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The Complicated Feminist Legacy of “Gossip Girl,' Ten Years On

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It’s been ten years since the most problematic and loveable teen drama of the 2000s graced our screens for the first time. When it premiered in 2007, Gossip Girl was a revelation. Thanks to the internet, it was popular in a way that hadn’t been seen in television before, and its portrayal of the way social media affected its characters' lives was eerily prescient. The series, created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who also made The O.C., originally ran on The CW for six seasons and finished in 2012. Gossip Girl focused on the lives of the impossibly rich, impossibly fashionable teenagers of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. However, the show’s strengths lay in the sharp characterisation and smart dialogue that made the ridiculous problems of its protagonists surprisingly relatable.

Of course, Gossip Girl had some glaring flaws, which have only become more apparent as time has passed. Its exclusive focus on white, rich teenagers who were the epitome of privilege would never fly in 2017, and its pretence that the Humphreys, the only family who lived in Brooklyn, are therefore "poor" is laughable. The show revelled in the glamour of materialism, gliding in on the tail end of the Paris Hilton era of celebrity, when shopping was considered a legitimate personal interest. In a show that was always meant to be aspirational rather than realistic, it presented consumerism as the ultimate expression of success, and wealthy, white kids as the only ones who could achieve it.

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Similarly, the male characters on Gossip Girl were frequently the absolute worst, seemingly unintentionally. Lonely Boy Dan was an self-indulgent manipulator who, as it turned out, had been backstabbing all his friends for the entire six seasons, and Nate was the original fuckboy, cheating on Blair with Serena and then acting like he was a solid dude for the rest of the show. Chuck attempted to sexually assault Jenny in the first episode, just one of many, many times Chuck Bass thought he could do whatever he liked simply because he was rich. Although Chuck eventually became a fan favourite, this was largely due to Blair teaching him how to process his feelings like an adult. And frighteningly, he never truly grasps the concept of consent. Viewed in a certain light, these characters served as cautionary tales, and as foils to the smart and powerful women in their lives, but the majority of the time they were simply an embodiment of the “boys will be boys” mentality.

blair

On the other hand, Gossip Girl’s portrayal of young women and their relationships was often highly nuanced. “It Girl” Serena was ostensibly the star of the show, but as the series continued everybody fell in love with Blair, the assertive, ruthless overachiever. In the first two seasons, Blair was the Queen Bee of Constance Billard School For Girls, but she struggled to find her place in a world she can’t control after graduation. She also battled with bulimia early on, as her perfectionism could sometimes become self-destructive. But throughout everything, her ambition and power are a force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, Blair is frequently truly awful to other women in the process of achieving her goals. Her redeeming quality is that underneath her tough exterior, she is kind and loyal to the people she loves.

serena

As a character, Serena has less depth; her main personality trait is "beautiful." She is a party girl with a heart of gold, but she doesn’t know what she wants. Well-meaning but lost, she is often defined by the boy she is dating, portrayed more as a caricature than an real woman. Her friendship with Blair is the most convincing part of her story, as the two attempt to navigate a world that pits successful women against each other. Their relationship endures more than a couple of ups and downs, where the two best friends betray and hurt each other to the extreme. Although not exactly a feminist triumph, the Serena-Blair saga emphasises how important and underrated enduring female friendship is.

jenny

Of course, in analyzing the flawed women of Gossip Girl, we need to talk about Little J. For such a complex character, it is unfortunate that Jenny was abruptly written off after the third season. Her bad behaviour goes beyond the realm of typical teenager, but she is also dealing with some very adult problems (like sexual assault.) She is the "bad girl" of the show, but this reputation is initially derived from the fact that she is taken advantage of by Chuck and is slut-shamed for something out of her control. After falling foul of Blair, Jenny’s attitude towards the social mores of the Upper East Side becomes increasingly reckless. However, the people around her also repeatedly let her down when she is at her most vulnerable, and she eventually decides it is for the best to remove herself from the toxic environment of the city to go and live with her aunt in Hudson. She even graduates high school and ends up successful in her own way. In the end, Little J is the only character on the show who really grows up.

All of this leaves us back where we started, loving Gossip Girl but kinda hating ourselves for it. The show was essentially a product of its time, and warrants the criticism it recieves for its lack of diversity, bad boy behaviour and elitism. But by portraying flawed, powerful women, creating a female friendship for the ages, and giving young women’s stories the importance they deserved, it became a pop culture touchstone for a generation of young women, and for that it will always be important. Even though there's no way Dan was the real Gossip Girl.   

Images via Gossip Girl

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Molly McLaughin is a writer who likes pizza, politics and poetry. In that order. She tweets at @mollysgmcl. 

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