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Karolina Wojtasik/HBO MAX
When Gossip Girl returns to television screens this summer, things will be different.
We will meet the young, rich protagonists on their first day of school—finally reunited after a long pandemic. Presumptive heartthrob Obie Bergmann IV shows up late, disheveled.
“You’re rumpled and sweaty,” his social media influencer girlfriend, Julien, berates him. He had better have a good reason.
“I was bringing breakfast to the Navy Yard strike line, but I saved you one,” he admits, handing her a donut.
“Isn’t that your parents’ development?” another friend asks.
“Yeah, it is,” Obie confirms, his tiny hoop earring a glinting signifier of rebellion. “And they know exactly how I feel: that the very least the strikers deserve is donuts.”
The first Gossip Girl series premiered on the CW in late 2007. Based on the hit young adult novel series by Cecily von Ziegesar, the show was an unrepentant fantasia of wealth, glamour, and teenage transgression on New York City’s Upper East Side. It focused on a clique of privileged white teens and the anonymous, eponymous gossip blog that policed them. Soap-operatic antics and lavish parties contoured each episode.
As Jessica Pressler and Chris Rovzar wrote in a 2008 New York Magazine review, early seasons of the show succeeded because it “mock[ed] our superficial fantasies while satisfying them, allowing us to partake in the over-the-top pleasures of the irresponsible superrich without anxiety or guilt or moralizing.”
This time around, expect more of all three afflictions. Showrunner Joshua Safran confirmed that “these [Gossip Girl] kids wrestle with their privilege in a way the original didn’t. In light of [Black Lives Matter], in light of Occupy Wall Street, things have shifted.”
In other words, Gossip Girl is going to be a little more political, just like its audience.
While the reboot’s diverse cast was universally applauded—two Black women will lead—the internet was skeptical when news broke about Gossip Girl getting woke. After all, there are few things more privileged than wrestling with said privilege while not doing anything about it.
“Waiting for the American Psycho remake where Patrick Bateman grapples with his white privilege,” @glamdemon2004 quipped.
Waiting for the American Psycho remake where Patrick Bateman grapples with his white privilege https://t.co/aln0D74DPo
— fashion school dropout (@glamdemon2004) June 22, 2021
Is class consciousness anathema to Gossip Girl?
The judgement-free escapism of the first series was part of its draw. Blake Lively, who played free-spirited heiress Serena, reflected that the reason was the show’s “heightened reality” and location in an “alternate universe.” Although Gossip Girl aired during the thick of the late-aughts recession, the show never dealt with its discontents nor devastation in the real world.
Sure, there were always skirmishes between the uptown insiders and outsiders, but the series’ main outsiders—Dan and Jenny Humphrey—were the children of a rockstar-turned-gallerist who dwelled in a multimillion dollar loft in the trendy Brooklyn neighborhood of Dumbo. They constantly sidestepped their own privilege, and by the series’ end in 2012, Dan cemented his position amongst Manhattan’s elite.
The original Gossip Girl’s Big Real Estate heir, Chuck Bass, was certainly less likely to sympathize with strikers. Rather than deliver donuts to workers on the strike line, Chuck may have engaged in the realistic plutocratic practice of philanthropy. Once, he saved a historic speakeasy from demolition, and another time, moved by the loveliness of a new girlfriend, pledged millions to animal rights at a splashy rooftop gala. But he never questioned the basis nor heritability of his wealth. His father Bart Bass was cartoonishly evil, though not necessarily for his greed; rather, for his general duplicitousness and cruelty. Chuck battled his father for his business empire, not about whether that empire should exist at all.
This is the exact kind of debate the new Gossip Girl confronts headlong. New York Magazine’s Hunter Harris confirms: “Last time around, the richest kid was the most guilty and the most redeemed. This time around, the richest kid feels the most guilt over his parents’ substantial earnings.”
Obie Bergmann IV has reason to feel guilty. In New York City, the real life Basses and Bergmanns are flooding City Council elections with SuperPAC money, problematically financing construction by exploiting programs for low-income neighbors, and antagonizing union workers with wage theft and open-shop models.
And inequality in New York City has never been greater. In 2007, when Gossip Girl first premiered, the median income for the top 1 percent was 78 times the size of the bottom 99 percent. Though that ratio dipped to 59 times greater and 49 times greater in 2008 and 2009, recent data suggests that Manhattan’s median income for the 1 percent skyrocketed to 113 times greater than that of the 99 percent. That number makes Manhattan the second most unequal county in the nation, in the most unequal state.
Forbes estimates that New York City has 99 billionaires, a formidable portion of the nation’s 719 billionaires who profiteered during the pandemic. In a little over a year, American billionaires increased their wealth share by 55 percent to $4.56 trillion—more than all the roughly 165 million Americans in society’s bottom half. By the time Obie Bergmann IV returns to the classroom, his family is probably a lot better off.
By consequence, resentment for America’s wealthy has never been greater, permeating the Upper East Side’s aspirational bubble. Safran had no choice but to reformulate Gossip Girl—and reconsider the utility of a show whose characters trumpet their excesses.
"By consequence, resentment for America’s wealthy has never been greater, permeating the Upper East Side’s aspirational bubble. Safran had no choice but to reformulate Gossip Girl—and reconsider the utility of a show whose characters trumpet their excesses."
Some believe that the original Gossip Girl’s avoidance of the recession was its downfall with audiences, as Judy Berman argued in a 2012 piece in The Atlantic. Connecting the crashing market and plummeting Gossip Girl viewership, Berman forewarned of the series’ future: “it will go out like the waning aristocracy it is—dripping with jewels, mired in scandal, and with the stubborn tenacity of a dying breed that once ruled the world.”
Berman wasn’t totally correct. You would be hard-pressed to find a member of Gen Z who hasn’t seen or savored an episode of Gossip Girl, a comfort-streaming staple. TikToks often invoke the series: teens craft supercuts about living large in the city, wistfully catalogue the charms of old money, and conjecture about real-world parallels to Gossip Girl characters. (There are descendants of Silver Spoon Oligarchs—the subjects of our groundbreaking wealth dynasties report—among them.)
Yet this does not preclude young people from knowing to want better, whether in their TV shows or daily lives. Teenagers, the wealthiest ones included, helm a generation that will bear the brunt of unchecked greed, corruption, pollution, and degradation. Building worker power and resisting predatory, gentrifying developers on the strike line can counteract the damage.
And just as Gossip Girl’s surveillance power will heighten in her transition from blog to Instagram presence, social media democratizes knowledge. Though it has its well-documented downsides, global connectivity empowers young people to imagine better alternatives to the status quo—and crave television that is conscious enough to be truly entertaining.
Fear not: this Gossip Girl will preserve some requisite snobbishness and snarkiness. In another scene, a well-coiffed character named Luna decrees that Zara should only be worn “east of Lex,” banishing an entire brand to a “lesser” neighborhood. So there will still be opulent outfits and indulgent storylines and well-timed Frank Ocean songs. But all the old standards will be complicated and complemented by some class-based guilt.
Here’s hoping that next time, Obie Bergmann IV joins the strike line.