Warning: This article contains spoilers for HBO Max’s Gossip Girl.
They say culture repeats on a 20-year cycle: the 1990s brought back the bellbottoms and funky patterns of the 1970s, the 2010s saw the resurgence of ‘90s grunge style in oversized plaid shirts and ripped jeans. Now in the 2020s, we are awash in butterfly hair clips and micro-miniskirts: the cutest, most palatable reinventions of 2000s culture. This 20-year cycle, though, isn’t quite linear: we pick and choose what to remember, what of the past to recycle into an emblem of the present. We favor the aspects of culture that we think will still work, still have relevance to our time. The fault lies not in what we bring from the past to the present, but how we view the past itself: this picking-and-choosing approach rewrites the past in our collective cultural memory, leaving us with a vision of the past that is at once rose-colored and sanitized, devoid of the personality that made the original culture click. The recent HBO Max reboot of 2007’s CW hit TV series Gossip Girl unfortunately showcases this phenomenon perfectly.
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The original Gossip Girl, based on the YA novel series by Cicely von Ziegesar, followed a group of wealthy teens at a swanky private school on New York’s Upper East Side. It was anchored by the eponymous “Gossip Girl,” a mysterious and anonymous tabloid-esque figure who documented and stirred up the drama of, as the infamous narration stated, “the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite” via the dissemination of text messages to the teens’ Sidekicks, Razrs, and Blackberries. The characters were “one-percenters” before that phrase had entered the nation’s vernacular; their lives — the wealth, the drama, the hedonism — were immoral, aspirational, and impossible to look away from.
The reboot attempts to wrestle with that dichotomy. It seems to be asking: how do we make these inherently unlikeable characters, well…likable? For showrunner Josh Safran (also a producer on the show’s original run), the answer: social awareness. As he said in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, “These kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t…In light of [Black Lives Matter], in light of a lot of things, even going back to Occupy Wall Street, things have shifted.”
This social awareness pervades both on- and off-screen choices made by both the characters and those who create them. Today’s reboot has been rightfully praised for its comparable racial diversity (although it has also been rightfully criticized for that diversity’s shortcomings), featuring three Black women leads as opposed to the original version’s six white leads. Its characters also attempt to mitigate their extreme wealth with quips about the social-justice topic-du-jour: central character Obie, who is described as being both the “guiltiest” and “richest” of “the guilty rich” spends much of the pilot talking about bringing coffee and donuts to the Navy Yards to support workers who are striking against…wait for it…his developer parents (“they know exactly how I feel: that the very least the strikers deserve is donuts”).
But the biggest deviation from the original Gossip Girl’s thrillingly salacious appeal is in the reboot’s teacher characters — who are also, in this world, Gossip Girl herself, via an official Gossip Girl Instagram account. Here’s an example of how they spread their “gossip:” In the series’ pilot, two of the show’s central characters get caught in the rain and change their soaked clothes in one of their apartments. One such teacher sneakily photographs the underwear-clad kids from the street through the apartment window, sending the photos to another teacher to disseminate on the Gossip Girl account in order to spread the false rumor that the teens were having sex rather than changing clothes.
The tone of the show is such that main character Julien, an influencer and a high school student, is more overtly judged for her reliance on Instagram than these teachers ever are, a choice that lays bare the broken arithmetic in the new Gossip Girl’s morality. The male teacher who photographed literal children (ages 14 and 16, respectively) in states of undress in order to fabricate a sex scandal says only in passing that he feels “gross,” and is quickly comforted by another teacher: “They were standing in front of a window…anyone could have seen them!”
In the new Gossip Girl, everyone is a victim of their circumstance, and no one is responsible. No one is willing to be bad, even when they are doing very bad things.
Trying to woke-ify Gossip Girl, to preserve the focus on that set of Upper East Side teens while doing away with all that pesky opulence and the flaunting of wealth inequality that comes along with it only serves to sanitize the very societal problems that the Gossip Girl universe depends upon to exist. It feels, for example, as if we’re being encouraged to excuse Obie’s extreme wealth (and the apparently abusive labor practices of his developer parents) because he brings donuts to the workers striking against his family — as if that small action should negate his privilege and power, rather than help him acknowledge it.
To answer showrunner Safran’s implied question of how you can make these characters likable: well, you can’t. You can’t make a show about a group of shockingly privileged teens and not accept — even embrace, along with all the necessary accompanying self-introspection — that you are taking the position of the bad guy, as harsh as 2021 can be on those. Trying to erase the problematic nature of the enormous wealth in the families of Manhattan’s elite by writing in a social conscience is exactly the rose-tinted revival of the 2000s we don’t need, or we risk not making any progress at all.
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