Watch It for the Clothes: The Class and Gender Warfare of ‘Gossip Girl’

[13 May 2012]

By Lana Cooper

Nate Archibald is Editor-in-Chief of a gossip blog and heads up a major multi-media conglomerate.

Serena Van Der Woodsen has become head of her own gossip website—after having wrapped up a short stint as a Public Relations assistant and before that, a Senatorial campaign coordinator.

Chuck Bass is a captain of industry who owns several high-profile New York City luxury hotels.

Dan Humphrey is a New York Times best-selling author.

Blair Waldorf is forgoing a college education and giving up her career goal as a fashion magazine editor to become a princess.

This is standard fodder for nighttime drama in the tradition of Dallas and Knot’s Landing.

However, the difference between the prime time soaps of yore and Gossip Girl is that the aforementioned characters are roughly 21 years of age, and have arrived at such positions of power without so much as obtaining an undergraduate degree.

In its first two seasons, Gossip Girl could be watched with a grain of salt. It was understood that there was a soap-y, tongue-in-cheek element at play. At Gossip Girl‘s outset, its protagonists swilling martinis at the tender age of 16 was good, campy fun. Their dialogue was witty and culturally astute beyond their years. Their NYC prep school politicking and hijinx seemed almost cute. Teens behaving like adults in an age-appropriate setting made for an interesting parallel to adult society and “the real world”. Social commentary and classism could be played out on a stage without being too preachy.

Fast forward to 2012 and the show has lost its charm. In fact, in this tumultuous economy and even more tumultuous political landscape that encompasses class and gender warfare, Gossip Girl is borderline insulting to 99 percent of its viewers.

At the show’s inception in 2007, Gossip Girl averaged 2.5 million viewers with the average viewer’s age at 22.8 years old. That year, Gossip Girl was ranked as one of the top shows in the 12-17 age bracket. Currently, the show’s 2011-2012 season is pulling in an average of 1.7 million viewers with a 1.9 rating among women in the 18-34 age bracket

The past few seasons of the show have sent a consistent message to the series’ largely female audience that women who attempt to climb the social ladder should not count on a happy ending. Even ladies born wearing a Prada diaper (such as Gossip Girl‘s two main female characters) are not exempt from their share of misery.

A chunk of the show’s fifth and current season has revolved around scheming socialite Blair Waldorf’s unplanned pregnancy and engagement to fictional Prince Louis of Monaco. 

It’s a stretch to believe that an intelligent, educated, and wealthy young woman who once concocted countless, intricate schemes before attaining voting age would lack the sense to use birth control. Even more ridiculous is the implication of unsafe sex with multiple partners. Before Blair confirmed Prince Louis was the father of her unborn child, she suspected the child’s father was her long-time love (and fellow Gossip Girl anti-hero) Chuck Bass.

Blair (conveniently) miscarried after an auto accident in a car with her aforementioned lover Chuck Bass. While Blair’s pregnancy seemed like a ham-fisted plot point to add to the tension of the Blair/Chuck/Louis love triangle, her miscarriage had potential to lend more depth to the character. Instead, it was nearly glossed over.

Since the show’s first two seasons, Blair has undergone a de-evolution. Blair had a stronger sense of identity in her teens than she exhibits as a young adult woman. She has been reduced from smart and spirited to a simpering coquette desperately seeking a (metaphorical or literal) prince to save her. Blair’s miscarriage became a footnote as she shifted into full-throttle wedding mode—but not before adding the character of Dan Humphrey to her list of potential Prince Charmings.

Ironically, the cuckolded Prince Louis is painted as the villain of the piece. His reaction to Blair’s infidelity and uncertainty of the identity of her child’s father, is a natural one. Not only is he hurt and betrayed, but as a public figure and monarch, Louis is disgraced by the situation. He tells Blair that their marriage will be in name only, purely for princely public relations purposes. Adding to Louis’s indignity, Blair’s admission of infidelity and misgivings about the marriage are broadcast via web blasts by the show’s unseen-yet-overarching presence known as “Gossip Girl”.

By some hackneyed writing act of deus ex machine, Blair’s marriage is annulled and she escapes the bonds of a draconian agreement which would have forfeited her family’s fashion house fortune as a dowry if she were to seek a divorce. 

By writing Louis’ character as a Prince Charming who morphs into a cold fish that rains on Blair’s princess parade, Gossip Girl only serves to enhance the image of the “ugly American” who is outraged that wealth does not put them on similar footing as European royalty. Regardless of how many rules they break, the characters of Gossip Girl not only get their way in the end, but are fashioned into sympathetic “Poor Little Rich Kids” in the hands of the writers.

While outlaw motorcycle gangs have long held the distinction as “one-percenters” – the one percent of the population that disobeys the law; Gossip Girl‘s Upper East Siders exemplify “one percenters” of a slightly different variety.

Following the swift disintegration of her royal marriage, Blair found solace in the arms of Dan Humphrey—the great love of Blair’s best friend, Serena Van Der Woodsen. Considering Serena once slept with Blair’s former beau Nate Archibald, turnabout is fair play.  Granted, Serena did the deed in a drunken fit of madness, the guilt from which sent her into a year-long exile from Upper East Side Society. Yet once again, the show forgives infidelity in some cases. 

Before confessing his love for her, Dan and Blair could barely be considered friends. They were just two people barely tolerated each other because they happened to float in the same social circle due to their mutual acquaintance, Serena.

Apart from Serena, Dan and Blair had little in common. Blair believed Dan to be beneath her in the social stratosphere since his family lived in – gasp! – Brooklyn and viewed the Humphreys as nouveau riche.

While (barely) 20-something moguls Chuck Bass and Nate Archibald were handed the keys to their money-making kingdoms by a dead father or scheming, elderly grandfather, respectively; Dan Humphrey is a self-made man. He positively reeks of Horatio Alger once you get past the fact that Dan’s father was a former alternative rocker who is now married to one of the richest women on New York’s Upper East Side.

Gossip Girl‘s male characters are all firmly entrenched in specialized, upwardly mobile careers as they hover around legal drinking age without the benefit of a college education. Adding (fictional) insult to (equally fictional) injury, these characters preside over a staff that is likely older and more seasoned in their careers than they are.

Statistically, unemployment for college graduates ranks lower than those without a degree. Factor in the dismal real-life employment options for lower-to-middle class young adults in the 18-24 age bracket and Gossip Girl continues to paint an inaccurate portrait of life as a young adult. Then again, Gossip Girl is not about life as a young adult for 99 percent of the population.

Although the show’s female characters have also forgone completing their college education, they lack the direction and job security of their male counterparts. Like Blair, Serena is floundering for an identity and attempting to find her place in the world. She flits from cushy job to even cushier job which requires specialized training she does not possess, seeking the perfect fit. Her sense of self is further decimated when she realizes that Dan Humphrey has chosen a relationship with Blair over one with her. It’s hard to tell whether Serena’s life is in turmoil because she does not know what her future holds – or what her future without Dan holds.

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.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/158303-class-and-gender-warfare-of-gossip-girl/