The brand new Gossip Girl is theoretically supposed to be tailor-made for a new generation. Queen bee Julien Calloway (Jordan Alexander) is an Instagram influencer and her friends include socially-conscious, sexually-fluid teens who actually try to lift each other up. Sure they still look and act like mini-adults — per the Gossip Girl tradition — but these teens are undeniably a glossy version of Gen Z.
The irony is the new Gossip Girl might not really be about the youths. That’s because the most compelling storytelling shift in HBO Max‘s Gossip Girl focuses on the Millennials in faculty and their relationship to Gossip Girl. This isn’t a reboot tailor-made for Gen Z as much as a continuation of a conversation started on the original CW show. Gossip Girl still is — and always has been — about Millennials.
When Gossip Girl first premiered in 2007, it quickly established itself as the rare teen soap opera that would speak to a major seismic cultural shift like never before: growing up on the internet. While teens have always felt the angst of coming of age under the weight of judgment from parents, teachers, and, worst of all, peers, the internet turned the adolescent experience into a panopticon. Everyone had tabs on everyone else. Scandals, real or rumored, could spread faster than ever before. And no matter where you went, someone could photograph you on their phone. The original Gossip Girl explored how a blog could redefine the narrative of someone’s life. When everyone’s secrets are in the open, who were we besides characters built for public consumption? And can we ever grow beyond people’s perceptions of us?
The HBO Max version of Gossip Girl is set today and therefore shadows teens who aren’t caught off guard by the idea of having an extremely public life online. They’ve grown up with it. In fact, these teens are so savvy when it comes to social media, they initially find ways to mute, ignore, and use Gossip Girl’s schtick against her. Social media is as much an extension of themselves as one of their designer-accessorized limbs. Which brings us to who still is navigating the stress of real life vs. how they present themselves online: the Millennials of this 2021 version of Gossip Girl.
The reboot’s most fascinating choice is to reveal the identity of Gossip Girl in the premiere’s first act. The Millennial teachers working at Constance Billard and St. Jude’s learn about Gossip Girl’s heyday torturing the student body from a colleague who was there when all the drama went down. Feeling powerless and out of control, they decide to re-launch Gossip Girl as a means to humble their privileged pupils.
However rebooting Gossip Girl in 2021 soon turns out to be harder than they thought. As we said, the likes of Julien and her catty pals and beloved besties know a troll when they see one. They’re unbothered by what they see is nothing more than a gnat buzzing in their orbit. Soon, the teachers, led by aspiring writer Kate Keller (played with a wink by Tavi Gevinson, a young Millennial online icon who’s only a year older than Gen Z), decide to get dirty. They post revealing documents that threaten to blow up a burgeoning friendship between sisters separated by their rival fathers. The idea is to create as compelling a narrative as ye olde drama between Blair (Leighton Meester) and Serena (Blake Lively) was in the heyday of Gossip Girl. It works, but it also compromises the teachers themselves ethically.
If the original Gossip Girl looked at how Millennials coped with being filtered through an online lens not of their making, then this new one looks at the blurred lines between our on-and-offline selves. What does it mean to be “Gossip Girl”? To wield the power to wreck someone’s real life from behind the safety of an avatar? Everyone laughed off the reveal that Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) was Gossip Girl in huge part because that twist never grappled with the emotional strain Dan must have put on himself keeping that secret for so long! Or the true traumatic fallout that would have been felt by those who fell under his nom de plume’s sniper-like gaze. Here, though, we see Kate struggle with emotionally destroying Zoya (Whitney Peak) online just as she’s building an earnest mentor/mentee relationship with the teen off-line.
The decision to reveal that faculty members like Kate Keller and Jordan Glassberg (Adam Chanler-Berat) are behind the new Gossip Girl account in HBO Max’s reboot was a bold move for more reasons than one. Sure, it completely upends the mystery, but it also re-centers the focus. The Gossip Girl of 2021 isn’t just about the damage done by social media, but the complicated reasons people log on to ruin lives. Moreover, the show isn’t just about the scandalous lives of rich Gen Z-ers, but also the continued anxiety Millennials feel facing how deeply the internet has transformed our lives.
Gossip Girl‘s cast of teen characters might be catered to appeal to a whole new generation, but the show’s core is still about how Millennials live online.