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For the Fans of Dan: A Closer Look at “Gossip Girl”

by Patrick McDonald 2 January 2009 454 views 2 Comments E-mail Patrick McDonald
There may be more to your favorite guilty pleasure...

There may be more to your favorite guilty pleasure...

If you’re a fan of Gossip Girl,” have you ever wondered why the show is so appealing? Really probed that dark matter between your ears for an answer that goes beyond the rote answers of hot girls, hot guys, and hot parents; lots of money, nice cars, and, did I already mention, hot guys? Beyond those superficial aspects, have you ever considered the philosophical reasoning behind your seemingly explicable fascination with New York City prep school opulence and precocious yet starving sixteen-year-olds? I know the answers abound, and I don’t assume to know all the different shades explaining why we love this salacious show, however, after much reflection and rumination, I think I’ve stumbled across a reason that is both controversial and different enough from other “Gossip Girl” explications to warrant a close read of this article.

Like most well written literature (including screenplays), the thematic content of Gossip Girls weaves together a variety of humor, dramatic tension, and character development. But, for the sake of simplicity, I’ll limit this critique to two. On the surface is the pretense: a beguiling mix of beauty, lust, and vicarious longings from us couch dwellers. This is where most scholars would drop there quill and retire to their pedantic ritual of reading. But we television mavens are not so quick to judge, we endure, waiting for a glimmer of intellectual cud to regurgitate out of Serena’s tortured teen mind–does she don the title of Queen Bee, acquiescing to the pressures of high school’s external forces, or does she stick true to her heart and transcend the vapid, petty drama?

It’s satirical because it’s outlandish. These scenarios are so out of touch with the reality of high school. But that’s the magic of Hollywood. They whittle the dreary, forgettable real, into the tantalizing unreal that only writers once idealistic, dreaming of writing a profound character piece that would get picked up from an independent film festival because of it’s bold cinematic style—shot with all the saturation and silence of an avant-garde film, brimming with stridently powerful acting—but now, these once stalwart writers are reduced to abject disillusionment, and settle for a paycheck, adapting a best selling teen novel for the little screen.

But the show isn’t just a satire of a prep school in the unruly but affluent streets of New York City. Instead, they furtively poke fun at the audience, at all those current high school students that adore the show to hysterical levels of zeal. It’s as if the show acts as a mirror for these young viewers, but without them seeing their reflections. The characters are too unrealistic, too beautiful, to rich to even come close to parodying meek and meager them. In effect, they laugh at themselves for an hour, or forty minutes if they’re TiVo savvy, and don’t even realize their complicity. Once comprehended, the message is so salient and clear, that sometimes I can hear the writers themselves chuckle at their guile, at their little show, masquerading as a satirical comedy, pretending to deride only the rich, prep school students in upper Manhattan.

This simple classification of the show is a pretense—the obvious first layer. What’s really happening, in the dark chasms below, where the bitter writers reside, is a show that makes fun of the very people watching it: the full spectrum of high school students. It’s those boorish, obnoxious jocks; those coy, platinum blonde babes; those chiseled chin, muscle laden, protein pounding Abercrombie “models”; and those insecure, deceptive faux ingénues, clinging to older, predatory (or pragmatic) boys with the hopes of climbing the high school popularity latter to glory. It’s all those stereotypes that, perhaps on a lesser scale, permeate the locker rooms, the halls, and the class rooms. The same high school superficial politics that engender “Gossip Girl” story lines also exists in all high schools nation wide. Granted, your high school may not reach the absurd levels of conniving that occurs at those elite prep schools, but there is some truth in the social scheme of “Gossip Girl.”

Every high school comes equipped with hormonally charged males hurling lewd remarks at giggling, well-endowed girls; I’ve seen it, and so have you. Every high school deals with its own drama, its own promiscuous girls, its own valuation of cool, its own social hierarchy. “Gossip Girl,” at least, calls attention to these high school follies, and reproaches it as a broken system. But like all systems, it came from somewhere. It came from our competitive American spirits, the driving mechanism in our society. We’re always looking for ways to quantify our self worth and our value. In high school the valuation is skewed in favor of people that possess attributes that aren’t readily accessible. This way of measuring worth—through looks, athletic skill, humor—has its consequences for a society trying to be equal and fair. In fact, it has quite the harrowing opposite effect: cruelty, unfairness, and intolerance, especially for the geeky, nerdy, or eccentric. This high school system has become so typical that we sometimes fail to see the hardship that beleaguers the outsiders. The writers, many of them probably thought of as outsiders at their own high schools, made sure to illustrate this backwards issue through a character that didn’t think twice about refuting the seemingly insurmountable, natural order of high school.

And who do these writers pick as their shows hero to outshine all? The outsider from the poor side of town, Dan Humphrey. He’s the coolest guy since Seth on the O.C., oh wait, he’s exactly like Seth (minus the morbid fascination with men in spandex, shooting laser out there eyes, or gutting robots with retractable kitchen blades). This is Seth 2.0, he doesn’t just settle for Jack Kerouac’s over referenced, accessible On the Road allusions. Nor does he waste his time with comic books. No, Dan is an upgrade from the Newport teen cynic, to a manly, baritone-voiced New York cynic. He immerses himself in grave material, like poetry, and aspires to be the next writer—a Hank Moody meets Hunter S. Thomson, but with a splash of Thomas Freidman insight, and a touch of Orwellian foresight, and with the dry humor of…who’s really funny? oh yeah, Demetri Martin, meets; you get the idea. He’s this intellectual powerhouse, who can rattle off opportune ironic rebukes with the ease of dolt’s ability to stammer. It’s almost unfair for those of us that actually go against the gradient and pursue the arts with as much fervor as Dan. He sets the precedent too high. Not all of us humanitarians, writers, painters, filmmakers, and musicians know, or knew, how to dress with such keen attention to what’s hip, but not too hip, tiptoeing tastefully on the fringe what’s in vogue. Not to say that I disapprove of Dan’s jaunty wardrobe, I wish I had his eye for becoming clothing. In fact, a moment of silence please, while I lament my dismal fashion sense during the dour days of high school. Okay, they weren’t that bad. But if I only knew the alluring charm of skinny jeans and the irresistible bare nape of v-necks that attract girls like an axe commercial, my high school existence may have been slated in some other, more sexually fulfilled category. Rather than the unfulfilled, hopeless one you’ve seen in a Seth Rogen film.

But that mild diatribe on Dan was only a caveat, a minor grievance; it’s not his fault. That’s why I’m not denouncing his character; it’s the nature of fiction. Hollywood typically resorts to this kind of hackneyed yet idealized character portrayal. Instead of taking the time to cook up a complex character that may confuse us, they whip up a conventional good guy, like Dan. No confusion there, he’s the protagonist. But that doesn’t mean he’s flawless either. Dan, after all, is apt to make mistakes. This only highlights his humanity. In fact, it’s easy to suspend our disbelief if the character has some ounce of rebelliousness. This emotional inclination for the wild side of life will, invariably, lead him or her to an act of disobedience. But then, conversely, that character also posses a pension for redemption (Dan’s case seems to be the typical: a comely disposition and a disarming smile). Immutably, we, the audience, exonerate the character of all wrongdoings. The bottom line is that Dan Humphrey, although a bit cliché, is still a fresh character, which is important. Otherwise, he couldn’t warrant the social commentary that his character symbolizes. He’s the outsider’s plight, as well as, the capacity to rise above adversity.

Even though he’s a bit too suave for anyone to emulate, that wasn’t the intention. He isn’t supposed to make the rest of us artists feel ashamed at our limited scope of talents or, for some, our social debilitations. Rather, he’s an archetype of a passionate individual, no matter what the circumstances, high school or no high school. He inspires the down trodden to aspire, to walk boldly, to drum their passions across the lockers, lining the high school hallways. If you feel timid, ask why doesn’t Dan? Do you think he cares what people think about him for reading poetry? His conviction gives him confidence; and his confidence is intoxicating. If you’re a high school girl, you’d probably out with Dan. He’s the guy girls want to be with, not the pompous captain of the lacrosse team, or whatever sport is glamorized at your high school. But for all those girls, salivating at the thought of Dan, realize that there are probably guys like him at your own high school, although it’s likely that they’re unseen and unappreciated. And as for those introverts, or confident deficient Dans, put yourself out there; stop lurching about and showcase your abilities.

Therefore, I implore to look deeper into the show, to look behind the witty zingers that bounce effortlessly off of Blair, Dan, and Serena. The writers, without sounding didactic, are sending a surreptitious message with each show through many layers of satire. The first layer is ridiculing rich kids going to high school on the Upper East Side. The second layer, pokes fun at all high school students, even the ones watching the show, that partake in deception, hierarchy, and pretentiousness. It’s a Russian doll of satire. If you can find the inner doll, you can hear the writers saying: look beyond the pettiness of high school cliques; if you think they’re absurd and senseless on “Gossip Girl,” than they’re just as absurd at your own high school. Don’t deride the “Dan Humphreys,” but embrace your own artisan burning inside you.

I don’t want to sound preachy, but if you want your lessons wrapped in sardonic wit, which is the best medium of delivery, watch “Gossip Girl.” But, in case you don’t, I’ll summarize the writers, and Dan’s, philosophy in three words: live your passion. Do this and you may attain that cherished, elusive feeling of fulfillment.

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  • ;; said:

    This article just seems like a lot of overly-descriptive musings that might be best left on the pages of your journal-at least, until it’s been refined.

    Hollywood did not ‘whip up’ Dan’s good guy character- if you’d read the books, you’d see that Dan is not the hero type, at all. The actor wanted to act Dan in a different way and asked the director to change it.

    I think people do like GG because of it’s overly dramatic plot that somehow mirrors their own- but I disagree that the writers are making a satire of high school. Okay, maybe with Blair’s clique- but the writers go deeper than that with the characters- they make them human. Rather than make fun of the viewers or the characters, they’re making the character’s plights the same as everybody else’s- death, love and rejection.

    Also, I don’t think Dan is the most lusted after character in GG. He might be the one you identify with/are jealous of most, but girls are pretty shallow and Nate is probably the most attractive guy on the show.

  • thepopfix said:

    you’re right, Nate is more lusted after. I probably should have just asked my sister and then written about Dan in my journal. But I don’t have one. Thanks for reading my article!

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