Recently, through a combination of boredom, a need for escapism, and the convenience that only an $8 Netflix streaming subscription and the internet can give me, I decided to begin watching Gossip Girl. I am not ashamed to say that I was pretty instantly hooked, and have been watching it non-stop for the past week. (I’m actually not ashamed to say anything, but that is a different article entirely.)
Gossip Girl ran from 2007 to 2012 so I’m probably the only person who watches Gossip Girl that also doesn’t know what happens beyond season 2, episode 4 of Gossip Girl (just give me a week and a half). And I’ll admit that it’s been a fun nostalgia trip to see everyone carrying Razr cell phones and texting on a regular number pad, but I’m writing this article about something a little more serious than that. (And I know what you’re thinking: Gossip Girl? Serious? And yes.)
For those of you who don’t know, Gossip Girl is a show about the upper class teenagers of New York City. They’re rich, spoiled, entitled, and manipulative. They drink and do drugs and struggle for power in their preppy private school where popularity has laws and rigid rules, and there can only be one queen. They are also all really, really ridiculously good-looking that you could watch the show on mute and still appreciate the sculpted artwork that is their faces and bodies.
All of the action focused on these characters is narrated by Gossip Girl—an anonymous blogger that, through the help of tips and cell phone photos snapped by passers-by—manages to chronicle the soap opera lives of these trust fund babies and share it with her readers (which, apparently, are literally everyone).
In the beginning, most of the characters Gossip Girl blogs about are, by no accounts, good people. And, duh, everyone knows that behind their shallow exteriors, they all have secrets and pain and pressure and just want to be loved. But some are worse than others. And that brings me to Chuck Bass.
In the beginning, Chuck was the most despicable character of all. Billed as the resident “bad boy” of the show, this went beyond smoking pot before class. In the first episode, Chuck straight-up sexually assaults a freshman. He tries to get her drunk, get her alone, and then forces himself on her despite her shouted “No’s” and “Get off of me’s.” Luckily, she is rescued by her brother and Chuck is punched in the face but then that’s kind of it.
The whole scene made me sick, as depictions of sexual assault assuredly should be difficult to watch. But what was worse was how after it was over, no one seemed to care anymore. The character that he assaulted, Jenny, assured her brother that she was fine then and would continue to be fine, before they had even left the party where it happened. Chuck’s friends seemed to find the whole thing entertaining, reveling in the chance to watch a freshman get ruined.
The next day, Jenny went to Blair Waldorf’s house (she’s important in this story too), the Queen B and most popular girl in school. Jenny wants in with the popular crowd, and she went to find out from B if Chuck was saying anything about her. Blair responded, “Not yet. Chuck likes to brag about his conquests, not his victims.” And then proceeded to tell her that there were just certain things she’d have to accept if she wanted to be a part of this world.
The entire thing was unnerving. It seems that Chuck’s friends both found his antics amusing as well as simultaneously not caring. And the victim herself brushes it off as though it were a prank or hazing ritual. We see Chuck attempt to assault two people before we finally witness any redeeming qualities in him. Oh, did I mention that Chuck is also incredibly good-looking? That should in no way be a redeeming quality but I think for audiences (read: me) it often is.
Chuck’s first moment of redemption comes in episode 7, in which he demonstrates a desire for business acumen and proves to his father that he can make a worthy investment in a burlesque club. Blair Walforf, someone who has always had Chuck’s friendship and respect, has broken up with her boyfriend and in a moment I assume is supposed to be seen as free and wild, gets up on stage to dance. Chuck is absolutely mesmerized, and sees Blair in a way he never saw her before. He is instantly smitten.
On the way home together in the limo, Chuck tells Blair how amazing she was on stage that night. Blair pulls herself close to Chuck and kisses him. Chuck says, “Are you sure?” And Blair kisses him again, and again, and again (and then off-screen Chuck takes her virginity).
Now. At the moment Chuck says, “Are you sure?” I found myself thinking, “Aw, that’s so sweet.” Before immediately thinking, “WHAT?!?” at my own mind for thinking that. But even while I was aware that I thought the fact that a character who sexually assaulted women finally asked a woman for her consent was sweet and how problematic that was, it didn’t stop me from still thinking it. I sat there in front of my laptop conflicted by how sweet I thought the entire thing was while also hating myself for letting go of his previous crimes as quickly as all of the other characters had let it go. As quickly as the show wanted the audience to let it go and see Chuck Bass as a bad boy who could be redeemed. And every episode since has been another piece toward Chuck’s redemption. And all of the bad things that he has continued to do (which are now “mistakes” and “slip-ups” as Chuck is truly a good person inside, afraid of who he really is) are no longer crimes, just bad things.
As a feminist, I don’t completely understand my reaction. How, as I’ve continued to watch the show, how little I’ve allowed myself to be bothered by this anymore because all I really want is for Chuck and Blair to be together, obvs. And I do love a good redemption storyline.
Which is true. Redemption storylines are among my very favorite storylines, be it in movies, TV, books, or Robert Downey Jr. coverage on E!. So what makes one redemption storyline easier to swallow than any other? Why should I feel guilty for watching Chuck’s, yet enthralled by watching, say, Jamie Lannister’s on Game of Thrones?
Because it is no secret that Jamie Lannister is one of my favorite characters from anything, ever. And it’s also no secret that his storyline throughout that series is not just my favorite story from the series but also in any series or story I’ve ever read or watched. But Jamie Lannister has done heinous things. And I forgave those—all without feeling any kind of guilt while doing so.
Recently, I went out to dinner with my family (at that most fine and magical of eating establishments, Outback Steakhouse). For whatever reason, I brought up Game of Thrones and proceeded to go on and on about how amazing Jamie is and how great his storyline is and how excited I am for this season. And my mother said that she doesn’t like Jamie. I responded defensively, “Jamie has one of the best redemption stories ever.” And she said, “But he’s just done too many bad things for me to like him.”
And it’s true. Jamie has done too many bad things. In the first three books, he had an ongoing incestuous relationship with his twin sister, fathered all of her children, murdered people to ensure no one found out, and pushed a child out the window with ease in the name of love for his sister. He had fought in wars, stabbed the previous king in the back, and no doubt murdered countless people in cold blood. He betrayed his brother by (oh my god, spoiler alert if you haven’t read the entire third book) allowing his wife to be sold as a whore. He did horrible, horrible things.
But then my brother said, “Yeah, well that’s kind of the whole point of a redemption story. They have to start as a bad person who does bad things.”
Which is true. That was who Jamie was in the beginning. But throughout the first three books and seasons, Jamie revealed that he loved his sister and had been with no other woman (okay, this ones a stretch but at least like kind of noble?), and that the reason he stabbed the previous king in the back was because that king was going to kill Jamie’s family as well as burn the entire city to the ground. Jamie is kidnapped and loses his sword hand—he becomes helpless, dying, and questions who he even is as a person without the only thing he’s good at: sword fighting. He becomes more human. He saves a woman for no other reason except that it was the right thing to do. And he is the one who reveals to his brother how he betrayed him. And he does it because he feels guilty about it. Jamie accepts that he was a bad person, and takes measures to fix it.
So why is that story okay but it’s not okay for Chuck to fall in love with Blair and try and be a better person because of that? Is it because he hasn’t sought penance for his previous transgressions? Is that even something that’s necessary to a redemption story, as long as the person changes throughout the course of it?
Is it because Chuck’s story takes place in the real world (granted, one so very far removed from most people’s reality), and Jamie’s takes place in a fantasy world that has supernatural elements? Should that make a difference? Is it because of the frequency of sexual assault in high school and college, among my age group, and the equal frequency that it is ignored, swept under the rug, overlooked, forgotten? Why would that be Gossip Girls’ fault? Was it Gossip Girls’ duty to confront those issues? Why should the show have to be political; they’re just trying to tell a story. Are they required to take a stance? To turn one character’s story into a teaching moment for the audience at home?
Is it just me? Am I bothered with myself because I didn’t feel more indignation for this? Because I accepted it readily and willing and with every intention of being wholly and completely interested in Chuck and Blair’s storyline, while knowing in my heart (like, what??? Who AM I? Oh, right, someone who spends inordinate amounts of time on Tumblr) that Chuck is a good guy? After all, I like redemption storylines. So are they all equal?
Years ago, back when South Park was relatively new, the show argued that you should either make fun of everything or make fun of nothing; that there was no grey area, nothing that was off limits. South Park was responding to criticism that sometimes the show went too far, and that there were some things you should never joke about. What they were saying in response to that was that they were allowed to make fun of the Holocaust just as much as they were allowed to make fun of superficial celebrities, and there shouldn’t be rules on if you were “allowed” to laugh at one and not the other. You either accepted that everything could be a joke, or you decided that nothing could be funny, because otherwise you’d be a hypocrite for laughing at anything.
It’s an interesting idea, one that has merit, but one that is also hard to swallow. Does this idea extend beyond comedy? Is a redemption story a redemption story, no matter what the bad things were that triggered it in the first place? Can I be okay that Chuck Bass is redeemed in the end, even if he’s never apologetic nor acknowledges sexually assaulting young women? Just because Jamie saved a woman from a bear doesn’t change the fact that he pushed a child out a window, and yet I’m still okay believing he’s a good person in the end. And what does all of this say about me as a person?
I don’t know if I know the answers to any of it, but I’m going to continue to think about this a lot, as I finish watching the entire series of Gossip Girl. I’m going to continue to think about this as I watch the fourth season of Game of Thrones. I think that it’s important that we all ask ourselves these kinds of questions when we consume television. Because, if you’re like me, a good part of your week is spent tuning in to watch shows and characters whose stories you want to follow. And I think that it’s imperative that we use these shows to learn things about ourselves. Because ultimately I think that it’s okay to consume any kind of television–to laugh at anything, to cry about anything, to feel strong emotions in any direction about anything—as long as you’re also asking yourself throughout: Why? Why is this my reaction and what does this say about me? It’s okay to consume anything as long as you’re critical about it.
I think with a show like Gossip Girl, you sort of sign a waiver as an audience member that you’re going to forget the previous storylines of characters and move on to the next at the exact moment that the writers want you to. It’s soap operatic in nature, which means that one day Nate could be dating Vanessa but then three episodes later he’s dating Jenny and you just have to be cool with that. And it works. On me, at least. It’s kind of scary because I feel like it works in a way that I am being tricked. But then again, I did say I watched Gossip Girl to alleviate boredom and facilitate escapism, and the show has done just that. Also…they’re so hot.