Sex and the Upper East Sider

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I’m a little late on writing about the last episode of Gossip Girl — and perhaps you’ll all laugh at me for admitting that I watch Gossip Girl in the first place — but some folks are arguing that my favorite guilty pleasure has morphed into an example of retro morality and slut-shaming (and apparently not all of them think that’s a bad thing).

Warning: This post contains spoilers.

The last episode of GG did contain its fair share of slut-shaming — Blair’s fall from grace in particular is illustrative. It’s also interesting, as others have pointed out, that during the two pregnancy scares abortion isn’t mentioned once. Rufus panics about his son being a teen father; Serena even tells Blair that she needs to take a pregnancy test to find out if her and Chuck “are having a baby.” The only thing that so much as hints at abortion is when Dan tells Serena he loves her and that he’ll support her in whatever she decides to do.

Birth control also isn’t exactly applauded. When Blair and Serena have their requisite fight-of-the-episode, Blair’s most stinging insult is something along the lines of, “Well not all of us have been on the pill since we were 15.” She also brings up Serena’s bad reputation, which apparently comes from sleeping with whoever she wants. And when Serena and Dan have sex, birth control isn’t discussed. Rufus reminds his son to be careful, but that’s about it. There’s discussion about the preparation for sex, with Serena talking to Blair about whether or not her and Dan should talk about it before they do it — but the conclusion Serena draws is that talking about it is unromantic. And then when Dan and his whole family think Serena is pregnant, no one asks about birth control. Chuck the rapist, however, tells Serena that he used a condom when he had sex with Blair.

On its face, Gossip Girl is pretty bad when it comes to sex. But I don’t think that’s the whole story.

The abortion issue is obviously problematic and, to me, the least realistic aspect of the show. With leading characters who are heading off to places like Yale and Brown, in a place where reputation is everything, abortion would at least be discussed, if not assumed. But I suspect that the non-treatment of abortion in the show is more a function of network conservatism than anything else, and GG certainly wouldn’t be the first melodrama to eschew reality in favor of not alienating advertisers. So, it sucks, but that explains that.

The slut-shaming, though, is an interesting tool. The two sluttiest characters are Serena and Chuck, although Serena’s promiscuity is only talked about (not seen) and Chuck’s various attempts at sexual assault are used to make the viewer despise him. The attacks on Blair for being “a pregnant little hypocrite” come across as cruel and disproportionate; Chuck’s comment to her that she’s like one of his dad’s Arabian stallions (“ridden hard and put away wet”) is absolutely foul; and Nate’s anger at her for doing the exact same thing he did (sleeping with the best friend) also comes across as a little hypocritical. The message doesn’t seem to be, “girls who have sex are awful.” It’s more like, “These people who are attacking girls who have sex are awful.” That said, the show certainly does drive home the point that the “wrong” kind of sexual activity — i.e., sex outside of a Very Serious Relationship — has social consequences. Unfortunately for a lot of young women, that’s true. What I got out of the show, though, wasn’t disapproval of the sex — it was disgust at high school politics where everyone is a hypocrite and shaming young women for having sex is just one more way to keep them in line. While the writers are certainly sympathetic to most of the main characters, they aren’t quite so kind of the lifestyle and social class they’re critiquing. The “sex will ruin your reputation” bit struck me more as a swipe at the social rules and a criticism of the cruel desire to see the perfect mean girl get taken down. Because it doesn’t work in making us dislike Blair — it makes us feel for her. Same whenever Serena’s past is brought up — and interestingly, she never apologizes for it, even as she emphasizes that she’s changed. Dan, the ultimate Good Guy, never brings it up and doesn’t really seem too concerned with it — the one one exception of being nervous to lose his virginity to a girl who might think he sucked in bed. But that was about his shit, not hers. The sexually judgmental, on the other hand — Chuck, Blair’s former girl crew — are all villains.

Is the morality a little retro? Sure. But the show strikes me as more of a critique of the hypocrisy of that morality, not an affirmation of it.

…and I can’t believe I just spent that much time writing about Gossip Girl. Anyway. Do any of you watch it? It’s certainly not a feminist show by any stretch, but what do you think?


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15 comments for “Sex and the Upper East Sider

  1. January 19, 2008 at 8:16 pm

    I shared my similar sentiments over here: Sunshine and Rain. Not cool Gossip Girl and The CW and Josh Schwartz. Not cool at all. It was at best lazy writing and at worst both dangerous and insulting to their audience.

  2. Jen
    January 19, 2008 at 9:25 pm

    Ok Jill, most of the time I think you are dead on for most things, but this time I think you’re taking GG (also my fave guilty pleasure) a little too seriously. But at the same time, that’s cool, because you’re really good at analyzing and writing and everything you said made total sense. However, I feel that GG isn’t trying to further womens’ rights or whatever, but rather portray “reality” (a reality I’ve never seen, but I’m sure life is kind of like that for someone somewhere on the UES). And in reality, this is how people react to the things that the main characters have participated in. High school is hypocritical (omg, remember how MEAN everyone was, for no reason?). Society is hypocritical. Blah blah we should be able to sleep with whoever we want and not be sorry but someone out there always will want to bring us down and that is SUCH a drag. Anyway, I think the writers did a good job at showing how ridiculous the hypocrisy of it all is — I feel like most viewers were thinking, “Uhhh, but Nate totally did the same thing! What’s his issue?!” Although I would enjoy abortion being tackled on prime time tv and not shown in some awful light, I know that won’t happen so I’m not going to worry about it (though I’m still trying to concoct the perfect Abortion Comedy I’m still a little short on ideas; I’ll let you know when I get it though), just take GG as it is: pretty people, fabulous clothes and a juicy storyline.

    Also, Blair is my favorite character. That is all.

  3. January 19, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I think TV should be way more modern than this. I started to watch the series and then dropped it because it was starting to feel a little soap opera and also silly. Since I never read the books, I don’t feel like I lost out in the plot. As a child of the eighties, the shows of that era seemed to be bolder in terms of dealing with teen sex and the consequences. Yeah, they did seem corny and end with a family hug and smiles, but they dealt with the issues. I think the media has taken a major step backwards. I remember in the late eighties and early nineties musicians, actors, etc. were so more vocal and protective of kids. Thinking of TLC and MTV with their safe sex messages. It is clear kids are going to “do it,” so why not deal with it intelligently.

    On the lack of abortion discussion, this is being ignored by alot of people in film and television (Knocked Up, Juno, etc.). But, let’s be real here – history has proven that families with money (going back to the early days of America) terminated pregnancies quite often. So, this presentation on GG of keeping the baby is not realistic especially when abortion is legal in NY.

  4. haelig
    January 19, 2008 at 10:43 pm

    Gossip Girl is my favorite guilty pleasure as well! Overall, I think it does a decent job with the female characters: As you note, Serena doesn’t apologize for her wild past, but instead emphasizes that she’s matured; Jenny did get revenge on Chuck for his attempted rape of her; and most notably, I think Leighton Meester has done an amazing job as Blair.

    In particular, I think the show did a particularly good job in portraying Blair’s bulimia: They showed that the disease is about the victim’s need for control, and the writers have made it an ongoing element in multiple episodes, instead of just doing One Special Episode about it.

    I have to agree, this latest episode was ridiculously unrealistic about the pregnancy scare and the non-option of abortion; but as for Blair’s fall from grace, I think it was partly fueled by her own prudery. Before her downfall, she promoted herself as Nate’s Perfect Girlfriend who was always faithful to him and their perfect monogamous relationship. And when she was on that pedestal, she openly judged Serena and all the other girls as sluts. So when the self-styled “Virgin Queen” was found to be not so innocent, people naturally were eager to take her down. . . .

  5. Sally
    January 20, 2008 at 12:49 am

    I watch it. Also, I’ve seen every episode of the O.C. And I’ve read some of the Gossip Girl books. You may now relieve yourself of any remaining shred of respect you may have had for me.

    My take on the O.C. was that there was a fair amount of deliberate ambiguity, allowing people who were basically progressive on teenage sexuality to read things one way and reactionaries to read them another. I suspect there’s a lot of that going on here, too. If you want, you can think that Blair is being punished for having sex with Chuck. On the other hand, if you want to you can read it as a story about Blair being oppressed by obnoxious hypocrites. Or, finally, you can read it as Blair getting her comeuppance for obnoxious behavior that had nothing to do with sex and therefore going through some painful but ultimately positive character development. Because ultimately, Blair’s minions don’t desert her because she had sex with a guy who wasn’t her boyfriend. They desert her because she was mean and judgmental towards everyone else, and they’re happy for the opportunity to get back at her for her cruelty to other people. I think in a lot of ways the storyline is less about sex than about how Blair’s meanness comes back to bite her. The reason that you can sympathize with Blair is that you realize that her meanness is mostly a defense mechanism against her insecurities, and now it’s left her even more vulnerable and miserable than before.

    Anyway, I agree that it’s definitely not a feminist show, but it is a guilty pleasure.

  6. mipa
    January 20, 2008 at 3:16 am

    I like Gossip Girl. It requires no thinking, it is entertaining, and Serena always wears amazing dresses. Is it feminist? Well, no – but I don’t necessarily think that it is terrible either. I agree Jill, the slut-shaming really brings out the ugliness of the shamers. I agree that it is odd that abortion wasn’t mentioned (as it would be a likely choice for Blaire), but I think they probably just didn’t want to make the episode into a should-she or shouldn’t-she show.Who knows – maybe somebody will get pregnant and they’ll do that show later on (but probably not).

  7. January 20, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    If this show did a pregnancy story line I would laugh so hard. It would be soap opera at its best. Did I miss some religion in this show?

  8. January 20, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Ok Jill, most of the time I think you are dead on for most things, but this time I think you’re taking GG (also my fave guilty pleasure) a little too seriously.

    Ha. Yeah, I wasn’t going to write about it at all, because you’re right — it is a really silly TV show, and I think it does simply attempt to reflect reality rather than send a social message. But then everyone else was doing it, and I couldn’t help myself ;-)

  9. January 20, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    For a much, much, much better and more realistic depiction of what teens are like, and an even more honest and searing critique of gender roles in HS, tune into Friday Night Lights. And I’m saying that having graduated from a tony NYC prep school whose students are the type GG attempts to portray (though thankfully I’m from the west, not east side),

  10. mipa
    January 20, 2008 at 10:26 pm

    I agree Fellow-ette: Friday Night Lights is the best show on TV right now. If anybody is looking for an awesome way to unwind – go pick up the first season on DVD, it’s really beautiful (yes, beautiful) television.

  11. Lelielle
    January 21, 2008 at 12:29 am

    I’ve never been a fan of shows like this, but Degrassi (in all its forms) wipes the floor with them when it comes to discussing important issues, it seems Americans have finally discovered this Canadian gem of a show -I suggest watching eps from the original series to see some great stuff.

  12. Sally
    January 21, 2008 at 1:00 am

    The thing is, I don’t always want quality television. Sometimes I want entertaining trash.

  13. January 21, 2008 at 3:00 pm

    duh, i watch it. it’s the greatest show of all time. everyone must go immediately to new york magazine’s blog and read their daily (and end-of-season) recap of each episode: they award reality points to things that are realistic about the show (like the way they have the most awkward, accurate teenage dialogue) and subtract points for when they do not represent new york realistically (like when rufus walks FROM DUMBO TO THE UES, yeah right.) the bloggers are hilarious and totally spot-on. about the pregnancy scare/final episode they say

    Serena says to Blair: “You need to know whether you and Chuck are going to have a baby.” Wait a second. Did Judd Apatow write this script? UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCE WOULD BLAIR HAVE CHUCK’S BABY. There would be a quickie schmaschmortion with a discreet private phyisican, and no one would ever know it never happened. We’d give minus points, but the panic is so real (as is the excitement in being part of something extremely dramatic in high school that doesn’t actually affect you), we’ll call it a wash.

    indulge deeper into your guiltiest pleasure here

  14. Beth
    January 21, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I’m with Sally, bring on the trash. Currently my fave new shows are the soapiest on primetime: Gossip Girl, Cashmere Mafia, and Private Practice. Um……..no none of them are really all that progressively feminist. PP actually just had an episode on female masturbation and Addison said nice girls didn’t “do that”. Ok, they resolved it, but srsly. These are not great shows, they’re shows I have to watch because they’re just SO soapy. And I love it, I can’t get enough.

  15. Amanda
    January 21, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    DEGRASSI! Sorry, I thought I was the only American deeply involved in that show and its characters. It handles its issues so maturely. For the 3 pregnancies on the show, one was aborted, one chose adoption, and one raised their child.

    And they handled Paige’s rape so well, especially the part when they emphasized that it wasn’t her fault that Dean raped her. The writers used the typical rapist-justification logic. Her losing her trial was heartbreaking.

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