[29 July 2011]
PopMatters Features Editor
High Point Number 7: Dan and Blair on Gossip Girl
My favorite moment in the entire 2010-2011 television season came in the final seconds of the Gossip Girl episode “While You Were Not Sleeping”. Blair Waldorf has been driving herself to the limits of physical endurance throughout the episode, getting virtually no sleep, skipping meals, undertaking two or three difficult tasks at the same time, all in order to move her life to a new place where she would impress and win back her demon lover Chuck Bass. But unable to keep up the pace, she implodes and gets fired from her internship.
For solace, she goes not to the Upper Eastside where she lives, but to the apartment of her old enemy but new friend Dan Humphrey in Brooklyn, where they talk, order pizza, and watch The Philadelphia Story. The Blair we see here is unlike the Blair we’ve see the previous three years. Instead of being mean, tense, driven, and more than a little bitchy, she is relaxed, smiling, content, and very much at home with herself. The magic moment comes in the very last second: Dan and Blair, both asleep, her head resting on his shoulder.
My personal history with Gossip Girl has been spotty. I’ve never really liked the show and have frequently thought about dumping it (and I am one who almost never stops watching a show I start), but I enjoy serial drama more than any other format and I can watch just about anything with an ongoing story. The show is not without its virtue: it created a group of likable and interesting characters that were cast with a group of likable and very gifted young actors.
The two female leads, Blake Lively (who plays Serena van der Woodsen) and Leighton Meester (who plays Blair), seem poised to have outstanding movie careers as soon as their Gossip Girl contacts expire at the end of what will be the show’s sixth season. At least two of the males, Penn Badgley (Dan Humphrey) and Ed Westwick (Chuck Bass) look like they will get steady work in film, both having already secured lead roles in films.
The problem on the show has been the writing and the casting of guest stars. Serena in particular has been plagued with a string of some of the most boring romantic interests ever seen on TV. Her boyfriends have been so dull and uninspiring that they in turn have made Serena peripheral to her own show.
The series seems to consist of a succession of one dreadful narrative after another. Consider this last season. The fall was dominated by a revenge plot targeted at Serena that challenged the credulity of even the most forgiving fan. In the spring Serena has a love affair with the man who authored the revenge plot. Meanwhile, beginning in the winter and extending into the spring, a long and sleep-inducing arc saw Chuck, Serena’s mother Lily, and a particularly boring guest character, billionaire Russell Thorpe, vying for the ownership of Bass Industries. As if anyone pretended to care.
Yet in the middle of all this narrative squalor, something magical happened. The writers teamed the two characters who had been most at loggerheads with one another—Dan and Blair—to save Serena at the end of the revenge arc. With Serena saved their partnership could have ended, but we were then graced with the two of them discovering that despite all their bickering, they actually had a great deal in common.
The two characters brought out new dimensions in one another and many viewers agreed that neither was as good apart from their interactions with the other. Dan has always been the show’s moral center, even when doing less than ideal things. As viewers we first entered the world of the Upper East Side along with Dan at the beginning of Season One. But despite his alleged intelligence, Dan has always been, unless there were damsels in distress needing saving, a bit of a prig and dull, to boot.
Much the same has been true of Blair. Also smart as a whip, her character, instead of relying on her quite considerable natural gifts, instead relies on schemes and plots, treating others as inconvenient obstacles to her progress in life. Instead of the writers pairing her character with equally intelligent guys, she has settled for an on-and-off but perpetually degrading relationship with the bad boy Chuck. She is of necessity perpetually “dumbed down” to Chuck’s level. Even not running after the Evil One, she lurches after whatever lord or duke or prince comes along. She is simultaneously written as hugely literate and intelligent, a passionate lover of classic movies, but her taste in men labels her as superficial and insubstantial.
What works with Dan and Blair becoming so close is how wonderfully each complements the other. Chemistry between characters is a magical thing and impossible to predict. Some claim to see chemistry between Blair and Chuck, but I’ve never been able to detect any. Perhaps this is due to my being older than the show’s target audience. Perhaps their magic is undetectable by anyone old enough to have a healthy adult relationship. But for me—and I’m hardly alone in this—both Dan and Blair became more interesting characters as they began to spend time together.
Unlike Blair and Chuck, who only have their dysfunction to keep them together, Dan and Blair’s ongoing friendship is grounded upon their love of film, art, and books, and, of course, conversation. No two characters on television are as much fun to listen to as Blair and Dan. If Blair and Chuck’s scenes feel like they come off the pages of really bad romance novels, Dan and Blair remind one more of Howard Hawks’s screwball comedies or Nick and Noral Charles in the Thin Man movies.
What pained so many viewers of Season Four of the show is that just as things between Dan and Blair were getting really interesting, it was over. Well, over at least for Season Four. A number of hints were planted about the Blair and Dan saga being far from over, but the Season Four arc came to a sputtering end. After over the course of six episodes realizing that they might be in some sort of self-denial about what was taking place between them, they agree to kiss. Blair grabs Dan by the lapels to kiss and…
…cut to the spring hiatus.
The Kiss is positioned as a game changer, but when the series resumes six weeks later we find Blair in bed suffering, she says, from “malaise”. Kissing Dan, she explains to her maid Dorota, has made her realize that she wants to be with Chuck.
Now, the show has remained a tad vague on what happened. Apart from Blair grabbing Dan to begin the kiss, viewers have not seen what really happened, haven’t seen the kiss in its entirety. Dan does come to realize that he has feelings for Blair, while Blair engaged to a prince while probably pregnant with Chuck’s demon spawn.
Were we just teased with this arc out of cruelty? Or does the Blair-Dan romance have legs? It remains for many viewers the only interesting question the series still poses.
Low Point Number 7: Josh Safran Defends Chuck Bass Abuse of Blair
Late in Season Four of Gossip Girl, a drunken Chuck Bass violently lashes out at former girlfriend and alleged love of his life Blair Waldorf, barely missing her head with his fist and smashing a glass pane immediately above her head, causing flying glass to cut her cheek. On a show filled with an unending string of highly engineered OMG! moments—few of them actually capable of making anyone raise an eyebrow—this was in fact a truly shocking moment. To any rational person watching, and particularly to those who had long been critical of the Chuck-Blair relationship because of its fundamentally abusive nature, this seemed to be a defining moment. There seemed no possible way that Chuck and Blair would ever be friends again, let alone lovers, after such a horrific moment.
So why were Blair and Chuck back together in only another couple of episodes, if not for good, then at least for an evening?
It’s a question requiring a complex answer. It has to be noted first that these final episodes had already been entirely scripted and partially filmed before the hugely positive reaction to the Blair-Dan arc had emerged. Fan reaction to their pairing was something still to be determined, while Chuck and Blair were the tried (and retried and retried and retried, ad nauseum) relationship on the show. There was also the rabid support, especially among young teen girls—the show’s target audience—for Blair and Chuck, a pairing generally known in the shipping community (“shipper” being short for “relationshipper” or someone who watches a show primarily to support one or another romantic pairing) as “Chair” fans. More about this in a bit.
While these fans constitute only a small percentage of the show’s watchers, they are the precise target group to whom the advertisers hope to sell their products. They are also a group that dominate the websites dedicated exclusively to Gossip Girl, as opposed to the websites dedicated to television in general that feature a variety of boards. The latter boards tend to be overwhelmingly “Dair” in support, boards such as IMDB.com, TV Fantatic, and Television Without Pity.
Casual viewers will find it difficult to credit just how fanatical the fans on the sites dedicated exclusively to Gossip Girl are about a Blair remaining a Chuck Bass girl toy. In truth, they are not really fans of Gossip Girl as a whole, so much as fans of Chuck Bass and they value Blair only insofar as she serves as Chuck’s love interest. Detached from Chuck she is not only of moderate interest to them, she becomes a focus of derision, as seen this past season when her friendship developed. For these fans Chuck is above criticism. In fact, any wrongdoing on his part to Blair is forgiven because of the alleged “epic” love he shares with Blair.
The presence of these fans provides the context background for one of the most disturbing interviews ever given by a television showrunner. In an interview with showrunner Josh Safran on E! Online. Interviewer Jennifer Arrow not only refused to challenge Safran on his patent bullshit in the aftermath of Chuck’s violent assault on Blair, but offered a series of exonerating questions for Safran that sounds like they were written by the CW PR department. She even became complicit by saying Blair “had the most perfect, beautiful, dainty injury.” The result was a travesty, in which Safran not only ridiculously compared Chuck Bass to Rhett Butler (one assumes with a straight face) but baldly asserted that Blair was not scared (“We feel it’s very important to know that she is not scared—if anything, she is scared for Chuck, and what he might do to himself”).
Safran’s comments are so directly contradicted by everything that happened on the show one might wonder if he’d actually seen it, had his name not appeared as Executive Producer in the opening credits. Of the show’s creators, neither Josh Schwartz (who apparently focuses his attention on his other show, ironically called Chuck) nor co-show runner Stephanie Savage added anything in the wake of the E! Online interview.
In a brilliant blog on ZapIt.com, Carina Adly MacKenzie challenged every point of Safran’s outrageous interview.
MacKenzie not only refused to buy into any of the malarkey about Chuck being anyone’s idea of a romantic hero, she bluntly identified him as what he in fact is: an abuser. She works her way through a check list provided by a nonprofit organization to evaluate whether someone is emotionally and physically abusive, and Chuck meets all the criteria. I was curious about whether or not this was possibly a case of tailoring one such guide to condemn Chuck, so I asked my friend Lara, who is working on her doctorate in Social Work as well as being a Gossip Girl watcher, by what criteria Chuck can be considered an abuser, and her answer was instantaneous: “All of them.”
I honestly don’t know what to think of Josh Safran’s E! Online interview. Is it to be taken at face value or is it mere PR? Does he actually believe that crap about Chuck Bass? Or is he merely sucking up to the teen Chuck fans that caused such a ruckus when Gossip Girl writers, producers, or directors made pro-Dair tweets? And these fans of Chuck Bass can be teen terrorists in support of their hero. When producer Gossip Girl Bart Wenrich tweeted, “Dare to Dair!” Chuck’s fans organized a campaign and petition to get him fired from the show.
There’s a genuine debate to be had as to whether Josh Safran and Co. have an obligation to be upfront about this being an abusive relationship, or whether they are justified in giving Chair fans the “epic” romance they believe they are getting. That they know it’s an abusive relationship is clear from their having had Leighton Meester and Ed Westwick film an anti-abuse public service announcement at the same time they filmed the scene in which Chuck attacked Blair, but for some reason they declined to run it.
But I think not being honest about Chuck the abuser hurts the show in the long run. These kids will grow up and many, if not all, will come to see just how horrific the Chuck-Blair relationship is. It is, in fact, an evil, nasty relationship. Even on the show’s own terms, it’s a pairing that makes both of them look vicious and mean. Even if Gossip Girl’s characters do not grow up and mature, its viewers will. Plus, if the show does not adopt a new approach to its female characters, it could well become known as The Show That Hates Women, just as many remember thirtysomething as the show that portrayed any woman who refused to “nest” as somehow broken and unhealthy.
Joss Whedon once said that it was his job not to give fans what they want, but what they need. Safran seems not to have grasped this. He has, instead, apparently bought into the idea that he should give a certain segment of his fans whatever they want, regardless of whether it is something that either they or the show’s narrative really needs. Or perhaps not.
There’s a possibility that Safran knew that what he said in the E! Online interview was absolute hog swallow, that he was as keenly aware as anyone that Chuck Bass is an abusive jerk and that Blair was cringing in terror when Chuck busted a window inches from her head, slicing her cheek, it being absolutely no consolation that the incision was “perfect”. After all, at almost the same time he gave a different interview in which he stated that there were people you had romances with at age 16 and those you had romances with at age 21. So perhaps his was E! Online interview was an attempt to placate viewers in the short run that he knows he is going to disappoint in the long run.
I’m confident that those children who are delusional in thinking that there is anything lovely or epic or romantic or really anything less than gut-wrenchingly horrible about a man physically abusing a woman do not need to be disabused of the idea. We do not need narratives in which men abuse women.