Designer clothes, vicious rumors, underage drinking, internet identities, rich parents, promiscuous sex, and Ivy League educations are all paramount hallmarks of what a particular show airing on the CW network, wants its audience to believe are the quintessential elements of the ideal youth culture lifestyle. Gossip Girl – a show that has remained at the center of an intense parental argument suggesting that the show’s content explores issues projecting a lifestyle too extreme, too racy, or too promiscuous to be watched by it’s target audience – teenage girls, further presents the world of the privileged New York, young adult demographic in ways that suggest teen lifestyles are much darker and more tragic than what one would expect. However, when considering the implications of the glorification of the dangerous aspects in youth culture, the concern becomes the audience’s ability to discern between reality and Gossip Girl itself. Thus, when a show like this performs supposed benefits of upper class societies, the progression of a postmodern identity as it becomes public property, and the gender dynamics of a fragmented generation, all through the experiences of seven teens trying to survive on the Upper East Side, it suggests the importance of class and consumerism on an extremely impressionable group.
Looking at the cultural work being done in Gossip Girl’s third season, particularly in the last episode titled “Last Tango, Then Paris” one can detect an idealistic notion that being emotionally unhappy is acceptable and even favored as long as one is in the possession of a high class status and an inexhaustible amount of funds. This idea is reflective of a Marxist understanding of where culture stems from. In this understanding of culture, “the concept of ideology refers to maps of meaning which, while they purport to be universal truths, are historically specific understandings that obscure and maintain power” (Barker 56). “Last Tango, Then Paris” pushes the notion of an ideological, power driven culture right up against a more liberal way of thinking, only to prove that the Marxist notion triumphs in the characters’ society. The character Dan Humphrey, who is part of the only family on the show not extending from a privileged background says, “Say life is giving you signs, and you’re ignoring them because you’re afraid of the thing they’re signaling you to do. But then you think, what if these signs are here for a reason, and ignoring them just makes me a coward” (Gossip Girl). This statement suggests that Dan is in favor of a more flexible power structure, in which he is able to decide if he wants to abide by signs or fight against the restrictions that bind him to his particular place in society. The character Blair Waldorf, the most notably rich and pretentious character on the show, whose mother is a famous fashion designer, replies: “Signs are for the religious, the superstitious, and the lower class. I don’t believe in them and neither should you” (Gossip Girl). She immediately refutes Dan’s consideration breaking free of the social mores by disallowing his ability to believe. Simultaneously, she creates a firm distinction between herself, and people who would believe in signs and higher meanings. She labels them as the lower class, reinforcing the Marxist notion that cultural ideals obscure and maintain power. Blair, in this situation is emphasizing her own position of superiority and wealth in the face of Dan, whom she knows has neither of the two. In telling him he shouldn’t believe in signs, she is arguably further categorizing him as different. In other words, Blair is still in the position of power, telling Dan what he should be doing, even if he is not in the privileged position to do so.
Besides the fact that most of the characters of Gossip Girl hail from generations of financial wealth, there are still many other aspects of their young identities that have yet to be formed. Especially for young adults in a society focused on outward appearances and Internet connections, “identities are understood to be a question both of agency (the individual constructs a project) and of social determination (our projects are socially constructed and social identities ascribed to us)” (Barker 233). The postmodern condition is complicated and fractured enough, “involving the subject in shifting, fragmented and multiple identities. Persons are composed not of one but of several, sometimes contradictory, identities” (Barker 220). Adding the aspect of a social media blog, where the anonymous Gossip Girl (who narrates the episode at the opening and the ending) complicates the teen-drama sitcom even further. Not only do these young adult have to develop their own identity in a complex, urban environment, but they also must do it while fighting against other rumors posted about their lives on a public blog. For example, approximately six minutes into the episode “Last Tango, Then Paris,” Jenny Humphrey walks in on her brother Dan and his ex-girlfriend Serena van der Woodsen sleeping in the same bed. She snaps a picture with her Smart Phone, and sends it to anonymous blogger. In this case, the agency that Barker writes about, the ability to create an identity is not in the hands of the person to whom the identity belongs. The Internet allows anyone to create an identity for someone else. The audience, at this point, knows that both Dan and Serena are involved in other relationships, and knows the power of what this image implies.
Approximately eight minutes into the show, the characters all get a text message sent to their phone from Gossip Girl. The message reads, “Spotted: A family reunion only Faulkner would approve of. I used to think that S and Lonely Boy were the most boring couple on the Upper East Side. But what makes them actually great together? When they’re supposed to be with other people. Good luck talking your way out of this one, S. XOXO Gossip Girl” (Gossip Girl). That message spreads across the entire city, and soon Dan’s father even knows about the picture. At this point, the social identity is ascribed to Dan and Serena, and everyone comes to see them as a cheating boyfriend and girlfriend. Despite the hard evidence that is the photo, people who know the faults of the Internet are also able to question the identity it presents to the world. In a conversation between Serena and Blair, Blair says, “and although I’m inclined to say that Gossip Girl doesn’t know what she’s talking about… that really did look like you and Humphrey. Isn’t that a little ’08? Like Maxi Dresses and Miley Cyrus?” (Gossip Girl). Despite the photographic proof that the Internet provides, the youth culture knows that often times, identities that are products of this postmodern, Internet savvy generation, are filled with misconceptions, fragmentations, devoid of context and filled with errors about who individuals are.
One thing that remains fairly static about identities portrayed in this show, are the gender roles and sexual expectations of males and females. The fact that “In truth woman has not been socially emancipated through a man’s need – sexual desire and the desire for offspring – which makes the male dependent for satisfaction upon the female” (Simone de Beauvoir), proves that the show is in now way addressing aspects of sexual relationships in a radical or subversive manner. “Last Tango, Then Paris” depicts that Dan’s little sister, Jenny Humphrey, who is quite a few years younger than the majority of the characters, loses her virginity to Blair’s ex-boyfriend Chuck Bass. Their interaction is quite predictable and fits comfortable inside of the designated male and females roles. Chuck says, “Well I don’t play video games so if you want to hang with me, you do what I do…If you want to leave now would be the time” (Gossip Girl). To which Jenny replies, “I don’t want to be alone” (Gossip Girl). In this case neither the male nor the female are free from the pangs of sexual desire. Jenny responds to the need that Chuck nearly demands of her, and yet she needs him to fill her loneliness as well. However, the fact that the male is the sexual aggressor and the woman is the emotionally needy counterpart is not a new phenomenon.
Looking at this series as a whole brings out notions of what could be deemed a cultural overload. There are parallels to multiple precursors of the popular culture world; among those precursors are Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction, the television show Sex and the City, the James Bond film Goldfinger, as well as the current Internet network, Facebook. Gossip Girl seems to combine the best of all of the above worlds. It has the concerns of young teen and college age people, who are struggling to find their identity, just as Ellis’s novel did. It is arguably even more risqué than Sex in the City in the sense that Gossip Girl presents the nation with young women, not a group of thirty-somethings, who are engaging in sexual activities, and unrealistic amounts of shopping. Gossip Girl was also based on a series of Young Adult books by Cecily von Ziegesar, by the same name, just as Sex and the City was based on a series of non-fiction essays by Candace Bushnell. New York Magazine also is quoted as saying Gossip Girl is “the most restauranty show since Sex and the City” (CW.com). Gossip Girl doesn’t even need fancy gadgets to attack the enemy. The only weapons required to take down a rival of the Upper East Side is a cell phone camera, and an Internet connection. However, the need to spy on those one wants to attack is essential to the politics of the society Gossip Girl creates, just as it was to James Bond. Facebook being such a contemporary element of the social world, it is mentioned in the show numerous times. Also, the Gossip Girl blog is run similar to the way Facebook works. The ability to see information about friends that one might not have known otherwise is a necessary aspect of both Internet networks. All of the above being said, Gossip Girl seems to have capitalized on all of the popular aspects of other cultural works, in effect creating one of the most talked about, and controversial shows on national television.
Through the excavation of the cultural aspects of Gossip Girl and what that means for the audience, one can see why a parent would be concerned about their teenage daughter watching the show. It is purposefully presented as a drama, not particularly humorous, nor satirical. This doesn’t allow much room for speculation that the show is sending a message about the absurdity of the characters’ behaviors. Sure, they encounter not particularly enjoyable situations occasionally, but none severe enough to help a teenage girl see the consequences of those same actions in reality. Perhaps suggesting to a thirteen-year-old girl that only the lower class believe in signs, or that posting suggestive pictures of friends or family on social networking sites is acceptable, or that frivolous sexual encounters should be frequent and come without consequence, is not exactly the message popular culture needs to be sending.
The odd, and darkly absurd style of American pop singer and songwriter Lady Gaga has, in the past three years since her debut studio album The Fame, become a household name. Her songs top the music charts, are continuously repeated on numerous radio stations, and her innovative fashion style is plastered across every entertainment news station. With song titles like, “Poker Face,” “Bad Romance,” and “Alejandro,” one must wonder how the American public could resist being intrigued. But perhaps feminist theorists Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Bordo would be able to explain Lady Gaga’s popularity in a way that highlights more about the American culture than it does about Lady Gaga’s ability to be catchy and unique. The two theorists, arguably, could conceive of Lady Gaga as a popular culture figure representing a type of neo-woman who projects femininity, raunch culture, and masculine actions while maintaining her position in the entertainment industry.
Truly, Lady Gaga so fully exudes the neo-woman persona that embraces the postmodern multifaceted identity, which can effectively combine sexually liberated actions with feminine ideals as well as masculine actions, that solely examining her latest single, “You and I,” holds enough evidence to prove the above stated assertion. When first listening to the song, one can easily identify the elements of the lyrics that reinforce typical female roles in romantic relationships, in the dynamics of males and females. Gaga sings, “You taste like whiskey when you kiss me / I’d give anything again to be your baby doll / This time I’m not leaving without you” (ladygaga.com). Simone de Beauvoir would argue that since the idea that, “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being” (Simone de Beauvoir) is widely accepted, and in fact, at the root of why women are subordinate, the lyrics of Gaga’s song could provide a level of comfort for its listeners. No one has to think about the implications of this statement when singing along to it with their car stereo. No one has to get into debates with their friends over controversial content in the lyrics. It is simply accepted that the female speaker wants to be taken care of by her male ex-lover, and refuses to leave without getting him back. She depends on him. Thus, she is admittedly saying she is not an autonomous being.
As the song continues, the lyrics repeat a theme of dependency and lust. However, the closest that it ever gets to stepping slightly outside of the acceptable role for the female sex says, “I am a New York woman born to rock you down / So I want my lipstick all over your face” (ladygaga.com). It implies a level of sexual confidence and assertiveness that isn’t necessarily considered how a woman should present herself, even in contemporary society. This is an aspect of the postfeminist raunch culture that “advocates sexual provocativeness and promiscuousness by women as women… [that] speaks of … rights to objectify sexuality like a man” (Barker 312). In this way, the song itself takes on a postmodern identity that is capable of projecting both a typical feminine message as well as elements of a raunch culture and sexual assertiveness. This is also an appealing aspect of Lady Gaga’s image because it combines what is often considered to be a divided area for women’s rights. Being able to combine both views of women’s lives helps attract a wide audience.
Where the Lady Gaga franchise becomes increasingly complex is when viewing the music video for “You and I.” Lady Gaga enacts multiple couples, and in one particular instance she portrays both the male and female counterparts – a blonde playing the piano and a male sitting on the top of the piano smoking a cigarette, in the middle of a cornfield.
Simone de Beauvoir claims that ”One wonders if women still exist, if they will always exist, whether or not it is desirable that they should, what place they occupy in this world, what their place should be” (de Beauvoir). This very idea is the essence that Lady Gaga exudes when she’s on television, on the radio, or on a stage in front of thousands of people. That has become her role in American popular culture. She makes people ask themselves whether her identity is still that of a true woman. And if America decides it isn’t, then they must decide what a woman truly is. If America decides that Lady Gaga is the neo-woman who will become the stepping-stone to a culture with a more broad definition of how particular genders should and should not act, then she has done more than simply entertain. She has changed the face of music, the dynamics of human interaction, and the idea of what a woman can be across the world.
Barker, Chris. "Issues of Subjectivity and Identity." Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2008. 220 +. Print.
Barker, Chris. "Sex, Subjectivity, and Representation." Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2008. 312. Print.
Barker, Chris. "Questions of Culture and Ideology." Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage, 2008. 56. Print.
Beauvoir, Simone De. "Simone De Beauvoir The Second Sex, Woman as Other 1949."Marxists Internet Archive. Web. 25 July 2011.
Bordo, Susan. “’Material Girl’: The Effacements of Postmodern Culture.” Cultural Studies. Print.
Germanotta, Steffani. "Lady Gaga : Yoü and I." Lady Gaga | Yoü and I. Web. 21 Aug. 2011.
Gossip Girl: "Last Tango, Then Paris" Dir. J. Miller Tobin. Perf. Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, and Penn Badgley. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc., 2010. DVD.
"Gossip Girl | Series on the CW Network | Official Site." Official Site of the CW Network | CW Television Shows | CW TV. Web. 21 Aug. 2011.
You and I. By Steffani Germanotta. Perf. Lady Gaga. Youtube.com. 16 Aug. 2011. Web. 21 Aug. 2011.