Nobody is safe from judgment.
I was at my internship when I stumbled upon the Gossip Girl novels. I was in the middle of gleefully binge-watching the series for the first time, so I pulled out one of the books and flipped through it. I made a comment to one of my fellow interns about having an obsession with the television show.
Two of the other interns overheard me talking about Gossip Girl. The internship meant we worked around a lot of books, and these two guys had just themselves stumbled upon their favorite series from when they were younger. It was a fantasy series aimed at middle schoolers, nothing like Gossip Girl. It was safe to assume that we did not indulge in the same media.
“Isn’t that all about teenagers having sex and doing drugs?” one of them said about Gossip Girl.
“Who would want to watch that show?” said the other.
“I do,” I said.
The television show Gossip Girl is based off of the young adult novel series by the same name written by Cecily von Ziegesar. The TV series ran from 2007-2012 on The CW channel. The show opens with the return of socialite Serena van der Woodsen to New York City after her unexplained departure to boarding school. Her return shakes up her social circle, which consists of one-percenter Upper East Side prep school teens: her best friend, the Queen B Blair Waldorf; Blair’s boyfriend, the golden boy Nate Archibald; and Chuck Bass, womanizer and bad boy. Dan Humphrey, or “Lonely Boy”, a classmate from Brooklyn (and therefore considered “poor”), is also stunned by Serena’s return due to his long-time crush on her. The show is narrated by the anonymous Gossip Girl, who follows the lives of the wealthy teens and their families throughout the series by blogging about them.
And yes, throughout the series, there is a lot of sex and drinking, and occasionally drugs. There are also friendships, love, betrayals, rumors, gossiping, fashion, jealousy, secrets, death, and a whole lot of drama. According to my fellow interns, it all makes for a TV show that people wouldn’t want to watch.
My ex-boyfriend is also one of those people who wouldn’t even touch it. When I first started watching Gossip Girl, I suggested that he could watch it with me. He was open to watching other shows with me, including Freeform’s The Fosters and Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, so surely he would give Gossip Girl a chance, right?
“But why not?”
I pestered him occasionally for the next few months. When I told him about how I was writing an article about Gossip Girl and why people judge it, he groaned.
“Why don’t you want to watch it?”
“I just won’t like it.”
“Why won’t you like it?”
“I just won’t like that kind of thing.”
“What kind of thing?”
“You know. Drama.”
“But you watch Breaking Bad.” It was his favorite show. “It’s the same thing. There’s relationships, and people cheating, sort of, and drugs and addicts, and some sex…”
Although the number of people who tuned in to watch Gossip Girl dipped as the series went on, it still manages to hold a place in people’s hearts. The online college woman’s magazine Her Campus consistently puts out articles about Gossip Girl and it’s characters. Many people that I know, specifically college-aged women but also college-aged men, have an obsession with the wardrobe of Blair Waldorf, have a soft spot for Serena’s love life, and have binge-watched the television show. It’s not an uncommon thing to love Gossip Girl.
But still, sometimes we’re faced with judgment for enjoying it.
Dr. Melinda Lewis of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University, who writes about popular culture, suggests looking at the television network Gossip Girl runs on. Gossip Girl originally ran on the CW (which also has other shows such as The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, and The O.C.), which targets a younger audience. Lewis says that some bias towards Gossip Girl may come from people who are wary of it because they think it’s out of their age range; people will hear of a show like Gossip Girl on The CW and say, “what can you possibly get out of it if you’re an adult?”
Even the title of the show, according to Dr. Lewis, suggests a kind of infantilization with the use of “girl.” As linguist Deborah Tannen notes in an NPR interview, the use of “girl” makes any woman referred to “less important, less serious, less worthy of respect.” So the the name may immediately give the impression that it’s about somebody young, or somebody not meant to be taken seriously. Just imagine if it had been called “Gossip Woman” instead.
The term “gossip” usually comes with a negative connotation. It’s not seen as a positive trait to talk about somebody else. The term is often linked to celebrities with “celebrity gossip,” and if you look at the Google images when searching the word, most pictures feature women instead of men. Even though men gossip just as much, or more, than women do, the word “gossip” is still associated with women.
So when I told my ex-boyfriend that I was watching a new television show named Gossip Girl, even though he knew nothing about it, the name immediately turned him off from the television show.
However, just the name itself doesn’t give a good glimpse into the content. Gossip Girl is a show that’s meant to appeal to teenagers, but it’s certainly not the most G-rated TV show.
In fact, parents freaked out over Gossip Girl, leading Gossip Girl to further make a name for itself as a scandalous show. The Parents Television Council reviews television shows and gauges whether or not one should show it to their kids. About Gossip Girl, they said: too much sex, casual sex, a lot of scantily-clad girls and sex as “a tool to manipulate people.” Also a no-go for drug scenes, bar fights, lots of alcohol drinking, and minor cursing. They even wrote a letter to the CW, asking them not to run an episode that involved a threesome. The PTC said this show was not meant for anybody under eighteen.
The IMDB Parents Guide page for Gossip Girl had a similar list of reasons why no parent should allow their child to watch the television show (but they also included homosexuality and “discovering sexual identity” as reasons). Common Sense Media’s page parent reviews about Gossip Girl also list all of these reasons for banning Gossip Girl for their kids (though the reviews are mixed about what age: some say 13 or 14 is appropriate, while others swear that nobody under 16 should ever look at it). They also list a lack of positive role models and depth to offset all of the scandal as a reason for not watching the show.
However, Gossip Girl didn’t exactly trying to hide that it was a show about sex and drama. Advertisements for Gossip Girl show that they embraced this, and one particular ad campaign features Gossip Girl characters in the throes of passions, with quotes “every parent’s nightmare” and “a nasty piece of work” written on them. These quotes are from actual reviews from sources such as The New York Post and the previously mentioned Parents Television Council.
Do these reviews point to a puritanical reason for not watching the television show? It’s no secret that American society finds sex and sexuality taboo, so criticism of a TV show that unabashedly showcases teenage sex isn’t surprising. It seems that a lot of people shame Gossip Girl and the people who watch it for being a show that heavily features topics they’re not comfortable with or that they find to be too lowbrow.
But what about people that don’t have a puritanical view on things? What could a person find in this show that would lead them to keep watching?
Of course, there’s the obvious: entertainment, enjoyment. The drama unfolds in Gossip Girl quickly. There are brilliant plot twists and story lines that keep you on the edge of your seat. What more could you want from a television show?
Dr. Lewis says that people watch shows like Gossip Girl because they can invest in the characters and feel like they’re getting involved in their lives. This is true for me: while watching Gossip Girl, the fate of Chuck and Blair’s relationship became something I would obsess about even when I wasn’t watching the show. I would see myself in the outsider from Brooklyn, Dan, with his goals to be a writer and also catch the girl of his dreams. I would hate anybody who did anything to hurt to perfect girl Serena.
Although the show is about people we’ll never be able to be, living a lifestyle we’ll never be able to live, we can still see ourselves in their motivations and their desires. They might appear perfect on the outside, but all the characters are fallible. They make bad choices and then have to deal with the consequences. This is what people miss when they judge a show like Gossip Girl. On the outside it might seem like there is nothing beyond partying, sex-crazy teenagers. It might seem like there is nothing but superficial story lines, but it goes deeper than that. There are things to love in this show, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Still, even when you see yourself in the characters, it still gives you a chance to escape into another world. The characters of Gossip Girl are, for the most part, excessively wealthy, and it gives viewers a glimpse into a life they wouldn’t normally live: a life of buying anything you want, going anywhere you want, partying anywhere you want, and everything being the most fabulous and expensive that you can find. As Dr. Lewis puts it, Gossip Girl gives you the ability to “transcend class status.” When you watch the show, you become a part of an upper class world.
If escapism into another world, a wealthy world, is a draw to the show for some people, could it also be what turns some people off from it? In “XOXO, Conspicuous Consumption: How Economy Killed ‘Gossip Girl’ Judy Berman argues that the popularity of Gossip Girl fell off during the economic recession. As people became bitter about the economic situation and the super wealthy, they became disillusioned with the show.
Yet maybe we like to watch wealthy people fall, as Dr. Lewis suggests. With a show like Gossip Girl, we both sympathize with the characters — but we also get to watch the wealthy struggle. There are many reasons to watch a show like Gossip Girl, and many reasons why somebody wouldn’t – but I know I’m looking forward to binge-watching it again.