Watch It for the Clothes

The Class and Gender Warfare of 'Gossip Girl'

by Lana Cooper

13 May 2012


Socioeconomic Scheming

Gossip Girl sends a message that despite social standing, a man may initially be perceived as an outsider, they may still eventually be welcomed by the beau monde

By having previously dated Serena and attending the same, elite all-male prep school as old money scions Nate Archibald and Chuck Bass, aspiring writer Dan Humphrey eventually found himself accepted by high society. His fictionalized novelization of the doings of the Upper East Siders from his own “outsider” perspective landed him on bestseller lists and boosted his stock – despite a few miffed feelings on the part of his upper crust pals. They got over it, however.

Yet, when Dan’s younger sister, Jenny Humphrey, stepped on the toes of the same people in the same social circle, she was dealt with much more harshly and completely ostracized.

Women attempting to breach the ranks of society’s upper echelon are treated in a completely different manner than men on Gossip Girl. Both Jenny Humphrey and Dan’s former childhood best friend Vanessa Abrams, are prime examples of how the show’s female outsiders often become excluded by their high society counterparts.

In Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl series of novels, the characters of Jenny Humphrey and Vanessa Abrams were written very differently from their television counterparts. As portrayed on the show, both female characters were often deemed annoying and unlikeable by viewers.

Young Jenny Humphrey was once a sweet, aspiring fashion designer. As written on the television series, she eventually became too big for her britches (or social station). When her burgeoning status as Queen Bee of their prep school threatened Blair Waldorf’s social ranking, Jenny was blackballed from the fashion world by Blair and her fashionista mother. Jenny may have been granted some clemency had she not committed the cardinal sin of losing her virginity to Blair’s on-again-off-again “great love,” Chuck Bass – who took advantage of the young girl and was caught in the act. In turn, Blair threatened Jenny, running her out of the Upper East Side and back to Brooklyn. 

Never mind that Chuck Bass had committed (consensual) statutory rape. Or that he had previously attempted to pimp out Blair Waldorf to his uncle to regain ownership of his hotel empire. Or that he tried to non-consensually rape Jenny in Season 1. Chuck Bass receives immunity from Blair, Jenny, society, and the show’s writers on top of being handed a Bad Boy Redemption Arc of the first order.

Jenny’s fellow Brooklyn-ite, aspiring filmmaker Vanessa Abrams, also failed to tread lightly among Manhattan’s elite before her self-imposed exile to Europe. Vanessa’s banishment seemed oddly familiar considering her Brooklyn roots and her transformation from down-to-earth voice of reason to preachy, duplicitous shrew.

Actresses Taylor Momsen and Jessica Szohr (who played Jenny Humphrey and Vanessa Abrams, respectively) left the show prior to its fifth season. The plot points of the show’s lower-to upper-middle-class females being run out of town could have been attributed the actresses’ exits, however, Gossip Girl introduced a new token female pretender to the upper crust in the form of Serena Van Der Woodsen’s “cousin” Charlotte “Charlie” Rhodes.  In actuality, “Charlie” is Ivy Dickens— a poor, trailer-harvested daughter of a heroin addict paid off by Carol Rhodes – the real Charlie’s mother who had been cut-off by CeCe—to pose as the young heiress so Carol can access her trust fund.

Like the show’s other (comparatively) lower-class girls first appear, Charlie/Ivy is initially likeable— until she attempts to overstep her bounds in the social hierarchy. As Jenny and Vanessa were eventually painted as annoying and/or self-righteous, Charlie/Ivy received a similar villain treatment after inheriting Serena’s ailing grandmother CeCe’s fortune. The now-deceased dowager knew that Charlie/Ivy was not her real granddaughter, yet still decided to bequeath her estate to the girl – finding her more “real” than her own kin.  Since then, Charlie/Ivy evicted Lily Rhodes (Serena’s mother who has a vendetta against the girl since learning her true identity) and her husband from their Upper East Side digs which she now owns. 

So long as Ivy was perceived as Charlie, her new friends and “family” loved her and went to bat for her – even when she went loca after failing to take her prescribed meds. The collective Van Der Woodsen/Rhodes’ tunes towards her changed when she was revealed to be an impostor despite her earnest pleas that although her name was different, her feelings towards them were genuine. Instead, the Upper East Siders vowed to make Ivy’s life a living hell and ostracized her. When Ivy found herself in a position of power and began exerting it, righteous indignation from the upper crust, old money crew ensued.

When Serena and her mother contested CeCe’s will, they gloated over the court’s decision to strip Ivy of her newfound fortune. Ivy is deemed the enemy until Lily has a use for her to turn her sister Carol over to the authorities for initiating the backfired false identity scam.

Following Carol’s arrest, Ivy grovels for a place in the Rhodes/Van Der Woodsen’s hearts. Rather than the check Lily gave her for services rendered, Ivy craves the sense of family she never had and pours out her heart to Lily. Lily could not be bothered and tells her to leave. As Ivy exits the building, she tears up the check when out of sight. While this could be construed as an act of nobility and principle, it may also be viewed as Ivy resigning herself to life among the social class she was born into.

Although a serial pimp/attempted rapist like Chuck Bass is given countless chances to reform and is continually welcomed back to society, Ivy Dickens was used as a pawn and not only forsakes fortune, but is denied an opportunity to belong among the upper echelon. The message Gossip Girl sends is that Chuck’s status as both an entrepreneur and as a male grants him a free pass despite the severity of its transgressions while Ivy’s gender and lower class work against her.

The theme of men and women of various socioeconomic backgrounds scheming to get their way has been a recurring one on Gossip Girl. But what factors ultimately decide who wins in the ultimate battle of class versus gender?

A storyline involving Rufus Humphrey (Dan Humphrey’s former rock star father) and his marriage to Lily may hold the answer to that question. Since his marriage to Lily, the character of Rufus has grown even more sanctimonious. His gradual, perceived emasculation has been marked sartorially by his transition from rugged flannel and denim to sweater vests that could have been culled from Rick Santorum’s closet. He abandons his career interests to spend more time with Lily.

Over several seasons, Rufus warps himself to conform to what he assumes to be Lily’s ideal mate. He even cautions his son Dan to not lose his identity in his budding relationship with Blair Waldorf. Ironically, Rufus shares more in common with Blair than his son as someone who has lost his identity in his search for love. 

With their marriage on the rocks and the couple living apart, Lily asks Rufus “Where will you get another Upper East Side woman to take care of you the way I have?”  While no one twisted arm to forsake his own career goals, Lily’s comment appears to be the deal-breaker that sends Rufus packing in search of his lost identity as an artist. Lily (no saint herself), is left to grieve the loss of her mother alone, among other convoluted plot points that make her (slightly) more sympathetic than her character seems.

It’s one thing for Rufus to not be the provider in the relationship or to conform to what he believes is his wife’s image of an ideal partner. However, by Gossip Girl standards, it’s unforgivable and grounds for further separation to have these facets acknowledged by his wealthier spouse.

Gossip Girl shows that upper echelon standing usually triumphs over those of a lower socio-economic background, unless gender comes into play. In such case, the male gender emerges victorious—even in situations of upper class versus lower class. With the exception of Rufus who is now “finding himself” again, the show’s male characters display the most confident personalities and clear ideas of their future and career goals.

For a show whose largest audience and target demographic is women, Gossip Girl not only insults its audience, but conveys classist, misogynistic messages to its viewers.  Perhaps the show is banking on its audience not catching on to its not-so-subtle messages regarding class and gender, and hopes that its female viewers watch it for the clothes, instead.

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//Mixed media