Like many teenage girls, Gossip Girl was one of my favorite shows to watch in high school. As a small-town girl from Texas, I was intrigued by the aristocratic lifestyle and elitism of the Upper East Side. The show focuses on the scandal and lifestyle of wealthy students at an exclusive Upper-East Side prep-school as an unknown source named “Gossip Girl” exposes their darkest secrets. From underage drinking to affairs with minors, Gossip Girl reinforced the “rich people don’t face consequences” stereotype of upper-class New Yorkers in my mind. Out of all the characters, Chuck Bass, the arrogant son of a billionaire, best exemplifies the privilege and sense of recklessness that the upper-class has.
While he had the greatest character redemption out of all the characters in the show, Chuck Bass’s storyline completely overlooked his attempts to sexually assault multiple minors throughout the story, including his stepsister. In the pilot episode, Chuck forces himself on Serena, despite her explicitly saying “no” and pushing him away multiple times. He doesn’t relent until she kicks him in the groin to push him off.
In the same episode, Chuck forces himself upon Jenny Humphery, a naive freshman in high school. As Chuck is about to rape her, Dan (Jenny’s brother) and Serena (his date) find them and save Jenny. Towards the end of the series, Jenny Humphery loses her virginity to Chuck (consensually). While Chuck’s attempted sexual assaults are inherently problematic, the aftermath of it was even worse.
The show casually glanced over both incidents and turned Chuck into one of the heroes of the show, without acknowledging his previous behavior and the consequences of sexual assault. Serena and Chuck became close friends by the end of the series, portraying an idealistic narrative of the impacts of sexual assault. In reality, many survivors struggle with the trauma of being assaulted and often cannot be around their assailant(s). Jenny losing her virginity to her assailant undermined the consequences of Chuck’s actions and diminished the healing process of survivors.
In addition, minors having affairs with adults was a significant part of the plotline of the show. Dan has an affair with his English teacher while he is in her class. Nate has an affair with multiple older women for networking purposes and Serena dates her former teacher after graduating high school. In reality, most of these relationships were predatorial and glorified having sex with minors. These relationships were also hypersexualized and the problematicness of them was not highlighted in the show.
On the other side of the problematic sexual relationships were the problematic friendships; Blair and Serena’s friendship consistently played into the “bitchy” female friendship troupe. Any friendships between women in the show were based on lies, blackmailing, or ulterior motives such as revenge. Given the demographic of the viewers (young women), these friendships set a poor example of what healthy friendships should look like.
The female friendships in the show were not only toxic, but they were also often classist. Blair and her “minions” were the upper-class, wealthy heiresses who were at the top of the social hierarchy at their high school. They asserted their dominance by bullying less wealthy students such as Jenny and made classist comments about others. The shaming of others for their socio-economic background was not ironic, it was integral to the personalities of each character, many of which were made into the heroes of the show.
While Gossip Girl may be a fan-favorite of many young viewers, many of the ideals that are portrayed in the show do not hold up today, and likely didn’t hold up when the show was first released either. As culture changes, what is and isn’t acceptable changes as well. When watching older shows such as Gossip Girl, we should be cognizant of the era in which they were filmed and the change in values over time, rather than using them as stepping stones to justify our own values in a different time period.
Recently, producers revealed that Gossip Girl will be having a reboot. This reboot will be a second chance for the show to address some of the issues from the original show by including more thoughtful scenes regarding issues that teenagers currently face i.e. mental health issues and portray a more accurate picture of how we cope with them. It will also be an opportunity to become more inclusive by including LGBTQ+ characters and more characters of color in lead roles. In doing so, this reboot has the potential to change the legacy of the original show, without changing the main plotline that viewers fell in love with.
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