Is Gossip Girl’s Comeback Problematic?

CultureTV & Film

Is Gossip Girl’s Comeback Problematic?

The reboot of hit–show Gossip Girl this Thanksgiving has left many questions about its problematic history

Known as the television–world’s “junk food” for teenage girls, Gossip Girl quickly became an addictive show for thousands of viewers worldwide upon its release in 2007. This summer, the Gossip Girl reboot sent shockwaves throughout the media. Despite the mindlessly entertaining nature of Gossip Girl’s plot, it was prone to many problematic episodes and main characters. And fourteen years later in 2021, this is not something viewers are as readily able to accept. 

As a naive ten–year old growing up in New York City—a girl who knew close to nothing about class structures, relationships, or anything vaguely related to adulthood—I used to make fun of my mother for watching a show that was considered to be basic and superficial. And I especially didn’t like that the show only focused on the lives of spoiled upper–east–siders perched in the brownstones of 5th Avenue, when I myself attended a public school and had friends from many different cultures and boroughs. 

So when I watched Gossip Girl for the first time as a high–school senior, I’ll admit that I initially judged myself. Gossip Girl had been my last resort, simply because I had found nothing else to watch and figured that a quick episode could be numbly entertaining. 

But with the onslaught of online school, an Early Decision college acceptance, and a bucketload of free time, I easily got into the habit of watching Gossip Girl episodes until 3AM, drifting asleep with my computer in hand, and waking to my alarm clock at 9:55 to blearily attend 10AM Zoom class. 

For better or for worse, the show that I had once judged helped me endure an otherwise tedious senior year. But it wasn’t just me—Gossip Girl’s gorgeous cast, sappy romance stories, and addictive plot lines have captured the attention of millions of viewers worldwide. 

Towards its last season in 2012, the series was the fifth most–binged TV series on Subscription Video-on-Demand (SVOD) Services, and was dubbed the “Most Restauranty Show Since Sex and the City” by New York Magazine. At every visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at least one tourist will excitedly notice that its famed steps were the show’s iconic filming site. 

Gossip Girl quickly became more than just a TV series—it also influenced pop–culture. Many aspects of its plot were taboo, but undeniably captivating: illegal parties, gambling, trust funds, and an endless supply of steamy affairs. Far from simply focusing on Manhattan’s uber-rich elite, the show normalized teenage sex: the advertising campaign for the second season featured posters of Serena getting a large hickey, which stirred a backlash of formal complaints by the Parents Television Council. The shows’ shamelessly raunchy material drew in teenagers worldwide, providing a steady recluse from societal conservatism. 

Gossip Girl even became recognized by politicians. In celebration of the airing of its 100th episode in 2012, former–NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg declared January 26 to be “Gossip Girl Day.”

Gossip Girl also had tremendous impacts on the fashion world. The outfits of Blake Lively (who plays Serena Van Der Woodsen) and Leighton Meester (who plays Blair Waldorf) were so popular that they had a major influence on retail trends. Designers and fashion companies would fight to have their items displayed in the casts’ costumes, as this marketing would immediately garner huge sales. Some brands even paid a fee to have the show’s Website provide referral links for viewers who wanted to purchase the fashion items they saw on the characters. 

“We have girls coming in with magazine tear sheets of Blake Lively or Leighton Meester, from location shootings or from everyday life,” Tory Burch told the New York Times after having an item featured on the show. 

In 2009, American fashion designer Anna Sui created a Target collection that was entirely inspired by Gossip Girl outfits. Her pop–up shop was decorated like a mansion of one of the characters, with luxurious chandeliers, velvet couches, and artificial packing boxes marked as Fragile.

Gossip Girl also capitalized on product placement with other large companies. In a contract with Verizon Wireless for the first five seasons, the show had all characters be filmed with phones chosen by Verizon. In turn, Verizon created a website that enabled users to download ringtones of the songs featured on the series. 

The series also partnered with Procter & Gamble, L’Oreal, Target, and Johnson & Johnson—all of which earned the series a total of $28.2 million in advertisements. 

But despite its immense influence, Gossip Girl had many problematic episodes. Though Chuck becomes a beloved character by many viewers, it’s generally forgotten that he sexually assaulted both Jenny and Serena in the first episode. Chuck does not face any consequences for his actions in the show, which is a very disturbing reflection of the silent complicity embedded in rape culture. 

Serena and Blair’s friendship, despite its sweet moments, can also be very toxic. In addition to manipulating one another, attacking one another in public, and jeopardizing each other’s futures, Blair and Serena perpetuate sexist stereotypes. Nearly all of their discussions revolve around men, which fails the Bechdel test. Many of their petty fights are based on affairs, such as when Serena breaks the girl–code and sleeps with two of Blair’s boyfriends. In contrast, the male characters in the show talk about a variety of topics.

The show’s many allusions to mental illness are also not addressed with cultural sensitivity. In The Thanksgiving episode “Blair Waldorf Must Pie!”, Blair is shown having an instance of bulimia when she eats and nearly vomits a pie. Blair simply resolves the issue by calling Serena and telling her that she will call her therapist the next day. 

However, the show abruptly drops the storyline in the subsequent episode. There is also no trigger warning or list of resources given to viewers who may be sensitive to such content. By casting aside this episode, eating disorders are merely used for Blair’s entertainment value as a character—which is extremely insensitive towards individuals who struggle with disordered eating or eating disorders. 

Many characters—notably Serena and Chuck—also consistently battle with alcoholism and drug addiction, yet do not receive any therapy for their underlying mood disorders. Once again, the show brushes aside these mental illnesses once they have been used up for their entertainment factor, which is inconsiderate of individuals who struggle with substance abuse.

With part two of Gossip Girl’s reboot coming this Thanksgiving, there’s a lot to keep in mind. While we can still enjoy the show’s entertaining characters and plot lines, we are also now older, more mature, and more socially conscious. As for me, I no longer feel guilty for watching Gossip Girl, or any other stereotyped series—I’ve learned that it’s okay to love a show that I morally disagree with, so long as I’m aware of its implications. 

And of course, we can appreciate the occasional feminist quote from Blair— “Destiny is for losers. It’s just a stupid excuse to wait for things to happen instead of making them happen. What I want is to be a powerful woman.”

Feature image courtesy of PTI

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