Gossip Girl: New Jersey edition

by Kelly Roache

This week, it was reported that Millburn High School, well known in New Jersey for its academic and extracurricular excellence, was the center of a particularly ugly hazing of incoming freshmen – that is, ugly enough to cause such a small town to make New York Times headlines. Allegedly, a group of Millburn senior girls wrote a “slut list” rife with vulgar details containing the names of incoming freshmen, passing them out by the hundreds. School authorities claim that the list targeted “pretty and popular incoming ninth graders,” accompanied by senior athletes pushing the girls into lockers and blowing whistles in their faces. A slew of anonymous parent and student comments alike echoed the same sentiment: the girls felt both unsafe and unwelcome in their new school environment.

The recent events at Millburn hardly constitute an isolated incident; the token girl-on-girl hazing story is covered every year during sorority rush and the start of the fall athletic season. Yet some encounters are much more pernicious, with the number of 10- to 17-year-old girls arrested for aggravated assault doubling from twenty years ago. For instance, in one highly publicized case in 2007, in New York a 13-year-old girl was attacked and beaten by three female classmates, who recorded and posted the assault on YouTube – that is, they were proud of their “accomplishment.”

The rise of girl-on-girl violence is not only despicable for its direct consequences, but problematic for feminism in general. Our movement is judged – however fairly or unfairly – by the way women treat each other. Incidents such as these provide fodder for those hostile to and looking to discredit the feminist cause, perpetuating stereotypes of girls and women as boy-crazed (the 13-year-old’s beating was spurred by a catfight over a guy) and emotional to the point of irrational behavior – both of which I have toiled to debunk in my own experience. Even if their usage to give feminism a bad name is unjust, these cases paint the end for which so many women have fought for equal rights as petty, manipulative, mean-spirited, and hypocritical. Until this behavior is addressed, it will always seem to some as if we don’t have a leg on which to stand, and when it comes to our critics, perception is often, sadly, reality in the roadblock it poses for us.

This point aside – and worse yet – is the question of the source of this disturbing and violent trend among girls. For instance, the oldest assailant in the New York case was just 14; these girls are learning this somewhere. Certainly there has always been a fair amount of cattiness and angst as girls become young women struggling to define and explore their place in the social quagmire that is high school. But when did the drama get so far out of hand? Perhaps the most disturbing point was broached by Millburn’s principal regarding the infamous “slut list”: “We’ve had girls — which is one of the bad things — obsessed that their names are on it, and girls who were upset that they didn’t make the list.” Other freshman shrugged off the significance of the hazing as “all in good fun,” saying of those who wouldn’t participate, “Then you’ll be the loser.” One senior described her involvement in the hazing as, “Not more than anyone else.” So how did we stray so far from the progress of the past century?

At the risk of sounding like my father spewing it’s-that-darn-MTV diatribe, I blame Gossip Girl. Not exclusively of course –a farrago of social factors bears some share of responsibility, not to mention GG’s equally inane and lesser-famous equivalents – but this show makes asinine bitchery into an art. The insipid behavior of the main female characters, Blair and Serena, has been lionized for reasons that continue to surpass my understanding. Bitch is the new black, and “whore” is just another name for your best friend when you’re angry with her. None of this would be particularly problematic were the show not so popular, even and especially disturbingly so among friends who consider themselves active feminists. Try as I might to view it as escapism, I can’t quite justify a “guilty pleasure” that contains such witty exchanges between ex-best girlfriends fighting over a tangled web of men as, “Brown doesn’t offer degrees in ‘slut’” (ah, my favorite word again).

Maybe I’m particularly fired up because the Millburn hazings hit a little close to home – I spent quite a bit of time there in high school at academic competitions, and got to know some of the students fairly well. Maybe it’s because it wasn’t all that long ago that I was a freshman, or that my little sister is one now. Or maybe I’m just taking a pop culture phenomenon that’s supposed to be “fun” too seriously. But I doubt it. I used to laugh at Tina Fey’s Mean Girls when Lindsay Lohan’s character daydreamed about high school as jungle where girls physically wrestled like animals over boys and shoes, or when she slipped the most popular girl in school protein bars to make her unwittingly gain weight. But more and more, this seems less and less like a joke, while we anxiously await Serena and Blair’s next vapid moves in the coming weeks’ episodes.

14 comments for “Gossip Girl: New Jersey edition

  1. Mandie
    September 23, 2009 at 10:56 am

    I understand your point but would like to politely point out a counter-arguement. Yes, there is some pretty bad hazing. But Blair, in the latest episode, when trying to form such a regime and following as she had in high school, was taught her lesson when she ended the 40 minutes alone and lectured at by her new fellow college students. Serena, whose actions are definately not commendable, never took part in the hazing, and is now being rebuked for her unwise decisions about college. All the characters are learning and maturing, such as Jenny who wants to stop the heriachy after being a part of it and seeing how horrible it can really be.

    So yes, I understand the points you are making, but I don’t feel you were entirely fair to all aspects of the show. And it is not the only teen show like this, yet none of the others were mentioned, such as Greek which has lots of hazing, or 90210 with similar words used as mentioned in the article. And girls vs. girls is sadly something that has been going on forever, I remember my own poor middle school experiences. The media is not a catlyst for everything, as the idea itself had to come from something that already exsisted.

  2. September 23, 2009 at 11:53 am

    And girls vs. girls is sadly something that has been going on forever, I remember my own poor middle school experiences.

    Oh I do too. I also remember how horrible some boys were to the other boys, but with rare exceptiong those cases are just “boys being boys.” The point I took awat from the post is this:

    Our movement is judged – however fairly or unfairly – by the way women treat each other.

    When boys/men haze each other, it’s not indicative of their entire gender, but of the specific boys/men involved, or maybe of the specific environment (sports, frats, military) where the hazing took place. When girls/women haze each other it’s “all girlz be catty bitches” and the plot line for various tv shows and movies.

  3. jemand
    September 23, 2009 at 1:02 pm

    I’m totally with groggette…. boys have always had their fights and disagreements and it’s dealt with, but not seen as some far-reaching political statement!

    Teen girls shouldn’t be held to a higher standard than that, with every movement fraught with social and political consequence.

  4. Tiktaalik
    September 23, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    I suppose this is progress of a sort: these girls are becoming the sort of assholes their male counterparts have always been…

  5. September 23, 2009 at 5:48 pm

    This story made http://detentionslip.org ! Check it out for all the crazy headlines from our schools.

  6. PrettyAmiable
    September 23, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    With the exception of a fight between Serena and Blair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen physical violence between the girls on Gossip Girl. I don’t know if the manifestation of physical violence can be linked to the show. In terms of relational violence… it’s pretty cyclical, isn’t it? It’s on Gossip Girl because it happens in high schools and vice versa. That said, this sort of hazing went on in my high school between 2000 and 2004. And actually, my sophomore year, the football team had circulated a “jump-off” list – the list of girls who were most likely to put out to whatever extent.

    My issue, I suppose, is that at best, there’s a supposed correlation between actual relational violence (and maybe physical violence) to TV’s relational violence, but because there are so many more social influences at the high school level than just TV, it’s hardly a matter of causation.

  7. alison
    September 23, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    you’re off-base about gossip girl. just as facile, asinine, and insipid are the women, so too are the men. the backstabbing, the hazing, and the tangled web of relationships cuts both ways. other shows are far more guilty of the inequality you suggest.

  8. raymond
    September 23, 2009 at 8:57 pm

    I’m sorry but it’s not gossip girl. it’s those girls themselves. I’m sic of people blaming it on television. Do they not have a choice? If they can use television as a means for why they have to act stupid then I’ll say I only like white people because I only see them on TV therefore I can only treat them nice. Or I have to shoot someone because I love playing video games with violence. Yes gossip girl might have women acting stupid but it’s those women that watch it that carry out the act. They choose. I regret a lot of things I do and I know those things were all within my control your telling me those women didn’t know or those MEN didn’t know to act any better than to act stupid? It’s not the tv show it’s the people themselves if they can’t separate fiction and life.

  9. PrettyAmiable
    September 23, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    Uhhh I’m going to refute the video game claim. It obviously doesn’t hold in every case, but many studies have yielded a positive correlation and in some cases established causation between violence in video games and the transference of that violence to life. This is a good starting point for references and cites articles that are useful: http://www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-anderson.html (I’m a big fan of Rosenthal).

  10. RhinoRyan
    September 24, 2009 at 7:02 am

    Sorry PrettyAmiable, but that is straight up bollix.

    Having followed Gamepolitics.com for years, I can tell you that the jury is FAR from out on that one. Would be AMAZED at how many studies openly contradict each other on that specific issue.

    My understanding is that the general consensus is that video games have limited correlation with real life violence, and the increased levels of aggression from playing the most brutal video games with graphic depictions of violence is similar but lesser than the average rise in aggression generally experienced by those watching sports.

    I’ve written a few essays on that topic for my media papers, and the VAST majority of studies show correlations between video games (of almost EVERY genre) causing higher levels of aggression (and interestingly it is racing games that almost every time cause the highest rises). There are no serious or groundbreaking studies even hinting at a causation in reality.

    Back to the topic at hand, I am often amazed at the lack of agency some people give to audiences, their beliefs based on some archaic belief in audience models similar to the good old hypodermic needle model (which is a god-dam joke at that).

    Shows such as Gossip Girl are to me a symptom of the need to reflect, satire and examine our culture in an accessible way (not a particularly deep or academic way, heh heh).

  11. PrettyAmiable
    September 24, 2009 at 5:59 pm

    Gamepolitics.com has a clear pro-video game slant. You can’t use that for your primary source for this particular debate. If you don’t actively seek disconfirming evidence, you won’t find it.

  12. exholt
    September 25, 2009 at 12:06 pm

    but many studies have yielded a positive correlation and in some cases established causation between violence in video games and the transference of that violence to life. This is a good starting point for references and cites articles that are useful: http://www.apa.org/science/psa/sb-anderson.html (I’m a big fan of Rosenthal).

    Count me in as another skeptic of the exposure to violent videogames == greater inclination to violence of those who have been exposed. If this was the case, then 75% of my entire urban public high school would be violent felons on the news and/or serving long sentences. Instead, most would consider our lives to be those of successful well adjusted adults in many areas ranging from medicine, business, law, politics, activism, etc.

    Moreover, I have found that people who make the violence in videogames == violence in real life tend to have agendas not too far removed from those who believe that censorship/sheltering people from “bad” things is the answer to safeguard our society….First Amendment and learning how to confront, cope, and deal with said “bad” things themselves be damned.

    A mentality which seems to be reflected among upper/upper-middle class helicopter parents my friends who teach/TA undergrad courses have the dubious pleasure of dealing with……

    Furthermore, this avoids the root of the problem….lack of willingness to genuinely engage and deal with this issue because most feel “that’s the way it is” and/or they cannot be bothered. If the problem cannot even be acknowledged and discussed seriously by the school teachers, admins, principals, parents, students, and society at large….the problem with bullying, hazing, etc will only continue to fester in the dark….

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