Sex & Relationships

What Republicans Can Learn from "Gossip Girl"

The sordid, trashy teen drama "Gossip Girl" offers a much smarter and more useful take on teen sexuality than the Republican platform.
On Monday night, while the cable pundits restrained themselves during hurricane Gustav, speculated on the GOP convention, and frothed with glee over Palin-gate, a large number of viewers ignored them, instead tuning in to the season premiere of Gossip Girl.

Gossip Girl, with its risqué ad campaign, follows a group of filthy rich teens as they couple and uncouple. Like its predecessors Beverly Hills: 90210, Dawson's Creek, and The OC, the show is on track to have nearly all of its characters bed each other within several plot arcs.

The actual sex on Gossip Girl is just actors stripping down to designer lingerie and then a tasteful fade to black. But what a far cry the world of these Upper East Side lotharios and seductresses is from the world envisioned by the Republican platform, as it is introduced this week.

In the RNC world, sex ought to be confined to procreation and accompanied by marriage. At no point was this clearer than when the party elders heaped praise on Bristol Palin for having a baby and getting married at 17, her decision framed as the "right choice."

There's no such thing, in their world, as young women making other choices -- smart sexual decisions that don't involve abstinence on one hand, or pregnancy on the other.

Offer that restrictive choice to seventeen year old Blair Waldorf, the anti-heroine of Gossip Girl, and she would laugh in your face. On Monday, while the party elders at the RNC shut out pro-choice opinions, Blair opined that sex with a lifeguard was "like a tissue: use once, then throw away." (It's a delicious reversal of the abstinence only-meme that a deflowered woman is compared to used tape, no longer adhesive and thus incapable of attachment.)

Blair later introduced us to a new boy-toy she'd just picked up in Italy, solely for the purpose of making an ex-boyfriend jealous. Clearly, Blair thinks she can have sex for all kinds of reasons, without getting hitched or having a child.

And her unabashed ownership of her sexuality is one of the reasons she's become, in many ways, the face of the show.

Played by Leighton Meester, Blair demands our attention. With her scheming, conniving, self-aware persona, Blair is the heir apparent to Shannen Doherty's Brenda, the "bad girl" you love to hate--or actually, you just love. And this particular bad girl is, in Meester's own words, "quite sexual."

Gossip Girl pushes the envelope, but it falls into traps, too: it reinforces gender stereotypes and objectification, and gives its male characters a pass for churlishly misogynist behavior that veers dangerously towards date-rape territory. When the characters slut-shame Serena, the show portrays this without comment, perpetuating the sexual double standard. Occasionally the camera will pan to a slightly wistful Blair, as if to say she wishes she were more of a good girl. But this is the extent of Blair's punishment: the audience knows she'll stay the way she is, because she's what keeps them tuning in.

And Gossip Girl's school-age swinging hardly captures the broad reality of teen sexuality; other shows, like Friday Night Lights and even the loathsome Secret Life of the American Teenager do a better job of showing varied maturity among teens. Some characters on those shows are sexually active, others are not. Gossip Girl chooses to focus exclusively on the "fast crowd" for frothy entertainment (and to make sure that there are partner-switching permutations in seasons to come).

But the over-heated ad campaigns for Gossip Girl offers a glimmer of hope that's less racy: if all this teen sex is being purposely re-cast as scandalous, it suggests that adolescent sexuality is no longer that wild in and of itself. The ads are trying to reinvent taboos, because if teen soaps were really taboo, the show wouldn't be on the air.

The truth for adolescents actually lies between the Puritan misogyny of the Republican platform and the attempt at shock Gossip Girl offers. For young people, whose sexual and emotional development is hardly uniform, there are a range of options in between the abstinence/childbearing catch-22 and the "using others for revenge-sex" option. Choices like finding a new partner, using birth control, experimenting safely, or even having an abortion can all be good, wise choices. For many teens these choices -- as Gossip Girl acknowledges with a gay character and as the Republicans ignore--will involve same-sex partners.

The Republicans hope to take away that range of choices for teens. But their unflinching attitude is starting to sit uncomfortably with the public, particularly in the wake of the Palin pick. Gossip Girl may be a fantasy, but its viewers understand the reality: teenagers are sexual beings, and it's better for them to be prepared than in the dark.

Originally published on RH Reality Check.
Sarah Seltzer is an RH Reality Check staff writer and resident pop culture expert. Sarah is a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Bitch, Venus Zine, Womens eNews, and Publishers Weekly among other places. She formerly taught English in a Bronx public school.