Blair Waldorf: Child of Post-Feminism – Icon for Feminism?
There is not a single mention of feminism in the first season of the Gossip Girl television series. This media-analysis essay will argue the series nonetheless provides an interesting critique of values associated with post-feminist discourse. Gossip Girl was created for the US’ CW network by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage in 2007. This paper will focus on how pitfalls and problems associated with prominent themes in post-feminist discourse are embodied by, and critiqued through, Gossip Girl’s protagonist, Blair Waldorf. This essay will analyse a story arc regarding Blair that plays out over several episodes in season one. Born in 1990, around the time the term “post-feminism” first emerged (Hall 2003: 878), Blair is an upper-class 16 year old, living with her divorced fashion designer mother in Manhattan’s Upper East Side while reigning as the so-called “Queen Bee” of her prestigious private school in every way from academics to the school’s vibrant social scene (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 1). This plotline sees Blair break up with Nate, the only boyfriend she has ever had, before immediately losing her virginity to the most notorious teenage playboy in New York City high society. I contend this plot illustrates how various answers found in the often contradictory discourses of post-feminism serve not to improve the lives of girls like Blair who follow them, as every post-feminist behaviour Blair embraces only leaves her unsatisfied and unhappy. Blair, raised as her character is by a seemingly post-feminist mother in the era of post-feminism, personifies a critique of two major and contrasting post-feminist values: New Traditionalism and (hetero)sex-positive empowerment (Projansky 2001: 67). A feminist reading of the series therefore suggests young women in America are not past needing feminisms. Blair Waldorf, a member of the next generation of potential feminists, does not live in a world of complete gender equality free of double-standards and pressures to enact her womanhood through playing a rigid, emotionally taxing but socially acceptable gender-role.
Angela McRobbie’s work “understands post-feminism to refer to an active process by which feminist gains of the 1970s and 80s came to be undermined” (2004: 1). McRobbie argues that contemporary popular culture plays an integral role in this undoing of feminism, “while simultaneously appearing to be engaging in a well-informed and even well-intended response to feminism.” Post-feminism suggests that equality is already achieved and uses “tropes of freedom and choice which are now inextricably connected with the category of ‘young women’ to make feminism seem passé and redundant” (McRobbie 2004:1). A trope of post-feminist discourse is that feminist-identified individuals are often portrayed as humourless women who simply enjoy complaining (Coopack 6: 1995). Other post-feminism ideologies take a different approach, claiming not that women have achieved equality, but refuting the very desirability of equality between men and women (Holmlund 116: 2005). While this definition will not be utilized in this paper, Post-feminism can also have an historical connotation, referring to the era literally after the major Second Wave feminist campaigns of the 1960s, 70s and 80s (Projansky 2001: 66).
Gossip Girl revolves around the lives of privileged New York teenagers attending high school together. They are all white and each major character to self-identifies as heterosexual. Despite their heteronormativity and white privilege, however, their lives are not without complications. First, there is Blair, whose father left her mother for a male model and moved to France just before the first season begins. Blair’s boyfriend, Nate, is a track star (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 3) and the son of an old-money Vanderbilt mother and a cocaine-addicted investment banker who embezzles from his firm (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 7). Nate and Blair have, according to everyone on the show, “been dating since Kindergarten” (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 3); however, what Blair only realises in season one is that Nate’s feelings for her are not nearly as strong as those he has for her best friend, Serena, a tall, statuesque blonde whose beauty contrasts starkly with Blair’s petite frame and dark hair. Nate also has a best friend, Chuck Bass. Chuck is motherless and his father is rarely at home, leaving his son to a lifestyle of underage drinking, drugs and promiscuous sex with employees at the luxury hotels his family owns (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 1). These four characters provide much of the focus for the anonymous Gossip Blogger, the titular “Gossip Girl,” an all-seeing eye whose website is devoted to revealing salacious details regarding Manhattan’s most privileged teens. It is Gossip Girl herself who provides the voice-over narration for the series (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 1).
Tensions are caused in the show’s central unit of friends when Blair learns Nate cheated on her with Serena a year prior to the series’ beginning, having sex with her at a party. Blair eventually forgives both her friend and her boyfriend (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 3). This forgiveness is, however, accompanied by a new strategy to strengthen her relationship with Nate and distract him from his attraction to Serena; Blair resolves not to “wait” any longer and lose her virginity to Nate. There is one key flaw in Blair’s plan; Nate does not seem sexually attracted to Blair.
I will now begin my core analysis of Blair’s personal evolution from New Traditionalist post-feminism to a course of (hetero)sex-positive attempts at empowerment. In the first few episodes, Blair’s attitudes and behaviours often fit into the “new traditionalist” category of feminist discourse identified by Projansky. New Traditionalism is a form of feminist backlash that nostalgically harkens back to the time before second wave feminism, emphasising the importance of women’s work in the home, raising families and seeing to domestic chores rather than living as single career women (2001: 67). Texts such as the popular 1990s television series Ally McBeal seemed to reflect New Traditionalist sentiment. While Ally was 30ish and single, working as a successful lawyer, the series illustrates a character riddled by neuroses that traced back to her status as a childless woman without a husband (Mosely and Read 2002: 67). The show seems to illustrate how women’s deviation from traditional values leaves them essentially hysterical and insane. Dow argues the implications of turn-of-21st-century television like Ally McBeal are clear; feminism is to blame for the unhappiness of women like Ally (Dow 2002: 263). Feminism makes Ally McBeal the Harvard-educated lawyer possible, by allowing women elite educations and professional opportunities in the first place, but the series suggests these same feminist advances might come at too great a cost. Gossip Girl, however, incorporates new traditionalist themes and discourses but, instead of endorsing them, problematises them through Blair’s experiences.
In an interview on American talk show The View, Leighton Meester, who portrays Blair, comments that she thinks Gossip Girl would be an interesting text for parents to watch with their teenagers as a springboard for discussing their perspectives on issues like drugs and sexuality dealt with on the program (The View 2008: 19 September). This is a particularly interesting comment in light of the fact that Gossip Girl illustrates a generational transmission of post-feminist values from mother to daughter. Parents watching Gossip Girl would be immersed in a portrayal of how the values parents attempt to instill in their children can have profound negative consequences. Blair is the only child of a fictional professional woman of Ally McBeal’s generation, Eleanor Waldorf. While Blair is an excellent student who dreams of attending Yale after graduation, Eleanor’s advice to her daughter revolves around keeping up appearances and preparing the very young Blair for an appropriate society marriage. In Episode one, Eleanor refers to Blair as “her best advertisement” for the couture clothes she designs. Eleanor also diligently scrutinizes her daughter’s diet, instructing her to avoid croissants at breakfast, instead directing her towards “low-fat yogurt” (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 4). Eleanor seems to be instructing her daughter in the post-feminist ethos that the way for women to find empowerment is to focus on the superficial, staying thin and constantly investing in fashionable clothes (Goldman 1992: 140).
At first, Blair seems comfortable following the life-plan her mother has set out for her. She confesses to a friend that even though it might sound strange because she was only five years old, she knew the first time she saw Nate that “He’s the boy I want to marry” (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 7). This hyperbolic portrayal of marrying young, wherein a young girl chooses her husband before she is even in the first grade, seems a hyperbolic nod toward the New Traditionalist discourse that values settled domesticity over dating and sexual experimentation. Blair is right; it does sound ridiculous and unlikely that her kindergarten boyfriend could be the love of her life. Blair’s fantasy that Nate will be the only boy she ever loves, however, soon unravels, along with her New Traditionalist values and perspective on life.
Blair’s New Traditionalist values appear to be eroding from the series’ very first episode. Nate tells us Blair had wanted to “wait” – it is never specified how long she wanted to wait – to have sex with him for the first time; however, Blair’s plan for dealing with her boyfriend’s enchantment with her best friend Serena is to use sex to win his love. Deciding to sleep with Nate as a way to preserve their relationship is the first and only strategy Blair develops to save the only romance she has ever had. This reflects the viewpoint common to post-feminist discourses and self-help theories that a woman’s sexiness and her sex are both a source of power over men and empowerment to her (Roberts 2007: 37).
Gossip Girl problematises the post-feminist endorsement of sex as a way to control men by asking the question, if a woman’s heterosexual sex appeal is her power, what does one do when do when one’s boyfriend finds another girl sexier? Try as she might to seduce Nate in hotel rooms (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 1) and at high society balls (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 6), he is constantly distracted by his attempts to pursue Serena, the tall, leggy blonde whose looks sharply contrast Blair’s petite brunette beauty. Serena does not simply contrast Blair in looks, however. Serena is also less academic and more free-spirited, with a past full of experimentation with drugs, alcohol and promiscuity in her early teens (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 10). She has a penchant for short skirts and revealing bohemian peasant dresses, and her favourite hairstyle is to leave her long blonde locks out and flowing around her shoulders. Blair has the more conservative clothes of the perfect student she attempts to be, preferring higher necklines accompanied by pearls. Her hair is never free like Serena’s. Instead, Blair ties her hair back neatly in her signature headbands (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 3). Blair does countless extracurriculars and receives perfect grades. Her principal at the Constance Preparatory School says of her, “If Constance has a shining star, it’s Blair Waldorf” (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 12). Gossip Girl develops Blair as a character who both looks and acts so wholly different from Serena that it seems obvious why, if Nate prefers a young woman like Serena, he is not attracted to Blair. Due to the subjective nature of sexiness, relying on sex appeal for empowerment and to cement her future with Nate backfires for Blair.
The episode “Victor/Vitrola” (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 7) documents the final demise of Blair and Nate’s relationship. Despite the fact that Nate has had little interest in his girlfriend since his affair with Serena the year before, Nate’s parents put pressure on him to maintain the romance so Eleanor Waldorf will choose Nate’s father’s company to broker the deal that will make her fashion house a publicly traded company. In this episode, Eleanor has finally decided to allow Nate’s father, Mr. Archibald, to handle the deal for her; the Archibalds and Waldorfs plan a dinner to celebrate. Mr. Archibald exclaims to his son of the news, “I have landed the Waldorf account, and my son has landed the Waldorf!” Nate and Blair’s parents push their children to pursue a high society relationship that is mutually beneficial to both families despite the fact that it is dysfunctional for them. Blair is objectified; she is just another deal to be “landed.”
Like Nate’s father, Blair’s mother also gives her daughter a pep talk to communicate the importance of her relationship with Nate. In this scene, Blair and Eleanor are positioned in Blair’s room, standing in front of her mirror deciding what Blair should wear to dinner with Nate’s family that night. Eleanor hands her daughter a shapeless dress with long sleeves, telling her, “You need to look elegant for the Archibald dinner.” At first, Blair resists her mother’s traditionally conservative take on elegance, replying that she would wear it, “If I was sailing up on the Mayflower.” Eleanor, however, manipulates her daughter into wearing the garment by offering her a longed-for piece of information; Eleanor reveals to Blair that the last time she saw the Archibalds, Mrs. Archibald announced that Blair would have her Vanderbilt family diamond ring upon becoming engaged to Nate. Blair takes this to mean that Nate has discussed marrying her with his mother, and that he is serious about her after all. Eleanor smiles at the thought of the two high society families – and business partners – merging. Marrying young and rich is clearly a plan she actively encourages her daughter to follow.
Delighted by the news that Nate plans to marry her, Blair immediately confides the revelation to her friend Jenny. Jenny, however, has a secret of her own; the week before, when Blair was attempting to lose her virginity to Nate at a masked ball, the actual reason he never met her to consummate their relationship was because he was busy attempting to woo Serena (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 6).
At the celebration dinner that night, Nate and Blair’s relationship finally meets its demise. Nate, his parents and Eleanor are already in the Waldorf living room when Blair descends the grand staircase in the conservative dress her mother chose for her. There is a pianist at the apartment’s grand piano, providing peaceful diegetic classical music that strongly contrasts the sullen expression on Blair’s face. The presence of “classical” music rather than a more contemporary soundtrack reflects the traditional nature of a scene wherein the parents of children as young as 16 are about to suggest these teenagers are on a clear path to marriage. Blair’s fixed expression, porcelain skin and red lips make her look like a china doll, instead of a real-life teenage girl. It is fitting that she resembles the object she has become; a pawn in a business deal between two families for the sake of money and keeping up appearances.
Prompted by Blair’s look of displeasure as she enters the scene, Nate approaches to ask if there is anything “on her mind.” Without altering her expression, Blair replies with a curt, “No.” The next scene portraying the family dinner opens with a wide shot of all five participants sitting in the Waldorf living room, preparing for a toast. Nate’s father begins. He briefly mentions his business deal with Eleanor, before remaking, “Let’s focus on our families’ other joint venture – our children!” He goes on to force an uncomfortable looking Blair to try on the engagement ring she will apparently one day receive from Mrs. Archibald. Blair at first resists Mr. Archibald’s idea, saying she would rather not put the ring on, but Blair’s mother insists her daughter must entertain Mr. Archibald’s request. Blair obeys, even smiling while she admires the ring on her finger, commenting, “It’s beautiful”; however, Blair’s discomfort is apparent when she removes the ring only seconds after getting it on her hand.
Soon after the toast, Nate and his father go outside to smoke celebratory cigars but instead have an altercation over the cocaine habit Nate has recently realised his father has. The fight soon turns violent, with Mr. Archibald throwing his son to the ground and being taken into custody by a passing police officer. Unknown to Nate, the viewer can see Blair look on from her window.
As soon as Mr. Archibald is taken away, Blair runs outside to Nate and demands to know why he has not confided in her regarding his family trouble. Nate’s response is that he cannot confide in Blair because something else always has her attention, like school or a “masked ball.” Nate is clearly put off by the fact that his girlfriend is so dynamic and accomplished. Yet the series illustrates that Blair still spends a significant amount of time in her busy schedule obsessing over Nate. Her ongoing quest to sleep with him is a strategy to maintain their relationship, after all. One could go so far as to argue that the sub-text of Nate’s explanation as to why he cannot confide in Blair is that he is not the only focus of her life. One wonders, just how much more attention does he expect? Upon hearing Nate’s comment, Blair comes to a realisation regarding their relationship. Referring to Nate’s father’s incarceration, she says, “Your dad needs you. I don’t.” With that, Blair gets into the town car Nate was about to enter to meet his best friend Chuck at a burlesque Club Chuck has just purchased. The scene ends with Blair speeding away from a surprised Nate. After months of him cheating on Blair and ignoring her, Nate pointing out to Blair that he is not the absolute centre of her life seems to be the catalyst for her ending their relationship herself once and for all. Blair seems to be asserting her right to have her own priorities and the importance of her life outside of her relationship with Nate. It looks as though she renounces the New Traditionalist discourse that suggests the ultimate focus of a woman’s life should be her home and husband; however, Blair’s very next actions illustrate she has traded in this one pole of post-feminist behaviour for another extreme.
Instead of seeking comfort from her best friend Serena or confronting her mother over her controlling nature, Blair seeks validation in an overt public display of sexuality focused on gaining the admiration of another male. When Blair arrives at Chuck’s burlesque club, Vitrola, she informs her old friend of the break-up and takes a seat with him in the front row. Blair declares, “I want to escape, that’s what this place is for, right?” The camera cuts to the cropped image of a woman on stage in lingerie and fishnets, shaking her buttocks. The camera then returns to Blair for a close-up of her watching and reflecting upon the dancer’s performance: “I’ve got moves, you know,” she says. Chuck responds that perhaps Blair should “go up there” and join the other dancers. Blair gamely retorts, “I know what you’re doing, Bass.” Blair’s response lets us know she believes Chuck is trying to manipulate her into stripping so he can satisfy his lecherous personality by objectifying her, and yet, Blair immediately walks up to the stage, takes a place directly in the centre and begins to perform.
Blair stares directly at Chuck as she begins to disrobe, courting his male gaze. Much feminist film theory argues that onscreen performances turn women into objects of a male gaze where female characters are “constructed as objects of desire through eyes of the male characters” (Stacey 1989: 21). Because women are most often revealed through the perspective of a male protagonist, women in film are made objects by their innate “to-be-looked-at-ness” (Mulvey 1975: 25). Blair subverts this by inviting the male gaze, fixing her eyes on Chuck as she unzips her dress, discards it, and begins to shake her hips, dancing in a revealing white slip. McRobbie identifies as part of the heterosex-positive attitude found in much post-feminist discourse a trend where young women objectify themselves, attending strip clubs with friends or wearing T-shirts that read “Porn Queen” (McRobbie 2004: 259). Blair buys into the attitude that delighting in self-objectification is a meaningful form of empowerment (Love and Helmbrecht 2007: 42). This attitude, however, is reductive and disempowering to women because it still promotes the idea that a woman’s sexuality is her greatest tool: “Woman is sex” (Kim 2001: 324). Blair may have fled the New Traditionalist discourse of post-feminism that risked reducing her to the status of wife and mother, but the “escape” she says she wishes to make at the beginning of the scene is to a gender performance that still reduces her to her sexuality. By stripping for Chuck, she is simply occupying the other extreme.
Critiques of Blair’s performance of self-objectification are not simply found in feminist literature, but are also provided through the show itself. Upon leaving Vitrola, Chuck offers Blair a ride home in his limousine. On the limo, there is a gulf of space that separates where Chuck and Blair sit. Without touching her, Chuck gazes fondly at Blair and remarks dreamily of her performance, “You were amazing.” Blair then slides across the backseat to touch Chuck. In response to Blair’s sexual advances, Chuck asks, “Are you sure?” Blair says nothing but kisses him. The episode ends with a montage of Blair and Chuck having sex in the backseat of Chuck’s moving limo.
In the next episode, however, Blair’s experimentation with what the series’ narrator refers to as “bad girl” behaviour leaves her unsatisfied (Gossip Girl 2007: episode 8). Chuck confronts Blair about their sexual encounter, and she makes it clear all she wishes to do is to forget it. She even flirts with the idea of going back to Nate and her New Traditionalist relationship, with no intention of telling him what transpired between her and his best friend. When her attempts to reconcile with Nate are foiled, Blair ultimately finds solace in what she concedes constitutes “revenge” sex with Chuck once again (Gossip Girl 2007: Episode 9). Blair is trapped between two opposing discourses of post-feminism, the New Traditionalist and the heterosex-positive one, while neither of these two extremes leave Blair feeling less distressed. The discourse of feminist backlash has accused feminism of leaving women feeling “unhappy” (Dow 2002: 263), but Gossip Girl seems to strike back against such claims by illustrating that post-feminist discourses like the ones Blair follows do not necessarily leave women feeling happy, either.
Television academics have argued that I Love Lucy is not so much a feminist text as an argument for why women needed feminism. It illustrates Lucy’s obvious unhappiness at the idea of staying at home and living solely as a wife and mother, which in turn shows how second-wave feminist struggles for educational and career opportunities for women were a logical next step (Landay 1998: 194). I argue that Gossip Girl provides an argument for why women still need feminism. Post-feminist ideologies fail Blair at every turn. She is trapped in a cycle of attempting to escape her dissatisfaction with New Traditionalism via raunchy (hetero)sex-positive self-objectification and vice versa.
The storyline documenting the loss of Blair’s virginity illustrates that Blair’s frustration with the world is often derived from her tendency to seek validation by gaining men’s approval. She fails to achieve happiness with a steady boyfriend like Nate, but fares little better with overt public displays of sexuality involving Chuck. Switching partners and exchanging New Traditionalism for its polar opposite is not a solution for Blair. The series provides us no clear answer for how Blair may achieve a personal resolution that leaves her satisfied; however, attempting to “escape” the sting of being rejected by one man by immediately running to another for validation of her sex appeal is unequivocally unsuccessful. Feminist backlash argues that feminist values made women unhappy, but Gossip Girl portrays Blair, a product of a post-feminist mother raised entirely in the post-feminist era, as a desperately unhappy young woman who explores two major post-feminist routes to empowerment and self-fulfillment and finds them both lacking. Dow argues that while feminism never promised happiness, its movement to end double standards and provide women with legal, economic and cultural equality worked to give them “justice” (2002: 263). Justice, it seems, is exactly what Blair needs.
To Nate’s family and to Blair’s mother, she is objectified as a means to complete a business deal and establish an advantageous high-society family alliance; however, when Blair rebels against this objectification by seeking out Nate at Vitrola, her “escape” is only into another form of objectification. A fight for a just world, where Blair is not a pawn to seal business deals but also does not pursue rash strategies for sexual empowerment that leave her feeling uncomfortable with herself, seems to be what Blair needs. The absence of feminism in Gossip Girl is precisely what makes the need for it apparent. There is no evidence that Blair ever thinks about feminism or even knows that feminism would critique or condemn her constantly objectified status. The world without feminism clearly influenced by post-feminism, as constructed in Gossip Girl, is both an unhappy and an unjust place. I Love Lucy showed women needed feminism; nearly 50 years later, Gossip Girl shows why young women still need feminism today.
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