Though the cool teens and their baggy clothes are decidedly Gen Z, the Glossier and Instagram of it all feels like Millennial bait. Who is this show really for?

By Amil Niazi
Jul 05, 2021 @ 9:30 am
The New Gossip Girl Has a Gen Z Problem
Credit: HBO

The new, hotly anticipated iteration of Gossip Girl opens as so many of our Insta feeds do, with a beautiful influencer posting her getting-ready routine and soliciting feedback on the perfect 'fit. Julien Calloway, played by Canadian actress and singer Jordan Alexander, is our new It Girl, the one everybody at Constance Billard strives to be, 2021's Serena Van der Woodsen

Calloway is the captivating center of the next generation of privileged, beautiful adult babies whose wealth and consumption serve to provoke both our ire and desire onscreen. 

In many ways the follow-up to 2008's TV adaptation of Cecily Von Ziegesar's novels is exactly what you want it to be. The rich teens are hot, the sexuality is fluid and the clothes are once again instantly covetable and yet wildly preposterous. But like the Glossier Julien Calloway expertly applies in the pilot, what the show gets right about Gen Z is mostly superficial and by the end of the episode I was asking myself who this reboot is really for. 

The New Gossip Girl Has a Gen Z Problem
Credit: HBO

One of the early insights into the tone of the new show came after a buzzed-about quote attributed to showrunner and writer Josh Safran went viral, where he allegedly said, "These kids wrestle with their privilege in a way that I think the original didn't. In light of [Black Lives Matter], in light of a lot of things, even going back to Occupy Wall Street, things have shifted." Critics wondered if this meant the new cast of young Upper East Siders would respond to social justice issues, and mused over whether it was even possible to be simultaneously wealthy and "woke." 

When I spoke to Safran last week, he was quick to point out that those weren't his words in Variety, they were the author's, but he agrees that this new cast of characters had to respond in some way to current cultural conversations around class and wealth. "My job in life is to be a chronicler of what's happening in the world," he says. "I wanted to make sure the world was right for what's happening today … [But] It doesn't mean they don't abuse their privilege, in fact it's actually worse if you know you have it and abuse it," he clarifies. "It's actually more devious and more delicious now to watch these kids hurt people, knowing that they're hurting them, as opposed to the first time around when they're sort of turning a blind eye."

And this push and pull in the new characters, however superficial it may be, does offer the same kind of wry skewering of the rich as Von Ziegesar's original novels. Eli Brown plays Obie Bergmann, Julien Calloway's Insta-shy boyfriend and the wealthiest of the group, who rebels against his real estate mogul parents and assuages his own class guilt by bringing food to picketers of their latest development. Emily Alyn Lind's Audrey Hope is dealing with an absentee mom whose athleisure line is struggling post-pandemic. Gossip Girl 2.0 is every bit the shiny social satire its predecessor was

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But where the original iteration of the show once felt eerily prescient in its ability to predict how the internet could be used as a cudgel and weaponized for judgment, this new version struggles to understand how both social media and Gen Z has adapted and evolved in the face of that. Making Julien Calloway the school's sole influencer feels unlikely given the entire student body's access to the hallmarks of Insta fame, an abundance of money and free time. And as the new Gossip Girl emerges to taunt the halls of Constance Billard, it's hard to believe these teens would give up their own narcissistic indulgences online to follow the petty dramas of a 14-year-old freshman. Holding anybody's attention on social media that long is a tall task, let alone for a TikTok-wired 17-year-old. 

In 2008, blogging was a natural outlet for a budding writer like Dan Humphrey to keep tabs on his wealthier peers — to use the internet to skewer and scald as so many did before empathy and kindness became bigger trends. The choice of Instagram as the social media platform keeping 2021's teens on their toes falls flat in comparison. The largest user base on Instagram are people ages 25-34, whereas 60% of TikTok's 80 million monthly users are Gen Zs between 16-24, and this is obvious in the platform's 'live and let live' ethos.

The New Gossip Girl Has a Gen Z Problem
Credit: Getty Images

"I chose Instagram over TikTok because Instagram connects you more to people. You're tagging people, you're aggregating something, close friends only, all those things felt more Gossip Girl," Safran says. He also points to the 2008 series' deal with Verizon where the mobile company gave the show early prototypes of phones and the writers would try to anticipate how teens would use the technology. Only we don't have to predict how young people would use social tech anymore, we can track it in real time, and what we know is they'd rather spend lunch hour on the steps of the Met learning the latest TikTok choreography to a Saweetie song than spying on their classmates through grainy Instas. Their millennial teachers, however, seem more likely to peruse the platform, spending their hasty work breaks browsing an ever-growing cache of their friends' baby photos. 

Casting former blogger Tavi Gevinson as one such put-upon teacher is clearly an attempt at appealing to us millennials, a carrot to keep the adults engaged. And while the millennials who watched the Serena and Blair version will undoubtedly tune in for the pilot out of a mixture of nostalgia and curiosity, no one watches teen dramas for the lurking grownups, who in this iteration feel out of place at best, and at worst woefully inappropriate. 

Then again, we've never tuned into Gossip Girl for the show's ties to reality, so why start now? Much of the appeal of the original was the outsized glamor, the aspirational clothing that taught a new generation about designers like Marc Jacobs and Jimmy Choo (both mounting an aughts-fashion renaissance of their own right now). Keeping in line with the Insta influencer aesthetic, the reboot offers plenty of sartorial escape, styling that's as laughable as it is delicious to watch. Alexander and co-star Whitney Peak, who plays her half-sister Zoya Lott, got to wear some particularly over-the-top outfits. When asked about their favorite looks in the series, Alexander raved about a giant Valentino jacket that she was eager to take home. "I love anything very oversized," she says, staying true to her generation. "Drown me, I'm here for it."