Penn Badgley, who plays Dan Humphrey in the hit TV show Gossip Girl, recognizes the negative ideals displayed by the show that launched him to fame. Gossip Girl is an American teen soap opera based on the book series by Cecily von Ziegesar. The show welcomes viewers into the exclusive, luxury world of the wealthy and connected as they try to live their lives despite the drama that comes with their power, reputation and wealth. The story follows Dan Humphrey, the so-called lonely boy and Brooklyn outsider, as he tries to fit in with the privileged teens who lead turbulent, exorbitant lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Gossip Girl has been a controversial show since it first aired. The Parents Television Council continually criticized the show for its sexual content, profanity and other inappropriate behaviors and at one point named it the worst television program of the week. Meanwhile, After only it’s second season New York magazine designated it the “Greatest Teen Drama of All Time”. The magazine writes that "the show has resurrected the potential for scripted dramas to be effective social satire—to present a world more accurately than a "reality" program can. Gossip Girl presents a wealth-eye view of the city, but because it is a cartoon we can laugh along with the conspicuousness of the consumption" (Pressler, Rovzar). Although, like the writers of that article, I am a fan of the show, but my interpretation of it is quite different. Gossip Girl was intended to be a social satire; however, it actually promotes the corrupted ideals it mocks because of the need for fan approval. In this paper, I will examine how in trying to critique society, Gossip Girl inadvertently equates money with happiness and distorts perceptions of class by romanticizing the negative aspects of upper class New York society. Through textual analysis of the show, a survey I conducted among viewers, and reviews and analysis from other authors I will argue how the show looks down on the lower class; glamorizes materialism, corruption, and narcissism; and conveys that some people will always be excluded from the “Gossip Girl” world. Ultimately, the privileged Upper East Side lifestyle is a metaphor for the American Dream. While the show presents this lifestyle as the goal, it also suggest that like the modern day American Dream, it is unattainable.

While Gossip Girl was intended to mock immoral societal values, the plot actually romanticizes materialism, ego and moral corruption to create drama and viewer interest. The character of Blair Waldorf exemplifies consumerism and obsession with material items. Blair is known as the Queen Bee of the Upper East Side. She is intelligent and talented but competitive, egotistical, and ruthless. She defines herself by others’ perceptions of her. Most of all she is known for her fashion, everything she wears is articulately planning and exceedingly pricey. As she says, “Fashion knows not of comfort. All that matters is the face that you show the world”. Although her shopping exploits would be considered excession by many normal Americans, as sociology professor Evan Cooper points out, the show never condemns Blair for being frivolous and extravagant. The continuous reference to and display of designer items, expensive vacations, luxury cars and parties contributes a “brand-name” culture (Pattee). Media texts such as TV shows are known as unofficial socializing agents. Media should not shape our societal values and view of the world, but nevertheless they do. (Bindig).

“Media operate as ideological state apparatuses (ISAs). ISAs persuade individuals to adopt a particular worldview or ideology not by force, but rather through subtle, consistent repetition to a point where these ideologies become naturalized or take for granted….the stories they disseminate tend to focus on selling products and maintaining conditions that benefit capitalist institutions.” (Bindig)
This is exactly how Gossip Girl encourages materialism. Although it is supposed to be an satire, the constant reference to material possessions and money suggests that we should value these things. One of Blair’s most famous quotes is, “Whoever said money doesn’t buy happiness didn’t know where to shop”. Moreover, at one point Blair claims that one of the most important things to look for in a relationship is the significant other’s earning potential.

One of the most enticing aspects of Gossip Girl is it’s scandalous drama. The show always introduces new thrills and scandals by having the Upper East Siders stray away from their moral compass. While all of the characters display corrupt behaviors, Chuck Bass is arguably one of the most corrupted. Chuck is one of the most complex characters of the show. While he is often characterized as the devilish, manipulative, womanizing, bad-boy of the show, it is later revealed that underneath his malevolent exterior he truly has a good heart and loves people very deeply. But before he presents his good side for most the show viewers only see the evil in him. A condensed list of Chuck’s misdeeds include, hosting a wild party at the school’s pool that almost kills a student, trying to rape both Serena and Jenny, opening a burlesque club and trying to trick Blair into having sex with his brother in order to gain ownership of the Empire Hotel.

However, it was not only the “spoiled rich kids” that displayed dishonorable behaviors. The show also suggests that people are corrupted by trying to obtain an Upper East Side lifestyle.

Dan and Jenny Humphrey, the upper middle class outsiders, attempt to fit in with their Upper East Side peers, but in the process give up their identities and values. Jenny is star-struck by the glamour of girls like Blair and Serena from the moment she encounters them. Much of Jenny’s actions in the show are motivated by her desire to become an Upper East Side “it-girl” like Blair. She starts to prove herself to her peers through her charming charisma and hard work, but isn’t satisfied by just being one of the “it-girls”. She begins manipulating and deceiving her friends in attempt to replace Blair as the ultimate Queen Bee and secure her place as an Upper East Sider. Her true moment of corruption occurs when steal a $8,000 from one of her friends because of her low self-confidence that stems from not having the same privileged financial status as the other girls. Her friends shun her for her transgression and Jenny realizes how her desire to become an Upper East Sider was changing her. In this moment of clarity she confronts Blair and declares “I lied and I stole and I lost the respect of my family. For what, so I can be like you? You asked me before if it was all worth it. And my answer is, it’s not” (All About My Brother). After many seasons of grappling with her desire to still be a part of world that is a terrible influence on her, Jenny finally gives up on the Upper East Side lifestyle and moves away to escape the damage caused by her life in New York. In contrast to his sister’s greedy longing to obtain the glamour of an Upper East Side lifestyle, Dan’s initial motivation to become part of the social elite seemed much sweeter. Dan wanted to win the affection of Serena Van Der Woodsen. Throughout the series Dan is characterized as a sensitive, romantic, nice guy who occasionally makes mistakes, but only for the sake of love. However, at the conclusion of the series when he is revealed to be the infamous, slandering Gossip Girl it could be said that he is more corrupt than his wealthy peers. When Dan becomes involved with the Upper East Siders he gives up his childhood friends like Vanessa so he won’t be stereotyped as the lonely boy from Brooklyn. Dan appears to succeed at being accepted into the world of the elite; yet, it is not enough for him. He gives up his new social status and friends to make money. He writes a novel “Inside” that exploits the live’s of his friends. His betrayal is labeled despicable even by the most corrupt of the social elite. Yet, in the end, he still gets the girl and everyone lives happily ever after. The rosy ending of the show makes it seem okay to betray friends and family for money. While Jenny gives up on the dream of being an Upper East Sider because she understands the consequences that come with it, Dan is only able to obtain the Upper East Side dream because he marries into it and is willing to corrupt himself. Dan’s “success” undermines the traditional idea that the American Dream is achieved through hard work.

By romanticizing the negative aspects of Upper East Side society, Gossip Girl presents a wealthy, privileged lifestyle as the ideal way to live. However, the show also suggests that like the modern American Dream it is unattainable for most of society. The show equally promotes a privileged lifestyle and makes it seem untouchable by bashing on the lower class. This is primarily seen in the treatment of Dan and Jenny. The show encourages its audience to view Dan and Jenny Humphrey as average, put-upon, middle-class teens. The characters continually define Dan and Jenny as the kids from Brooklyn. Brooklyn is presented as ordinary and less sophisticated to foil the ease and comfort of Manhattan. Brooklyn symbolizes the average American people, while Manhattan is the American Dream. This contrast suggests that living in a large loft in Brooklyn makes someone poor, despite the fact the Humphreys’ lifestyle (including expensive private high schools for both children) requires a household income placing them at the very top of the upper middle class. of the As Evan Cooper says, “The tendency to present the top strata of the upper middle class as “normal” and even, at times, as relatively disadvantaged on rich teen soaps also serves to obfuscate class privilege” (Cooper). Moreover, a simple analysis of the names of the characters also reveals a stereotyping of differences and class. All the Upper East Siders are given elegant, royalty-like names such as Serena Van Der Woodsen, Blair Waldorf, and Charles Bass. In comparison to such classy names, Dan and Jenny Humphrey sounds very mediocre. To me, Humphrey sounds like the word frumpy and reminds me of Humpty-Dumpty. Whether or not it was intentional, the names of the characters create a distinct divide in the characterization of the Upper East Siders versus Dan and Jenny.

In addition to bashing on the lower class, Gossip Girl also suggests that the Upper East Side lifestyle is something you must be born into. As demonstrated by the characters of Dan and Jenny, the only way for outsiders to achieve this dream lifestyle is to either marry into it or become corrupt. When Jenny did try to fit in, she was mocked. Although there is such an emphasis on brand-name items defining the status of a person, this rule seems exclusive to the original Upper East Siders. When Jenny attempts to dress like Blair and wear brand-name items she is seen as a pathetic joke. For example, when Jenny buys a brand-name dress from a discount store Blair immediately spots her as a fraud. She observes that “Jenny was wearing a loud grandma-style dress of dubious design . . . She and Nate looked like tacky kids from the suburbs out on their prom night” (Because I’m Worth It 14). Although Jenny went out of her way to buy a dress that should have allowed her to fit in, her attempt at making herself equal to her peers is immediately rendered pitiable. Jenny’s failed attempts to be accepted by her privileged peers proves to viewers how unattainable the wish for wealth and luxury might be.
Gossip Girl’s themes of romanticizing corruption and putting the Upper East Side lifestyle on a pedestal are present outside of the plot line of the show. First, Gossip Girl further glorified the scandal the show by mocking critical responses of the show. The Parents Television Council (PTC) was routinely the harshest critic of the show. However, Gossip Girl used the PTC’s uproar to advertise the show. Gossip Girl launched a string of steamy advertisements that used criticisms from the PTC. The ads included quotes like "Every Parent 's Nightmare", "Mind-Blowingly Inappropriate" and "A Nasty Piece of Work" to intrigue viewers. Second, due to it’s vast success, the television network The CW created a virtual game, Gossip Girl’s Second Life, based off of the television show for fans to participate in the glamorous life of Gossip Girl (Stein). This game allows fans to make an avatar, explore the hotspots of the Upper East Side’s upper class, and essentially feel as if they are one of the characters. A virtual reality game that allows users to experience the lifestyle of the wealthy promotes the idea that “normal” people should want to live a luxury life like the characters from the show. It also subliminally reinforces the idea that “normal” people probably won’t ever be able to achieve that level of success, therefore, our only chance to experience it is through a game. In a way, Gossip Girl’s Second Life is like the American Dream. The American Dream has been construed to mean that people should strive to live like the characters of Gossip Girl. However, the reality is we can’t live like the characters in Gossip Girl, so we construct different realities like Gossip Girl’s Second Life and ideas like the American Dream to make us think we can. That is what The American Dream is, our own virtual reality of a lifestyle we desire, but will never attain.

Gossip Girl attempts to critique society through characters like Chuck and Jenny, but fails because of the contrasting, negative ideals it displays. As established earlier, Jenny acts as a critique through her realization of her own corruption and choice to escapes the world of “Gossip Girl”. However, the critique can easily be overlooked, because her character disappears halfway through the series. Moreover, her brother is much more prominent of a character and chooses the exact opposite route as Jenny by allowing himself to be corrupted by Upper East Side society. In season 4, the show presents Chuck as a social critique. Chuck travels to Prague to escape New York and after being mugged and shot he creates a fake name and persona as he no longer wants to be the manipulative, misguided Chuck Bass. He leads a modest life in Prague as a working man and for the first time seems truly happy. This conveys how money and power doesn’t guarantee happiness. However, he eventually returns to his life as Chuck Bass and vows to become more twisted, wealthy and powerful as ever. So yet again, the social critique is lost. The social satire of the show is overpowered by the negative messages promoted in the show. Ultimately, the Upper East Side lifestyle of Gossip Girl is a metaphor for the American Dream. By romanticizing the negative aspects that come with wealth and privilege, such as materialism, moral corruption and narcissism, Gossip Girl fails to critique society and instead sends the message that we should desire immoral things. Gossip Girl distorts the perceptions of class within the American Dream by glorifying the upper class but also making it seem exclusive to only certain types of people.