The 2021 reboot of teen soap Gossip Girl was of particular interest to me given that I eked out a meandering lowkey mental breakdown in front of the original over the course of about a year in 2013.
I was in an unhappy relationship at the time, one in which I felt constantly anxious whenever not in the company of my partner, but constantly suffocated whenever I was.
When my partner went out I paced the apartment, uncomfortable and restless, not much wanting him to return but unable to do anything in his absence. There seemed to be no way of existing which could be pleasurable or even neutral, no pocket of air to break up the dense tension I lived in, until I found Gossip Girl.
Gossip Girl ran for six seasons beginning in 2007, following a bunch of ultra elite Manhattan millionaire teenagers who attend a chic prep school together (when they can be bothered to, between dry martini hangovers and corporate sabotage and mind-bendingly complex love affairs). An anonymous blogger, the eponymous Gossip Girl, documents their transgressions and reveals their secrets. The queen bees, best friends with a fluctuating rivalry underpinning their undying sisterhood, are Serena and Blair. Serena is blonde, garrulous, charming, a good-time girl with a secretly sorrowful heart, and Blair is a brittle, catty control freak with exquisite taste and a ruthless policer of social status. Everyone in the show is opulently, extravagantly wealthy, except Dan and Jenny Humphrey who have a groovy musician dad and get the train in from Brooklyn (the lavish square footage of their Brooklyn loft suggests they are also millionaires but perhaps just… less so).
Gossip Girl was my unlikely source of release while I was waiting out the resolution of my bad relationship, trying to avoid accepting that its resolution would be its end. When I discovered it, being alone became tolerable. I developed a routine so that I knew what to do with my body when it wasn’t occupied with my partner. I put on between one and three episodes of Gossip Girl, drank wine, smoked heavily, and relaxed, at last.
There was something that went beyond mindlessness about it, it wasn’t only that it was so silly, or the people all so pretty, the teenage sex so scandalous. It was the excess of their money, money which sprang ceaselessly from everywhere. Some storylines would crop up to undermine the idea that wealth makes life worth living, but they would quickly be undermined themselves by a following scene that showed sad little rich girl Serena glumly eating chocolate covered strawberries in a silk robe before getting some Givenchy and Chanel on to cheer herself up. The makers cheerfully agreed with one another, and with us the audience, that fabulous wealth was pretty likely to make everything a bit more fun, even depression, even being cheated on, even your boyfriend’s presumed dead billionaire developer father re-emerging from the grave.
The set up of the new show is a little different, with the Gossip Girl figure now being a cadre of pissed off teachers at the prep school running the blog (now an Instagram account) trying to exert control over their unruly students. The queen bees are Julien – a social media star famous for her eclectic style and makeup vlogs and aspirational glam lifestyle – and Zoya, a new arrival who is younger, hipper, more socially conscious but just as devastatingly beautiful. The two are secret halfsisters and their friendship rivalry is the Blair-Serena replacement.
It seemed unlikely that a 2021 production would indulge in the same crass, trashy, uncritical celebration of being amazingly rich, and indeed it does not. The new Gossip Girl has been carefully rejigged to reflect the mores of our current era, to varying degrees of authenticity and success. Where the original cast was almost exclusively white including all the principal characters, here there are a realistic mix of ethnicities and backgrounds. Their sexualities are almost all fluid, and to a lesser degree so too are their genders. Most notably, though everyone is rich, they are irritatingly reflexively aware of it, offering thin apologies, useless morsels of guilt.
The richest of them all is a simpering little sap called Obie who bemoans the housing crisis which his parents caused by buying everything in the neighbourhood. He seems to expect to be awarded a medal of virtue each time he does this, for the noble act of mildly criticising his folks while they aren’t even in the room, and while happily utilising the fruits of their immoral labour. He might use it for different things than Serena and Blair – no private jets or Balenciaga – but use it he does. When Zoya, his girlfriend, turns 15 he hires an assembly of food trucks to come to their school at her service, not knowing what sort of snack she’d be in the mood for. In the end, she’s not hungry. Ah well! No harm, no foul, just a casual $50k thrown down the drain for not so much as a single taco to pass her lips.
Obie is fluent in the abstracted language of social justice – they all are, which does not make them any more likeable or relatable than Serena and Blair, only more annoying. One character, a louche pansexual libertine named Max who dresses beautifully and seduces everyone, stops in a bathhouse before kissing his supposedly straight male friend: “Do I have your consent?” he gasps lustily. Is this real? Do people say this? No doubt the youth of today has a vastly increased sensitivity to the need for and nuances of consent compared to my generation, but I struggle to credit the idea that they are interacting on the matter with the register of a sexual health pamphlet or well-meaning twitter thread. If he had said some variation on “Is this okay?” or “Do you want to?” I can buy it but as it is, like much of Gossip Girl 2021, it feels absorbed from a very lifeless online lexicon, put together by committee.