Along with One Direction and Big Brother, Gossip Girl is one of the other completely soul-sucking things my college roommate Holly got me into that I would have blanched at a mere two years ago. The CW television show originally aired in 2007, and for those who don’t know, it centers mostly around a small group of Upper East Siders in Manhattan who take pleasure in the rich-kid, party lifestyle they’re so privileged to be able to take part in, all while a mysterious outer force known as ‘gossip girl’ exposes their every secret to her entire network. It’s dramatic, and silly, but all in all, it’s a fairly well-written show with an interesting perspective and plot arcs (for the most part—if I see one more person believing that Georgina has really changed for good this time, I might scream). The real saving grace though, for me, when I get a little too fed-up with the drama of it all, are the characters. Character development is abundant, and even with all the craziness of their world, they all conduct themselves in a remarkably feminist manner. In actuality, the entire show is incredibly feminist.
Anyone who’s hasn't seen the show in full might scoff at even the thought—after all, in the first episode alone, a freshman high school girl nearly gets raped by an upperclassmen, and there’s a huge pressure on a character to have sex with her boyfriend before he leaves her for her best friend.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying any of these characters are A+ people. Most of them become much better people throughout the series, but only one or two are ever really perfect, almost everyone else far from it. The thing is, though, all the characters are bad people equally. The men and women, young and old alike, both behave in immoral, selfish ways throughout the series with little to no bias at all regarding gender. Gossip Girl crushes the stereotype that only women behave in a catty manner, or that only men are bad listeners. While the characters shame one another’s immoral behavior regardless of gender, despite the amount of drama that stems from sex in the show, there’s hardly ever any slut shaming. In fact, Gossip Girl, unlike some other media, not only depicts women as wanting sex, but also wanting and engaging in more unconventional sex as well.
While ever shifting and changing, the relationships in the show rarely ever follow typical gender roles. Even though the couples aren’t exactly in the ‘domestic living’ portion of their lives where these roles arguably become more visible (Except for that time when Dan Humphrey took responsibility for a baby that he wasn’t sure was his and didn’t expect his new girlfriend to help in any way...), it’s clear to see that in each healthy, happy relationship depicted in the show, the roles of each party were equal. These relationships are depicted as healthy even with a multitude of different kinds of relationships with a multitude of different types of women. There’s Blair, the headstrong, cutthroat girl who will do anything to get what she wants, and her best friend, Serena, a free spirit who, while intelligent, is much more okay with going with the flow. There’s Vanessa, the anti-establishment (for lack of a better word) hippie girl from Brooklyn, an artist, and Jenny, a young girl who is self-driven but vengeful. Even Dorota, Blair’s maid and right hand woman, is a sweet, but protective Polish woman quite unlike the others, who even introduces elements of intersectional feminism into the series when her country’s culture forces her into an uncomfortable situation. A female cast as large as this is rarely seen in most media nowadays, much less one this diverse.
In addition to the variety of women depicted, certain characters tackle specific feminist issues in their daily lives. Take Blair Waldorf for example—she’s the bad bitch of the series, starting off as just a childish girl who makes petty decisions to ruin the lives of those who have wronged her. Not only does she grow as a person, learning that her female friendship with her best friend Serena is the most important thing (reinforcing the idea that women have to stick together), but she also has to deal with her own issues that women all over the country have to deal with every day. A highly ambitious, intelligent woman, Blair’s top priority is always her education, and she works hard to make sure she comes out on top academically every time, unwilling to let anything get in the way of that, even the sexism she’s faced because of her gender. Despite her competitive nature, Blair is shown to be a role model for younger girls, even when it isn’t necessarily in her best interest. She’s shown to show sympathy towards the much younger Jenny Humphrey at times, specifically when she appoints her Queen Bee of Constance and tells her not to lose track of herself while chasing boys. In addition to being a headstrong woman and an ally to younger girls, Blair also struggles with a problem .6% of adults struggle with at some point in their lifetime: bulimia. She’s shown struggling with this eating disorder in the earlier seasons of Gossip Girl, shown to be in recovery at the beginning of the series. In addition to being a self-proclaimed feminist—not something most television shows would include, especially in the mid-2000s—Blair deals with a feminist crisis that paints her as a softer, more vulnerable character, and remains strong through it.
Blair, however, isn’t the only feminist character in the series. After one of, in my opinion, the best character developments in TV history, spanning over several seasons, Chuck Bass emerges as one of the prime feminist men in the Gossip Girl. Chuck, for those of you who don’t know, was not a good guy in the first few seasons- he was, after all, the perpetrator of the attempted rape in the Pilot episode. Miraculously, he manages to redeem himself after some time rediscovering Chuck Bass through a tragedy leading to a suicide attempt, the help of others, and apologizing to Jenny, his would-be victim, to finally earn her forgiveness. After his transformation, Chuck is always very careful not to blur the lines of consent, always asking for permission before making advances on any women he initiates. Generally unafraid to be feminine, Chuck dresses to the T and has mentioned casually that he’s bisexual, stating that he’s kissed many other guys before. He also has a close relationship with his adoptive brother, Eric, and was the first person the younger boy came out as gay to, proving that the two have a platonic relationship built on thoughts and emotions rather than emasculating one another, as some male friendships rely on. His lack of concern for being portrayed as feminine through his emotions and actions is feminist by nature, and so is his willingness to have a friendship with another man that’s based purely on love and respect with no shame surrounding it.
Last but not least, one of the more morally consistent characters in the show, Nate Archibald, has proven himself and the show as feminist on more than one occasion. When Jenny’s “friend” Agnes drugged her and left her at a bar with a sleazy guy who clearly wasn’t going to be deterred by her inability to say no, Nate figured out where she was and took her home. Not only is Gossip Girl hitting a key concern in every girl’s life—the fear of being taken advantage of—but also, Nate handled it quite well by not shaming Jenny in any way. Instead of blaming the victim, he just took care of Jenny and made sure she got home safe, protecting her in the gentle, quiet way she needed. Some may say that Nate was acting as a “knight in shining armor”, swooping in and saving Jenny in the same kind of way that happened in the fairy tales that modern feminists resist. However, Nate had no complex about saving her from peril—he only did what was right for a friend. Gossip Girl also flipped the 'helpless woman' role on its head with Nate, making him the unfortunate victim of a blackmail scheme with an older, married woman. In order for the money he needed to support his family after his father's arrest for tax evasion, he engaged in a sexual relationship with a woman while he was interested in someone else, unwilling to let his family suffer while there was something he could do about it, even if that meant prostituting himself. Through Nate's actions towards Jenny and the show's dynamic writing of a strong male as the 'damsel', Nate's character further defines the show as feminist.
Surprisingly enough, Gossip Girl, a show about terrible people in New York that I resisted for quite some time, is quite empowering towards women in both the actions of the female and male characters. The characters and scenarios discussed are hardly the only parts of the series that resonate with feminists, and I’m sure one could spend hours and hours pouring through the series under this lens.
It may be silly and dramatic, but I’m glad it represents women in a positive light, especially when so many television shows don’t even come close to this kind of representation. It’s a kind of silly and dramatic I can feel good about enjoying. Thanks, Holly.