In this age of Riverdale, Euphoria, and Elite, it often seems like this world has hit its quota of scandalous teen dramas filled with sexy adults playing minors. Yet, according to the brains behind HBO Max, WarnerMedia’s upcoming streaming service, the world needs just one more sexy teen drama in the form of a Gossip Girl reboot.
However, in the words of the titular Gossip Girl herself in the season five episode “The Princess Dowry”: “When I return, I bet it’ll be a whole new world”. Though most other aspects of Gossip Girl have aged poorly, this one statement has become prophetic. America in 2019 is much different than America during Gossip Girl’s original 2007-2012 run. If the upcoming HBO Max show hopes to compete with the various other teen dramas currently dominating the cultural conversation, it will need to undergo a few updates.
Update #1: Racial Diversity
The original Gossip Girl might as well be called “White Privilege: The TV Show”. Over seven seasons, the show only had one main character of color: Vanessa Abrams, played by Jessica Szohr, who has African-American ancestry. Szohr was only part of the show for the first four seasons; the final two seasons of Gossip Girl contained an all-white cast.
It is not insignificant that Vanessa was one of the most hated characters of the show’s run by fans and critics. While rich, classist, near morally bankrupt white characters like Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) or Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) became fan favorites, Vanessa—the non-rich woman of color, the audience analogue—became despised.
One might chalk this up to fandom racism. After all, in 2007, fans were less likely to sit down and examine why they liked one character more than another and whether their personal biases affected their perceptions.
However, Vanessa’s unpopularity could have something to do with racism in the writer’s room. In a world that continues to provide more humanity to white people than black people, it is not improbable that the Gossip Girl writers simply did not see Vanessa as a character they needed to make sympathetic and likable; instead, they spent their time humanizing rich boys who sell their girlfriends for hotels. Having your only black character in a show full of white characters be unsympathetic is an inherently political statement, even when that’s not your intention.
Things have changed since Gossip Girl’s heyday. Though there is still much progress to be made, it is undeniable that there is more diversity in TV now than there was before. Euphoria’s main character is Rue, played by biracial actress Zendaya. The cast of Netflix’s critically acclaimed teen drama On My Block is composed entirely of Black and Latino actors. Even the CW’s Riverdale has people of color in its cast.
If the Gossip Girl reboot continues in its trend of overwhelming whiteness, it risks alienating a sizable portion of its potential audience. Young adults of color had few options to see themselves on screen in 2007, and that made it easier to stomach all-white casts. In this age of racially diverse dramas like Euphoria and On My Block, they no longer have to beg for scraps, accept poorly written characters of color, or welcome whiteness as the default.
However, if the reboot does decide to pay more attention to race, it will have to contend with the history of race and class in America. It’s undeniable that in America, wealth is often linked with whiteness. When most people think of “old money”, they think of white people. When they think of “new money”, they think of white people who have used their privilege to claw their way to the top. In this context, the overwhelming whiteness of the original Gossip Girl almost makes sense.
Yet, for the reboot to only have their (possible) main characters of color be non-wealthy (like in the original) would be regressive and enforcing an overly-simplistic white = “rich” and non-white = “poor” dichotomy.
Still, rich people of color interact with wealth and rich white people differently than rich white people interact with wealth and rich white people. For people of color of any socioeconomic class, there will always be a sense of “I don’t belong here”, of “This world was not made for me to exist in it”. A rich character of color is less likely to share the sense of entitlement that defined characters like Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass. That could have a heavy impact on the show’s narrative, if such characters existed.
If the Gossip Girl reboot chooses to include characters of color in its rich-kid hijinks, it will have to decide whether to address the effects of race and class on these characters or else ignore it completely. If it chooses to acknowledge the precarious place of people of color in American society, it risks creating a clumsy, flawed narrative that says nothing of significance. On the other hand, if it chooses to ignore how being a person of color affects the way one exists in a world of wealth, it can never hope to write its characters of color properly. What it is left with is a reboot that retreads the same stories with different faces.
Update #2: Privilege, Wealth, and Power
Once upon a time, Gossip Girl told us that wealth was good, and wealthy people were good enough, too. Rich characters like Blair, Serena (Blake Lively), Nate (Chase Crawford), and Chuck are the ones that we root for. Characters who were not part of the 1% like Dan (Penn Badgley), Jenny (Taylor Momsen), and Vanessa are not our friends. Dan is smug and self-righteous—the true villain of the story. Jenny, a teen girl trying to fit into a world of wealthy saboteurs, eventually became part of TV Guide’s list of the Most Loathed TV Characters of All Time for the crime of breaking up precious Chuck and Blair. Vanessa devolves from a rational girl to the same kind of corrupt schemer that she hated.
In 2019, people have come to sing the praises of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders. They also retweet phrases such as “Tax the rich” and “Billionaires shouldn’t exist”. We see how Jeff Bezos has built his fortune on the broken backs of Amazon workers, and we ask ourselves, “Does anyone deserve to be this wealthy? Can anyone this wealthy ever truly be good?”
Whether we’re aware or not, these questions will linger in the backs of our minds as we watch the new Gossip Girl reboot. Sure, we still might like the characters in spite (or because) of their money, but for the first time, the wealth will stop looking aspirational and start looking sad.
To keep up with the times, the Gossip Girl reboot will have to find a new way to construct its characters. This is not to say that all of the rich people should be villains, and everyone else should be heroes. Instead, Gossip Girl needs to be aware of the nuances at play. When a reboot character says something Blair-like such as “Some people are simply better than others”, the show shouldn’t let audience accept it as purely a savage burn or an inspirational quote. It should be framed as it is: an impactful statement that reveals a classist, elitist mindset behind a pretty face.
In this vein, maybe the rebooted Gossip Girl should follow the example of HBO’s Succession rather than its predecessor. In Succession, the humanity and the corruption of each rich white lead is balanced. The narrative can simultaneously delight in these characters and their wealth while understanding their immorality. Succession was in on the joke in every way that the original Gossip Girl was not.
If the rebooted Gossip Girl continues in the vein of glamorizing wealth without even attempting to analyze its effects, it will look out of place in today’s television landscape. It will seem shallow and unaware of its progressive and socially-conscious teen audience, like it cares more about showing teens having sex and wearing fancy gowns than creating character depth. Even Riverdale, possibly the trashiest teen drama out there, has tried to examine the power dynamics between the wealthy Lodge and Blossom families and the rest of the small town, to varying success.
In a world where every teen TV show is trying to shoehorn in as many issues as possible, a Gossip Girl that doesn’t properly address the nuances of privilege will be left as the one show with nothing to say. In the end, if a show has nothing to say, is it even worth watching?
Update #3: Relationships and #MeToo
It goes without saying that if the rebooted Gossip Girl needs to improve upon its predecessor on the racial diversity front, it also needs to improve in terms of all areas of diversity; the original series’ heteronormativity should be replaced by an awareness of LGBTQ identities. However, heteronormativity is not the only problem that the reboot needs to fix.
One of the biggest failures of the original Gossip Girl is its handling of romantic and sexual relationships. However, with the recent #MeToo and a greater public consciousness regarding what counts as consent and abuse, a rebooted Gossip Girl will have to stray far away from the original show’s footsteps.
For starters, the reboot will not be able to frame an attempted rapist and abuser as a romantic hero without significant backlash. In the pilot of the original Gossip Girl, Chuck Bass tries to sexually assault two women. He never truly apologizes for these actions, and over the course of the show’s run, he becomes the endgame love interest of heroine Blair. In the third season of the show, Chuck tries to prostitute Blair to his uncle in exchange for control over a hotel. In season four, when Blair is about to marry another man, Chuck drunkenly tries to punch Blair, only missing narrowly.
While this kind of storyline might have been acceptable during the early 2000s, the recent #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have helped to create a greater cultural conversation about what is and is not acceptable in a relationship: professional, platonic, romantic, or otherwise. Audiences are less likely to view abuse as a natural part of a relationship. Rapists are not romantic heroes to most people anymore; they are terrible people unworthy of forgiveness… especially if they don’t apologize (and Chuck Bass has never given a sincere apology). When you see a show try to romanticize a toxic, predatory man, you should drop it.
If the new Gossip Girl wants to exist in a post-Weinstein world, it will have to greatly rethink its sexual politics. No more romanticizing evil people just because they’re rich. Start romanticizing healthy relationships between people who support one another.
This might be the area in which the new Gossip Girl shows the most promise, because for one shining moment, the original Gossip Girl managed to do just that. Before it jumped the shark, wed Chuck and Blair, and revealed that Dan was Gossip Girl in a twist that made zero sense, the show put Dan and Blair together and gave them the kind of love story that would be endgame in a better show. According to Vox writer Constance Grady, “In a world in which money is so powerful that it makes romantic relationships indistinguishable from prostitution, Dan and Blair were working to create an authentic, meaningful bond outside of the influence of wealth and privilege”.
Dan and Blair were good for each other until the show randomly decided that they weren’t, and when that happened, the show jumped the shark for good. In Grady’s words, it told us that “…all relationships are exploitative. Gossip Girl may have begun as a trashy-fun rich-kid soap with heart, but it finished its run as a curdled and soulless treatise about monsters treating each other as property to be bought and used and sold”. There was hope for the original Gossip Girl before it squandered it. Let’s hope that the HBO Max reboot does not make the same mistake.
The original Gossip Girl came out just before Barack Obama became president and ended at the middle of the Obama administration. In a way, it’s the kind of show that could have only existed during the Obama era. Back then, it was easy for people to think that things were good, even when they weren’t. It was easy to sit back and laugh at the actions of corrupt, wealthy teens, because we could tell ourselves that this was fiction.
However, after four years of Donald Trump, the public consciousness has changed. It’s much harder to stomach a show about rich white people that does not challenge the 1%. The only way that the CW’s Dynasty reboot has survived is by adding racial diversity the original rich show did not have. Even then, Dynasty has the benefit of being on the CW: a network that many people have low expectations for. In contrast, the upcoming Gossip Girl reboot will stream on HBO Max. Though HBO Max is not HBO, the lingering perception of what an HBO-branded service should be will linger in subscriber’s minds; Gossip Girl will have to be worth watching for people to keep paying. To be worth watching, Gossip Girl will have to be different from the original. It will have to be better.