The Art of War on the Upper East Side: The Female Warrior on Gossip Girl

by: Calhoun Kersten

Sun Tzu may be long dead and buried, but his “Art of War” remains more relevant than ever, especially in the Upper East Side. At least, that’s what the CW’s controversial, cult hit “Gossip Girl” would have you believe. In a world that perpetuates impossible beauty standards and backstabbing at every turn, it seems that it has never been harder to be a girl. Personally, as a white male, I can’t relate to the trials and tribulations of womanhood as passed down by Judy Blume, but if “Gossip Girl” is any indication, the path to adulthood is rife with backstabbings, love triangles and an extravagant party every other week.

But that’s just what the show wants you to believe. Beneath the sudsy surface of the primetime soap beats the heart of an empowered woman: one who knows how to take down her opponent’s social standing–and in heels no less.

It seems odd to say that there’s a hidden meaning of Gossip Girl. After all, if you look at the ads for the show, it becomes abundantly clear that not much is “hidden” when it comes to the alarmingly explicit ad campaigns of the show. But this is far from a Puritanical cry for “decency” in primetime television. But this constant state of undress is crucial to understanding the intentions of a show like Gossip Girl.  

Although the show itself offers at least a little more coverage than a bed sheet, as some promos would have you believe, the look of its leading ladies is all part of the game. More often than not, the likes of Serena van der Woodsen (the almost-impossibly leggy Blake Lively) and best frenemy Blair Waldorf (the equally enchanting Leighton Meester) are dressed to the nines. The look of the show ranges from the occasional negligee to the equally revealing, slinky cocktail dress.

While parent groups cry for decency and better role models for their daughters, what they fail to realize is that Serena and Blair are playing a part just as much as Blake Lively and Leighton Meester. Their choice of apparel, from the likes of Tory Burch to even Vera Wang this season, serves two important functions. First of all, it’s a painfully clear symbol of status, especially when looking at the central romance between Serena (a-have) and Dan (a-have-not). But just as much as it is about having money and influence, it completes the “look” of these two young women. By playing the part of a frivolous and carefree fashionista, Blair and Serena, particularly Blair, are able to disguise their ulterior motives, both the sinister and the well-intentioned. It’s a classic misdirect.

However, within the girl’s own power structure, fashion plays another important role. Take the trademark headband that Blair Waldorf seemed to don in every episode of the first few seasons. It became the character’s personal fashion accessory, a veritable weapon of choice. No one else dared to wear a headband (much like the white gold hoop earrings debacle of 2004 between Regina George and Gretchen Wieners). Blair Waldorf possesses so much power, at least in this fictional world, that no one even dared touch her sense of style. In effect, her fashion became a symbol of power in and of itself.

This is made even more clear towards the end of season two when the power struggle between Jenny Humphrey and Blair Waldorf reaches a head. In a symbolic passing of power, Blair’s former minions are gathered to crown a new girl as the leader of their clique. Before they are given the chance, Blair storms in, grabs the crowning headband, and bestows it upon Jenny. In this sense, fashion is affirmed is a symbol of power that the women of Gossip Girl possess amongst themselves.

While fashion definitely serves its purpose, both blatant and symbolic, in the world of “Gossip Girl” it has nothing on the young women themselves. Like I said, the look of a stylish and sophisticated debutante? It’s a calculated costume that hides the heart of a “bloodthirsty bitch,” as all too many viewers say of a woman fighting for power. But to characterize the lust for power as a bad thing would be to do the show a grave injustice. After all, it’s half of the entertainment! But even more than that, the desire for power is by no means confined to the fairer sex. There are plenty of battles of the wits between some of the male characters as well. The girls of Gossip Girl just know how to play the game better.

It could easily be argued that Gossip Girl paints its female characters as greedy, power-hungry, and manipulative, which it does in its weaker moments, but it also shows the capacity for love between its leading ladies. Although Gossip Girl may be better known for its promotion of countless sexual escapades, including an ill-fated threesome in season three, the heart of the show is the relationship amongst the female characters. While the Chucks and the Dans of the world play their own important part in the chemistry of the characters, the heart of the show remains with the Blairs and Serenas. In essence, most of the men in the show are mere plot devices, designed to throw a hitch in the plan for a woman’s quest for happiness. While the women constantly find themselves struggling to achieve both love and personal fulfillment, Gossip Girl tries to balance their sense of purpose.

Unfortunately, Gossip Girl seems to be more widely recognized for its controversy than its content. Its frequently dismissed as a vapid show, filled with promiscuity and unrealistic standards of beauty, and at first, it’s easy to see it as such. However, make no mistake, while Gossip Girl may seem like it sheds a negative light on women, one could just as easily argue that Gossip Girl is the story of an empowered sense of femininity.

In a world that’s quick to judge, in a field that’s frequently written off as either frivolous or at fault, Gossip Girl is a televised testament to a new kind of woman. While her breathtaking beauty may be seen as detrimental to the body image issues of young women and her tactics may seem unnecessarily aggressive, Gossip Girl demonstrates depth, constantly reminding its viewers that what you see is not what you getBeauty may be skin deep, but underneath that flawless alabaster skin beats the heart of a warrior, something that Gossip Girl never lets us forget.

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