“Gossip Girl” has been lambasted for its depiction of vapid socialites-in-training who in between the usual teenage woes—boys and grades—blithely commit mischief and social manipulation in a drug and alcohol fueled frenzy. But as a teenager myself (you can’t take my acceptance back, Wesleyan), I consumed the “Gossip Girl” book series like Nate Archibald consumed pot: greedily and enthusiastically.
I’m not ashamed to admit my sometimes guilty pleasure. “Gossip Girl” is better than you probably think it is. It’s clever and satirical, the characters are well-drawn, and it’s snarky and self-mocking. While you may be more familiar with its TV adaptation, some of its charm is lost on the CW.
The characters on TV are much more bland than their literary counterparts. Dan Humphrey is harmless and boring on the TV show. We’re reminded that he’s from Brooklyn and he wears plaid a lot. In the books, however, he’s deliciously pretentious and annoying. He mocks his private school peers because they ignore him, but he idolizes Serena, the Upper East Side princess. Dan also considers himself a serious writer, which means he is always drinking black coffee, smoking cigarettes, and pretentiously reminding everyone how smart he is (but he does get published in The New Yorker). You know this guy.
Rufus, his father, is a shlubby former Communist. On TV, he is a well-groomed gallery owner and lives in a spacious loft, which the show tells us is in Williamsburg (the view of the bridge says Dumbo). Dan’s Brooklyn best friend, Vanessa, has been totally changed on TV, where we’re supposed to think she’s “alternative” and “artsy” because she sports an Urban Outfitters/Anthropologie wardrobe. Originally, Vanessa is bald, not particularly attractive, and wears all black—not exactly TV friendly.
The TV show also largely ignores Nate’s defining characteristic: he’s a total pothead. In the books, he’s too busy getting high to bust an illegal gambling ring, and has no aspirations to impress his father. In the books, Nate is someone we can recognize: the immature stoner.
While Blair is still maliciously bitchy on TV, they leave out some of her more interesting qualities: in the books, she’s a bulimic control freak who sees herself as Audrey Hepburn. While we get a brief dream sequence in one episode, with every endeavor in the books, she sees herself as Audrey—the young ingenue in “Funny Face,” the sparkling socialite in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” torn between two men like in “Charade.”
Chuck carries around a monkey in many of the books. On TV, Serena flip-flops personalities with every two-episode plot arc, and we still often get a neat moral realization, à la 7th Heaven. In the books the characters are consistent and crazy enough to be interesting: Serena’s a ditz, Blair is a perfectionist queen bee, and Jenny is just a clueless ninth-grader. While the CW sometimes adds flashy plots in a desperate grab for ratings – threesome! – the novel’s characters are sharper with a decidedly tongue in cheek narrative. The characters are totally absurd, but we know who they are – you can walk around Manhattan and see a few.
While the books are admittedly trashy, the look into the upper crust follows a long literary tradition. “Gossip Girl,” in fact, begins exactly the same way as Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence”: a socialite, Ellen Olenska/Serena Van der Woodsen, returns to New York society, catches the eye of a prince of New York society, Newland Archer/Nate Archibald, and competes with her rival, May Welland/Blair Waldorf. Jenny is a less clever latter-day Becky Sharp, an ambitious social climber. Instead of Nick Carraway as the outside observer of society, we have the all-knowing, mysterious “Gossip Girl,” who chronicles the gang’s gossip on an anonymous blog.
While the endless descriptions of the characters’ outfits can be aggravating, it’s telling: the characters define themselves by what brands they buy, where they hang out, like any high school (and college) age person. They’re conscious of their online presence, just like my best friend’s 13-year-old sister who mentions her Facebook statuses in real-life conversations. People criticize “Gossip Girl” for glamorizing a shallow and hedonistic lifestyle, but we plainly see the characters’ insecurities and foibles. We don’t want to be Chuck and Nate and Serena, but it’s fun to watch them.
And my last reason: maybe I’m just a godless East Coast liberal, but badly behaved, backstabbing bitches are a lot more fun to read about (and less of a conservative fantasy) than virtuous virginal vampires.