[28 June 2010]
Late in the first season of Gossip Girl the hour-long drama about the sex- and martini-fueled lives of rich Upper East Side teens, spoiled queen bee Blair Waldorf comforted a world-weary Serena van der Woodsen. “We’ve seen you with vomit in your hair making out with investment bankers in the men’s room at P.J. Clarke’s,” she said, seemingly unaware of the absurdity of these grown-up words emerging from her 16-year-old mouth. “We don’t judge,” she said. “We’re the non-judging Breakfast Club.”
At the time—early 2008—the show was still evolving, still settling into its identity and we may have believed the worldly pseudo-adults of Gossip Girl had something in common with the troubled teen misfits of John Hughes’ 1985 film (which is widely credited as launching the modern teen genre). But now, as the popular show heads into the close of its third season, and with Hughes’ legacy fresh in our minds after his death last year, it’s time to look at what it says about today’s teenagers—and adults.
Some television critics have worried about the effect the series has had on its young audience. Others have admitted they enjoy the show, though always with a sheepishness that suggests they think they ought to leave it to a younger generation. But neither the moralizing, nor the guilt is necessary, for both stem from a mistaken assumption: that Gossip Girl is for teenagers.
Sometime between The Breakfast Club and the present, teen films and movies stopped celebrating a youth culture that existed in opposition to adult authority. Instead, the characters in a current raft of hits rebel against their parents by emulating them, by growing up earlier than their parents would like. The line between teen and adult is becoming ever murkier, and teen shows are, strangely enough, starting to neglect their teen audience.
It happened in stages. The popularity of Aaron Spelling’s Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1990 set a precedent for depicting rich teens who had the buying power of adults. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson’s Creek in the late ‘90s had teens speaking with a worldliness—and a wordiness—that teens off-screen rarely possess. In the aughts, One Tree Hill and The O.C., among others, contained a succession of increasingly adult plotlines—teens getting married, working to support themselves and being parents. Gradually, the teen genre became not about growing up, but about being grown up already.
Gossip Girl is the culmination of this progression towards teen as miniature adult. Creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, the team behind The O.C., had a ready-made audience of teens for Gossip Girl: fans of the 13-book series by Cecily von Ziegesar, in which rich teens smoke pot and cigarettes, drink, shoplift and have sex with few consequences. The novels are aimed at 12- to 18-year-olds, but booksellers and librarians say they are more popular at the younger end of that spectrum.
Though parents and educators have denounced the Gossip Girl books as pernicious fantasy, it was the television series that had the public in a furor. The Parents Television Council, which has called the show “mind-blowingly inappropriate,” called for stations to drop it last November when an episode featured a threesome; the producers responded with even more sexually suggestive advertising material. A crucial fact emerged from the skirmish, namely that the show’s target demographic is 18 to 34 and the median age of its viewers is 26. Certainly the show has teen fans who aspire to be like the worldly teens onscreen; however, the aspirational dynamic at work with the majority of the show’s viewers—adult women—is a fantasy do-over of their high school experience. Gossip Girl is a teen show for adults.
At first glance, the series seems to conform to the teen genre’s conventions. It is based around a set of high schoolers who fit stereotypical molds such as the outsider, the mean girl, the perfectionist and the bad boy. There are, of course, distinct aesthetic benefits to setting a show in a school: it makes for a tight structure with a built-in timeline with the rise and fall of the school year; it accounts for the closed system of characters necessary for a television format; and it explains the tendency of the characters to date each other (intra-group dating makes much more sense here than it does in adult workplace dramas like Grey’s Anatomy or The Practice).
Schwartz and Savage exploit the organizing principle of the high school without acknowledging the centrality of high school to teenage life. (Social historians have traced the rise of the very concept of teenhood as a distinct stage of life to increased high school attendance in the early 20th century.) Though we know the characters in Gossip Girl attend Constance Billiard School for Girls and the affiliated St. Jude’s School for Boys, the show avoids the classroom, and its characters are rarely shown on campus. For instance, each episode climaxes in a grandiose social occasion; at the start of the first season, these events were often school-related, such as school dances, or visits by university representatives. That soon changed in favor of adult society events: balls in the Hamptons, benefit dinners, and parties hosted by foreign ambassadors.
More importantly, Gossip Girl gives no sense of what it might feel like to be a teen. The usual “teen problems” are superficially treated, if at all. The first season saw a half-hearted attempt to show the repercussions of Blair losing her virginity to lothario Chuck Bass in the back of his limo, but that was quickly abandoned —Blair was such a Machiavellian manipulator that a plotline based on her loss of innocence was implausible. The parents on the show are generally so preoccupied with their own problems that they present no real opposition to teen culture. The archetypal teenage struggle to fit in is also non-existent; although the show began with Jenny Humphrey, a girl from a “poor” (read: upper middle class) family struggling to keep up with her more wealthy schoolmates, her father soon married a rich divorcee, ensuring that no character would be without designer duds.
Instead, the show resonates with adult viewers by reveling in the most scandalous aspects of adult life: sexually adventurous relationships, drinking and drug use, and high-flying careers. Blasé, these teens speak about their adult concerns as though it were perfectly normal (“You haven’t eaten bread since middle school,” Blair says to Serena in a recent episode). Chuck assumes control over his late father’s billion-dollar empire and opens a hotel and club; instead of the usual scenario of a house party broken up by police (these martini-glugging teens are never carded), Chuck’s club was shut down because of a bogus liquor license. These teens have none of the anxieties and awkwardness that accompany teen sexual inexperience—they have sex as nonchalantly as adults. Plus, they hook up with actual adults; Blair with a friend’s uncle, Jenny’s brother Dan with his English teacher, and another student, Nate Archibald with a married woman he meets in the Hamptons. Serena decides to reel in the Broadway director hired to direct the senior class play, as though he were the cute boy from Biology. And the play these students perform? An adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer and Countess Olenska would be scandalized.
The eponymous Gossip Girl is an anonymous blogger who chronicles the lives of Serena, Blair and the others at the top of the popularity ladder. Her attention makes these social elites matter to the other students in the school, whether they are admired, reviled, or both. Mirroring the characters they play, the cast is regularly featured in the celebrity press and their exploits—including real-life romances between stars Penn Badgely and Blake Lively, and Jessica Szohr and Ed Westwick—have netted them covers of Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, New York and Vogue, among others. We, the adult readers of those publications are the real-life counterparts of the nameless high schoolers in the show—suddenly we are members of some figurative high school following the exploits of a small beautiful and wealthy circle with admiration, jealousy or contempt. At the very least, in a culture obsessed with youth and appearance, many adults aspire to look like these gorgeously clad mini-adults. Gossip Girl, therefore, performs two generational flips: its teen characters masquerade as adults, and its adult viewers revel in teen-like celebrity adoration.
The shift at work in Gossip Girl is satirically pushed to its logical conclusion in Community, a new NBC sitcom by Sarah Silverman Show creator Dan Harmon. Harmon sticks strictly to the conventions of the teen show in every way but one—the stereotypical, misfit students are all adults. Community centers around a study group at a fictional Colorado community college, whose members deal with a different “high school” issue each week. Cool guy Jeff Winger worries about looking stupid in his gym strip, senior citizen Pierce Hawthorne (played by Chevy Chase) just wants everyone to laugh at his jokes, and pretty girl Britta Perry is threatened with expulsion after being caught cheating. In a parody of the after-school special format, each show ends with the characters learning a lesson about friendship, honesty or themselves.
Harmon, who has created short videos satirizing network television for his Internet TV network Channel 101, peppers the script with sly pop-culture references that show he is perfectly aware of what he is doing. The pilot was dedicated to the memory of John Hughes, and, upon arriving in the library for a study session, pop-culture obsessed Abed comments, “This is kind of like Breakfast Club, huh?... I’m sure we’ve each got an issue balled up inside us that would make us cry if we talked about it.” At a tense moment later in the episode, he begins quoting lines from the film. (“You know what I got for Christmas? It was a banner year at the Bender house.”) In another episode, Anthony Michael Hall—who co-starred in The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles—has a cameo as the school bully, dressed to ‘80s perfection in gloves with cut-off fingers and a grey hoodie-vest.
Community wittily comments on the adult-teen dynamics that Gossip Girl enacts. But is this enough? Although the writers for Community appear to be aware that teen programming has been appropriated by grown-ups, it, too, is pitched toward an adult audience. Community is this trend’s ultimate manifestation—with this show, the teen genre has been fully colonized by adult content and adult viewers.
Rather than worry about the effect that such precocious and hyper-sexualized teen shows have on today’s youth, we might ask ourselves what they say about us, the adults who are actually watching. It’s tempting to argue that such shows offer a temporary and harmless escape from the responsibilities of adult life. To project teenagehood as that escape, however, is essentially an act of hopelessness, an admission that the best life has to offer is long gone.
Already, this idealization of adolescence has begun to affect the way we aspire to look, and they way we behave. Today’s young adults enter the workforce later, leave home later and marry later than their counterparts from earlier generations. We aspire to look young, and to act young. At what point will we just become a nation of teenagers?