The term “guilty pleasure” might be the most condescending phrase in the English language. Perhaps it’s a side effect of being vaguely Dionysian in nature but I never understood the rationality behind apologizing for what you enjoy. (With the obvious caveat that it’s not harmful to others) This summer, I reread the entire Gossip Girl book series by Cecily Von Zeigesar,” aka the ultimate guilty pleasure.
The show entered the pop culture zeitgeist thanks to a series of “omfg” moments, impeccable style, and a biting tinge of humanity that couldn’t be extinguished no matter how the show runners tried to do so. I’m not going to pretend that either the show or the book series are the pinnacle of human media achievement but there are distinct elements of intellectual and emotional value in the series that bled through the muddle of commercialism, irrational love quadrangles and absolutely horrid parenting. I read them for the first time in the 7th grade, and my parents were absolutely horrified when they discovered what I was reading, and ironically, I stopped reading them when I started dating my first boyfriend, which appalled them even more.
There are a couple lines that really stood out to me: from the first book, “She had that salty taste in the back of her throat again, the taste of tears. She’d been holding them back for too many days now, and she could feel a tidal wave coming on. All of a sudden she would start sobbing and she wouldn’t be able to stop.” And, from the 8th book, “He pretended to not like calling but he secretly needed it the way only children always needed to be the center of the universe.” The big overarching theme of the series concerns the topics of identity and burlesque; children acting like adults and adults refusing to grow up, and the eternal battle between hiding your emotions to be powerful or expressing them and risking getting burned, and no amount of Prada can take that away. At the very core, these young adults who act like they rule the world are nothing more than scared, petulant children who have never been told they have inherent value beyond their monetary worth and it makes them incapable of contentment. We can call it the existential crisis of the extremely wealthy that unfortunately has long reaching consequences on themselves and those around them.
Not to mention, in the first two seasons of the show especially, the ugly class question is omnipresent if you’re paying attention. I’m not saying that the Humphreys are anywhere close to poverty, in their sprawling apartment and hipster chic outfits, but often that’s where the class differences are most uncomfortable, among those who are objectively equal and yet will never garner the status they so crave. And then there’s Chuck Bass, the spawn of the dreaded “new money;” in the words of Karmin, “Daddy always said money can’t buy class/You don’t wanna get stuck taking out trash.” The takeaway from the series regarding class seems to be that nobody has any innate “class,” from the wealthiest to the poorest, because we’re united in this messy identity I call humanity. Money buys the physiological and safety needs in Maslow’s terms and it’s impossible to reach the higher levels without food and shelter and a stable income. But money doesn’t buy self esteem, acceptance by others, morality, love, generalized happiness, and this realization is what drives the demand for $300 therapy appointments, profiting on the generalized disillusionment of the wealthy.
And of course, the benefit of having 5+ protagonists is that there were no heroes or villains which is how real life works. We may be the heroes in our own lives but we sure as hell may be the villains in other people’s and that awareness is important; other people have their own backstories and motivations and objective right and wrong is a lot more difficult to define as we grow up. There were sympathetic antagonists, downright pathetic protagonists, and parents that ranged from incompetent to downright abusive and the world was colored in shades of grey instead of the black and white morality we grow to expect in our media.
Honestly, I far preferred Gossip Girl to a lot of the young adult literature I grew up with, full of girl power warriors and plucky tricksters because the concept of “I want to do boy things” was always far less relatable to me than “I want to be respected for doing girl things,” even if it’s just as worthwhile. I’ve always despised the societal trend to laud women being interested in male coded activities (as long as they still look perfect of course), football, eating messily, monster trucks, while condemning interest in conventionally feminine activities like getting nails done or enjoying “girl” media like Gossip Girl, which is probably a major reason I was determined to stick to this reread without giving up. I wanted to prove that my conception of the world on a backbone of on teen queens and fashion iconography and pretty dresses in 4000 level math classes is just as valid as Alanna of Trebond’s, the lady knight who abandons her prince and potential crown for the down to earth thief and a life in breeches, and I don’t know if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve tried.
So anyway, the entire Gossip Girl television series is on Netflix and all 12 of the eBooks are available for free online if you know where to look, so just pretend to be 13 and precocious again for a while. You may even learn something.