Gossip Girl and The New Yorker

November 18, 2008 | 1 book mentioned 3 2 min read

coverFor some weeks now, in a pretense to professorial hipness, I’ve been using the TV show Gossip Girl as a sort of all-purpose pop-cultural referent with my students. Whenever I’m at a loss to explain a concept, I say something like, “This would be like on Gossip Girl, if Blair Waldorf told Serena van der Woodsen…” The ugly truth, however, is that I’ve never seen the show.

My students seem to take this in stride, and to find it both hilarious and tragic that I imagine it to be a cultural touchstone for their generation. In fact, they tell me, it is more of a cultural touchstone for mine. Other teachers apparently share my delusion that Gossip Girl is the central televisual event of the lives of undergraduates. Meanwhile, the undergraduates order Six Feet Under from Netflix.

So where, one wonders, did the Gossip Girl meme gain traction? I can’t answer for my colleagues, but Gossip Girl got my own attention through two roundabout connections with The New Yorker magazine. First, Janet Malcolm (of all people) penned an essay on the literary merits of the book series on which the show is based. Malcolm was critical of the TV adaptation, but noted, of the books, that

adolescence is a delicious last gasp (the light is most golden just before the shadows fall) of rightful selfishness and cluelessness… I would like to go on telling Blair stories until they are gone.

Then, Wallace Shawn – a great playwright and actor and the son of the late New Yorker editor William Shawnlanded a recurring role as Blair’s mother’s boyfriend. “The life of an actor can be very enviable,” Shawn told the New York Times this week. “If the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I see you as the leader of a group of aliens with enormous heads… I think that’s fantastic.”

That its glancing acquaintance with these two writers was enough, in my mind, to establish Gossip Girl’s centrality to the zeitgeist probably says more about The New Yorker’s role as a taste-maker for the thirtysomething set than it does about the CW’s role as a taste-maker for teens. Still, the primetime hours have not been quite the same for me since The O.C. went off the air. Janet Malcolm, literary to the end, would have me fill them with Gossip Girl books, but with Wallace Shawn joining the cast, I’m tempted to brave her disapproval and start watching the show.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.


  1. I watch it. For what it is, it's pretty good, the dialogue is good and clever and alot of times even drops some literary references. The plotting is pretty lame and they almost always use a "someone overhears something he shouldn't have or sees something he shouldn't have" lazy crutch to further the plot. It's no gilmore girls but then what is. And umm, the chicks are hot.

  2. I think part of the reason it makes such an impact for the late 20-30's set is that the lives of these teenagers much more closely resembles the dream-lives of much older, more settled individuals. To my knowledge, not only does the average 17 year old not spend the night sipping martinis at a bar and gallivanting about town in a limo, but that's not what they're shooting for anyway. Also- there was an incredible fuss made about the show that weighs much heavier on its 'older' viewers. It became very culturally relevant for all of the respectable coverage it got in major media, and for the controversy surrounding its content. My guess is that the 19year old college kids don't give a damn about cultural critique or media controversy, unless their film kids- and 20 year old film kids would sooner cut their own throats than admit to watching Gossip Girl no matter how good it is.

  3. I definitely agree with the idea that adults (of the early 30s and onward variety) care a lot more about Gossip Girl than anyone else. Sure the tween set reads the books and the mid-older teens (supposedly watch it for the fashion) but a) there are quite a few book series hip with the tween set, GG doesn't really stand out and b) I believe I read a report somewhere that the tv show's actual ratings from week to week is not as proportionally high as it's media exposure.

    I just started to watch it — I'm sorta a film kid — and it IS a pretty addictive replacement for the OC. I can get away with it by saying I watch it ironically. Something like that.

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