May 22, 2009

Butler and Nietzsche and Chuck and Blair: Why We Love that They're In Love

It's exam season and I'm not in a deep mood, so I'm just going to reflect on a conversation I had with a friend about broadspot's favourite televisual obsession - gossip girl. The question I have is, what is IT about Chuck and Blair that makes them everyone's favourite couple? Everyone from Daily Intel, to salon.com to the queer-identified AfterEllen site seems fixated on this young, white, wealthy, heterosexual American couple. So, what's their appeal? They are Audre Lorde's bloody mythical norm (Well, Chuck is. Blair is still a woman, so she's not quite there). It reads as a traditional heteronormative romance, and yet, while researching my essay on Blair last semester, I noticed that these two get a ridiculous amount of youtube coverage. There are more Chuck and Blair "sexy moments" compilation videos than you can shake a stick at. They have captured the public's imagination, and rendered the show's other characters (particularly Serena) "irrelevant." It's clear this fictional couple is a pop cultural phenomenon, but why? What makes them different? What makes them special?

Chuck and Blair have been dubbed "the new Ross and Rachel" by People Magazine. It's an interesting comparison, and yet, is it really accurate? Ross and Rachel were on and off, which made you cheer for them finally making it work in the end, but the trajectory of their relationship was completely different. I was never sure why Ross liked Rachel, other than that she was the pretty, popular girl he could never have in high school. And as far as why Rachel liked Ross, sure he was nice to her, but I always thought that was because he was in awe of her and trying to get into her woman parts. They didn't seem compatible. They didn't seem evenly matched. Sure, we're expected to believe that opposites attract, but why is that true? Is that hot? Is that realistic? Do they even attract for the right reasons? Ross just wanted the head cheerleader, and Rachel, well, I guess she wanted someone who remembered when she WAS the head cheerleader and still cared...Sure, lots of people end up together for similar reasons, but is that compelling?

Perhaps what people love about Chuck and Blair is that they aren't opposites. They have crazy sparks, and yet, they are compatible. When they run from each other, they are running from themselves. They're self-loathing and so they hide their feelings in performance. Nietzsche says there is no "doer behind the deed." All there is...is the performance! Chuck and Blair interrogate that concept. They love each other, and yet the one thing they are uncomfortable performing (when they are fine going to galas and playing the spoiled brat or spreading false rumours) is love. Is there something special about love that is all-consuming and destroys one's ability to perform? Is it more than the kisses and words that denote being in love? Is it a state of mind that alters who you are? Something that cannot merely be performed, but must be felt?

Post-Judith Butler, we live in an age of Gender Studies where we are obsessed with performance. What is gender, anyway? What is sexuality? What is any emotion, really? And while deconstruction is interesting and valuable, one must wonder if there isn't ever an essence behind a feeling or an action.

Today, we're all about performance. Facebook, where we upload pictures, delete the bad ones, and update our statuses with witty remarks, is all about performing how you want to be seen. You can make a digital projection of yourself that edits out all the stuff you don't like. You can highlight who you"want" to be. In a sense, just as Butler was writing about how we are all performers in the early 21st century. The Internet made those performances much easier.

This brings me back to Chuck and Blair. So, scratch what I said earlier about not liking deep shit today. I think this is pretty deep. They both represent what's happened to so many of us - they, in the age of technology and careful image construction, have become all performance all the time and, at first, they seem to think they love it. But when confronted with each other, and the love that grows from knowing that each one is so much like the other, both of these epic performers seem to find it hard to feel anything "real." The message of Gossip Girl seems to be that lots of aspects of who we are really are performance, but some things really must be felt and shared.

The show seems to posit performance as a defense. Of course it would be hard to say if we had an essential self, but it is possible to be more or LESS guarded, more or LESS performative. We do not all have to cultivate our performances all of the time. This is why, when Chuck finally told Blair he loved her, the internets went wild! All of us were on there, blogging and facebooking and being out performative selves, but we had seen two characters shaped by the internet and performance on their show become decidedly LESS performative. Love changed their expressions, their voices, their demeanors in that scene, and we all wondered whether maybe Nietzsche was wrong.

There is a spectrum of performance. You have been more or less performative, perhaps? There is likely no such thing as a pure you that is not mediated through social pressures to act a certain way, the limitations of language, and your personal background. But as I think we can all attest, there are some moments when you are more yourself than others. Some people you can be more intimate with, and some you fear will judge you so you must act for. It seems a utopian fantasy that I hope is true, that when two people really love each other, they don't have to put on an act consciously anymore. They might still be performing sub-consciously, but they don't have to work quite so hard....

Chuck and Blair, the ultimate performers, fell in love with each other, and on the season finale, we got a glimpse of them dropping their acts. Earlier in the episode, Blair strips for Chuck, asking him what he thinks of each item of her clothing - each piece of the costume that makes Blair Blair, from her designer coat to her signature head band and stockings. He says he likes and admires all that, but stops short of saying "I love you." Blair here, is clearly implying she has a "doer" behind her deeds. There is an essential Blairness behind her performance. There is something that can be isolated, and while it is hard to tell what that is, to separate the performative from the genuine, the show seems to be making the point that this surely is the case in the last scene. Chuck brings Blair many gifts that consist of the accoutrement of being Blair - her favourite fancy French cookies and some naughty German stockings, but the last thing he says is he loves "her." Then, the performance changes. She loses the pose and concentration in her eyes that has defined her character for two seasons, and she kisses him almost before he is done, before demanding to hear those words over and over again. Blair might still be performing, but she's performing LESS.

I think a lot of us are a little sick of performance. I think that's why we love Chuck and Blair. Unlike Ross and Rachel, they each seem to be aware that the other is performing most of the time. It's perhaps, only when you admit to the performance and appreciate it too, that you can love someone's more essential self, as well.

1 comment:

benjamin the great said...

I have never seen Gossip Girl, but I have read my share of Nietzsche. I find your analysis on-point and refreshingly pertinent to basic questions of human identity and existence (not to mention relationship). Thanks for sharing!