RIP Gossip Girl. In the weeks since the series finale I’ve been obsessively seeking meaning, reading summaries in The New Yorker, and aimlessly searching Chuck Bass Tumblrs. I’m feeling wistful pangs of withdrawal, and trying to decide what my love for all this glittery mess says about who I am, and the nature of my guilty pleasures. Much like the characters on Gossip Girl, pleasure doesn’t make me feel the guilty part. Instead I luxuriate in it, finding intellectual and aesthetic justifications, drowning happily in the ridiculousness of the melodrama. If it isn’t guilt, though, what do these pleasures make me feel, and should they make me feel guilty? Gossip Girl has inspired me to look for the answers.
A heady six seasons of masquerade balls and hipster cotillions, the show follows a group of insanely rich, good-looking upper-East side high school students, who are (briefly) college students before embarking on grown-up pastimes like socialite, famous novelist, fashion designer, and hotel mogul. They fall in and out of love with each other in impressively complicated geometries, drink martinis, canoodle with high-priced escorts, open speakeasies, and maintain love/hate relationships with the mean-spirited, anonymous blogger who somehow knows all their dirt. Anyone vaguely gothy or artsy is written off or banished to London.
Gossip Girl’s thesis statement is all pleasure and zero guilt, the appeal and detriment both. Is this dizziness just what pleasure feels like when unadulterated by guilt? Pleasure invokes the senses, and the satisfaction of sensual desires being met or, more interestingly, not met, which fascinates me. After all, when desires aren’t met, there’s the promise or suggestion they will be and so we have to wait. That kind of waiting is my favorite thing to do and yet this type of consumption feels a tad irresponsible too. Every once in awhile I’d pause and notice something sneaky at work on Gossip Girl, a shiny, inculpable cruelty, or narrative laziness. In those moments I must admit I worried, but forged anxiously ahead. After all, maybe it was trying to teach me guilt is part of the fun, an emphasis, not a contradiction, to the pleasure.
Here is a show with clever touches such as a Prada Marfa sign hanging in the swanky penthouse, and a dad who used to be in a 90’s grunge band, before marrying Lisa Loeb. Sonic Youth guest starred, both playing songs and having Kim Gordon officiate a wedding. Not to mention, I regularly Shazam-ed songs that crooned during rooftop plummets and frantic cab hailing. Crystal Fighters, whose mode of discovery I kept a deep, dark secret, are my favorite. It’s also worth mentioning Ed Westwick (Chuck Bass) is in a rock band, The Filthy Youth, the extent of whose oeuvre seems to be videos on YouTube with comments about him being Chuck Bass (and/or hot), reactions that must disappoint him. Then, of course, there’s the fashion. I preferred Serena’s look: boots, over-sized necklaces, fishtail braids…wait…why do I have an opinion on this? Every legitimate compliment I might pay Gossip Girl only makes me more uncertain I should love it so much, as if a tiny bit of real-world cool is worth a lot more than it ought to be.
Our profound and complicated lives are full of sensations, artifacts and aesthetic choices. Guilty pleasures are the diversionary details, no more or less true about us than anything else. They’re definitely true though, and that’s worth acknowledging as we fall under their spells. What we choose as our indulgence and why is our ink blot, fans and anthropologists both. After all, I like fashion, Sonic Youth, cute bad boys, speakeasies, gossip, and Marfa, and feel the opposite of guilt about those interests. I was a teenager in the 90’s and have a soft spot for grunge bands too. Any show that contains these elements is going to get my attention, though inevitably I wonder if it’s merely the references that amuse me, and there I rest perpetually between immersed and uneasy. One of my most smarty-pants friends (with a PhD no less!) has seen every episode twice, an eccentric predilection I instinctively admire, perhaps because it seems so unexpected for him. I would love to watch an episode with his brain though, and that’s kind of interesting too, because what is it exactly that I worry my brain is missing or unconsciously absorbing?
The guilty pleasure is by nature transitory, devoured and forgotten. Zen-like, it inhabits only the present, and there’s something pure about that. But the most provocative appeal is the guilty pleasure’s lack of apology for its exploits, something Gossip Girl perfected. That lack of apology makes me relieved, entertained, full of the best kind of irreverence and amnesia. Glamour trumps difficulty. Real life rules do not apply, nor do real life concerns need revelation or solution. Instead, bagging our sulky, brooding bad boy is everything we hoped it would be. We cultivate fraudulent identities, survive airplane crashes, and publish short stories in The New Yorker when we are 19. It’s not about catharsis or recognition. Ultimately it makes me wonder if the content, and analysis therein, is beside the point. The point is the ritual of the pleasure: the wine I pour, the blanket I pull over myself, the quiet of my apartment when I’m alone (you have to be alone to watch Gossip Girl). It all feels so good it’s outrageous. There, outside of itself, is the guilty pleasure’s true power, in the spaces it creates.
Speaking of that space, I watched Gossip Girl over many delicious years. I watched the infamous Season 2 (Chuck and Blair spend it refusing to say “I Love You”) and waited with giddy impatience for them to SAY IT. As long as they didn’t though, something perfect was happening, something that encapsulates the thrill of the guilty pleasure. The frustration, the suspense, the sighing, the eye-rolls; they dragged themselves out in lavish, hilarious, unsustainable splendor. In the upcoming weeks I’ll be without it all, which is probably a good thing. Like a steamy love affair I threw myself into headlong, but never quite took seriously, Gossip Girl and I were so good while we lasted.