How ‘Gossip Girl’ reboot portrays opulence, the guilt that comes with it 

Amanda Tsang/Staff

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HBO Max’s revamped television series “Gossip Girl” has taken over the forefront of public discourse. An old camp favorite, the original “Gossip Girl” was a show about high schoolers with money to burn navigating their scandalous personal relationships and early adolescent life in a world that had just begun to use the internet. The original show was built on the tenets of excess in every conceivable way, glamorizing their designer clothes and romanticizing the ease with which they live. Their problems differed wildly from the average person. In essence, it was escapist television. It didn’t need to be believable or realistic or even right — it earned its cult status because it aimed to be outrageous without worrying about morality. 

But as public discourse evolves, the “Gossip Girl” reboot — which is still about the elite — is forced to deal with something new: guilt. With the new wave of politically correct culture, anti-capitalist and anti-billionaire sentiments and pushes for inclusivity of race, sexuality and gender, the original tenets of the show are no longer sustainable. 

One of the main characters, Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), is an Instagram influencer with a huge and devoted following. Her image and lifestyle are designed to be unattainable — and quite frankly, they are. When Julien goes through a crisis and decides to be “real” for the camera, the show doesn’t shy away from reminding the audience that her image is still manufactured, her lifestyle still out of reach. The event illustrates the show’s fundamental problem: It wants its characters to be more relatable than their predecessors, but not if it comes at the cost of actually reducing their wealth and status.

On the show, the trust fund children’s familial wealth is typically built through exploitation of some sort. This forces them to grapple with the morality of their money, leaving the writing in a confusing place. Fundamentally, how does a series originally built on glamorizing the perks of excess continue to do so when it is suddenly forced to become self-aware? 

The show’s newfound push to feel in touch with the average viewer is at odds with the lifestyles and wealth on display. Despite its movement toward a more conscientious place, the show at its core is still presenting the characters’ elite lifestyle as something to aspire toward. In the pilot episode, Frank Ocean’s smooth and jazzy tune “Super Rich Kids” plays as the audience is introduced to the ensemble, portraying their wealth as fun and extravagant. The series’s tone, which could have easily veered into a darker, more cynical take on the elite class and the trappings of money given the new shift, is lifted by similar songs that add glamour, not disdain, for its protagonists. 

Perhaps the most key part of the original show was the fashion — every character wears designers in the preppiest of ways, even their private school uniforms tailored to be more premium. “Gossip Girl” is as much a show about fashion as it is about the characters themselves, the clothes playing a huge role in the escapist world of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In the reboot, characters’ styles have evolved in small ways. They dress less preppy, yet still expensive — almost as if the characters are trying to appear less wealthy, a sharp turn from the original. Yet, their clothes are still clearly ridiculously expensive, revealing another hole in the fabric of the show’s design.

The original, primarily all-white, cisgender and straight cast is replaced with some variety; the reboot’s two female leads are Black, and it features characters that are openly bisexual and navigating their sexuality. However, the characters themselves, in all of their wokeness, feel like contradictions that are hard to believe. One of the protagonists, Akeno Menzies (Evan Mock), stands by his father after he receives backlash for displacing marginalized people from their housing. At the same time that this is happening, however, Akeno’s friends protest against this. This tension, though potentially interesting, ends up being unaddressed in the show, a result of the adaptation’s poor writing.  

Ultimately, “Gossip Girl” fails to take into account what it originally set out to do, finding itself in a limbo between worlds. The original series worked because of its commitment to its core philosophy and because it tapped into an undeniable escapist pleasure of watching people live an unattainable, fantasy lifestyle. In attempting to turn on the elite yet empathize with them at the same time, the reboot finds itself at a crossroads that looks unlikely to be resolved in its future seasons. 

Contact Megha Ganapathy at [email protected].