Anne H Petersen. The Business of Entertainment. Editor: Robert C Sickels. Volume 3. Praeger Perspectives Westport, CT: Praeger, 2009.
On November 5, 2007, the Writers Guild of America (WGA) went on strike. The writers’ demands were straightforward: They wished to be compensated based on all viewings of the shows their words produce, whether viewed traditionally (on television) or alternatively (streaming, downloaded, on DVD). I mention the writers’ strike because the teen melodrama Gossip Girl has been used, in publications as various as Entertainment Weekly and The New Yorker, as a rallying cry for the writers’ cause. Gossip Girl, which debuted in the fall of 2007 on The CW, is the brainchild of Josh Schwartz, best known as creator of The O.C. Both shows detail the lives of the very wealthy and the very beautiful—The O.C. in Southern California, Gossip Girl in New York’s Upper East Side. Importantly, both also focus on the lives of high school students, tracking their relations with each other, their parents, and their futures. The settings are sumptuous, the wardrobes spectacular, and the drama high.
Unlike The O.C., which became a surprise hit for Fox as a summer fill-in, Gossip Girl has enjoyed only moderate success in the ratings. Yet, in the fall of 2007, Gossip Girl was the most downloaded show on Apple iTunes and the most watched streaming show on Yahoo!—a statistic that speaks to the recent rise of streaming television and alternative viewing devices. What’s more, CW offered full episodes, absolutely free, on the Gossip Girl Web site, potentially inspiring new viewing practices: A fan may watch the show piecemeal, chatting with friends, while posting on her blog. While it seems doubtful that the television will disappear from our lives, it will certainly be complemented by alternative means of acquiring and viewing content. Such a shift requires scholars to reconsider television reception in the age of New Media, a task already undertaken by several within the field. Yet, the specific area of girl spectatorship—the next generation of adult spectators and consumers—remains unexplored. It is this lack in contemporary reception scholarship that demands redress.
Exploring posts in the Gossip Girl VIP Lounge, one perceives the ways that girls seek out, view, share, relate to, and appropriate Gossip Girl for their own use. The findings have been divided into five discourse categories, borrowing from previous scholarship on girls’ media and reception: romantic individualism, fashion/beauty, community, identification, and escapism. Each of the aforementioned discourses function to structure and define girlhood. The manner in which each discourse manifests through the Gossip Girl bulletin board thus illuminates how girlhood, writ large, has been constructed in the contemporary, New Media-filled, imagination. While new viewing practices may indeed be visible within these discursive categories, one must also acknowledge the possibility that much of the excitement (and anxiety) surrounding “New Media viewing” may be overblown. In exploring these discourses, however, our conception of contemporary reception practices, specific to both girls and to New Media, is at stake.
Girls and Fandom
While the study of spectatorship, reception, and fandom took the academy by storm in the early 1980s, relatively little has been theorized concerning girls’ reception, particularly girls’ television reception. As such, girls’ studies scholars have been forced to either borrow from feminist reception studies or forge new ground themselves. Feminist reception proclaims “no longer do we assume an unproblematic relationship between image and audience, one in which the text clearly transmits meaning and the viewer easily decodes it.” Meaning resides not with the text, nor with the viewer, but in a dynamic space in between. In Wolfgang Iser’s words, the viewer “sets the text in motion, and so sets [her]self in motion too.” Reception theory has proven a useful tool for third-wave feminist scholars because its denial of the “ideal viewer” clears the path for a diversity of viewing practices, including redemptive readings of traditionally patriarchal texts.
Girls’ reception practices possess similar subversive and liberating potential. Nevertheless, we need to be wary of paralleling woman’s reception practices to those of girls. As Mary Kearney explains, girlhood, similar to womanhood, has emerged in scholarly writing as a “fluid discursive construct which female youth variously negotiate alongside a range of other socially produced subjectivities, rather than a fixed identity that is biologically determined.” But girlhood is not womanhood, nor necessarily “little womanhood.” American society privileges youth—from our ideal bodies to our ideal consumers, youth are the target. In this way, girlhood has become both a coming-of-age and an age of privilege: As one mother on Gossip Girl wistfully informs her teenage daughter, “You’ll never again be as thin or as beautiful or as happy as you are now.”
As a result, I would argue that girls have, to some extent, internalized this notion of themselves as the privileged audience. Like female fans of Valentino or the slew of mid-century melodramas, their spectatorship and fandom is a coveted commodity. This sense of agency—indeed, a form of “girl power”—influences the interaction between girl and text. Of course, other facts—age, level of maturity, real life experience, social and familial relationships—also influence girls’ reception. Yet, I am most interested in this sense of power and agency, especially in the context of Gossip Girl and its reception. How has the rise of girls’ independence through New Media contributed to this sense of control? In turn, how have producers altered their content to better meet this coveted demographic where they “reside,” for example, the Internet?
While relatively little has been published on the subject of girls’ spectatorship, societal and parental anxiety over girls and their presence on the Internet has produced a rich, albeit nascent, field of study. In one of the first examinations of girl and Internet participation and production, Susan Murray explores the relationship between girls, the “safe space” of the bulletin board, and their relationship to My So-Called Life, finding that “girl MSCL fans were enmeshed in fluid states of identity play in relation to their spectatorship and the text, and that the online computer chat facilitated that development.” Murray claimed that “this second level of rereading, the meshing of individual viewing experience with others, result in an encrustation of meaning surrounding the original television text,” arguing that “the self is continually intertwined with these ‘poached meanings,’ as the text prompts self-reflection, and that girl fans are particularly adept at mastering this process.” Her conclusion, circa 1995, is notably optimistic, reflecting both the celebratory attitude toward the Internet and the burgeoning spirit of Girl Power, pre-Spice Girls, that characterized the historical moment.
More recently, Sharon Mazzarella’s collection GirlWideWeb explores the manifestation of ethnicity on the Internet, girl cyber-jammers, gURLculture, girl Internet crimes, and social networking, while Shayla Marie Thiel’s Instant Identity: Adolescent Girls and the World of Instant Messaging grapples with girl’s digital communication. Whether through Web sites, bulletin boards, social networking sites, or instant messaging, “it is clear that adolescent girls are speaking on the web—speaking in ways and words that are infrequently heard.” While girls may indeed feel safer and less inhibited in expressing themselves amidst the relative anonymity of the Web, several scholars caution against too quickly celebrating such behavior. As Christine Scodari emphasizes,
Computer-mediated communication, including its mechanisms of net presence, appears to enhance and capacitate otherwise existing proclivities rather than impeding or redirecting them. Teen girls may be encouraged by online anonymity to assert ideas and opinions when they are not in a position to negatively impact their face-to-face relationships or to be judged based on physical appearance, but this does not guarantee that the ideas they expound will be more likely than in unmediated contexts to challenge the status quo.
In other words, despite the freedom of the Internet and including potential for identity play, girls are likely to reproduce hegemonic notions of femininity, girlhood, adolescence, and social politics. Mazzarella echoes this claim in her study of girl-produced Web sites, through which girls “reproduce[d] the content of mass-produced teen idol magazines.” Stern likewise concludes that girls predominantly use IM as a means of policing and reproducing normative discourses of girlhood.
Nevertheless, bulletin boards, as fluid, mutable, readily accessible sites, are consummate loci of fan expression. Bulletin boards, along with Multi-User-Domains (MUDs), were amongst the first widespread and interactive uses of the Internet. One might speculate that such sites would have died out in favor of more immediate means of fan discourse—IM, chat rooms, and so on. Yet, they remain vital centers of fandom, as well as rich sites for fan and reception analysis; perhaps most notably in the work of Henry Jenkins but also with recent scholarship on fan activism and engaged spectatorship. This scholarship positions bulletin board as sites of “net presence,” in which the user becomes “metonymically” present through activities, such as a bulletin board posting, which constitute subjectivity and identity. In light of this work, I view bulletin board production as facilitating, influencing, and presenting the development of subjectivity.
To gain a better sense of how girls are responding to and articulating their fandom of Gossip Girl, I went to the source: The CW Gossip Girl Web site. Television shows have long had informal, fan-produced Web sites and bulletin boards; in recent years, networks have expanded their online components, developing full-fledged, “official” sites for individual shows. Starting with the 2005–2006 season, several networks also began streaming online versions of their shows on a time-delay basis. Such is the case with Gossip Girl: An episode airs on the CW on Monday evening; it becomes available via the Web site on Saturday. Traffic to such sites skyrocketed with the offer of streaming video, resulting in the networks’ diversification of online offerings. For example, the Gossip Girl homepage offers links and ads for its two main online sponsors (Verizon Wireless and Victoria Secret), previews for the next episode, a special on the music of Gossip Girl, the Gossip Girl Second Life component, Gossip Girl fashions, and the “Gossip Girl VIP Lounge,” a fan-based bulletin board and blog community.
As is standard with online bulletin boards, comments are divided into threads. One user starts a thread; others respond to the thread. Sometimes threads never get off the ground (such as “Nothing Like One Tree Hill”); sometimes a thread garners hundreds of responses (“The Official Chuck and Blair Thread,” “Who Do You Hate the Most”). Moderators from the CW maintain four threads that lord over the top of the bulletin board, regardless of where the user navigates. For the last month, three of the threads have remained constant—”Post Your Questions for the Cast of Gossip Girl,” “Announcing the Gossip Girl VIP Lounge,” and “Create a Photo Gallery.” A fourth thread changes with the introduction of a new episode, encouraging feedback: “November 28th Episode—Tell Us What You Think!”
The bulletin board posts, while passionate and numbering in the thousands, remain readily accessible. A handle and avatar accompanies each post. The handle, or nickname, is also linked to a profile that discloses age, location, interests, number of posts, and so forth. Some girls kept their information private, but the vast majority at least disclosed their age, making it possible to limit research to girls who claimed to be between the ages of 12 and 19. The sex of the author was ascertained through use of pronouns, post content, profile information, and, in rare cases, handle and avatar gender. With the aforementioned discourses as a loose structure, one may observe how discourses of girlhood have changed (or have not) with the growing ubiquity of New Media. Has digitization, the new millennium, and increasing girl autonomy dramatically altered the way that girls perceive themselves, their peers, their potential, and the world around them? Or do girls continue to reproduce the same discourses that characterized the attitudes of their traditional, analog-based sisters, mothers, and grandmothers? Put differently, is all the hype over new ways of viewing and consuming in fact little more than a mask for regression and the persistent propagation of the postfeminist ethos? Hopefully, the answers to these questions will add to and sophisticate the way that society and scholars conceive of girls and girlhood today.
Gossip Girl focuses on the attendees of an Upper East Side high school. The high school, real or dramatic, is traditionally fraught with conflict—students versus teachers, students versus society, students versus themselves. But we never see the characters of GG in the classroom or doing homework, a narrative elision that creates space for the dominant theme of the show: hetero-normative romance. In her study of Jackie magazine, McRobbie pinpointed the “code of romantic individualism” that pervaded the text. Articles, representations, cartoons, advertisements, and stories all conveyed the selfsame notion: “a man can adore, love, ‘cherish’ and be sexually attracted to his girlfriend and simultaneously be ‘aroused’ by other girls.” Realizing this “truth,” girls are thus “set against each other” in competition for men. McRobbie goes on to bluntly articulate the themes of such romantic individualism: “1) the girl has to fight to get and keep her man; 2) she can never trust another woman unless she is old and ‘hideous’ in which case she does not appear in these stories anyway; 3) despite this, romance, and being a girl, are fun.”
In other words, the individual girl must eschew the bonds of sisterhood and friendship because all other girls are merely competition for her greater goal: coupledom. What’s more, male infidelity is naturalized. If there is any blame, it is on the girl, who was not attentive enough to her man or to the temptations that surrounded him. And yet, despite the rejection of one’s friend and the constant paranoia and insecurity about one’s ability to attract, please, and maintain a relationship, there is no greater pleasure. Dating, romance, love, and couplehood are thus constructed as the primary concerns of a teenage girl. Achieve those, and achieve happiness.
This discourse of romantic individualism is echoed profoundly throughout the Gossip Girl Bulletin Board. First, a bit of background on the show itself: Gossip Girl follows the lives of six high school students: Serena, Blair, Nate, Chuck, Dan, and Jenny. Serena and Blair are age-old best friends, but Serena mysteriously disappeared to boarding school sometime last year. Blair and Nate have been dating “since kindergarten,” but as flashbacks reveal, Serena drunkenly slept with Nate after a wedding, prompting her departure. Hoping for a new start, Serena has recently become interested in Dan, a quasi-hipster from a middle-class Brooklyn family. But Blair quickly learns of Serena’s betrayal, and the sparks fly.
Reactions to Serena’s actions are nuanced: As Angels58 points out,
The issue that I am having trouble with is a lot of people are blaming just Serena [for] what a bad, bad friend she is. Last time I checked Nate was there. I think the lad should carry some shame as well. He has been a bad, bad boyfriend. Blair either has very low to no self-esteem or is completely acceptable to a cheating boyfriend or a glutton for punishment.
As the author references, many posts have slammed Serena’s transgressions while ignoring Nate’s. In this way, the unfaithful girl is portrayed as a “slut,” while the male becomes a “player.” Blair and Serena are also pitted against one another—Serena may not desire Nate in return, but Blair nevertheless views her as competition. Interestingly, Serena manifests the same romantic individualism when confronted with her new boyfriend’s ex-love, Vanessa. The competition between the two girls is made manifest in a bout of “Guitar Hero,” a virtual reality video game in which each girl “plays” a song. On the boards, Idealeyez87 put a fine point on the anxiety and competition:
Serena and Dan [Serena’s boyfriend] are so hot together it’s not even funny but I was a little scared at first with the whole Vanessa thing. But she totatly [sic] kicked her butt in Guitar Hero! You KEEP your man!
The poster thus affirms both the competition and the win as necessary—a girl must “kick butt” in order to keep her relationship safe.
Posters also engage in a fascinating form of “behavior forgiveness” surrounding the show’s bad boy, Chuck Bass. In the first few episodes, Chuck is portrayed as lecherous and manipulative. He attempts to blackmail Serena into sexual activity with him; he corners a freshman girl on a rooftop (Jenny, who happens to be Dan’s sister) and attempts to rape her. Yet, halfway through the season, his eyes turn to Blair (recently broken up with Nate). As numerous comments proclaim, the romance and “sexiness” of their relationship elides all past behavior. Girls confess to fetishizing the clip of Blair and Chuck first hooking up, set to pop music in the back of a limo, reveling in its “sexiness.” As ChuckBassLoves07 explains, “I so forgot about him wanting to rape Jenny lol and the whole problem with Dan … plus I have seen the clip over and over it’s crazy.” For a thread titled “You Know You’re Obsessed with Gossip Girl When …”, mlwestie replied, “you keep watching B and C’s (Blair and Chuck’s) scenes over and over and over and over again on YouTube, and you suddenly forget what Chuck was like with women pre Blair in the limo.”
Much is made of the fact that Blair has allowed Chuck to have feelings, and now that he has feelings, his past self has departed. In this way, Chuck is constructed as the “ideal romantic hero,” a type Mazzarella found in her examination of Chad Michael Murray fan sites. Within her study, girls fixated on a construction of Murray as a nice, respectful, sweet guy, one with whom they could safely imagine themselves. Similarly, in reference to Chuck, Iceprincess explains, “he actually cares about her, in his own way, but who cares they are a match made in heaven! I mean the boy couldn’t sleep, was freaking out … and had the butterflies! He’s never felt like that before! […] They should get married and have babies!” Iceprincess, like several others on the board, favors a romantic rather than sexual interpretation of their heated make-out session in the back of the limo. Retelling sexual advances as romance, the girls retroactively construct sexual aggression as forgivable. As liveitloveit explains, because Chuck asked Blair “if she was sure” before kissing her, he cares about her: “I LOVE that chuck has pretty much disrespected serena and jenny by forcing himself on them (like they’re nothing but just objects) but with blair he even stopped to ASK if she was ok with it … argh LOVE THEM SO MUCH!”
What is remarkable is the way in which the girls acknowledge the contradiction of their devotion to Chuck—he was a rapist, he was a pig—as they negotiate their affection for him. Yet, the affection is not so much for Chuck himself as much as it is for Chuck and Blair. In bulletin board speak, the names Chuck and Blair have been morphed into “Chair,” spawning uber-popular threads titled “CHAIR Forever,” and so on. Thus, as McRobbie points out, “boys and men, then, are not sexual objects but romantic objects … Romance is about the public and social effects of implications of ‘love’ relationships.” While girls do fetishize the clip of their hook-up, the subsequent acts of romance and emotion—he gives her a beautiful necklace, he admits he has butterflies—form the discourse concerning their relationship. Accordingly, the most popular fanfic on the boards imagines continued romance between Chuck and Blair: Chuck buying an engagement ring, declarations of love, Blair trying on wedding dresses.
Across the boards, romance, hetero-normative coupling (to the exclusion of other girls), and even eventual marriage and babies are privileged as the culmination of fantasy. In conclusion, while the sexiness of Gossip Girl is much more overt than, say, that produced by McRobbie’s Jackie magazine, the codes reproduced in response remain static. From a marketing standpoint, hetero-normative, romantic individualism facilitates the marketing of traditionally feminine products: the elaborate bras, panties, and negligee of major Gossip Girl sponsor Victoria’s Secret, for example. The more the narrative pushes the idea of out-doing and out-dressing other girls (to attract a boy or otherwise), the more girls are encouraged to purchase the products necessary to do so themselves. In the end, what appears to be a bit of nasty cat-fighting reveals itself as yet another means of channeling girls’ consumption.
The codes of fashion, beauty, and the consumption they entail pervade both Gossip Girl and girls’ bulletin board reactions. McRobbie recognizes the codes of fashion and beauty as “the care, protection, improvement, and embellishment of the body with the use of clothing and cosmetics.” Images in Jackie magazine, similar to those on the screen, “provoke the envy and admiration” of the viewer, “offer[ing] her the possibility of achieving such beauty by following the instructions.” The “instructions” may be more explicit in a magazine—curl your hair this way; line your lips in this style—but as the Gossip Girl boards display, girls may readily emulate the beauty of main characters through consumption. Stacey positions consumption as a practice of identity creation: “Through the use of cosmetic products, then, as well as through the purchasing and the use of clothing, spectators take on a part of the star’s identity and make it a part of their own. The self and the ideal combine to produce another feminine identity, closer to the ideal.” The purchase of clothes and lip gloss, then, allows girls to quilt alternate subjectivities with those of the self.
The Gossip Girl Web site facilitates the consumption of fashion and beauty products through “Gossip Girl Fashions,” an easy click away from the front page. Here, GG costume designer Eric Daman hosts taped walk-throughs of each character’s style. Interestingly, many of his suggestions, especially for the girls’ styles, focus on Do-It-Yourself style: You can make a necklace like Serena’s through a trip to the hardware store; you can do the same at home. These videos seem to open space for girls as cultural producers—a practice Mary Kearney has positioned as a valuable component to girl adolescent development. Yet, the page also links to “Victoria’s Secret Suggests: Gossip Girl Character Looks,” a consumer site that fragments each character’s style into easily purchasable items from the Victoria’s Secret online store. Of course, the relationship between stars, commodities, and tie-ins have a long lineage that dates to early Hollywood, and Gossip Girl engages in an established tradition of media-encouraged consumption. In other words, this is nothing new.
Several contemporary scholars have attempted to recover the “power” in shopping, even for young ‘tween girls: Farah Malik proposes that “the triangulated acts of magazine reading, internalization of the messages of consumption and shopping experience, can be seen to offer girls a rite of passage through which they can enter an unfamiliar and exciting world, leaving behind a familiar and mundane one.” Gossip Girl presents just such an “unfamiliar and exciting world,” filled with designer gowns, elaborate balls, and opulent designs. Accordingly, the discourse on the boards is of brand recognition and desire. In a discussion of the fidelity of the show to the books on which it is based, gossip101 writes:
I kind of wonder if anything they use in it is based on the books, like Blair’s many pairs of Manolos, Marc Jacobs clothing, Kate Spade bags, and everything else Bendel’s and Barney’s sells. Basically, all the things I dream of being able to buy sometimes. But being over $500 things and $1000 shoes, its not happening. They go into a lot of detail in the book over fashion, naming basically everything they wear or change into. I do have a pair of Seven jeans, and they have a lot of those, but thats about the only thing thats the same thing in their million dollar wardrobe that I have too. Ah, to be rich.
Granted, this particular girl’s brand recognition is rooted in her reading experience, but other posters demonstrate similar skills in high-fashion identification: As katriinuh asks Blake Lively (Serena), “where did u get that dress u wore when u went on a date with Dan in the pilot episode? It’s sooo cute! Is it Chanel?” Other girls create threads to specifically ask for information on how to locate a specific style: “I was wondering where the long black and white coat Blair wore during the pilot is from” (MeggiMo); “I would love to know what the reddish color lip gloss Blair was wearing in the ‘modeling’ episode is called? What is the brand and color, I love it!” (candy 9929).
Unlike the discourse of the costume designer, who encourages girls to create a “style” in the vein of the characters, the girls themselves aim for verisimilitude: the exact dress, or as close as they can come to it at their (or their parents’) fiscal level. The “∗∗OFFICIAL gossip girl FASHION thread∗∗” proclaims, “Now, I know they have a style section on the http://cwtv.com website dedicated to this, but so many items are MISSING!! Like that adorable black dress Blair was wearing at the party …? […] So this thread is to post EXACTLY where you find all the unlisted style items.” In response, mjlove22 posted links to items “very similar” to those on the show, such as “Serena’s over-the-knee brown boots (worn on the train/Blair’s mom’s party/in the morning at the hospital).” In response to the “You Know You’re Obssessed with Gossip Girl When …” thread, several girls mention their compulsive replication of a single character: “You start wearing headbands just like blair, your new favorite color is red, you start curling your hair, you buy an enV just because Blair has one” (lorenevy), or “you look for the clothes and shoes Blair wears in department stores … [you] search apartments on the Upper East Side” (Tori 013).
It seems that the freedoms for identity negotiation often associated with the Internet have, in this case, reified the notion of consumption as a necessary means to ideal beauty. The Web site and bulletin boards offer clear digital pathways to online commerce, facilitating the duplication of another’s style rather than creating a hybrid, individual style of one’s own. As Thiel Stern points out in her examination of instant messaging, “the IMvironment tells girls that they have the power literally at their fingertips to consume the ideal culturally defined female identity.” This perverted form of “girl power” is thus the power to conform and reproduce socially inscribed gender roles. The girls on the Gossip Girl bulletin board revel in this power, but as the first quote of the section acknowledges, they also bemoan their inability to conspicuously consume at the level of the Upper East Side. As a result, the girl power to consume is repeatedly tinged with insecurity and lack.
Yet, this lack, and the desire to fill it, drives audience devotion to the show. Girls seem to tune in just as much to watch the fashion as the familial and romantic narrative progression. Similar to Sex and the City, only aimed at a slightly younger demographic and with less crisp writing, the purpose of Gossip Girl is to sell: not only a lifestyle, but a network. Along with The Sopranos, Sex and the City established HBO as a certain type of network, with a certain sort of programming—cutting edge, sophisticated, and snappy with high production levels and a cult-like following. The fledgling CW hoped to do the same with Gossip Girl, branding itself in the show’s hip, youthful image. The problem, of course, is that Gossip Girl simply isn’t garnering the “appointment viewing” necessary to regularly draw viewers to The CW. Put differently, despite the growing viewership, the fact that most girls do not actually watch The CW hinders the network’s push for a close association between the two.
Yet, the show’s major online advertisers—Victoria’s Secret and Verizon Wireless—enjoy repeated, obligatory viewing of their ads. Unlike users of TiVo or DVR, who may easily fast-forward through commercials, those who watch Gossip Girl online are forced to view the same commercial up to eight times during a single viewing. While this might sound annoying, it’s certainly effective in highlighting the product in the viewer’s mind. Add in product placement and various links through the Gossip Girl site, and advertising with The CW morphs into an immense marketing opportunity: Verizon Wireless reportedly paid around $14.4 million to advertise on the CW in the first six months of 2007, in large part due to myriad marketing tie-ins offered by The CW.
The strategy of brand saturation seems to be working: Across the bulletin board, several girls mentioned memorizing the words to the commercials; I myself could readily recite the catchy rhyme that accompanies the ad for the Victoria’s Secret Bra and Panties Sale. While The CW may not have succeeded in bundling itself with Gossip Girl, Victoria’s Secret certainly has—one episode features Blair’s mother Eleanor, usually in the business of haute couture, designing a line of “retro lingerie” for the company and giving out V.S. gift bags. As several critics have pointed out, the plot point is both an obvious plug and relatively improbable: As put by New York’s online coverage, “not only would none of the people on Gossip Girl actually wear anything as down-market as Victoria’s Secret, Eleanor wouldn’t be caught dead designing a line for them. That’s like if Carolina Herrera decided to put together a small collection for Fashion Bug.” Nevertheless, few teen viewers can distinguish between the relative luxury of Victoria’s Secret (where bras cost upwards of $30 as opposed to $10 at Wal-Mart) and the extreme luxury of, say, La Perla, with few items under the $100 mark. Through its online and in-show presence, a “down-market” company, such as Victoria’s Secret, is insinuated as “up-market,” sophisticated, and desirable—some of the best buzz a business can buy.
Ultimately, more than any other network, The CW is working to “cross-pollinate different mediums,” to quote executive vice-president of marketing and brand strategy Rick Haskins. In his words, “it’s not just online anymore. It’s not just print. We’re trying to make the mediums work together.” It remains to be seen, however, if such untraditional buzz will sustain advertiser interest into seasons to come, as The CW’s Nielson Ratings continue in their downward slide.
Throughout the twentieth century, movie, television, and musical fan clubs have served as sites of community and friendship. As Georganne Scheiner points out in her discussion of the Deanna Durbin Devotees, “being members of fan clubs was not only a way in which adolescent girls organized their social lives, but fan membership also constituted a specific form of cultural expression.” As a form of subculture, girls within these groups may find solidarity and safe spaces to express opinions otherwise frowned upon or silenced in greater society. At the close of the twentieth century, these clubs transitioned from analog bases (print magazines, newsletters, etc.) to bases in the digital world (fan sites, bulletin boards, listserves). The bulletin board functions as a sort of time-delayed, virtual conversation about the object of fandom, along with more tangential and personal issues. Through the act of participation, fans oftentimes experience “a sense of human connection and solidarity that is rarely achieved in either virtual or real-world communities.” As Murray notes in her study of the My So-Called Life fan boards,
The writings of girl Lifers contain an activist sentiment that not only worked to save the show, but to save Angela’s “life.” To extend the life of their ideal self against the wishes of powerful and predominantly male network executives—who have the final say on whether or not the show or Angela survives—may possibly be related to the desire to thwart the elite male culture that is working to inscribe stricter codes of femininity to teen identity.
The girls of Murray’s study regularly extended their musings past the show and into their own lives, engaging in acts of confession and protofeminism. This may be traced to the emotionally complex nature of My So-Called Life, or it may have been the work of a few dedicated girls pushing the board in that direction. Importantly, the MSCL board was fan-created and maintained. While ABC acknowledged their advocacy, the board was in no way associated with or sanctioned by the network. While the board doubtlessly moderated posts for offensive content, it remained outside the bounds of corporate control.
The CW and other television networks are relative novices as moderators of digital fan discourse. Networks and Hollywood studios have long served to facilitate fan club activities: With the beginning of the star system in the late 1920s and early 1930s, executives quickly realized that acknowledging fans, even if simply to provide an address to where they could send letters, studios could increase fan devotion and, in turn, profits. Until rather recently, however, Internet fandom had been characterized by its independence: From the initial, telnet-based bulletin board systems (BBS), starting in the late 1970s, through more accessible fan sites and boards on the World Wide Web in the late 1990s, Internet fandom was profoundly anticorporate in nature.
Some boards were individually and privately maintained; others coalesced around themes (science fiction; reality television) or overarching fan communities (TV Without Pity; BuddyTV).
In recent years, corporate players have realized the potential of such “grass-roots” media forums: Instead of shutting down individual fan creations on MySpace, Facebook, and YouTube, they create their own offerings, only flashier and better funded. Whereas corporate-funded sites were once little more than window-dressing, they now serve as a primary means of retrieving a show in digital format. The lesson is clear: If you post it, the fans will come. In essence, networks have beat the individual fan at his/her own game, or perhaps more appropriately, stolen the ball and declared victory. The fate of the fansite TV Without Pity exemplifies this trend. Known for its vitriolic critiques and series spoilers, the site was recently bought out by the Bravo unit of NBC Universal. In this way, the independent, potentially subversive fan site is folded into the corporate domain. Google and other search engines contribute to this sort of mainstreaming of fan content. If a young girl enters “Gossip Girl” into the search engine, it funnels her directly to the “official” site, rather than other less-linked, unfunded, fan-created sites. The motivation for this type of control is simple: If fans frequent the official Web site, the corporation, rather than a resourceful fan, receives the advertising dollars. What is lost, however, is a fair amount of agency and creativity, as capitalism feeds on, digests, and spits out a sanitized forum for fan expression.
As an extension of the CW’s official site, Gossip Girl’s fan community generally limits itself to discussion of the show, its stars, and individual fan practices, a narrowness that may be attributed to CW supervision and control. While The CW claims only to monitor posts for abuse (profanity, solicitation, verbal attacks, racist language), it nevertheless implicitly encourages girls to post and articulate their fandom in a particular style. As mentioned previously, moderators from the CW maintain several threads at the top of each bulletin board page. The persistence of these threads informs the structure of the community, leading participants to post in a style that preferences adherence to the themes of the show as opposed to themes of “real life.” The first thread always deals with fan opinion of the previous episode: CW Moderators solicit user responses, effectively bestowing a feeling of agency upon the bulletin board community. Put differently, the act of asking for fan opinions insinuates that said opinions are of value. A second stable thread asks users to proffer questions for the cast of the show. Importantly, the cast has posted no replies, nor does there seem to be any stated plan to submit the questions. Instead, the thread functions as a simulation of connection between fan community and the object(s) of fandom, strengthening the community’s notion of itself as a respected, heard audience.
As a result, the majority of fan-generated threads organize themselves similarly: Whether the “Derena” (combination of Dan and Serena) thread, The Official “Chair” Lovers Club, or The Jenny Is Annoying Club, posts engage the show on a superficial level. Not that there isn’t value in expressing attraction to or frustration with characters—in many ways, something as simple as figuring out what kind of character a girl likes can assist in structuring subjectivity. Nevertheless, this particular fan community maintains a narrow focus, mostly on boys, clothes, and music. The discourse rarely strays outside the bounds of the show’s narrative; I’ve yet to find a piece of fanfic that pressures the boundaries of the narrative or suggests a subversive reading.
Which isn’t to say that girls do not still manage to find companionship within the virtual pages of the boards, as exemplified by “The Amanda, Katie, Ally, Anna, Beth, Penny, Meika, Megan, And Anyone That Wants To Chat Thread.” While the enumerative quality of the thread seems to create a form of fan hierarchy, this particular group is characterized by warmth and inclusiveness. Manderz, the creator of the thread, proclaims “I made this thread for my girlies back from the ‘brase’ board. Didn’t want to loose (sic) contact with you girls, because I’m not going on the One Tree Hill Boards ever again. we’re all tight, but we all love meeting new people. So if you want to chat, we’ll chat with you.” While the thread, now at over 5,000 posts, is mostly filled with updates on what members are doing (homework) and what they’re looking forward to (the next episode of Gossip Girl), the inclusive nature of the group is notable.
Indeed, we might read such inclusiveness as a positive effect of the disembodied nature of bulletin board participation. As girls are able to judge others on avatar, handle, and written contributions alone, they are less likely to engage in exclusionary tactics. A virtual fan girl is thus the sum of her articulated thoughts: The boards privilege her thoughts and her emotions rather than her beauty or her manifest ability to consume. In this way, even as The CW valorizes a form of sanitized fan discourse over a more individualized one, girls still find comfort and community across the boards.
Female fans most often identify with what they see onscreen through consumption and physical emulation. But, as Stacey points out, the process of consumption can inspire secondary effects: “[T]his is a different form of imitation, which is more of a temporary reproduction of a particular kind of behavior which resembles the star. It transforms the spectator’s previous appearance, and in so doing offers the spectator the pleasure of close association with her ideal.” This close connection with a star or character also invokes an association with the character’s social milieu: a sense of emotional and social identification.
This section shifts to an examination of how identification, not just with a character but also with the character’s “world,” instills an impression of solace and community. The fans’ sense of verisimilitude between Gossip Girl and their own experiences emerges in a particularly heated (and rather anomalous) thread titled “Inappropriate Show.” A middle-aged, self-identified mother begins the thread, stating:
I am no prude; however, I was excited about this show once they compared it to Sex In The City. The major difference is that Carrie Bradshaw and the gang were in their 30’s. Gossip Girl, which focuses on underage teens in High School, went over the line during their pilot. In one hour I saw attempted suicide, underaged drinking, two attempts at rape amongst many other raw issues. I am not unaware that kids these days know what these issues are, but I certainly don’t need to watch a one hour pilot that exploits them as they are no big deal like they happen every day. When can our kids just be kids—what happened to worrying about what dress to wear for prom?
Responses were immediate and intensely defensive of the show’s “realism.” “Rape and suicide attempts do happen every day,” claims hollowgirlx3, “They are big issues nowadays and I’m glad that there’s a show on television who isn’t afraid to cover it up”; “I honestly think that this show is a reflection of what really goes on for teenagers today, especially as far as the drinking and partying” (crazybeautiful); “those issues DO occur in everyday life to high schools all over the world. GG just brings out the darker side of it” (jemappelletirah); “I find the show pretty relatable … it may not be a perfect world but reality is that kids these days deal with these things. I’m not saying underage drinking is ok but I’m not naïve enough to think that it doesnt (sic) happen to just about everyone” (LoganFan06). The recurring sentiment was, in the words of carcrashx0hearts, “If you’re saying that the show is inappropriate, you’re saying that life is inappropriate. I’m sick of these other shows on Nick and Disney trying to sugarcoat life.” In contrast to those shows, the realism of Gossip Girl, even if at times melodramatic, serves as a comforting recognition of the girls’ lived experiences.
Girls also felt strongly that the show, or media in general, was not to “blame” for “bad” behavior. Several girls chided the original poster for her naïveté in believing that teens (1) don’t engage in these sorts of activities or (2) would be blindly influenced by what they see on the screen. As BGirl55 emphasizes, “sure it deals with sex, etc, but most teenagers are already thinking about this kind of stuff without the show influencing them. They’re not idiots. When it comes to what age of kids should be watching the show, that is up to the parents if they don’t like the show hopefully they can stop their kids from watching it.” JessicaGGFan exclaims “There aren’t words across the screen that say HEY KIDS GO GET DRUNK BECAUSE IT’S OKAY. They aren’t promoting it at all, they are just showing things that HAPPEN.” In other words, the girls acknowledge that the content is risqué, controversial, and even dangerous, but they want to make it known, especially to this middle-aged mother, that this is what they deal with, think about, and like to see examined onscreen—in Janna7’s words, Gossip Girl “started the conversation.”
Interestingly, many girls asserted that parents should know what their children are watching. While they stop at entertaining the idea of watching the show with their parents, Speakez questions “Should parents be aware of what their children are watching? Yes! Can they use this to jump start conversations about drugs and sexual behavior? Yes!” In other words, a show that girls identify as “realistic” could serve as a productive site for communication between daughters and parents. In this way, the discourses of verisimilitude and social identification, so strongly articulated on the board, speak to girls’ desires for their elders to understand their complex, “un-sugarcoated” lives.
This category is organized under the heading of “escapism,” but its focus will in fact be on the novel, multifaceted methods of spectatorship and escapism practiced by girl fans. Traditionally, escapism has taken on pejorative connotations—as Stacey explains,
“[E]scapism” has been applied to forms of popular culture in order to dismiss them as insignificant and unworthy of critical or academic attention. Indeed, this has been particularly true of forms of popular culture enjoyed by women—soap operas or romance fiction and films. In the light of such attacks, feminist critics have insisted on taking women’s pleasures in popular culture seriously and understanding exactly what is at stake in their consumption of these particular popular forms.
Again, we must be careful in conflating girls’ means of escapism with those of grown women. But Stacey’s point—that the pleasure of spectatorship must be taken seriously—certainly applies to girls’ viewing practices, often derided as distracted and frenetic. Such derision, however, is based on a hegemonic notion of escapism—one that privileges patience and traditionally “adult” levels of attention. But today’s girls are changing the how, where, and even why of escapism.
Girls and boys alike are clamoring for alternative means of viewing media content: iPods, cellphones, computers, portable DVD players, and so forth. As David Denby emphasized in his article “Big Pictures: Hollywood Looks to the Future,” “the video iPod and other handheld devices are being sold as movie-exhibition spaces, and they certainly will function that way for kids. According to home-entertainment specialists I spoke to in Hollywood, many kids are ‘platform agnostic’—that is, they will look at movies on any screen at all, large or small.”
Denby and others’ palpable anxiety is somewhat straightforward: Kids are okay with a very different sort (and level) of spectatorship than their parents. What seems to be at stake, as a result, is the future of the traditional movie-going experience: the big, sweeping epic, shown on a massive screen, mesmerizing the viewer, pulling her into the world of cinema. Whether the anxiety over new, mobilized screens is based on generational nostalgia or a form of elitist cinema purism, the fact remains that kids are watching content through alternative means. Of course, they continue to go to the movies and watch television, but they have complimented traditional viewing with their own highly mobilized practices. According to an October 2007 study by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of teens personally own an mp3 player or iPod, 25 percent own a laptop, and 72 percent have their own desktop computer. While these statistics do not necessarily mean that teens are using technology to view media, we can safely assume that many of them are.
But does a change in screen necessarily entail a change in the relationship between viewer and image? Escapism is often characterized by its vision of “something better”—better than one’s quotidian drudgery, better than one’s unspectacular love life, better than one’s tired, ill-fitting wardrobe. While Stacey stresses the “cinematic pleasure” of spectatorship, this pleasure was in part derived from the “physical escape from the hardships of their lives at this time.” One might argue that girls’ alternative spectatorship, despite the lack of dark-room, big-image absorption, continues to offer girls a form of escape. The sumptuous world of Gossip Girl certainly offers an image of “something better”; the mobile nature of computers and other mobile devices allows girls to view the show away from the stresses of family, the domestic, or the public sphere. While their hardships might not be those of 1940s Britain, they are hardships nonetheless, oftentimes characterized by emotional and social strife. Considered this way, downloading GG and watching it in one’s room, on the bus, or during lunch period serves as a profoundly escapist activity.
Through viewing practices and online fan participation, Gossip Girl fans participate in their own “girl culture,” moving it from the domestic to the public space. Mazzarella highlights the ways in which girls “appropriate conventions and media content” as a means to
[create] a space for themselves—a space in which to engage in a practice (romantic fandom) that has been ridiculed, dismissed, and denigrated by the dominant adult culture for decades. Until now, this activity, like many elements of girl culture, has been engaged in in the privacy of one’s bedroom and only in the company of one’s inner circle of closest female friends.
The Internet, along with other digital technologies, including wireless, cell phones, and iPods, blurs the line between the public and the private, breaking down distinctions of “appropriate” female viewing practices. Girls may view a show completely alone; girls may view it, like the first audiences of the soap opera, while multitasking: completing homework, blogging, or talking with a friend on the phone. As Lynn Clark emphasizes:
Today’s young people experience constant accessibility, separation from adults and their multi-tasking abilities as liberation and empowering, a way to manage risk and to direct one’s own course. These technologically mediated communication experiences represent for them an openness to possibilities rather than a limit on their possibilities for privacy, personal reflection, and individual direction.
In this way, uses of technology that adults often consider alienating, even antisocial, may in fact increase a girl’s feelings of agency, participation, and social linkage.
Girls are watching Gossip Girl, but they’re not necessarily watching it when the CW would like them to do so. Only 2.7 million viewers tune in when they’re “supposed” to—Mondays at 8 P.M. (EST). Instead, they’re watching it via streaming video, on DVR, or via downloads. Accounting for delayed DVR viewing, Nielson numbers rose 20 percent amongst young adults; Gossip Girl was streamed 1.5 million times from the CW Web site during October 2007; the show was the most downloaded show on iTunes and the most streamed on Yahoo! during the same period. Importantly, it’s a top-five network show amongst teen girls and the top new teen show on television. As a recent article in USA Today points out,
It’s a case in point of how Hollywood’s definition of a hit TV series is radically changing. Though still the primary focus, “live” TV ratings are no longer the sole barometer of success. As viewing habits change, programmers are struggling with how to factor in DVR-use, Web-viewing, sought-after niche audiences and online chatter when weighing shows’ health.
Entertainment Weekly adds, “The generation watching Gossip Girl doesn’t do appointment television. They are masters at using the latest technology to watch TV when and how they want.” Yet, many within the industry are reluctant to rely on such statistics: Not only do Nielson Ratings remain industry currency, but many remain skeptical that users are using alternative viewing practices for anything more than “catch-up.”
If we take the conversations across the Gossip Girl bulletin boards as evidence, girls certainly are engaging in alternative viewing practices, sometimes for catch-up, at others as their preferred means of viewing. Some employ the site for repeat viewings: “I just watched the ep again for the 3rd time, I can’t (sic) stop I am addicted, lol” (mlwestie); “I’ve seen each of the two episodes about half a dozen times” (Emily117). Such statements are significant: At this point, repeat viewing is possible only through nontraditional viewing sources, such as DVR or streaming video. Others use the boards to seek out missed episodes: MeagsW complains, “so I have missed the last 2 weeks, and I used to just catch up online, but the last two episodes haven’t been posted … any idea why?? Just curious … I love the show but I work [when it airs].” Liz4TreeHill2 exclaims, “I missed the last episode and am hating it!! GRRR!! […] It was supposed to be posted on The CW Site today to view and it’s still not there.” In response, tech-savvy girls serve as guides to frustrated ones, explaining how to access streams on the GG site or pointing them to other online areas, such as BitTorrent, http://sidereel.com, or even YouTube, where users can access the video for free. Multiple posts also recommend downloading episodes via iTunes, paying the $1.99 per episode charge.
But not all girls are altering their viewing. Many posters lacked the patience to wait for The CW to post the episode, insisting that any “true fan” would watch it on Monday: In gossipgrl1110’s words, “if gossip girl is one of ur favorite shows then how can u miss it?” Some posters engage in a bit of fan activism, encouraging other bulletin board users to watch on Monday: “WATCH IT LIVE!!! It needs ratings!!!” (chuckblairfan). Interestingly, some girls watch both traditionally and alternatively. In response to the ever-popular “You Know You’re Obsessed with Gossip Girl When …” thread, omgbrittsonxox offers, “you rush your mom home like crazy just so you don’t miss one minute of GG, even though you already pre-recorded it on your DVR.” Girls who lack broadband or streaming capability catch up through detailed episode recaps; some resort to watching an episode piecemeal via several YouTube clips.
Viewed collectively, what I find most compelling about these posts is the girls’ technical flexibility and dexterity. Put differently, their persistence in consuming what they want, when they want it. While the subjects of Stacey’s study may have achieved a fuller sense of escapism, their options for such escape were somewhat limited: As accessible as the cinema was, it was still one fixed locale. There’s a reason why subscription cable has recently shifted to offering programming “on demand”: Today’s girls want to indulge their tele-visual obsessions, diving into the world of the Upper East Side, when and where they desire. That may be in front of the TV on a Monday night or on their desktop computers, but the key is the extent of their control over the experience. Whether it’s pausing the video stream to go to dinner or DVRing an episode for repeated viewing, escape is a click away. The discourse of escapism and spectatorship, made manifest on the boards, is one of control and immediate indulgence of desire, most often facilitated by digital technology.
Where does this leave us? In the age of New Media, it seems girls are reproducing traditional discourses of girlhood—they’re doing it digitally and in accordance with their own desires and demands. The rhetoric surrounding the renewal of the series, its “relative” success, and the need for the networks and Nielsen to change their way of judging a hit show all speaks to a sense of power. Instead of girls altering their habits to save a favorite show, the networks alter their means of measurement to better cater to their coveted demographic. A sense of power characterizes this generation of girls: their power to consume, to sway networks, to change the definition about what a “hit” means.
Yet, it’s a peculiarly consumerist brand of power, tied to the notion of girls as a mass of status-obsessed shoppers. Discussing this project with my 50-something mother, I was reminded of recollections of “traditional” girl fandom. In her words,
It is amazing to me that a process that used to happen by girls hanging around in someone’s bedroom reading a fan magazine or talking about a movie has moved to television and blogs. The former is a small group and based on a great deal of imagination—there were few details about pop star romances and all of the images were static. It was not anonymous; the comments a girl made were made as she hung out with friends and so it was risky. If it was a movie couple, rather than outside of the movies, there was no way to replay a scene other than to talk about it. And, expendable income was much less—teenagers largely did not have the money to recreate outfits like they do now. However, they could and did copy hairstyles and perhaps had a signature outfit that they paraded about.
In my mother’s recollection of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to be a devoted girl fan was to make a decision: to risk something, whether it be a week’s allowance or one’s standing in a social group. Fandom was also far more embodied—a girl demonstrated her fandom by “parading about” a hairstyle, recreating a scene, discussing the show out loud, or, as myriad accounts of Beatlemania attest, screaming and fainting.
In contrast, today’s girl fandom manifests cerebrally and virtually. A keystroke brings community, episode recall, star gossip, and immediate consumption. The interface of the computer screen does not judge; the fellow fans one meets online know little to nothing of your life; no one, save perhaps your parents, has to know how many times you review a YouTube clip of a specific scene. One might speculate that obsession is easier, that passions are given room to proliferate, that the freedom to be a girl, whatever that might mean, has expanded exponentially with the rise of New Media.
If I were writing this chapter in the early 1990s, I would agree with such statements. The utopian hopes for the early Internet extended to girls’ development, subjectivity, and identity formation, as is so clearly evidenced by Susan Murray’s 1995 findings on girls and fan bulletin boards. Since then, however, the ground-up construction of the World Wide Web has been co-opted and homogenized from the top down. Massive corporations (including CBS and Time Warner, co-owners of The CW) now own and control the dominant forms of social networking, blogging platforms, and fan forums. In this way, any hopes for a substantial shift in the dominant discourses of girlhood are dying with the gradual but near-universal allocation of the Internet by a handful of immense media conglomerates.
The future of TV, it seems, is the same as that of other media: consolidation, integration, and “cross-pollination” between business and art. Gossip Girl, like so much of today’s television, may be about innovation but certainly not of the artistic variety. Instead, through novel means of product placement, brand ubiquity, and creative online content, its producers adapt to and anticipate the changing topography of advertising. It’s not so much the show that’s young, hip, and sophisticated; rather, it’s the means of selling a product that is, and that’s what continues to draw sponsors. In this way, programming becomes a means to a necessary end, a filler around which a network may structure its ads.
In 1975, Marshall McLuhan famously posited that “the medium is the message.” If such technological determinist philosophy holds, then a change in the medium of fandom and spectatorship should presumably change the “message” that girls receive and reproduce through their own New Media usage. I’m certainly not the first to call McLuhan’s catchphrase into question, but my findings on the CW Gossip Girl Bulletin board indicate, in no uncertain terms, that the medium has begun to change … yet, the message has not. Romantic individualism and consumption still characterize the way that society conceives of girls and the way that girls, in turn, conceive of themselves. As was the case in Classic Hollywood, fan communities continue to be constricted by corporate regulation and hegemonic notions of “proper” fan engagement.
I want to believe that a girl watching a Gossip Girl episode on her iPod, and a network responding to that change, is somehow a gesture filled with feminist potential—a liberating gesture toward control of one’s media consumption. Then suddenly I recall that this same girl is negotiating the history of a male character’s sexual assault to make way for her appreciation of the diamond necklace he gave a new crush, and my thoughts turn markedly pessimistic. I do not intend to permanently debunk the potential of New Media to radically alter the discourses of girlhood. Girls like Youtube’s Lonelygirl15 have already fooled consumers and corporations alike with their performative media manipulation, and the fingerprints of girl activism, from Riot Grrl to angry, underrepresented girls on MySpace, still smudge the computer screen. Nevertheless, despite a flurry of contemporary rhetoric to the contrary, a change in medium does not, in the end, necessitate a substantive change in message.