“World War III just broke out. And it’s wearing kneesocks”: Power, Privilege, Plotting and the Panopticon in Gossip Girl

Sex Sells?
Sex Sells?

‘Power floats like money, like language, like theory.’

(Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation)

Something happened to me recently and I found myself drifting into the glossy paradise of the Upper East Side; more specifically, that alluring tab on Netflix entitled ‘Gossip Girl’. It’s been a while. I used to watch the show when I was about fifteen, in its heyday. I guess it just slipped away from me and I kind of passed by the whole finale hype back in 2012, but something brought me back to it a few weeks ago. Maybe it was the absence of real-life summer and the promise of a sun-drenched pavement in Manhattan, or maybe it was just Dan Humphrey with his dark mop of curls and deceptively earnest eyes. Maybe it was the cracking soundtrack. Either way, I was struck again by how entrancing the show is, even while it’s kind of terrible.

Déjà vu? I’ve already written an article on Made in Chelsea.

***

Gossip Girl: The Early Years. | Source: www.thatdesigirl.com
Gossip Girl: The Early Years. | Source: http://www.thatdesigirl.com

Gossip Girl is a show about power. It follows the privileged, glitzy lives of a group of Upper East Siders, from high school into the land of careers and more sophisticated scheming. There is a point round about the end of Season 2 which most critics concede to be the end of ‘good’ Gossip Girl; all subsequent seasons were just a bit daft. We’ve gone from credible high school bitching and scheming to absurdities on a Skins series 5 & 6 scale. How did we get from petty teen drama and pregnancy tests to Bart Bass falling from a roof and Chuck and Blair rushing themselves through a (gorgeously shot) emergency wedding? From Dan Humphrey as amateur school poet to successful penman of a Roman a clef exposing the ‘scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite’, as Kristen Bell so enticingly describes it at the start of each episode. The link in all this chaos is power. Power and simulacra.

‘You’re nobody until you’re talked about’. That’s the mantra that seems to crop up again and again, haunting the minds of Gossip Girl’s characters like they’re stuck in some bizarre virtual reality where rumour precedes being, scandal precedes survival (see Sartre, ‘existence precedes essence’) – Mean Girls meets Black Mirror, if you will. What distinguishes Gossip Girl from other teen dramas (The O.C, 90210 and so on) is its centring around the concept of ‘Gossip Girl’. Like Foucault’s ‘panopticon’, Gossip Girl is a technology of power. The panopticon was a kind of prison design, created by Jeremy Bentham in the eighteenth century. It was intended to institute the force of surveillance not just on the individual but on society as a whole, so that in a prison each inmate is invisible to others, but visible to the guard station placed in the centre of the prison building. The point is that at any moment, the individual knows he or she is being watched, and will thus adjust their behaviour accordingly. A panoptic way of disciplining is one in which people are controlled through constant surveillance.

It seems pretty obvious that the outcome of Gossip Girl is constant surveillance. Every remotely meaningful action taken by the big-shot Upper East Siders (Serena, Blair, Chuck, Nate, their friends and family) is sent to the Gossip Girl server via anonymous reporters (anyone within or outside of the elite circle) and is then posted as a ‘blast’ which is then communicated straight to everyone’s phones. You know, if it wasn’t so familiar it would sound like something straight out a sci-fi novel. Throughout the show, Gossip Girl doesn’t just record and publish the intimate details of the characters’ lives (think dark secrets, slander and sex tapes) but indeed anticipates things that might happen. Sometimes, characters act a certain way because they are aware of the presence of Gossip Girl, of the probability that their actions will end up exposed through her blasts.

It doesn’t take much to link Gossip Girl to the Twitter generation. The Age of Snapchat, or WhatsApp, or whatever you want to call it. Created in 2007, the show suddenly tapped into a massive cultural shift among young people, whereby our entire lives become archived online, with or without our permission. Yet back in the mid-noughties, we were using Bebo and MySpace to spread gossip and create profiles of ourselves and others. These platforms were still relatively slow, especially as many of us still accessed them via a dialup connection, or by slyly hacking through content blockers at school while the teacher wasn’t looking. Gossip Girl anticipated the sort of instantaneous, life-shattering exchange of information that creates a panopticon effect on our lives. It’s a great plot device (the unravelling of a secret to everyone instigates some serious character crises) but now, in real life, it’s an uncomfortable truth that a nude selfie or a sneaky picture of say your neighbour doing cocaine can indeed be spread around with the ‘blast’ of a single Snapchat message, unravelling reputations in its wake. If, as Baudrillard argues, ‘power floats like money’ it does so because, like money, it is transferable, easily shifted, lost and dissolved. Instant, mass communication arguably makes power more diffused: in one minute it’s in Blair’s hands, then Serena’s and then HEY – Georgina Sparks steps in outta nowhere and suddenly it’s all gone wrong again. These days, you might say similar things about power and global politics.

Dan at his desk... Source: digitalspy.co.uk
Dan at his desk… Source: digitalspy.co.uk

But is it really diffused? Couldn’t you argue that although different people post in to Gossip Girl, ultimately it’s the Wizard of Oz, the soul behind the screen, that controls the gates – isn’t it that one person that has all the power? Just as Mark Zuckerberg ultimately frames all our communications via Facebook? In the end, we discover that (surprise surprise) Dan Humphrey, the main ‘author’ figure, is Gossip Girl. Dan Humphrey, the ‘impoverished’ outsider, exiled in his trendy Brooklyn loft, banished from full membership and relegated to the limbo world where messenger bags meet the glamour of Blair’s Marc Jacobs and Serena’s Prada. Dan started the Gossip Girl site as a way of literally writing himself into the closed world of the Upper East Siders, fashioning the role of ‘Lonely Boy’ within a fairy-tale, Fitzgerald-esque world of vicious scheming, stinking money and glittering mythology. In the end, Dan gets the girl: as the ‘5 Years Later’ epilogue of the final episode so indulgently shows, Dan marries Serena in a beautiful wedding (interestingly enough, his Brooklynite ex-rockstar father gets with – the actual – Lisa Loeb).

You could argue that there is something ‘queer’ about Gossip Girl. An almost Beckettian obsession with repetition and the endless possible combinations of relationships you can achieve within a group (OK, so maybe that’s more Made in Chelsea – or perhaps Sade?).  In a way, Gossip Girl is obsessed with binaries: good girl vs. bad girl; Golden Boy vs. Bad Boy; virgin vs. whore and, perhaps most importantly, truth vs. falsity/appearance vs. reality. Yet these binaries are never sustained, and in fact the show repeatedly reveals the inherent insecurity of these binaries. The innocent Little J is really just the protective adolescent cocoon from which raccoon-eyed rebel Jenny emerges (more dramatically in real life, with Taylor Momsen becoming a risqué rock princess). There is a whole convoluted storyline about Ivy Dickens, who impersonates Charlie Rhodes (Lily Bass’s niece?) who herself is acting as someone else – ‘Lola’. Ivy, now her ‘authentic’ self, enters a relationship with Lily’s husband Rufus, but little does he know that Ivy is actually sleeping with William Bass (Lily’s ex and Serena’s father) who, it turns out, is only in a relationship with Ivy to get (in a roundabout way) back to his ‘true love’ Lily and the kids. The storylines get so elaborate and implausible (Blair meeting and marrying the Prince of Monoco; Bart returning from the dead) that you lose track of what’s real and what’s really happening; you become dissociated from the notion that any of this is really part of ‘our’ world. Even Penn Badgley, the actor who plays Dan Humphrey, admitted that the revelation that Dan was Gossip Girl ‘doesn’t make sense at all’, but that’s kind of okay because (in his words) Gossip Girl doesn’t make sense!’ Sure, New York is always there, in those beautiful, sweeping shots of the city: embracing the characters in its warm glow, looking fantastic in summer, spring, autumn and winter; but the lives of the characters are as twisted, repetitive and as confusing as Samuel Beckett’s television play Quad.

[Imagine this as a symbolic representation of Gossip Girl’s plot. It’s the mesmerising that’s key, not the accurate rendering of reality.]

The queerness, then, (I’m using the term ‘queer’ tenuously, in a more generalised sense – the show can hardly be a banner for LGBT) is in Gossip Girl’s shameless disregard for certain old-school, heteronormative notions of ‘morality’, its distortion of conventional character arcs and its indulgence in various strange sexual affairs which often border on the incestuous (and then there’s that old problem of Serena and Dan and their parents being married for most of the show…). It’s in the fact that characters’ lives seem to follow more of a cyclical than linear path, as they repeat the mistakes of their parents, fall strangely in and out of love while maintaining they were in love the whole time they were also in hate. The whole Blair/Dan/Serena triangle.

Unlike some other shows which run for the length of Gossip Girl, Gossip Girl keeps more or less the same core cast throughout the six seasons, and in doing so transforms its characters into weirdly intangible signifiers rather than ‘real people’. So much of them is based on the need to manipulate the reportage of their lives that we can’t be sure how much we know of their ‘real’ selves. I would like to think that Baudrillard would approve of Gossip Girl much more than The Matrix, because in my opinion, the way Serena, Blair et al plan their lives around the panopticon of Gossip Girl fits pretty well with Baudrillard’s idea of the simulacra as the ‘map that precedes the territory’, the ‘reality’ dependent upon representation. Most of the characters’ actions are driven by and shaped around Gossip Girl: the virtual voice who ‘maps’ the lives of Manhattan’s elite.

There is a point in most TV shows where you are able to gage the protagonists’ motivations, but with several key players, Gossip Girl leaves us endlessly guessing, as some very weird choices leave you baffled about who or what is this person who you thought you knew from Season 1. Chuck, for example, is sometimes romantic softie, sometimes nonchalant alcoholic, sometimes downright psychopath. But that’s the fun of it, the not-knowing, the rollercoaster effect of plot after spiralling plot. A show about scheming; that could be another tagline.

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A love letter to New York; that could be another tagline. The city is so lovingly rendered throughout the show that even the actual New York mayor got involved with the set of its 100th episode, and declared January 26thGossip Girl Day’. I wonder how I can start incorporating that into my life…perhaps I’ll start with one of those glorious pastry and fruit-filled brunches and then spend all day sipping scotch a la Chuck, kissing boys in classy bars a la Serena and ending up at some expensive party where everything around me is basically the flashbulb remnant of a photograph…or maybe I’ll just live tweet my actual everyday Glasgow observations  – Spotted: Man with a Farmfoods Bag Disappears into the Bookies. It’s hardly Manhattan amidst golden, burnished fall, but it might just have to do.

***

In the final episode, Serena tries to defend Dan’s (pretty immoral) behaviour in acting as Gossip Girl by claiming that his salacious discourse amounts ultimately to a ‘love letter to all of us’. It’s true: all that reporting of all that scandal, all those razor-sharp character assassinations were a form of mythologising which we can recognise not just in celebrity culture, but now in our everyday online lives. Being mean doesn’t just keep ‘em keen, it creates drama, which is what makes any good slice of fiction. And what is life without fiction?  

For all its raciness, Gossip Girl falls into a pretty comfortable conclusion. Two weddings, a (very cute) baby, a potential political career for Nate; it’s all very white, upper-class and generally heterosexually perfect. But that’s what Gossip Girl’s always been shamelessly about: sure, there’s Blair’s ever-present maid, Derota, but she functions more as a Shakespearean comedy sidekick than as a serious addition to the plot. Gossip Girl has never claimed, unlike say Lena Dunham’s Girls, to be ‘the voice of a generation’; it has always zoomed in on the narrow world of a handful of privileged characters. This is its flaw as well as its strength: there is, sadly, little racial/sexual/religious diversity, but when it does touch on such matters, it does so with its own quirky ease, meaning that it doesn’t trip over itself trying to take everything too seriously. There are nuggets of genuine, ‘emotionally truthful’ storylines in there, and real teen issues like losing your virginity, finding yourself stuck in family feuds and trying to make friends are handled sometimes with poignancy, sometimes with juicily gratuitous melodrama. Blair Waldorf’s bulimia is, in a way, a symbolic symptom of the culture she finds herself in: endlessly consuming, lusting for more information, gossip, power, but simultaneously being unable to contain it, needing to purify, purge, rewind the cycle. Dan longs to be part of the world, but at the same time it repels him; he is part of that societal wastage, the baggage once used then left behind – but he uses his limbo position to his advantage. In a way, the American Dream in all its distorted glory is right there, at the heart of Gossip Girl her(him)self.

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What’s great about Gossip Girl, then, is its ability to take us on a whirlwind of artifice, of phony drama for phony characters, but through the falsity it reveals some hideous truths about contemporary society. The network of New York, as a series of public spaces, of upper and lower ‘sides’, is an inverse parallel to the non-hierarchical communications enabled by the Web, where power ‘floats’ more easily as hackers and smart kids from Brooklyn find themselves running the system. There is, in real life, an economy of gossip, whereby what’s been said about you determines your whole place in the world, perhaps even more so than money (sometimes). It runs in the workplace, the playground, the spidery webs of social networks. There’s a line in the final song which plays at the end of the last episode (‘Kill Me’ by The Pretty Reckless, the band headed by Taylor Momsen, aka Jenny Humphrey): ‘someone get me outta the sun’. I read this not just as a statement of Momsen’s goth/vampire credentials, but as an appropriate nudge to The Sun newspaper and by extension the world of gossip, the sunlit limelight which holds the (un?)lucky few up to fame and fortune and ruin.

There will always be an outsider wanting to get inside, Bell narrates provocatively as the last scene drifts over a street of smartly-dressed school kids, the next generation of Gossip Girl victims. It’s classic Gossip Girl: reminding us that even within the cherry sweet containment of its happy ending, there’s a bitter worm still at work. We’re now in an age where you can never live free of the media, of surveillance and all it entails. An unequal age where even the rich in their isles of bliss are never quite free of the rest of us, the outsiders, the mass exiles of our bulimic society – drawn to the alluring world of the beautiful and damned and then expelled because we can’t afford to be there, we don’t belong. And if that’s the end of Gossip Girl’s rollercoaster, then it’s not just a fairground of pure escapism, but also a biting satire on our actual IRL society.

—A satire which, I might add, trickles right down to the shameless flaunting of product placement:

Chuck Bass and some Vitamin Water. Source www.boston.com
Chuck Bass and some Vitamin Water. Source http://www.boston.com
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