Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Pride Spotlight: The Cast of ‘Gossip Girl’

Welcome to the latest installment of our 2022 Pride Month Series! For the entire month of June, we will be highlighting different members of the LGBTQIA+ community who we think are great examples of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQIA+ community and in mainstream media. Today’s spotlight highlights the diverse cast of Gossip Girl, the rebooted teen soap that is making waves on HBO Max. 

When you think of the original Gossip Girl, a few iconic advertisements come to mind. One of the most memorable involves posters with racy shots from sex scenes emblazoned with outraged quotes from parents and media watchdogs.

The CW

Gossip Girl took gleeful pride in being the trashy show that scandalized parents everywhere and kept teenagers glued to their screens. But one aspect in which the original show failed was its lack of leading queer characters (not to mention diversity overall). There were some recurring queer characters, like Eric van der Woodsen, who were out on the show. But in a world in which sex was talked about (and shown) frequently, the absence of queer relationships and characters was glaring. Even poor Eric is best known for his suicide attempt and institutionalization early on in the series — not exactly a fun storyline for queer viewers to watch.

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Enter the new Gossip Girl, this time with queer people everywhere and 150% more social awareness. Of the new group of rich brats terrorizing the Upper East Side, the vast majority identify as LGBTQ. Emotionally stunted playboy Max is pansexual and has gay fathers, queen bee Monet is a lesbian, and influencer wannabe Luna is trans. As the show develops, shy Aki realizes he is bisexual. Queerness and sexual fluidity are the default settings, and true to the typical Gen Z attitude towards sexuality, it is barely remarked upon. It’s as natural to see Max hooking up with men and women as it is to see Aki having sex with his girlfriend Audrey during a fancy party. 

The series even makes room for one of the most well done depictions of polyamory on television. An iconic moment from the original series that caused an uproar when it aired was a threesome between several of the main characters and guest star Hilary Duff, a moment depicted solely to create buzz. This time around, the writers decided to delve deeply into a true polyamorous relationship between Max, Aki, and Audrey without resorting to cheap baiting or stunt casting. Their relationship has easily become the most interesting and dynamic storyline on Gossip Girl as the trio work through their feelings and ultimately decide to pursue a romantic and sexual relationship as a triad. Unlike that ill-received threesome or shows like YOU and American Horror Story, their relationship is characterized by communication and emotional vulnerability, a good example of what ethical non-monogamy looks like in practice. Polyamorous fans have commended the series and its commitment to portraying non-traditional relationships with care. 

HBO Max

While queer storylines were used almost purely for shock value during the original run, those characters are now fully developed. Original co-creator Josh Schwartz, who is now credited as an executive producer, told the Wall Street Journal that, “The original show was a product and a reflection of its time. And we wanted the new show to be a reflection and product of this moment. The fact that it’s not shocking and it’s not on the cover of the New York Post is actually a great thing for progress and representation on-screen.” Joshua Safran, who was the sole queer writer on the original Gossip Girl and the showrunner for this version, took pride in hiring LGBTQ writers for the update, joking in Them that, “It’s like queer Shangri-La over here! There’s a group of us that have a running joke about realizing every day that somebody else is queer. It’s like it just grows and grows.”

That LGBTQ representation in the writers’ room and the abundance of openly queer actors playing queer characters makes a massive difference in the types of plots that make it to the screen. Casual references are made to queer history and culture, like Max’s costume depicting iconic AIDS activist/artist David Wojnarowicz. Even the queer adults have storylines beyond “parent” or “teacher.” Max’s fathers spend the season discussing desire and gender presentation as one begins to explore his femininity. Sex, gender, and sexuality are discussed with nuance, even if the teenagers themselves can still be clueless at times. Consent is a major aspect of every sexual encounter in a way it simply was not on the original series, showing a generation of teenagers that not only is consent necessary, it is also sexy. 

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No one is arguing that Gossip Girl is a prestige series that will take home Emmys or critical acclaim. In fact, the poor critical response for the show despite its success was expected by Safran, who notes, “I forget that [critics] are not the audience for the show, and not only that, but they might be confused or angry that they’re not the audience for the show and that might come through some of their writing.” 

Karolina Wojtasik/HBO Max

But critical approval wasn’t the point of the original series, nor is it the point of this Gossip Girl. This is a ridiculous, incredibly fun show about uber-rich influencers co-opting the language of social justice to obscure their classist outlooks while throwing parties on their parents’ dime and making horrible choices. While we’ve watched straight teenagers and their ill-advised romantic conquests on teen dramas for years, queer kids looking for themselves in these popular shows have been forced to watch coming out storyline after coming out storyline, trauma after trauma.

Those of us who grew up with the original could confidently answer whether we were a “Serena” or a “Blair,” obsessively following every fashion blog that posted each character’s designer looks so we could buy knockoffs at our local mall. Teens who watched wanted to be those characters, effortlessly cool with problems that felt far more grown-up and interesting than math class. But the aspirational nature of the original was reserved only for the conventionally attractive, white, and straight characters. Queer and BIPOC viewers didn’t have many chances to see themselves represented, and never among the regular cast.

But on this Gossip Girl, teenagers watching will get to emulate the trends set by diverse, queer characters instead. It offers LGBTQ teens the same melodramatic and shocking plotlines to savor that their peers have received for years, minus the tragedy and after school special tone. Judging by the social media chatter, it’s been well received by its target audience, who have engaged with it, minus the faux disdain of older reviewers. Gossip Girl doesn’t have to be good by their standards to be remembered as great. It just has to do what a generation of shows have done before it: entertain teenagers and bug their parents.

Gossip Girl will return for season 2, with season 1 now streaming on HBO Max. Be sure to check out the rest of our Pride Spotlights this month!

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