“Rich, unreasonably attractive private school students do horrible, scandalous things to each other. Repeatedly.”
–Netflix, in their show description for Gossip Girl (2007-2012).
There was an oblivious simplicity to the original Gossip Girl: New York City prep-school kids worrying about handbags instead of grades, debutante balls instead of part-time jobs, weekending in Spain, and buying strip clubs as eleventh graders. Their problems existed in a vacuum, far removed from problems of the average viewer. Gossip Girl’s world was one of infinite cash, purchased spots at Ivy League schools, and barely any overt recognition of privilege, let alone race or class. For better or for worse, Gossip Girl was escapism, a peek into the impenetrable world of the ultra-wealthy. I suppose that’s what made it so popular.
Hollywood has undergone significant changes since Gossip Girl first aired in 2007 — if not at its core, at least in the way it presents issues of class and privilege on screen. In the CW show, Riverdale, terms like “toxic masculinity” and “queerphobia” are regularly slipped into conversations between characters. However, these occurrences often feel forced, as if the writers want to show us that they know these expressions of wokeness. In The White Lotus, Olivia Mossbacher, the hyper-rich daughter of a tech company’s CFO, dismisses Hillary Clinton as a “neolib and neocon” — she seems to know, at least superficially, the terms leftists use to criticize economic and political systems. But The White Lotus crucially differs from Riverdale in that Olivia is the one virtue-signalling, not the writers; it’s a deliberate critique of the privileged liberal, whose activist words may not match their complicit actions.
It’s not yet clear whether the new Gossip Girl falls into the Riverdale or White Lotus camp. The show does effectively display wealth inequality. In one of the first scenes, Obie (see: rich Dan Humphrey) protests against a plan that would tear down a homeless shelter and displace its residents. The catch: Obie’s mother is the one pushing for it. Obie, described as “guilty rich,” is the type of guy who might read Marx, go to protests, and make podcasts. But his “activism” seems purely intellectual — there’s an unstated comfort Obie has in his social status and he seems reluctant to give it up. As Zoya, his girlfriend, says: “Sometimes I wonder if he actually cares about the things he talks about or if he just thinks that he’s supposed to. Like why go to a talk if you could just do something, you know?”
Zoya, who is Black and attends Constance Billard on a scholarship, grounds the preppy rich kids. She explicitly names power dynamics and tries to hold her wealthy peers accountable for their (and their families’) actions. In one scene, she calls out Roger Menzies, a right-wing media tycoon, at the dinner table for his role in “destabilizing global democracies.” In the same conversation, Zoya brings up the Black Lives Matter movement, only for the wealthy adults to speak over her and Obie to silently let it happen. This dinner in episode six is as painful to watch as it is refreshing. While it can feel like the writers constructed Zoya’s character to shoehorn social justice messages and prove a point, the point they’re trying to make — that the modern cosmopolitan elite seeks to understand, rather than change, socioeconomic disparities— is more nuanced than I expected from the Gossip Girl reboot.
But my hopes for the show faded a bit at the end of episode six — the mid-season finale — when Obie, after never directly confronting his mother about her plan to displace the homeless population, goes to a mass protest against her high-profile visit to the property. This scene is presented as a moment of reckoning — between Obie and his mother, and Obie and his political ideas. Finally, the show claims, Obie has bridged the divide between his thoughts and actions. He’s stood up to his mother! His girlfriend Zoya and his ex-girlfriend Julien both view it as a momentous occasion; they’re proud of him! Watching the scene, I couldn’t help but think: What the fuck? He’s had every opportunity to go up to his mother and convince her not to go through with the plan. If he was really serious, he could’ve directly sabotaged the plan with his insider access. Isn’t blending into a crowd of hundreds an act of supreme cowardice? What’s the point of protesting when your action could single-handedly do more than every protester combined?
We’re only halfway through the season, though. Perhaps as the show progresses, we’ll discover more about how Gossip Girl deals with class, privilege, and capitalism. Or, perhaps I’m asking too much of the show. It is Gossip Girl, after all. But if a show’s going to make a social commentary, it ought to do it well. We know that when social commentary feels contrived, it can really backfire (looking at you, YouTube Rewind 2019). Being socially and politically aware out of a sense of blind obligation or because it’s the “cool” thing to do is dangerous; this awareness must be intentional, or else it becomes watered down and loses its political potency. Revolutionary ideas can become too easily packaged into comfortable consumerist boxes (looking at you, The Activist).
Maybe Hollywood has changed, maybe not. Maybe this whole attempt at social justice is a façade. Gossip Girl certainly wants us to think that it’s changed. At its core, however, it seems to yearn for the unabashed simplicity of the original series that so captivated audiences — a sentiment perfectly described in the show’s signature line: You know you love me, XOXO GOSSIP GIRL.