For a long time, film and television has played a crucial role in setting up the boundaries of masculinity for men. Both men and women are the targets for these restrictive ideals. By doing this, television shows aren’t only telling men who they should be, they are also playing a role in telling women who they should be with.
The iconic television series, Gossip Girl, taught and continues to teach its mostly female audience what their future partner should be like. As well as being female, the viewers of the show are also predominantly young, which means these ideas are likely to stick.
The series is also dominated by white, straight, cisgender, able-bodied and wealthy men. Like countless other shows, Gossip Girl works to dismiss the value of men who don’t fit this criteria.
Most men can’t live up to this because it is just way too specific. However, just because the men in the show fit this criteria, doesn’t mean they are adequately masculine. They struggle with many other tests of masculinity, such as how aggressive they are, how well they can suppress their emotions and how much control they have over their life and the lives of others.
One of the most insidious myths of masculinity is that men must prioritise making money. The show only reinforces this, so it’s no surprise that Dan, the poorest of the group, is the male character that defies most of the traditional ideas of masculinity. He is the most sensitive male and the one that often prioritises his morals, to the detriment of his career. This is particularly true in season two when he rejects the lucrative opportunity to advance his career by writing about Chuck’s dodgy father, Bart Bass. Even though it would benefit his career, he backs out when he realises it could hurt Chuck and his family. Dan chooses not to prioritise his career and in doing so rejects traditional masculine standards which tell men to value their work over everything. Unfortunately, he bends to these standards in later seasons, when he writes scathing articles about his friends—a development which is disappointing, but also true to life.
Despite his admirable commitment to his morals, Dan is still judged for his lack of wealth. Serena’s grandmother, CeCe, and other Upper East-Siders let Dan know that he is not a suitable partner. This is a problem of class as much as it is of gender. In Serena’s world, it is perfectly fine for a middle or working class girl to marry a rich man. However, the reverse is seen as alarming. Even though Serena will be able to live comfortably for her whole life thanks to her family’s wealth, it is embarrassing for Dan to have less money than her.
Dan’s lack of money translates to his lack of masculinity, as he has less control over his life and the world. By comparison, the much wealthier Nate and Chuck portray a type of masculinity that is more celebrated.
In particular, Chuck’s whole identity is based around his wealth and the power it gives him. His catchphrase, “I’m Chuck Bass” perfectly illustrates that he can do anything he wants because his money can open any door. Throughout the series, Chuck struggles most with his unquenchable desire to control everything and everyone. From paying women to sleep with him, to hiring a private investigator to keep an eye on those around him, he looks to control every area of his life.
Chuck’s need to control Blair is truly harmful and toxic. He stalks her from the comfort of his stretch limo, refuses to tell her he loves her and trades her for sex. The point of no return for the couple (or at least what should’ve been) is when Chuck nearly punches Blair. This isn’t just awful in and of itself, but because of how the creators of the show frame the incident.
Blair has just told Chuck, who is at this point her ex-boyfriend, that she is engaged to Prince Louis. He then grabs her and forces her against a glass wall, which he then proceeds to punch, causing glass to fall and cut her face. Whether or not he was trying to hit her or the wall doesn’t change the severity of the incident. Threats of violence through acts of intimidation are abuse and also extremely harmful to victims’ emotional welfare.
This event happened in episode twenty of the fourth season. No less than two episodes later do Blair and Chuck sleep together, with Blair then trying to convince him that they belong together. Chuck’s abuse of Blair is only mentioned once again when he much later apologises to her. His apology is meaningless as it isn’t followed up by a change in behaviour, as is often the case with abusive partners.
Blair and Chuck end up marrying and having a child together. While in real life victims do marry their abusers, when it is on a television series such as Gossip Girl, it works to justify Chuck’s abuse. By choosing for Blair to end up with Chuck, the writers tell their young female audience that they should dream of a man like Chuck, and that if a man is violent towards them it’s only because he loves them. Executive producer, Josh Safran, backed this up by saying in an interview with E! that “[Chuck] punches the glass because he has rage, but he has never, and will never, hurt Blair. He knows it and she knows it, and I feel it’s very important to know that she is not scared”.
But he did hurt Blair, even if she is in denial about it herself. Chuck might love her, but his need for control meant his love for her could only be entangled with abusive behaviour.
While men in the show constantly engage in violence to assert their masculinity, violence against them is used as a tool to emasculate them. This is particularly true when Serena slaps Dan for sleeping with her teacher. The scene ends with her admitting she found the slap “invigorating” and Dan responding by laughing and joking that “it’s good to know you enjoy hitting people”. Serena does not apologise—instead, Dan does. This tells us that when women are violent towards men in any way it is nothing to worry about. This works to deny men in real life a voice when they experience physical abuse, because if they were a “real man” no woman could ever hurt them. The reality is that men can and do experience physical abuse and it should never be dismissed.
The show repeats this multiple times with Dan as the victim. Both Serena and Blair slap him in the same episode, and in another episode Blair slaps him and pushes him over in public. All scenes are portrayed as harmless and as Dan getting what he deserves. This is made especially clear by the comical music which accompanies these scenes.
Gossip Girl reinforces many negative masculine norms, but it also paves the way for a new type of masculinity. Many of the men are shown to be smart, fashion-oriented and relatively disinterested in playing sport.
The show highlights struggles that are emotional and not just career-oriented. This includes when Dan struggles to tell Serena he loves her, when Chuck deals with the re-emergence of his mother or when Nate grapples with his father’s absence.
Through most of these challenges, the men are helped by their friendships with other men. Nate and Dan’s friendship highlights the power of men being vulnerable with each other. This is best shown when Dan insists that Nate let go of his pride and live with him, when he is more or less homeless.
Gossip Girl should not be defined by or cancelled because of its ideas on masculinity. However, when we re-watch we should also be willing to re-examine how okay we are with the ideas we’re being presented.