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Successful series of the teen drama television genre sustain themselves through a careful balance. On the one side, these dramas strictly adhere to the rules of the genre. On the other, they stretch its bounds, and in so doing, facilitate its evolution.
An example of a teen drama that negotiates this balance effectively is Gossip Girl. Since its premiere in 2007, the show has maintained an audience, as well as its creative edge, by consciously respecting the conventions of the teen drama genre while simultaneously twisting it to suit an expanded purpose, namely, to root the series in the cultural and technological ethos of its audience. Gossip Girl’s innovative representation of technology as a character, via the faceless narration of the blogger, Gossip Girl herself, and the literal aural depiction of gossip as it goes viral via personal mobile devices in the Gossip Girl pilot episode, develops the teen drama genre to embrace the reality of technology in the lives of its fans.
Teen drama genre conventions
Thriving teen dramas share many elements with the soap opera genre in that they are relationship oriented. The majority of teen drama storylines delve into the interpersonal relationships, both sexual and platonic, of their main characters.
These relationships typically teem with infidelity, longing, lust, heartbreak, betrayal, social war, and sometimes even violence. Gossip Girl mainly explores the tempestuous relationship between Serena and Blair. The love-hate encounters between Serena and Blair form the heart of the show, and crackle with jealousy, betrayal, love, envy, sabotage, and competition, classic teen drama fodder.
Also, the choice to base the show on a relationship between two teenage girls consciously respects the teen drama genre, since teenage girls compose the lionshare of the audience fan base for this genre. Other important characters that stem from the teen drama genre convention present in Gossip Girl include the jerk/antagonist Chuck, the sensitive thinker Nate, and the impoverished hero Dan.
Money is an important element of the teen drama genre, and warrants its own discussion. Successful teen dramas, those that flourish for multiple seasons, share one common trait: wealth. Beverly Hills 90210 and The O.C. provide the two clearest examples of this phenomenon. Affluent locales such as California and Manhattan are prime real estate in the teen drama genre.
These are the locations where the fans of the teen drama genre want to live, urban hubs full of nightlife and glamour. Privileged characters such as those found on Gossip Girl typically embody the glitz, the trust funds, the designer clothes, the social status, and the social access that fans of teen dramas seek. In Gossip Girl, money and privilege provide the backdrop of many of the stories.
Money serves a dual purpose in the teen drama genre: it provides the fantasy, yet it does not detract from the emotional drama. Teen dramas appeal to fans because they offer visual “proof” that having money does not garner immunity to life. Despite their wealth and advantage, the teenagers on Gossip Girl have more than their fare share of problems, heartache, disappointment, pain, and loss.
Beauty is another vital element of the teen drama genre. Gossip Girl is no exception to this rule. Every character is a knock-out. Beautiful actors fulfill the stipulation of the genre in this regard. Why is beauty necessary to the teen drama genre? Beauty is a symbol of social power, in high school and in life.
Beautiful people have access, enjoy elevated status, and rarely need to work as hard to be wanted or accepted by their peers. However, similar to the convention of money, the convention of beauty in the teen drama genre does not remove the characters from the tribulations inherent to life. The beautiful characters on Gossip Girl still suffer infidelity, rejection, violence, and social ostracism.
In essence the characters in the teen drama genre become relatable because they have all the social power and standing that their teen fans strive for, yet they share the exact same problems. The Gossip Girl characters live in one of the best cities in the world, they have the best clothes, go to the best parties, and yet their boyfriends still cheat on them, and they still don’t always get what they want. It is this quality – this inherent “different yet the same” dichotomy – that makes the series Gossip Girl so connected and compelling to its fans.
Gossip girl innovation
Technology is a character in Gossip Girl, and this is the element of the series that deviates substantially from the teen drama convention, and takes the genre to a new level of relevance and timeliness. Gossip Girl, the blogger, is never seen, yet we hear her voice and we experience the impact of her presence.
Gossip Girl narrates each episode. She provides opening context and closing analysis on each episode. She also comments on the action throughout each episode, often providing insight into the action of any given scene. Sometimes she accesses the private emotions of the characters.
The presence of Gossip Girl the blogger resembles the presence of technology in our lives. She is omnipresent and omniscient, and gives us direct personal access to each other, access that is unprecedented in any other time in human history. Also, like our own personal mobile devices, Gossip Girl is there in our most private, intimate moments. Gossip Girl the series supports the evolution of the teen drama genre to relate precisely and poignantly to the technological experience of its fans.
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Gossip Girl the series also offers an innovative and artistic depiction of gossip itself via the personal mobile devices of the characters. This discussion continues in the analysis of the pilot episode.
Pilot episode analysis
The pilot episode of Gossip Girl begins with attractive flashes of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, interwoven with shots of Serena’s beautiful face (Savage and Schwartz 2007). These visual effects immediately adhere to the teen drama convention in two ways: first, we recognize immediately that we are in an affluent and desirable neighborhood, Manhattan. Second, we recognize a main character that fits the genre conventions: she is a teenager, and she is beautiful.
The scene then switches to New York’s Grand Central station, as we follow Serena, who waits, presumably, for someone to pick her up. The first voice we hear belongs to Gossip Girl, the blogger. On screen, another teenager watches Serena and reaches for her cell phone. As the teenage girl snaps a photo of Serena with her phone, Gossip Girl introduces Serena thus: “Hey Upper East Siders. Gossip Girl here. And I have the biggest news ever.
One of my many sources, Melanie 91, sends us this: ‘Spotted at Grand Central, bags in hand: Serena van der Woodsen. Was it only a year ago our it girl disappeared for quote boarding school? And just as suddenly, she’s back. Don’t believe me? See for yourselves. Lucky for us, Melanie 91 sent proof. Thanks for the photo Mel” (Savage and Schwartz 2007).
When Dan, the impoverished hero, sees Serena at the station, Gossip Girl instantly has a response: “Spotted. Lonely Boy. Can’t believe the love of his life has returned. If only she knew who he was. Everyone knows Serena. And everyone is talking” (Savage and Schwartz 2007). A series of rapid-fire shots follow Gossip Girl’s introduction, as we see numerous characters checking their mobile devices for the juicy gossip tidbits provided by Gossip Girl’s blog. We witness as Melanie 91’s photo of Serena at Grand Central goes viral.
This visual depiction of gossip bears analysis. On screen, we see Serena’s photo bounce from phone to phone. Aurally, we hear numerous rings, buzzes, beeps, and vibrations as the message travels through the Gossip Girl network. This phenomenon sets the standard of gossip, and Gossip Girl, as characters, which in turn expands the genre’s understanding of narrative devices and how they can be used to tell stories on screen.
Similarly, in the later scene where Dan’s sister Jenny needs rescuing from jerk/antagonist Chuck’s manhandling and unwanted sexual advances, she uses her cell phone to call her brother for help (Savage and Schwartz 2007). When Dan and Serena crash the Kiss on the Lips party, a dazzling onscreen moment occurs when Serena stands alone in the middle of the party that she has been barred from (Savage and Schwartz 2007).
All around her, we hear gossip fluttering, hundreds of little voices twittering, all centered on Serena, and we understand that the viral nature of technology is firmly rooted in the human social experience.
Gossip Girl the series brilliantly and innovatively utilizes the social nature of technology to expand the teen drama genre. For many teens, their personal mobile device is their lifeline to their peers. The teen drama genre, as seen in Gossip Girl, blossoms to form a window into the social lives of teenagers through their technology habits.
Gossip Girl the series uses personal mobile devices to root itself in the real life experience of its core fan base. The series holds to the conventions of the teen drama genre while ultimately spinning the genre and advancing it. Gossip Girl depicts the union of culture and technology, as experienced by the current generation.
“Pilot episode.” Gossip Girl: Season One. Writ. Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz. Dir. Mark Piznarski. The CW, 2007. DVD.