How Gossip Girl Reboot Sinks into Teen Idealism (And Misses the Point)

By McKinzie Smith | September 3, 2021

Gossip Girl is a fantasy. We know this and we crave it. If you watch Gossip Girl, either the original 2007-2012 run on the CW or the new HBO reboot, you can feel the unreality coursing through each glossy frame. The Gossip Girl televisual universe is the only world in which Blair Waldorf’s perfectly coiled hair could still hold up after eight hours of prep school and New York City humidity.

This absurdity grants us distance. Because Gossip Girl is so unlike reality, it’s hard to draw parallels to your own life. At its best, the original Gossip Girl made a mockery of the lives of the wealthy. There’s only so far one can go in their suspension of disbelief as characters break up, get back together, die and come back, fumble major opportunities, and treat each other like Serena treats her cell phone in the series’ second episode (that is to say, like trash). The show portrayed wealth as the thrust behind these characters’ major issues; wealth was what made them empty, hard, unstable. Money was the fall-back on which they could rely after shattering someone else’s dreams or heart, as with Blair always threatening to move to Paris when something goes wrong.

And yet, there’s also something alluring to it all, isn’t there? As much as we can claim that Gossip Girl is just something we can laugh at and indulge in, there will always be the cold, hard facts: These people can do whatever they want, because they are young, rich and hot. None of these things are easy to ignore. Unlike some, we cannot escape our desires to shop on 5th Avenue with a bottomless credit card in a cute little headband. 

The original Gossip Girl (2007-2021) was hedonistic teen fantasy, and that’s why we loved it. The CW.

In the 2000s, especially in its twilight years when Gossip Girl originally aired, being blonde, skinny, rich, and a little bit of a bitch was the iconic look of the era. Paris Hilton and Heidi Montag aren’t that far of a cry from Serena van der Woodsen. The costumes worn and brand names dropped within the show were a direct reflection of that world. Despite Gossip Girl being decadent, it was making good use of valuable social signifiers. By showing its characters engaging with real sought-after brands and events, it tugs on hidden desires that we’ve picked up simply through existing. At the end of the day, Blair has Manolo Blahnik’s and you do not.

There were hopes that HBO’s Gossip Girl would approach this aspect of the original with fresh eyes. We live in a new era, where different kinds of bodies are celebrated, kids use Depop to shop, and headbands are passé. When the diverse cast was revealed and showrunner Joshua Safran told Variety that “[t]hese kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t,” it felt like a given that the reboot would explore new ways to satirize its subject matter.

It hurts to be wrong. The six episodes currently available approach their characters in a much more straightforward manner than their predecessor. There is only a little campy fun to be had, though luckily the privilege conversation runs deeper than the acknowledgement that Dan and Jenny Humphrey have to live in Brooklyn instead of Manhattan. For the majority of the season, however, what the writers have done is sink Gossip Girl deeper into teenage idealism. When the original show created caricatures of contemporary fascinations, it often did so at the risk of glorifying its characters. Such is the flaw of much satirical work. This version is too sympathetic for that. With the camp element mostly missing, we’re left with a show where characters are vehicles for what is considered cool and edgy by today’s standards, even if they do have their eye on political issues. When these characters take each other down over social media, have threesomes, and wring their hands over ‘cancel culture’, I am surprised by the lack of ironic distance. Believe it or not, we are meant to see them as glamorized versions of real people, instead of puppets for our schadenfreude. In this attempt to make its characters relatable, the show obscures the original point. It’s creating something new, it’s just not doing it very well yet.

The casting of teen blog icon Tavi Gevinson as teacher (and newly minted Gossip Girl) Kate Keller is at odd’s with Gevinson’s legacy, Rookie Mag. HBO.

It could stand to take a look at one of its main cast members: Tavi Gevinson is our GG. She is a Madewell-wearing millennial teacher and she resents her students for being wealthy and successful. But for many, Gevinson is an extension of their teenage years, having given them a representation of young people that was not only attainable but honest in its complexity.

The intended audience of the show likely won’t know anything about Gevinson. As niche as she is, she is a signifier of her own making. Gevinson was a real-life blogger at the same time the original show was airing. When she was only 11 years old, she began posting her outfits to Style Rookie, a quirky fashion blog she created. It exploded in popularity until it became Rookie Magazine, a place where Gevinson and other teen girls could publish their writing and share their lives. 

The purpose and aesthetic of Rookie Mag was directly at odds with Gossip Girl. Rookie reveled in truth and kindness. Despite ostensibly being a culture magazine, its pages had more in common with a scrapbook than Vogue. Gevinson’s outfits were often frumpy-chic, so far out of style that they became the style. She recommended her readers listen to Hole and read books on psychoanalysis. Now-renowned photo and video artist Petra Collins (who has helmed Olivia Rodrigo’s two latest music videos) was a resident photographer for Rookie, imbuing the magazine with a girly, sweet haze. It was by teens, for teens.

Rookie, like the new Gossip Girl, aimed to be relatable. But instead of presenting the surface level things that make us all similar, like using Instagram and wanting nice things, it pinpointed deeper desires. Teenagers just want to be acknowledged. Most use social media to do this, sure, but that’s too easy. Gevinson allowed them to have a legitimate platform to speak on their wants, their interests, their secrets. It advocated for identity on your own terms, not based on what others want from you or what might make you cool. It posited that through self-actualization, you could create your own ideal. 

There are moments where this new Gossip Girl seems to hint at this, especially with the introduction of Aki’s father. Though Aki is one of the more peripheral main cast members, his father plays a large part in the sixth episode. His treatment of main character Zoya due to her political beliefs and Aki’s burgeoning queer sexuality is indicative of the ways in which focusing on wealth and self-image will not help us come to terms with ourselves. Two of the new characters, Zoya and Obie, bond over their shared interest in social justice; something that finally comes to a head for the main cast in the same episode. Zoya encourages Obie to act on his convictions and protest his mother’s business, unintentionally leading Obie to bond with his ex (and Zoya’s sister), Julien. It’s a juicy plotline but manages to pack social relevance too. 

By taking a page from Gevinson’s zine and acknowledging that teenagers, including those born of the rich and powerful, need to forge their own paths away from the prying eyes of adults, especially when it comes to doing the right thing, there could be an interesting narrative to be had. Who are these characters without social media and the pursuit of wealth? Moreover, how can that theme be used to explore today’s youth culture and its reliance on those very things for salvation?

“[t]hese kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn’t” Joshua Safran.

We’ve been left at a crossroads with this reboot. Though it somewhat misinterprets the appeal of the original text and flounders at its goal to represent teenagers with honesty, by the end of the season it has found an interesting footing. At times, it’s just as enjoyable as the OG GG, even without the exaggerated exploits of Serena and Blair. However, with shows like Euphoria (2019 – ) and Betty (2020 – ) more realistically depicting the lives of young people on the same network, this Gossip Girl still has a lot of reflection to do.

There’s an easy acknowledgement by the show that different characters do, in fact, have different levels of privilege depending on their race, gender, sexuality, and level of wealth. This balance between contemporary issues and scandalous moments is difficult to pull off and episode six is the first one to have done it right. If it continues to move in this direction, there is potential for a great show in there somewhere, but they haven’t quite hit it just yet. Will Gossip Girl transcend trends and go the way of Rookie Mag, or will it find itself bogged down in its glamorization of contemporary youth culture? Only time will tell. XOXO…

McKinzie Smith (she/her) is a Film Studies graduate from Portland, Oregon. She loves French films, french fries, and her french bulldogs. Follow her on Twitter (@notmckinzie).

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