I By Emma-Lee Miller
On the off chance you missed the initial iconic run of the mid-2000s time capsule known as Gossip Girl, you might not be aware of its appeal, or why it spawned six seasons, a New York City-sanctioned “Gossip Girl Day”, and four international spinoffs. From TikTok trends to a popular meme almost fifteen years after its premiere, and even an HBO reboot set to premiere later this year, it’s hard to imagine even Gossip Girl herself engineering such influence.
At first glance, it’s fairly difficult to see the long-lasting appeal. A child billionaire? Teenagers waltzing in and out of classy bars without so much as a fake ID to show for it? Dan Humphery becoming a New Yorker-published-author despite hardly ever writing at all? None of it makes sense upon the slightest push, though I still managed to watch all seven seasons in less than a month. But I still couldn’t figure out why, for a concept that seems so plastic and ridiculous on the outside, it was still so popular.
Let’s rewind. It goes without saying that the last year was, to say the least, an unimaginable cesspool of suffering. On the personal side: My mother was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment right as the pandemic took over the world. I graduated college online and unemployed, and was just starting to get my feet back on the ground when the guy I had been involved with for a year and a half brutally left my life. Alone in COVID-mandated isolation, I needed something to fill the gap at a time when anything of substance made me cry.
Enter Gossip Girl. Bizarrely, the wild twists and grotesque displays of wealth gave me a place to forget about my problems. The problems of the show were ridiculous and terrible, but somehow irresistible. The script itself makes this goal very clear. The pilot episode dramatically rewrites social conventions as we know them, and literally asserts Gossip Girl (the character) as the highest power there is:
Gossip Girl is the first link we get to this world. She is our unreliable (or perhaps, over-reliable) narrator, our north star, and, if you use the writers’ term, our new God. It’s ridiculous. It’s absurd. Yet somehow it is so much harder than expected to tear our eyes away, especially when using it as an escape, for three major reasons.
The first is that in the world of these Upper East Siders, no plotline is too big to be temporary. Unlike other media that tackles similar issues of wealth, heartbreak, and drama, Gossip Girl relies on a sense of impermanence. Chuck Bass’ father might have been killed in a tragic car accident, but it all made sense when he suddenly returned from the dead several seasons later. Blair Waldorf might have exposed an actual crime of sexual coercion upon catching Dan and their drama teacher hooking up, but it’s fine because it was done to get into Yale. Lily Van der Woodsen might have cancer, but when it turns out to just be part of a complicated plot by her ex-husband to win her back, it’s forgotten almost immediately. The show could dance on relatable, but it always shimmied away from real depth in favour of a more idealized, palatable experience. In this way, viewers never get too involved. Everything “real” is pushed aside or forgotten in favour of the next bigger, crazier escapade. The anxiety would always remain shallow, and we could never get actually hurt. It’s why, even now, it stays in the permanent rotation of recommended post-breakup tonics, binged by anybody looking for a half-decent distraction and reason to think about literally anything other than real life.
This formula unfolds into the second reason: superficiality. From architecture to after-school activities, the show presents us with overt nods to the fact these people function in a different world. Chuck Bass’ personal hotel is a frequent mention throughout the series, as is the ubiquitous use of private cars and limo drivers. This version of reality is actually directly alluded to several times by most of the main cast throughout the show (“You’ll never belong in our world”). However, in terms of extreme frivolity, it was always the fashion that spoke the loudest. Costume designer Eric Daman, already fluent in cultural iconomania thanks to his work on Sex and the City, helped make the show into an editorial for a multitude of major fashion brands. There are small details that contribute to this concept: Blair never repeats a headband, while Serena never re-uses a handbag. But it’s the more blatant appearances that we tend to notice, consciously or not. Designers from Chanel to Fendi to Balenciaga each made appearances on the show, often climbing over the last to get featured on characters like Blair or Serena. The style of each character is well-suited to personality, but viewers are able to enjoy and understand the price and weight of such looks even without knowing household names. One look at Blair’s notorious red Paris dress or Chuck’s sleek purple silks, and anybody watching instantly begins to imagine themselves living a different, more extravagant life.
These displays of wealth are thrown at us without apology and without reservation, and in theory, should make us feel ostracized and cold towards the characters. But they never do. At worst, we laugh at how ridiculous they’re being. Rather than coming across as genuinely distasteful or offensive, the show works because it functions as the average person’s idea of rich people rather than an actual legitimization of their otherworldly problems. The issues of these multi-millionaire children and their parents are hardly ever treated as real or even considered particularly valid. They’re something to watch voyeuristically, without guilt. Plus, because it focuses largely on teenagers, we don’t have to confront uncomfortable ideas about where Chuck’s billions come from, or why Blair openly treats her uniformed live-in maid more like a well-trained minion than a person. We’re offered entry-level explanations about the origins of this endless cash (“real estate empire”; “fashion mogul”), and we accept it readily in order to better indulge in the insane drama and shameless debauchery.
This leads us to the third way that Gossip Girl uses its newfound reality to help us escape: emotional distance. On paper, these characters’ lives are simultaneously perfect and terrible. Nate is the most popular boy in school, but he suffers from a pathologically criminal father; Chuck is one of the world’s richest children, but continuously deals with a cold and sometimes murderous father; Serena is beautiful and adored by all, but her family life is tumultuous at best. These problems are (mostly) genuine and relatable. They should hurt us, or at least feel real. Except, they don’t, because Gossip Girl doesn’t deal in consequences that fit the crime. Time and time again, the rules are made, and then they are broken. No problem is too big to be fixed or forgotten. Nobody stays dead. In this way, we can avoid our own tragedies and process our own grief through a cast that goes through ordeals just as bad as, if not worse than, our own, without ever having to linger in the trauma that we can’t avoid in real life. Regardless of whether we’re dealing with death or drugs or heartbreak, we’re over it as soon as those credits roll.
Escapist media is not new. In fact, author Alan Brinkley maintains in his article Culture and Politics in the Great Depression, that escapism through mediums like radio and magazines presented an opportunity for people to “mentally escape” the challenges of the financial crisis. According to him, “the most successful comedies were ones that provided an outlet for some of the frustrations… by turning them into farce, comedies about money and the effort to get it.” Sound familiar? It should.
Having aired alongside the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, some might argue that the show lost its appeal as reality made viewers begin to perceive these ostentatious Upper East Siders as garish rather than beautiful. In some ways, this is true: viewership dropped from 3.73 million per episode in September 2008 to a series finale audience of just 780,000. An article from The Atlantic argues that “the series that was outmoded the moment the Dow Jones dropped below 9000 hung on for far longer than it had any right to, all the while diluting its glamour with heavier and heavier doses of contempt.” And yet, despite such claims about irrelevance, the cultural remains still cling to our everyday life.
Countless other shows have attempted to do what Gossip Girl has done. The initial run prompted reality shows like NYC Prep and Privileged, while its post-show impact can be directly tied to the explosion of the “spicy teenage drama” genre that resulted in shows like Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale. Yet, it’s Gossip Girl that continues to seep into everything from social media to network television. Almost a decade after its finale, you can still hear the tagline, “xoxo -gossip girl” repeated like an ironic mantra between friend groups and as a guaranteed outro of almost every article mentioning either the show itself or its main cast members.
Even in network television, the show has also become a casual but immediately-understood reference. It’s mentioned in Emily in Paris as a throwaway line that instantaneously aligns the titular character in the audience’s conscience with the same lavishness and absurdity associated with the original program. And in 2017, Seth Meyers had Kristen Bell read Donald Trump tweets in the ever-scandalous Gossip Girl voice, a testament to just how much the show has done to help make tragedy more palatable.
Gossip Girl works best when it knows exactly what it is: a display of pretty peacocks rather than an attempt at genuine social critique. There is, of course, a place for hard-hitting shows that deal with these very real problems. It’s just not what you need, or want when you’re hurting.
(Image Copyright: Screened.com)
Emma-Lee Miller is a writer and recent graduate of Bucknell University's Creative Writing program. An excerpt of her upcoming first novel won her a 2020 Cadigan Prize. Also an emerging screenwriter, she is currently working on a dramedy teleplay. She hails from New Jersey, which she will die defending.
Find Emma online:
Twitter & Instagram @dilemmatheemma
Berman, J. (2012, December 14). XOXO, Conspicuous Consumption: How the Economy Killed 'Gossip Girl'.
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