oren’s battle with an eating disorder. While it’s not unusual for teen dramas to depict characters with eating disorders – both Pretty Little Liars and Gossip Girl briefly mention the struggles of bulimia – Tiny Pretty Things chooses to break some of the most damaging myths surrounding eating disorders in a way that its forerunners failed to. Most noticeably, TPT choses a male character to suffer with the illness, shattering the common misconception that all those with eating disorders are female. Moreover, from the outside, Oren (Barton Cowperthwaite) looks healthy; the makeup artists don’t pale his face or darken his cheekbones, and there are even mentions of him being too heavy. While the media almost always presents eating disorders as obviously visible, Oren reflects the reality: you cannot tell if someone has an eating disorder just by looking at them.
The show didn’t focus massively on Oren’s struggle, with some friends noticing but not doing anything, and Oren not receiving any help. Whether this was a deliberate choice or the result of the show having to split its time between so many different issues, it sadly does reflect the reality of many of those living with eating disorders. As many as 70% never receive professional treatment, a terrifying statistic given that it is an eating disorder – anorexia nervosa – that has the highest morbidity rate of all mental illnesses.
Another sub-plot of the show involves a relationship between dance student Caleb (Damon J. Gillespie) and the school principal Monique DuBois (Lauren Holly). Again, this screams Pretty Little Liars, but, thankfully, Tiny Pretty Things decides against the romanticisation of sleeping with your teacher. While PLL’s Aria and Ezra were presented as passionate, star-crossed lovers, TPT shows the teacher-student affair for what is truly is – disturbing and manipulative.
“The show takes on too much; with so many issues, not enough time is dedicated to present the hardships of each issue in depth.”
On a similar note, another sub-plot involves the sexual assault of dance student June (Daniela Norman). I was pleased to see the show emphasise that sexual assault is not just limited to rape, however, we only get a glimpse of how June is impacted, as the show then moves on to unveil an underage sex ring, partially run by dance principle Monique(?!) This was a crazily huge revelation given its minor role in the overall story, and could almost have stood alone as the main plot. Sadly, we didn’t see enough of June’s story to fully explore it.
Islamophobia is yet another important discussion the series introduces, then drops just as quickly. At first, I was pleasantly surprised, having previously not seen much representation of this issue in the teen genre, but its presentation, as with the other issues in the show, wasn’t satisfying. Caleb didn’t seem to face any punishment, despite his blatant racism, but maybe that was the point.
One thing that the show did dedicate a lot of time to, however, was sex. A lot of time. Almost every other scene was sex, and was depicted much more realistically than is typically seen in the teen genre, featuring more nudity and accurate depictions of sexual acts. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I think had the show spent a little less time on sex, it would have had far more success in exploring the deeper issues it touched upon.
Overall, the sub-plots in Tiny Pretty Things are more interesting than the main mystery. However, the show takes on too much; with so many issues, not enough time is dedicated to present the hardships of each issue in depth. As a result, no satisfying resolution can be reached for any character, and with a second season as-of-yet unannounced, who knows if any of them, or any of us, will get closure?
Tiny Pretty Things is available on Netflix now.
Words by Verity Alice Cartwright