Lily van der Woodsen, Georgina Sparks and the eponymous Gossip Girl are easily the most compelling characters in the entire series.
In my essay on Gossip Girl, I bemoaned the fact that the show’s characters were deeply unlikable (monstrous would be a more appropriate word in the case of Blair Waldorf, Chuck Bass, and… actually, everyone gets their moment.) The screenwriters seem to think their characters need to be evil to spark our interest, and sure enough, the evil bitches are usually less dull than the “nice” ones (Nate Archibald is a good example). Sadly, that still doesn’t make them very interesting.
… which a few exceptions. As I’ve mentioned before, in spite of its numerous flaws, Gossip Girl had some promise, and I would like to present three characters which are particularly good. Yes, really.
Ok, she’s an evil bitch, and evil bitches are so widespread in this show they’re barely subversive anymore. But Georgina somehow manages to out-do them all, in no small part thanks to Michelle Trachtenberg’s sassy performance.
Georgina Sparks is unabashedly devious, utters the funniest lines, and mercifully has very little backstory to ruin her character. Over the course of the series, she’s evolved into a cartoonish villain, dropping by once or twice per season to wreak havoc within the main cast before promptly taking off to pursue her shenanigans elsewhere. Her appearances are marvellous and I perked up every time I saw her on screen. Michelle Trachtenberg is having a great time chewing the scenery, and it’s funny as hell.
Another reason I find Georgina to be particularly refreshing is that no one (from the screenwriters to the fans) is trying to convince me that she’s actually really good and multifaceted inside, as we’re asked to believe of the main cast. Georgina is an evil bitch in the most uncomplicated sense of the word. When you see her, just lay back and enjoy the ride.
lillian van der woodsen
Lily is hardly one of Gossip Girl‘s most popular characters, and yet, she’s the most compelling. As everyone else in the show, she’s a cliché first and foremost, that cliché being the absentee, multiple times divorced socialite mom. Lily is shallow, materialistic, and was barely there for her children for most of their lives as she was too busy chasing after her next husband. Over the course of the series, she’s done some pretty nasty things – having her own daughter arrested to prevent her from interfering with her plans, sending an innocent man to jail with false charges of rape so said daughter can reintegrate her former school – yet nothing she does seems the result of a truly malicious intent.
Lily believes herself to be a wise, refined and caring matriarch, someone who has the best interests of her children at heart, even as she’s acting irresponsible and selfish. What matters to her is the role she’s supposed to play in front of her peers, not actually fulfilling it. Till the end, she’ll insist she’s doing it for her children, she just wanted to do the right thing – and she’ll believe it. What makes Lily downright dangerous is that she could do pretty much anything to anyone, no matter how vile, and always justify it as doing the right thing.
But there’s something beautifully pathetic about the clash between the polished image she desperately seeks to maintain and what truly lies under the surface – how immature, self-absorbed and petty she is. What’s even more tragic is that we are shown through flashbacks and other characters’ accounts that she could have turned out better: she used to have a crazy and reckless side, a passion for photography, she lived with her sister and ex-boyfriend in poverty and didn’t always need all those riches. Alas, the woman we see is one who is gradually turning into the one figure she never wanted to be: her mother, Celia “CeCe” Rhodes. Like CeCe, Lily puts the utmost importance on money, status and appearances, and she grows increasingly cold and manipulative as the series progresses, carelessly doing away with her husband when things become too complicated. In many ways, Lily behaves like a teenage girl in a woman’s body, which makes it all the more ironic when she insists to her daughter Serena that what she’s doing is the “adult thing to do” (that thing being smiling in public and pretending everything’s fine.)
Speaking of Serena, the parallel between mother and daughter is truly fascinating. While Lily chastises Serena for her bad choices (such as entering an affair with a married congressman or dropping out of Brown), she never fully realizes how much Serena and her are alike. Like her, Serena has a serious lack of self-awareness; she ploughs through guys like Kleenex, often to the detriment of everything else; she makes foolish mistakes and hurts others around her while insisting she meant well all along; and stays in relationships with toxic persons (Blair Waldorf, Dan Humphrey, etc.) the way Lily was with Bass Bart, William van der Woodsen, and countless more.
Lily’s short-lived marriage to Rufus Humphrey, which provided a case of gender flip rarely seen in media, was easily one of the show’s most intriguing aspects. As many have noted, former rock star and gallery owner Rufus essentially becomes little more than a house husband to Lily, foregoing his passions and spending his days farting around while Lily, chairwoman of the board at Bass Industries, stays strongly involved in business, politics and social life. She remains front and center of the show, participating directly or indirectly in all major plotlines: Rufus is, sadly, more of an afterthought, dishing out fatherly advice to the kids and cooking for family dinners (and not even that, since Lily is obviously into fancy catering.) This state of affair happens very naturally, so much that Rufus himself doesn’t quite understand how it came to be; Lily, on the other hand, is clearly glad to have been jammed in this role, and she seldom complains about her husband turning obsolete. In a way, Rufus is an ideal mate for Lily: sweet and understanding, complacent, and rarely standing up for himself. At the same time, he feeds into her ego by making her feel as a loving and powerful woman taking care of her man. Though she probably has genuine feelings for him, she has no issues whatsoever lying to him on a regular basis. As usual, she never feels she’s done anything wrong (be it kiss another man or hide major business deals) and always finds a justification for her actions. Rufus losing himself is never a problem for her: her leaving him is, ultimately, a blessing in disguise for Rufus.
Lily may be a happy accident, but she’s definitely one of the most compelling characters in the show. She’s also, officially at least, a powerful and clever businesswoman leading a billion-dollar empire. Too bad this side of her is completely downplayed to focus on the “socialite” aspect. Thanks for that, Gossip Girl…
The eponymous blogger’s characterization is flimsy to say the least. It seems the screenwriters never quite knew what to do with her, or more precisely, how to keep her relevant in the show. Nevertheless, they’ve come up with some interesting ideas.
Let it be clear right off the bat that I’m not talking about Dan Humphrey. I don’t care what the Finale or the screenwriters say, Dan Humphrey wasn’t Gossip Girl. The decision to turn him into Gossip Girl was made on a whim for shock value, a mere few episodes before the Finale.
I am speaking here about the actual Gossip Girl, the anonymous figure who dominates the series with her cheesy, over-the-top bitchy narration. What made her compelling in the first place is the fact that she cosily remained in the shadows, shamelessly feeding into the protagonists’ hidden rivalries, bitterness and resentment only to lay them bare for all the world to see. In the perfect words of Carina Adly MacKenzie:
The point of Gossip Girl was that she was omniscient. She was everybody. She was nobody. She was, essentially, a faceless, nameless entity that represented the general grossness of our voyeuristic, schadenfreude-driven society. She relentlessly exploited young women for the sake of entertainment. She was Perez Hilton at his filthiest, most vile moment, but so much worse, because she was bullying children, not celebrities.
As noted in my essay, much of Gossip Girl’s aura was sadly diminished by the screenwriters’ reluctance to have their characters actually impacted by her scandalous revelations. She’s rather clumsily written, as it’s unclear what exactly she’s supposed to know (she narrates intimate details in the characters’ lives, such as Blair entering a secret affair with Chuck in season one, without reporting on it in-series) and it’s stated she doesn’t fact-check her tips, which means anybody can send in vengeful rumors, so it’s unclear why anybody trusts her blasts at all. Her moral compass is shaky to say the least. The protagonists imply, on several occasions, that she actually has one: in season four, she agrees to help Dan and Blair find Juliet Sharp because she’s angry Juliet Sharp sent her a fake picture of Serena snorting cocaine (even though she’s never had problems publishing information without proof before, so why should she care if this one is false?)
It doesn’t help that most of her lines are the most vapid and unimaginative thing since Twilight. I mean…
Even on the Upper East Side, the laws of physics dictate that what goes up, must come down. Even when it feels like our feet are a million miles off the ground. But when we’ve hit rock bottom, we hope that someway somehow our fortunes will change. That a great force will reverse the trend.
5×20, “Salon of The Dead”
Nevertheless, the concept of Gossip Girl herself (a nameless entity obsessed with the elite of the Upper East Side and exploiting them for fame) is spot-on and a pretty accurate depiction of some of human nature’s worst instincts.
Where it gets interesting is how Gossip Girl, rather than a mere blogger, gradually becomes some sort of omniscient villain – the one everybody hates, but with whom they begrudgingly team up from time to time because they recognize the extent of their power and resources. Unrealistically, Gossip Girl knows everything. In season four, when Dan and Blair need to find Juliet Sharp, they decide to ask Gossip Girl herself – and she sends them a clue. They promptly find themselves at a house where they run into Damien Dalgaard, a former acquaintance of Juliet, who helps them piece the puzzle together and understand the reasons behind Juliet’s harassing of Serena.
It’s preposterous to think that Gossip Girl, a mere gossip blogger, would somehow know of the whole story and the connection between Juliet and Damian, let alone send people clues like some cryptic Overlord. This is a gossip blogger. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel it was great. It’s ridiculous, but it’s great.
It gets even better in season five, when Gossip Girl tips Nate off about the true reasons behind Blair and Chuck’s car accident (namely, that the car was sabotaged by his cousin and was intended for him). She “did her research”, she writes, before offering her information for a price. “How about we help each other?” Not only is she omniscient, she’s a detective too. And a ruthless beast: she wants Nate to stop Serena’s new column from being published (one that could put her out of business if it was a success). Rather than allowing some other blogger to steal the show, she’s willing to do what it takes to remain the “one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite.” Talk about fighting for your goals, man.
I’ll readily admit it’s an entertaining spin on the classic gossip blogger figure. And, while the show makes Gossip Girl to be this callous, all-seeing tyrant, it’s also subtly hinted she’s a pretty sad character. Lola Rhodes sums it best:
Last thing I’m worried about is a pathetic blogger in a dark room tethered to a computer.
5×20, “Salon of The Dead”
I mean, we are talking about someone who’s dedicating every inch of their life to chronicling the misdeeds of a bunch of rich people. And for what? To stay relevant to a small audience of New Yorkers who are obsessed with the lives of strangers to the detriment of their own? No matter how much power she wields, Gossip Girl is just sad, and the enormous work it requires to keep the public updated on her icons’ every move means she probably doesn’t have much of a life outside of it.
Perhaps Serena had it right when she explained to her half-sister Lola why she’d taken over the Gossip Girl blog:
Serena: I only became Gossip Girl recently, and… and right now it’s the only thing I have. I mean, it’s… it’s the only thing in my life that I can hold on to, you know, because a lot of times my life is just really out of control.
Lola: Well, I get that, but you’re doing exactly what was done to you, and everyone else.
Serena: Yeah. I mean, I was hurt, sure, but I survived. A little adversity can actually be good for you. You’ll see how things work around here.
5×20, “Salon of The Dead”
This is perhaps the most striking instance of accidental genius on the show’s part. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this poignant confession echoes the real Gossip Girl’s motives. Quite simply, her blog is all she has. And it’s not unlikely Gossip Girl would be using the exact same excuse as Serena: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It’s not that bad. Following some twisted logic, maybe she’s convinced herself she’s doing her victims a favor.
In the context of the show, it makes sense that Gossip Girl would be a troubled individual with an unstable life rather than a truly malevolent figure: before Serena, it was unrepentant evil bitch Georgina Sparks who had assumed the blogger’s identity. And what happened? She quickly grew bored with it, passing the baton over to Serena because the blog required too much work. Why write naughty things about people when you can just act naughty and spare yourself the extra work? Georgina doesn’t need the blog to fill a gap in her life because there is no gap to begin with. She’s quite content with herself.
Serena, however, is adamant on spending every waking hour on the site and keeping it as long as she can… exactly like Gossip Girl. This is a really interesting case of Not So Different and an unusual way to glimpse into the obscure workings of a gossip blogger’s mind. It was probably accidental, though – the show just isn’t that clever.
But these moments, these characters, are a reminder that it could have been. There was genuine potential here. And, despite the fact that this potential was never fully realized, it at least offers inspiration and grounds for analysis. Which may explain why some people, such as your humble servant, are inexplicably drawn to such bad shows.
June 11, 2020 at 7:23 am
Haha, thanks 😉