“Gossip Girl” was never intended to be a gossip show. Gossip Girl’s evil blogger, who followed the beautiful, tumultuous lives of a group of Upper East Side adolescents at a fictional private school, was more akin to the original (or, at least, an early) apportioner of cancel culture. “Gossip Girl” was always on the lookout, watching, and stirring things up.
She’d catch the targets of her surveillance doing all sorts of things: cheating on each other and on tests; having dramatic family disputes in their penthouses made entirely of windows; going on vacation; being threatened with disinheritance in sombre restaurants full of shiny black furniture; (erroneously) believing themselves to be guilty of murder; and so on. She’d make sure everyone knew about anything she discovered.
The pranks of these lovely young heirs and heiresses were occasionally moral violations. They weren’t always like that. But it was all documented in spidery, lurid blog pieces that the entire school (indeed, it was frequently said, the entire city of Manhattan) happily read. Friendships, relationships, and carefully crafted plans to attend Ivy League universities were all blown up by “Gossip Girl’s” huge expose, ripping the social fabric of the school (or at least the popular clique) to tears on a regular basis.
This, however, is not how gossip works. It’s not about dropping bombs or revealing secrets; it’s about a clandestine flow of information among friends. Yes, it’s about making a decision. But also, beneath a veil of deception, bonding, establishing shared social standards and addressing some of the peculiar moral difficulties we all face: as humans, we need to talk about these things, and it can be difficult to do so honestly. The spiky posts on “Gossip Girl” have little to do with connecting. They were far more akin to today’s trend of voicing issues on social media in order to create a spectacle.
“Gossip Girl” has now been reinvented for a generation that has grown up in a world dominated by social media. This time, “Gossip Girl” takes the shape of a Diet Prada-style Instagram account, rather than a blog. The fear of self-presentation in front of an infinite audience; the pressure of perpetual self-promotion; the ethics of privacy and public shame; and the concept of privilege are all common topics (as seen through the often simplistic perspective of a viral Twitter thread or an Instagram infographic).
The Instagram stardom of one of the two female stars, Julien Calloway, is at the center of the new “Gossip Girl’s” conflict. Her schedule, as seen in the first episode, centers around setting opportunities to collect content for her “narrative.” Her social media presence is micromanaged by a pair of buddies who frequently say things like “your followers are leaving” (the followers seem more volatile than typical social media users). Otto “Obie” Bergmann IV (I know), her boyfriend, has had enough of her fanatical dedication to social media.
This plot is unconvincing and does not hold the reader’s attention. Calloway always seems too earnest and nice for the slightly craven world of influencing, and the friends seem to view their involvement with the Instagram account with a sense of desperation, as their route to internships in PR or media (I would be surprised if teenage girls from this world did not have better options or ways in). Even the wording used to refer to Instagram appears to be off: at one point, Calloway exhorts Bergman, “You promised you would do my story!” If that’s how people are talking about social media these days, I’ve been missing out.
Nonetheless, the argument being made – that we lose something when we curate how we show ourselves based on the whims of an audience of strangers – is valid. Similarly, the numerous discussions regarding “Gossip Girl’s” ethics are hammy but culturally significant. Inspired by the old “Gossip Girl”, this version of the site is maintained by a group of teachers led by Kate Keller (played by actress Tavi Gevinson, who as a teenager edited the youth website Rookie magazine), ostensibly to keep their privileged pupils in line.
Keller visibly feels guilty when interacting with Calloway and her younger sister, and the teachers frequently discuss the benefits and drawbacks of what they are doing, the creepiness of the endeavor (waiting outside students’ homes to photograph them is one technique for collecting material. They have the ability to close the account at any moment. People constantly using the word “accountable” in one episode when someone brings a pistol to a different school because of “Gossip Girl” (I’m not sure how “Gossip Girl” pushed them to this).
Everything is incredibly current and zeitgeist-y. The rhetoric around privilege and left-wing politics, too, has a distinct millennial character, in which the elite blames structural problems on nebulous external factors. Bergmann IV sends a fleet of food trucks to the school for his new girlfriend Zoya Lott’s birthday so she may choose whatever she wants for breakfast, and then sends them away when she says she doesn’t celebrate the day, in an extremely wasteful gesture. In the next scene, he is yelling at someone to attend a deforestation lesson.
This is a common occurrence on the new “Gossip Girl”. It’s frequently entertaining and occasionally amusing (at one point, when Calloway is being cancelled, her friend laments that the frequently condemned celebrity Jameela Jamil is defending her). Some of the original series’ elements have been improved, and the cast is now considerably more diverse, both in terms of ethnicity and sexuality. The series, though, has a chill to it. Everyone seems a little robotic: buddies who act like interns, students with Twitter-infused self-awareness, and professors who talk about accountability and want to send the youngsters “out of here Barack Obamas, instead of Brett Kavanaughs.”
The genuine sorrow, and delight, of being a teenager was how much you felt everything: humiliations, friendships, crushes, betrayals, new music, being drunk or on drugs, danger, loneliness, and late-night journeys. The original “Gossip Girl” depicted a world in which 16-year-olds dressed in suits and holding credit cards swanned around Manhattan penthouses, but nevertheless had sweet youthful hearts.
Jealousy over friends getting into better colleges; people you think you love being convinced they love someone else; drunken sexual mishaps; disappointed parents; parents who couldn’t care less. Everyone was unabashedly self-absorbed, as teens are, but no one was living at the command of their Instagram followers. But, who knows, maybe this is how it is now to be a teenager.