The once popular and now iconic TV show Gossip Girl is getting a reboot. I, for one, am thrilled about this news. The new cast looks promising, and I’m interested to finally see a portrayal of the elite that hasn’t been (completely) white-washed. Maybe now I will not have to start from season one again every November to see me through until Christmas (Gossip Girl just has a Christmas vibe about it, I don’t know why). While Gossip Girl has reached icon status since its run from 2007-2012, it has also had its fair share of bad press for its ludicrous storylines and for being a “bad influence” on teens at the time.
Recently, Teen Vogue released an article by Gianluca Russo who states that we should not be excited for the reboot, and that Gossip Girl is simply too problematic to survive in our current climate where cancel culture is rife. The article explains that we are ‘woke’ enough to recognise the problems it had now, and that it should stay in 2007. And perhaps that is true, the generation that grew up with Gossip Girl are older now; we know better than to ‘stan’ Chuck and Blair and their abusive relationship. But should we rob today’s teens of that awakening?
Gossip Girl’s bad press often came from parents of fans of the show, labelling it their “worst nightmare” because of how “unrealistic” the lifestyles of the teens were, and the damaging expectations this projected onto their children. But was it really that unrealistic?
Reasons Gossip Girl was labelled problematic, but was actually just a true reflection of our society:
Chuck and Blair’s extremely toxic relationship
The manipulation and abuse from both parties during this relationship is not something that should have been projected onto young impressionable teens as “love”. However, it is something that so often happens. In the media and real life, our own naivety in our early teens often leads to being in abusive relationships, that once you get into your 20’s you look back on, and think – WTF was that?! Teens do and are having intense and possibly toxic relationships from a young age. Gossip Girl perhaps did so well on the back of the portrayal of this relationship because although none of us were dating an abusive billionaire, we may have been dating abusers who gaslit us into thinking their poor behaviour was a result of things we had done, or their ‘strong’ feelings for us – just like Chuck did to Blair. Perhaps we could relate and find solace in the fact that we were not the only people going through that, and that even the rich and glamorous experience these kinds of relationships.
This was one of the main factors that raised concerns with parents about the show. But it is probably more the portrayal of that, and the shame surrounding it, that was more problematic for their children. While viewers perceived the portrayal of sex on the show as “not setting a good example” for younger viewers it was, again, not unrealistic. People do have sex in their early teens, often at the result of intoxication, and young women are mercilessly shamed for doing so – much like Serena. While Gossip Girl added to the harmful but classic media trope that young women being sexual makes them ‘damaged good’, it is a true reflection of our society, and a true representation of what is happening in schools and young people’s lives around the world.
Serena’s drug use
Serena is an ex coke addict, and her frenemy Georgina is always trying to get her back into it. Peer pressure is a tale as old as time, surely Gossip Girl cannot be blamed for that? Of course, if we are referencing Serena’s drug use, we must also mention the time where she witnessed a friend overdose and die. A sensitive and gritty issue people did not want their children to watch on TV. But again, it is not untrue. A US study accumulating the average age for first time Class A drug use, reported that between the years 2004 and 2017, the average age for a child to first try a class A drug was 16 years old. Gossip Girl didn’t glamorise drug use, in fact, it showed it in a light that was, again, realistic to teenagers. The drama depicted the negatives: Serena was left traumatised after the ordeal, and nothing good came of it. This was different compared to other teen shows of the same era where drug use and mental illness were glamorised, such as Skins. Class A drug use is a problem amongst young people, especially the upper classes, as they have the resources required to use drugs regularly.
The first episode
During the pilot episode, the character of Chuck Bass is established as a sexual predator. Chuck is portrayed as an entitled rich kid, who thinks himself, and men like him, are entitled to get what they want from women due to their status. Chuck delivers the line: “There’s something wrong with that level of perfection, it needs to be violated” when dwelling on the beauty of Serena. Violated. He later attempts to force himself on Serena, who verbally and physically expressed her unwillingness to sexually engage. Chuck’s predatory behaviour only gets worse as the first episode continues. He attempts his second sexual assault on Jenny Humphries, who is underage. And who also physically and verbally expresses her unwillingness to engage, but Chuck does not relent. This attack was more aggressive than the first on Serena and was only stopped due to Jenny’s brother, Dan, saving her.
More recently, it has been the character development from this series of incidents that has become the subject of ridicule. Chuck became iconic, but not as the iconic show villain. Instead, he became iconic for being a romantic. A character you cannot help but sympathise with, feel sorry for and root for. It is this transition from villain to sensitive and loving young man – with no mention of his prior offences – that has us calling Gossip Girl and our former selves out for our own naivety and for fangirling over such behaviours.
It is the allowing of Chuck to be both Prince and Predator that elevates Gossip Girl’s portrayal of sexual violence to a level of nuance I have not seen in any other shows, never mind a teen drama. Chuck Bass wasn’t just a villain capable of sexual violence against vulnerable women; he was a character capable of love, grand romantic gestures, having his heart broken, adopting and loving a dog, and donating a lot of money to charity. All of these things made you root for Chuck, and often feel sorry for him. While he may have become ‘better’, this does not negate his sexual violence. And again, while this may be a hard message to send to young people – that sexual predators can be nice, and even charming – it does not make it untrue!
One rule for the rich…
Gossip Girl successfully showed us that the ‘good guys’ are too, capable of sexual violence. And the fact that Chuck – a white upper class privately educated male – got away with it so brazenly, in front of our very eyes whilst supporting and loving his character, actually rings very true to life. White, privately educated and wealthy people, often face lesser or no consequences for their actions in comparison to those that are not born into those circumstances. In fact, 60% of state educated people think that there is one law for the rich, and one law for the poor. It is not entirely unreasonable to believe this, when we see time and time again the upper classes get away with crimes, much like Chuck in Gossip Girl. Brock Turner, for example, a white, well-educated and ‘well-bred’ young man was given an outrageously short sentence of six months for sexually assaulting an unconscious student at Stanford University. His sentence was later reduced to three months and he was released. Whereas Black men, from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, are jailed for minor drug offences. This year, Derrick Harris was rightfully released after he had been sentenced to life in 2008 for selling 30 dollars worth of marijuana. How are there not different rules for different classes?
Writers of Gossip Girl, whether they intended to or not, mirrored reality by showing that Chuck Bass, and everyone else in Gossip Girl’s social standing, were allowed to get away with whatever they wanted to because of the cult-like mentality of the upper-class elite.
Private education and privilege
The underlying reality of our private school problem is stark. A highly resourced combination of social exclusiveness and academic excellence has, in our lifetime, powered an enduring cycle of privilege. High quality education for only a minority of the population further perpetuates the social segregation between the rich and the poor and feeds into the social exclusivity we see play out on Gossip Girl, and in real life. Perhaps once it might have been conceivable to argue that private education was a symptom rather than a cause of the privilege that has been transferred from one generation to the next. But that argument seems further from reality than ever before in our modern culture. This reproduction of privilege was rightly displayed in Gossip Girl, despite it being called out for having ‘unrealistic’ storylines. Much of its story lines revolved around the elite protecting the elite – through their connections or their own power -something we know to be true.
Gossip Girl may have been outlandish, and at times ridiculous (Dan being Gossip Girl: sorry but no) but the omnipresent values of the show remain true to life. Teenagers do get up to all sorts, the elite will do whatever they have to do to protect those like them, and wealth, whiteness and good breeding does often place you above the law. It will be interesting to see, then, how the reboot portrays these issues for a new generation.