Friday, July 25, 2008

Gossip Girl--Sturm und Drang

It would seem that the new ads for the CW series "Gossip Girl" have stirred up a mild controversy (pretty much the only level of controversy that anything connected to the CW could hope to elicit). The ads feature pull quotes from various sources condemning the show for its supposedly overtly sexual content. Like this one, featuring star Blake Lively looking titillated as an unseen male nuzzles her neck, with the words "Every Parent's Nightmare" plastered across the ad. The ads themselves have been called everything from "desperate" to "disgusting." And as you can see below, people seem to have a few choice words to say about the show as well.

It's because I've never watched "Gossip Girl" (and probably never will for reasons far beyond its supposed lewd nature) that I can't say whether the show is "offensive" (I really hate that word). I probably wouldn't find it offensive in the strictest sense of the word. I'm not sure I disagree entirely with the notion that the ads themselves are kind of desperate (but isn't advertising by nature always desperate on some kind of level?). I can say that I love the idea of taking our (mostly) stupid hangups regarding sexuality and turning them (somewhat) on their ear. Our culture definitely exhibits this weird skittishness when it comes to contemplating female sexuality--teenage female sexuality even more so. This would be fine if it weren't for the fact that teenage male sexuality is viewed with a playful "Boys will be boys! Get 'em, Tiger!" attitude (not teenage male homosexuality, mind you. But that's another discussion entirely). I know I'm hardly breaking new ground when I bring up the double standard as it relates to men, women, and sex. But I think that the reasons behind the double standard, and tangentially, the hubbub over "Gossip Girl" are much more interesting and insidious. It even starts from birth--pink for girls, blue for boys. Studies have been conducted for years regarding the connotation of certain colors on a subconscious level. Guess which color (blue or pink) is regarded with more seriousness and importance?

Let's say (for argument's sake) that "Gossip Girl" really does encourage sexual activity among teenage girls. Is that so much worse than the messages young girls receive, not just from the media, but from those around them? Call me crazy (and you're welcome to) but I think that our society in general encourages women to commodify themselves in ways that men are never expected to. Even virginity pledges for girls are often a way of commodifying them. "Who's going to buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?" I still hear that and it frightens me because it positions women as things that need to be kept shiny and new so they can attract the best buyer (or in this case caregiver). And yet virginity is almost valued inversely for men. How can we still have these attitudes, and then say that women have more choices today? We're conditioned (in the best case scenarios) to view women as inferior to men and (in the worst case scenarios) hate them. If you think I'm overreaching or being too sweeping, ask yourself (if you're a parent) if you have ever asked your daughter to sacrifice more than your son. Observe how single motherhood is framed in our culture versus single fatherhood (scorned versus uplifted and revered. True, yes?) Think about how people are reacting to female teenage sexuality on "Gossip Girl" and look how the world reacted to male teenage sexuality in a film like Superbad. I know what you're thinking--one's a television show, the other's a movie. Fine. But what if Superbad had been about two female high school seniors on a quest to buy liquor, so they could go to a party and have sex with the boys of their respective dreams? The public outcry would have been so massive...actually, it wouldn't. Because Hollywood would never dream of producing such a film. Because girls don't sometimes have sexual feelings, right? They aren't allowed to. For girls, sex is a way for them to gain power and influence men, right? Again, commodification of women. Even look on the supposed fringes of Hollywood at an independent film about a certain pregnant heroine. Juno, despite all of its supposed strengths, ultimately lacks the balls (sorry, Diablo Cody) to address the issue of Juno (Ellen Page) initiating sex with Paulie (Michael Cera), or the reasons behind said action with any semblance of depth or insight. Because, once again, the idea of a woman (teenage or otherwise) enjoying sex is still viewed as taboo in the twenty-first century.

Ultimately, I'm not writing this to say that I am in favor of teenagers (male or female), giving in to every biological impulse. But, it doesn't matter what I think. Nor does it matter what anyone else thinks. Teenagers are going to have sex, as they have since the beginning of time. Is it really useful to portray teenage sex as being slightly more acceptable for boys than for girls? I'd say, it's pretty damn harmful, not to mention stupid and illogical. After all, who are all these teenage boys having sex with? There are definitely problems with the things we tell young girls about their own sexuality. No one is fed more mixed-messages in our culture than girls. But an attempt to remedy the situation, or even spark a mere discussion should neither start nor end with a trifle of a show like "Gossip Girl" in mind. Please, somebody just wake me when our culture regains its ability to engage critically in discussion and debate, stops being so reactionary and puritanical and stops focusing on surface-y bullshit that really isn't that important in the grand scheme of things. I think I'll die of shock when that happens.

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