How Gossip Girl Got Creepy

HBO Max’s reboot of the soapy teen drama is a reminder that overexposure isn’t just the realm of teens anymore.

Still from HBO Max's 'Gossip Girl' reboot
Karolina Wojtasik / HBO Max

The late Janet Malcolm, writing about the Gossip Girl novels for The New Yorker in 2008, delighted in the heartlessness of the teenage characters—their voyeuristic cruelty and the sharp satisfaction they take in the downfall of their peers. What the series understands, Malcolm wrote, is that “children are a pleasure-seeking species, and that adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness.” Why else do adults cherish teen drama, particularly on television? Its most predictable element, apart from conspicuous wealth and a photogenic class of aspirants, is usually malice. Older and wiser, we can enjoy watching it precisely because, as divorced from our own experiences as it might be in some ways, it also reminds us why we don’t want to go back.

There’s little malice in HBO Max’s rebooted Gossip Girl, because the nature of teenage scandal has changed, something that dooms the show even before it rolls out its robotic characters and their dreary schemes. The CW’s first adaptation of Gossip Girl debuted in 2007, the same year as the iPhone, and although its Upper East Side–set protagonists informed on one another—texting pictures and snippets of sightings to the show’s titular blogger—they hadn’t yet been habituated to inform on themselves, via Instagram and TikTok and the confessional tendencies of the extremely online. Blair Waldorf (played with irresistible insouciance by Leighton Meester) could be awful because being awful wasn’t yet a cancelable offense. Now, though, the specter of Gossip Girl hovers over the students of Constance Billard School more menacingly than before—less a bitchy BFF, more Big Brother. Instead of watching for hookups, drugs, eating disorders (the kinds of things teenagers have long since destigmatized), she’s on the lookout for behavior that her readers might term “problematic.”

The added menace is, in part, because of the reboot’s nonsensical premise. In the earlier series, like the books, Gossip Girl was an anonymous online chronicler of the misadventures of a group of privileged New York City teenagers, a “Page Six” for the private-school set. In the first episode of the reboot, a teacher at Constance Billard (played by the Rookie magazine founder Tavi Gevinson) comes across the Gossip Girl archives, which she likens to “a lost Edith Wharton novel.” Infuriated by her students’ insolence and disproportionate power, Gevinson’s Kate Keller persuades a few co-workers to revive Gossip Girl as a watchdog to provoke better behavior. They start on Twitter, where no one notices (because, in one teacher’s words, it’s “a glorified chat room for meme sharing, conspiracy theorists, and Lin-Manuel Miranda”), but eventually moves to Instagram, where her revelations quickly catch fire, and consume Kate more than anyone. The more influential the new Gossip Girl becomes, the more preoccupied the teachers become with their new power, and with the teens they’re supposed to be cultivating.

Apart from the setup, which implicates viewers more than anyone—the obsessive investment of a bunch of so-called grown-ups in the lives of beautiful young adults feels creepy at best—the new show is a carbon copy of the old one, only less white and less straight. The Queen Bee rivalry previously occupied by Blair and Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) has been taken up by Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander), an influencer and It Girl, and Zoya Lott (Whitney Peak), a freshman who’s also Julien’s secret half sister. One difference is that the school setting is purely a decorative backdrop for social-media activity—no one is seen attending class or studying or obsessing over getting into Yale like their forebears. As a teacher says, “Who needs an education when you’re famous for putting on your makeup?” Instead, the students plot out their schedule of daily Instagram posts with the expertise and discipline of General Patton invading Normandy. “I want to be more real, more honest, more vulnerable,” Julien tells her school friends and de facto brand consultants, Monet (Savannah Lee Smith) and Luna (Zión Moreno), who are horrified at this unlikely pivot away from exceptionalism. She concludes, “I’m gonna get a crêpe. Film me eating it?”

So who is this cynical, glossy goat rodeo supposed to be for? It’s hard to imagine actual teenagers recognizing their lives within it, given that every time the kids in the show are on their phone, they’re scrolling through Net-a-Porter instead of TikTok. The reboot is more sexually explicit than the original, in ways that feel positive (sexual fluidity comes up) and negative (the show plays exhaustingly on the “evil bisexual” trope and frames a physical relationship between a teacher and a student as tender and affirming). The characters are racially more diverse than before, but the narrative pays almost no attention to that fact. Virtually everyone is wealthy, and beautiful. Occasionally, people mention their “privilege,” as unemotionally as if they’re stating their eye color. Although the two main characters are Black, the show does little by way of exploring what that means for them over the first four episodes, even though racism within New York City private schools is a topic that seems well worth digging into.

Gossip Girl’s showrunner, Joshua Safran (who executive-produced the original show), is in his late 40s, which is maybe why the reboot rarely connects with its characters; instead, it seems to feel faintly sorry for these icons of doomed youth, as constrained by their self-presentation as they are. (“This is the land of schadenfreude on Adderall,” Luna tells Zoya. “You need to curate your image as meticulously as a Gagosian show.”) Even before Gevinson’s Kate dragged Edith Wharton into this mess, I couldn’t help thinking about the grasping divorcée Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, and how her “sense of reviving popularity … refurbished that image of herself in other minds which was her only notion of self-seeing.” The characters in Gossip Girl 2.0 are aware of the fact that their fixation with coming off the right way online is messing with their mind—“I spent so much time putting forward this idea of me that I just forgot who I was a little,” Julien says in one scene—but rather than use this knowledge to figure out their actual interests, they rotely turn revelation into yet more content.

Wharton, some readers have argued, may have based the two lovers of The Age of Innocence, the starchy Newland Archer and the bohemian Ellen Olenska, on the dueling instincts within herself—the impulse to flee a society steeped in mindless conformism and rigid convention, and the impulse to find comfort within its rules. The characters of Gossip Girl, raised entirely online, can’t imagine any kind of escape, and so they just observe and expose one another again and again. (“Let the play within the play begin,” Max [Thomas Doherty] says as the kids peacock into the opening night of a new Jeremy O. Harris production at the Public; they’ve planned several offstage micro-dramas of their own over the course of the evening.) But their behavior is contagious and it seeps beyond generational lines. Kate and the other teachers become as obsessed with Gossip Girl and various petty rivalries as their students. A different teacher, seeking notoriety of his own, exposes himself on Instagram. Parents hide partners who don’t fit into their personal brand and refine their self-presentation in ways that they hope will please others. The thrill of a teen drama such as Gossip Girl used to be in watching the kind of misbehavior that plays out behind doors closed to elders. Now the doors are wide open, and everyone’s watching everyone.