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net.wars: The Gattaca in Gossip Girl

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 16 February 2009


Spotted: net.wars obsessing over Gossip Girl instead of diligently reading up on the state of the data retention directive's UK implementation.

Wendy M Grossman

It's the cell phones. The central conceit of the show and the books that inspired it is this: an unseen single-person Greek (voiced by Kristen Bell in a sort of cross between her character on Veronica Mars and Christina Ricci's cynical, manipulative trouble-maker in The Opposite of Sex) chorus of unknown identity publishes – to the Web and by blast to subscribers' cell phones – tips and rumors about "the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite".

The Upper East Siders she(?) reports on are, of course, the private high school teens whose centrally planned destiny is to inherit their parents' wealth, power, social circles, and Ivy League educations.

These are teens under acute pressure to perform as expected, and in between obsessing about whether they can get into Yale (played on-screen by Columbia), they blow off steam by throwing insanely expensive parties, drinking, sexing, and scheming. All, of course, in expensive designer clothes and bearing the most character and product-placement driven selection of phones ever seen on screen.

Most of the plots are, of course, nonsense. The New Yorker more or less hated it on sight. Also my first reaction: I went, not to the school the books' author, Cecily von Ziegesar, did, but to one in the same class, 25 years earlier and then to an Ivy League school. One of my closest high school friends grew up in – and his parents still live at – the building the inhabited in the series by teen queen Blair Waldorf. So I can assess the show's unreality firsthand. So can lots of other New Yorkers who are equally obsessed with the show: the New York Post runs a hysterically funny reality index recap of each episode of "the Greatest Show of Our Time", followed by a recap of the many comments.

But we never had the phones! Pink and flip, slider and black, red, gold, sand silver phones! Behind the trashy drama portraying the ultra rich as self-important, stressed-out, miserable, self-absorbed, and mean is a fictional exploration of what life is like under constant surveillance by your peers.

Over the year and a half of the show's run – SPOILER ALERT – all sorts of private secrets have been outed on Gossip Girl via importunate camera phone and text message. Serena is spotted buying a pregnancy test (causing panic in at least two households); four characters are revealed at a party full of agog subscribers to be linked by a half-sibling they didn't know they had until the blast went out; and of course everyone is photographed kissing (or worse) the wrong person at some point. Exposure via Gossip Girl is also handy for blackmail (Blair), pre-emption (Chuck), lovesick yearning (Dan), and outing his sister's gay boyfriend (Dan).

"If you're sending tips to Gossip Girl, you're in the game with the rest of us," Jenny tells Dan, who had assumed his own moral superiority.

A lot of privacy advocates express concern that today's "digital natives" don't care about privacy, or at least, don't understand the potential consequences to their future job and education prospects of the decisions they make when they post the intimate details of their lives online.

In fact, when this generation grows up they'll all be in the same boat, exposure wise.. Both in reality and in this fiction, the case is as it's usually been, that teens don't fear each other; they collude as allies to exclude their parents.

That trope, too, is perfectly played on the show when Blair (again!) gets rid of a sociopathic interloper by going over the garden wall and calling her parents. This is not the world of David Brin's The Transparent Society, after all; the teens surveille each other but catch adults only by accident, though they take full advantage when they do.

"Gossip Girl... is how we communicate," Blair says, trying to make one of her many vendettas seem normal.

Privacy advocates also often stress that surveillance chills spontaneous behaviour. Not here, or at least not yet. Instead, the characters manipulate and expose, then anguish when it happens to them. A few become inured.

Says Serena, trying to comfort Rachel Carr, the first teacher to be so exposed: "I've been on Gossip Girl plenty of times and for the worst things…eventually everyone forgets. The best thing to do with these things is nothing at all,"

Phones and Gossip Girl are not the only mechanisms by which the show's characters spy on and out each other. They use all the more traditional media, too – in-person interaction, mistaken identity (a masked ball!), rifling through each other's belongings, stolen phones, eavesdropping, accident, and, of course, the gossip pages of the New York press.

"It's anonymous, so no one really knows," Serena says, when asked who is behind the site. But she and all the others do know: the tips come from each other and from the nameless other students they ignore in the background. Gossip Girl merely forwards them, with commentary in her own style:

You know you love me.

XOXO,

Net.wars

Ed. note: apologies for the extreme delay to this edition of net.wars. 
It was caused by inability to access email (because some clever cloggs persuaded his Uncle
that he could do a MUCH better WiFi hotspot than Swisscom, and then went home for the weekend instead of
watching it like a hawk while it bedded in...).


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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).