My Decade With “Gossip Girl”

Ten years after the first Gossip Girl book came out, the show is finally ending. I followed the phenomenon from its most culturally relevant period to its, well, least.

About 10 years ago, the summer before I entered eighth grade, the first book in the Gossip Girl series came out. All the girls in my summer camp bunk were reading it. I spent most of that summer reading The Catcher in the Rye, with little desire to get sucked into what seemed like Gossip Girl’s vapid world.

But a few months later, on an overnight field trip, I had no choice. I was forced to listen to a hour-long reading of Gossip Girl. Fifteen girls were freezing in sleeping bags in a tiny, dark cabin, and we weren’t allowed to bring iPods to drown out the noise. Cell phones, if we even had them, were likewise prohibited.

My school, which was located just outside Manhattan, wasn’t quite “straight out of Gossip Girl” (though it wasn’t that far off at times) but it annually sent eighth graders on a weeklong camping trip. They said the purpose was to teach a bunch of city kids how to survive in the wild, but I always surmised it was just an excuse to get some use out of the 100-acre plot of land in northern Connecticut that an alumnus had donated to the school. My group was selected to go in the second week of December.

At first, the nightly Gossip Girl readings, performed by a teacher’s pet who had skipped ahead a year in math but for some reason could not pronounce the main character’s name right (van der Woodsen, not “van Woodersen”) meant I had to endure only about a chapter a day. During the day, we were supposed to learn how to pitch tents.

But then, a snowstorm hit. We didn’t have to sleep outside in subzero temperatures, and the kitchen pipe burst, which meant they picked up Chinese food in the local town and we didn’t have to cook hot dogs outside (again). But it also meant outdoorsy activities were on pause. So it was decided: The girls would sit in a circle and read Gossip Girl out loud. I had resisted at first, but once I couldn’t escape them, I stopped wanting to. Gossip Girl and I would be together for the next 10 years, through the book’s second coming as a CW series that ends with Monday night’s series finale.

By the end of that field trip, we were living in a Gossip Girl universe. We decided who was the pretty but blasé Serena, who was the troubled queen bee Blair, and who was the artsy filmmaker Vanessa. When I got home, I bought the next two books and finished them that weekend. A few weeks later, our grade dean, one of those teachers who loved to get as involved she could with the social lives of middle schoolers, decided she would read the books so she could decide if they should be banned from school. The sex and promiscuity, she decided, wasn’t worse than stuff on TV, and she let them stay. The next summer at camp, all the girls had read the books, and “Is living in New York just like the show?” questions were a constant. I’m pretty sure that my mom even read the books at one point. Everyone was living in a Gossip Girl universe.

The complete book series.

My life was never anything like Gossip Girl — and I sort of doubt anyone’s was. I knew people who had debutante balls (though I was never invited to one), but armies of maids in uniform and teenagers with limos at their beck and call? Hardly.

But whenever a show’s about where you’re from or remotely related to your experience, you’re inevitably in some way attached to it. Most single women in the New York City of the late ’90s, I would guess, have this kind of connection to Sex and the City and now, as a writer in her early twenties, I am forced to be in some way linked to Girls, whether I like it or not. People who grew up in Beverly Hills are a part of 90210. Anyone in their mid- to late twenties from Toronto is linked to Degrassi. It’s not really a choice.

When I first read the Gossip Girl books, I looked up to the characters, in a way: Despite their misgivings, they reminded me of the high school girls I admired. When the show premiered, I had just started college — and for the first few seasons, it was actually a really good show (even critics agreed).

As the years went on, the quality worsened, but we’d come this far, right? I’d grown up with these characters, and I couldn’t leave them now. By senior year, it was rare to find anyone who’d join in watching with me, but it became my little treat: an indulgence waiting for me in my DVR on a hungover Sunday. My friends would nurse hangovers with egg sandwiches and Gatorade. They didn’t know about Gossip Girl.

Over the past year, Gossip Girl has kind of evaporated from the conversation surrounding “must-see TV.” I caught up on the last season a few Sundays ago, in an afternoon marathon. The characters had long since graduated from high school, and in the real world, their absurd lunchroom plots were truly too absurd. The characters were outdated, and so was the show.

People don’t ask if being from New York is like being in Gossip Girl anymore. Perhaps because it’s so obviously not.

What happened?

In The Atlantic, Judy Berman writes that Gossip Girl worked when the show premiered in September 2007, before the economy tanked and before the notion of Wall Street (which implicitly funds the series’ extravagant lifestyles) became the enemy. But there are other reasons it worked then and not now.

In 2007, a show based around a blog that constantly sends out titillating email blasts was not just exciting, but plausible. Today, all that gossip would just play out on Twitter. And with “sexting” the fodder for every 10 p.m. local news show, promiscuous texting feels hardly scandalous.

In the mid- to late 2000s, the world was exiting its obsession with young socialites like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. And in New York, there were even “real” Gossip Girls, in the form of anonymous blogs called Socialite Rank and Park Avenue Peerage that released daily rankings of socialites — mostly based on the number of photographs they’d appeared in the day before. In May 2007, New York magazine outed the anonymous bloggers of the two sites (one of them was a freshman guy at the Universty of Illionois) in a 6,500-plus word profile. The show, New York proclaimed in an April 2008 cover story, was “genius.” At its prime, it was.

As Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed, and as Twitter came to define second-by-second updates of news and communication, Gossip Girl started to feel more and more out of touch. Sure, the plotlines were absurd, but they always were. In October 2011, a perfect tableau emerged in Greenwich Village: Occupy Wall Street protesters crashed the Gossip Girl set. It wasn’t an intentional commentary on the show’s excesses — the protesters just walked through by accident.

The last season of Gossip Girl has been pretty bad, though enjoyable for the most hardcore devotees. To wit: One core plotline has involved a man rising from the dead, and then trying to kill his son after the son found out that his father (who was supposed to be dead!) illegally invested in Sudanese oil and embezzled the money by pretending the funds were going to a horse farm. I can only imagine how many people will be falsely murdered and how many people will be framed by sext in the series finale. (I can’t wait.)

The show’s actors have openly mocked the show’s diminishing quality and the cultural irrelevance, and they seem glad for it to be over. Penn Badgley, who plays Dan Humphrey, recently told Vulture his character was “a tool on a show with soap-operatic arcs” and expressed great relief that the show was ending. Chace Crawford, who plays Nate Archibald, said on a TV appearance that working on the last season was like “the worst case of senioritis you’ve ever seen.”

Even the show’s writers are in on the joke.

The last season, if you watched with a magnifying glass, has also been a hilarious homage to the show’s rise and fall. In one episode, the New York magazine writers — Jessica Pressler and Chris Rovzar — whose weekly reality index recaps were a cult favorite, made cameos as magazine writers rejecting Dan Humphrey’s essays. In another recent episode, the plot revolved around the show’s matriarch’s decision to auction off a painting featured prominently on the show’s set (not knowing that stored behind the painting were documents on the illicit oil trade with Sudan). The scene was set at a benefit for a public art foundation called the Art Production Fund, which also licensed most of the art for Gossip Girl. (For $250, you can buy a bunch of art from the show.)

Once your series has passed the point of cultural relevance, I think I like the strategy of ending it as a kind of huge, happy inside joke.

There is, of course, only one real way to say good-bye to Gossip Girl: with a big XOXO.

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