On Monday night, while the
cable pundits restrained themselves during hurricane Gustav, speculated
on the GOP convention, and frothed with glee over Palin-gate, a large number of
them, instead tuning in to the season premiere of Gossip Girl.
Gossip Girl, with its
risqué ad campaign, follows a group of filthy rich teens as they couple
and uncouple. Like its predecessors Beverly Hills: 90210,
Dawson’s Creek, and The OC, the show is on track to have
nearly all of its characters bed each other within several plot arcs.
The actual sex on Gossip
Girl is just actors stripping down to designer lingerie and then
a tasteful fade to black. But what a far cry the world of these Upper
East Side lotharios and seductresses is from the world envisioned by
the Republican platform, as it is introduced this week.
In the RNC world, sex ought
to be confined to procreation and accompanied by marriage. At no point
was this clearer than when the party elders heaped praise on Bristol
Palin for having a baby and getting married at 17, her decision framed
as the "right choice."
There’s no such thing, in their world, as young women making
other choices–smart sexual decisions that don’t involve abstinence
on one hand, or pregnancy on the other.
Offer that restrictive choice
to seventeen year old Blair Waldorf, the anti-heroine of Gossip Girl,
and she would laugh in your face. On Monday, while the party elders
at the RNC shut out pro-choice
opined that sex with a lifeguard was "like a tissue: use once, then
throw away." (It’s a delicious reversal of the abstinence only-meme that a deflowered woman is compared to used tape, no longer adhesive and thus incapable of attachment.)
Blair later introduced us to
a new boy-toy she’d just picked up in Italy, solely for the purpose
of making an ex-boyfriend jealous. Clearly, Blair thinks she can have
sex for all kinds of reasons, without getting hitched or having a child.
And her unabashed ownership of her sexuality is one of the reasons she’s
become, in many ways, the face of the show.
Played by Leighton Meester,
Blair demands our attention. With her scheming, conniving, self-aware
persona, Blair is the heir apparent to Shannen Doherty’s Brenda, the
"bad girl" you love to hate–or actually, you just love. And this
particular bad girl is, in Meester’s own words, "quite sexual."
Gossip Girl pushes the
envelope, but it falls into traps, too: it reinforces gender stereotypes
and objectification, and gives its male characters a pass for churlishly
misogynist behavior that veers dangerously towards date-rape territory.
When the characters slut-shame Serena, the show portrays this without
comment, perpetuating the sexual double standard. Occasionally the camera
will pan to a slightly wistful Blair, as if to say she wishes she were
more of a good girl. But this is the extent of Blair’s punishment:
the audience knows she’ll stay the way she is, because she’s what
keeps them tuning in.
And Gossip Girl‘s
school-age swinging hardly captures the broad reality of teen sexuality;
other shows, like Friday Night Lights and even the loathsome
Secret Life of the American Teenager do a better job of showing
varied maturity among teens. Some characters on those shows are sexually
active, others are not. Gossip Girl chooses to focus exclusively
on the "fast crowd" for frothy entertainment (and to make sure
that there are partner-switching permutations in seasons to come).
But the over-heated ad campaigns for Gossip Girl offers a glimmer
of hope that’s less racy: if all this teen sex is being purposely
re-cast as scandalous, it suggests that adolescent sexuality
is no longer that wild in and of itself. The ads are trying to reinvent
taboos, because if teen soaps were really taboo, the show wouldn’t
be on the air.
The truth for adolescents actually
lies between the Puritan misogyny of the Republican platform and the
attempt at shock Gossip Girl offers. For young people,
whose sexual and emotional development is hardly uniform, there are
a range of options in between the abstinence/childbearing catch-22 and
the "using others for revenge-sex" option. Choices like finding
a new partner, using birth control, experimenting safely, or even having
an abortion can all be good, wise choices. For many teens these
choices–as Gossip Girl acknowledges with a gay character
and as the Republicans ignore–will involve same-sex partners.
The Republicans hope to take away
that range of choices
for teens. But their unflinching attitude is starting to sit uncomfortably
with the public, particularly in the wake of the
Gossip Girl may be a fantasy, but its viewers understand the reality:
teenagers are sexual beings, and it’s better for them to be prepared
than in the dark.