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1 September 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 5:09pm

Does the new Gossip Girl capture gossip in the social media age?

The original show explored how rumour and scandal could be weaponised by your friends. Can the remake do the same in our era of puritanical shaming, cancel culture and “taking accountability”?

By Rachel Connolly

Gossip Girl was never really a gossip. The malevolent blogger at the centre of Gossip Girl, the beloved teen drama that followed the glamorous, chaotic lives of a group of Upper East Side teenagers at a fictional private school, was more like the original (or, at least, an early) apportioner of cancel culture. Gossip Girl was always listening, watching and stirring. Somehow everywhere at once, she would catch the objects of her surveillance up to all sorts: cheating on each other and on tests; having dramatic family disputes in their penthouses made entirely of windows; going on holiday; being threatened with disinheritance in sombre restaurants full of shiny black furniture; (erroneously) thinking themselves guilty of murder; and so on. Whatever she found, she would make sure everyone knew about it.

Sometimes the antics of these beautiful young heirs and heiresses were moral transgressions. Sometimes they were not. But all were documented in spidery, salacious blog posts that the entire school (indeed, it was often suggested, all of Manhattan) gleefully pored over. Friendships, relationships, carefully hatched plans to attend Ivy League universities – all were detonated by Gossip Girl’s big reveals; the social fabric of the school (or at least of the popular clique) regularly torn to shreds.

But this is not how gossip works. It is not about dropping bombs or exposing secrets; it is the clandestine exchange of information that happens within a friend group. It is about judgement, yes. But also bonding, establishing shared social norms, and addressing some of the strange moral dilemmas we all find ourselves in, beneath a layer of subterfuge: as humans, we need to talk about these things and it can be hard to do so earnestly. Gossip Girl’s spikey blogs had nothing to do with bonding. They were much closer to the modern practice of airing grievances on social media to create a spectacle. (The moralistic tone of the posts, likewise, feels prophetic.) She (well, he, if you watched the original series to its end) was a canceller.

Now, fittingly, Gossip Girl has been remade for a generation who have grown up with their lives saturated in social media. This time, instead of a blog, Gossip Girl takes the form of a Diet Prada-style Instagram account. Accordingly, prevalent themes include the anxiety of self-presentation when the audience is potentially infinite; the pressure of constant self-promotion; the ethics of privacy and public shaming; and the concept of privilege (as seen through the often simplistic perspective of a viral Twitter thread or an Instagram infographic).

Much of the drama of the new Gossip Girl centres on the Instagram fame of one of the two female leads, Julien Calloway. From the opening of the first episode we see that her schedule revolves around staging opportunities to collect content for her “story”. A pair of friends micromanage her social media presence and constantly shout things like “your followers are leaving” (the followers seem more volatile than typical social media users). Her boyfriend, Otto “Obie” Bergmann IV (I know), has grown weary of this slavish devotion to social media.

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This plot-line is unconvincing and not particularly engrossing. The friends seem to view their involvement with the Instagram account with a kind of desperation, as their route to internships in PR or media (I would be surprised if teenage girls from this world did not have better options or ways in), and Calloway always seems too earnest and nice for the slightly craven world of influencing. Half the time, she doesn’t seem to care about the Instagram account at all. Even the language used to refer to Instagram seems off: at one point Calloway implores Bergman: “You promised you would do my story!” If that is the way people are talking about social media now, then I have missed it.

Still, the point being made, somewhat heavy-handedly – that we lose something when we curate how we present ourselves according to the whims of an audience of strangers – rings true. Likewise, the many conversations about the ethics of Gossip Girl are hammy but culturally relevant. This iteration of the site is run by a group of teachers headed by Kate Keller (played by the actress Tavi Gevinson, who as a teenager herself edited the youth website Rookie magazine), inspired by the old Gossip Girl, ostensibly to keep their spoiled students in check.

The teachers regularly discuss the benefits of and issues with what they are doing, the creepiness of the endeavour (waiting outside students’ homes to photograph them is one technique for collecting material), and Keller visibly feels guilty when interacting with Calloway and her younger sister (the other main target of Gossip Girl). Sometimes they shut down the account. In one episode someone brings a gun to a different school because of Gossip Girl (I don’t fully understand how Gossip Girl drove them to this) and people keep using the word “accountable”. 

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It is all very topical and zeitgeist-y. The discourse around privilege and left-wing politics, too, takes the form of a recognisable style of millennial commentary, in which the elite takes aim at structural problems as if they are the result of nebulous external forces. In one episode, in an extraordinarily wasteful gesture, Bergmann IV orders a fleet of food trucks to the school for his new girlfriend Zoya Lott’s birthday so she can choose whatever she likes for breakfast, and instantly sends them away when she says she doesn’t celebrate the day. In the next, he is hectoring someone to go to a lecture on deforestation.

The new Gossip Girl is frequently this ridiculous. It is often fun, and occasionally funny (at one point, when Calloway is being cancelled, her friend laments that the frequently condemned celebrity Jameela Jamil is defending her). Some elements of the original series have been improved, and the cast is much more diverse this time around, both in terms of race and sexuality. But there is something cold about the series. Everyone is slightly robotic: the friends who behave like interns, the students full of Twitter-infused self-awareness, the teachers with their conversations about accountability and wanting to send the kids “out of here Barack Obamas, instead of Brett Kavanaughs”. 

The true heartbreak of being a teenager, and the joy of it at the same time, was how much you felt everything: humiliations, friendships, crushes, betrayals, new music, being drunk or on drugs, danger, loneliness, going on drives at night. The original Gossip Girl showed us a world where 16-year-olds swanned around Manhattan penthouses dressed in suits and wielding credit cards, but still had soft, teenage hearts.

The dramas were often weirdly relatable: jealousy over friends getting into better universities; people you are convinced you are in love with being convinced they are in love with someone else; drunken sexual misadventures (sometimes assaults); disappointed parents; parents who just couldn’t have cared less. Everyone was unapologetically self-involved, as teenagers are, but at least nobody lived at the behest of their Instagram followers. But maybe this is the way it is to be a teenager now.