When Gossip Girl first hit our screens in 2007, much of the world was still enthralled by the wealth, materialism, and hyper-capitalism of the economic boom. While some were predicting an imminent crash, they were largely ignored. Television shows like My Super Sweet Sixteen, The Hills and The Simple Life had all been large successes. And so, Gossip Girl, with its window into the lives of the Upper East Side’s uber wealthy, fitted neatly into the cultural context of the time.
The first season of Gossip Girl was hugely popular and earned accolades such as “the greatest teen drama of all time.” At this time many were feeling the benefits of economic growth and for those not yet benefitting wealth seemed like an achievable aspiration. We could laugh at the ridiculousness of the lives of Gossip Girl’s Upper East elite, while also using them as aspiration porn. The first season also utilised Brooklynite Dan Humphrey as a moralising force who granted us an outsider’s perspective.
Then in 2008, the economic and cultural landscape changed utterly after the financial crisis. The excess portrayed in Gossip Girl became more jarring than aspirational. The showrunners were left with a choice whether they would alter the show to reflect the recession or whether they would lean into the ridiculousness as a form of escapism. They seemed to attempt to do both. As the seasons progressed, Gossip Girl still maintained the character’s glamorous lifestyles, but at the cost of their empathy and nuance.
The protagonists in Gossip Girl, who we are supposed to root for, are Chuck and Blair. Chuck is a bad boy who personifies the worst elements of wealth and privilege. He sexually assaults numerous characters, including 14-year-old Jenny, and on one occasion gets violent with Blair. Blair is a bitter elitist. While in the first season we see a softer side of her character, in the post-recession seasons the writers double down on her classism and meanness. And yet Blair and Chuck get everything they want by the time the show finishes. We are supposed to adapt to their worldview and feel happy for them, despite neither character exhibiting real growth. The less affluent characters are not painted in as forgiving a light. In the court of Gossip Girl fans, Dan and Jenny are considered the worst characters. While Dan is pretentious and irritating at times, his behaviour pales in comparison to the Upper East Siders. In the finale, it is revealed that Dan has stooped to the manipulative, scheming level of his peers and only then, after a brief period of repentance, is he rewarded. The audience internalises the worldview that the behaviour the affluent characters used to get ahead is okay because they are rich and that the worst sin you can commit is to be moral or poor.
Often reboots are made to tap into our nostalgia surrounding the original. But any nostalgia surrounding Gossip Girl does not exist anymore. The aspirational thinking promoted by the show died with the financial crash and would be even more incredulous now. Many young people who might have enjoyed the show felt the impacts of the recession in their homes as teenagers and have grown into socially conscious adults. It would be hard to argue that they would be interested in a show about vapid, wealthy elites. In any case, why should we even make such a show?
“In today’s world many of the heroes of Gossip Girl look more like villains, should we not be rooting for better characters?”
The only way a Gossip Girl reboot could work would be to totally subvert the themes of the original. This seems unlikely as Jordan Alexander, a reboot cast member, said that the reboot would be “staying true to the essence of Gossip Girl but with a completely different take on it.” This essence is a world where wealthy characters manipulate and scheme for their personal gain and the less affluent characters are demonised or forced to assimilate.
Another major issue regarding the original was the lack of diversity. The only main character of colour was Vanessa, who was not meant to be liked. The reboot features a heavily BIPOC cast which is a welcome change. However, it could be considered tokenistic to reboot a show that originally ignored race with a now diverse cast. Who is this reboot serving except for the consciences of the original show’s creators and the white people who enjoyed it without criticism? Would it not be better to platform stories by and about people of colour, as opposed to inserting them in a white hand me down?
There is no denying that Gossip Girl is an entertaining show. It has retained relevance, to a certain extent, due to its ridiculousness. And while it can still be enjoyed with hindsight, is it the kind of television we should be making today? Arguably not.
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