Rich & [Performatively] Woke: The Gossip Girl reboot for 2021
Like many venturing forth to watch that first episode of the new Gossip Girl on BBC One, I was dubious. For starters, the BBC seemed like a strange platform to be accessing it. I also felt – and it appears the producers sensed this too – that you couldn’t remake a 2000s classic in 2021. Amid the sleuth of negative reviews and 2-star ratings, I wanted to take a moment to praise the Gossip Girl reboot for what it does do – and explore why it doesn’t quite hit the spot.
The world is a not the innocent place it felt in 2007, when Blair and Serena first blessed our screens in their Gucci and Givenchy. Today’s youth are painfully aware of this; the technological revolution that spanned the last decade means there’s no escaping into the blissful ignorance of your own little bubble. Social media connects us to an extreme spectrum of visual content, from exotic holiday photoshoots to the realities of life in war-torn areas. Injustices and inequalities rise to the forefront – and bring with them with a pressure for [inevitably performative] social activism.
I’ve read criticism of leading character Obie Bergmann IV (played by Eli Brown), labelled as one of the “guilty rich” who first appears scruffy and unshowered, donut in hand. He’s talking about a social justice-y lecture he’s just bought a ticket to. Obie is certainly no Chuck Bass, but anyone who’s encountered today’s elite knows this is not at all an inaccurate portrayal – I’ve encountered many a private school boy during my time at university who dresses head to toe in carefully mismatched second-hand “finds” and holds a surprisingly keen interest for housing rights (in theory).
There’s a surface earnestness to this generation’s Gossip Girl that is unexpected, but perhaps unsurprising. The decision to engage with contemporary topics is a necessity stemming from the same pressure the reboot’s characters feel; a pressure to remain relevant, on the correct side of the conversation.
The original Gossip Girl was grittier we immediately remember; after all, they did address class inequality (ugh, she lives in Brooklyn?) and difficult topics such as drug use, suicide, LGBTQ+ issues, and teenage pregnancy. For some reason, despite the depth of these topics and the adequately delicate way they were handled (for the time) they never seemed to dominate the stage. This is not the case in 2021’s Gossip Girl.
I do not take issue with this. I think, in today’s world, it would have been difficult to make it any other way; however, I do find the contemporary issues they chose to highlight a little disappointing.
Topics explored include “cancel culture” and virtue signalling, representative branding, beauty standards and online identities. There is a bemusing fixation on issues surrounding social media and contemporary technology. Even the promotional content follows this theme, with images of the new characters’ faces appearing on jauntily angled smartphone screens, in order to – I can only assume – demonstrate how “current” the series is.
2021’s characters suffer from too much self-awareness and not enough self-esteem; an affliction from which the series suffers as a whole. It feels constrained, tentatively nudging at boundaries, doubling back to justify itself. The glaringly obvious topics to address are shied away from – with conversation on race, for example, confined to the occasional appearance of a “Black Owned” slogan tote bag despite the series featuring two Black “Queen Bees” circumnavigating a notoriously historically White society.
Characters pointedly state that they don’t peer pressure, that it’s fine not to drink, that no one minds if you’re queer, and that they have given their consent. Executive producer and showrunner Joshua Safran went as far as to tweet: “No slut shaming, no catfights… GG2 is sex positive and our characters use their brains, not their brawn, to take you out!”
This is where the reboot goes wrong. It could have been incredibly interesting to see what happens when you combine these progressive values with a setting in which they clearly do not sit naturally. Instead, we’re left with an oddly utopian hyper-realist portrayal of teenage high society looking in all the wrong directions. While professing to go deep, 2021’s Gossip Girl sticks to shallow waters.
This is not its only issue. Despite its obsessive self-consciousness the series manages to be woefully paced, with confusing character development and plots that march on so rapidly I had to double back to check I hadn’t missed an episode. The ever-changing rivalries that defined the original Gossip Girl are present but almost caricatured, with characters yo-yoing between loyalties and relationships at a dizzying speed more suitable for series-spanning plotlines.
This is likely due to the unusually low episode count for an American series; 6 episodes just does not provide the breathing space for stories to unfold naturally.
All in all, Gossip Girl 2021 is not awful television. It still makes for easy watching. For what it aims to be, it performs acceptably: bringing together a genuinely lovely cast of young, cool, artistic individuals and creating a world of glamourised streetwear and marble-walled bathrooms for them to play in. There are some stunningly beautiful sets and the costumes come straight from a hip twenty-something’s Depop dreams.
It is clear though, that the charm of Gossip Girl is lost in a gritty, contrivedly “realistic” 2021. It makes me wonder if the original would have ever worked in a more “realistic” 2007 – would Blair have had the same appeal if she spent her time idolising Audre Lorde instead of Audrey Hepburn, or Lonely Boy blogging on the global financial crisis instead of obsessing over his own victimisation?
Often forcefully earnest and performatively “woke”, this 2021 reboot is fun to watch, and definitely moorish – but it isn’t Gossip Girl. And it falls painfully short of what the revamp could have been.