I didn’t want to write this about the CW show Gossip Girl, but I feel I have to before it’s too late.
As it stands now, Gossip Girl is spreading throughout the United States a disjunctive, distorted, ultimately dangerous, view of what buys what in New York City right now, and the show’s doing so mostly through its depiction of real estate. Like Friends in the 1990’s and Sex and the City earlier this decade, Gossip Girl is giving the impression to Suzy in Nebraska and Mandy in Alabama (and Clay from Texas) that real estate in New York is as affordable as anywhere and that poor in New York means living in a $2 million Williamsburg loft.
In last Wednesday’s episode, the impossibly WASP-y grandmother of Serena—who lives with her mom in the Palace Hotel, where rooms now go for $620 a night at the cheapest, well above the record high Manhattan average—doesn’t want Serena going to the debutante ball with Dan, because Dan lives in Williamsburg with his dad, a fading rock musician turned artist, and his kid sister, a wannabe socialite (think Paris Hilton, not Talulah Bankhead). To Serena’s grandmother, Dan from Williamsburg is working-class chum, good for feeding upon but not for taking around the Upper East Side.
That’s just one example, albeit a glaring one, of Gossip Girl spreading the gospel to the unsuspecting of a New York City where affordability and leisure are easy to come by.
We must dash these notions quickly, lest a fresh wave of flyover country folk flock to neighborhoods like Williamsburg (just like they did in the 1990’s) to waste some of the choicest years of their life coming to grips with the reality that $1,000 in this city is like $100 elsewhere.
The facts are this (and please listen up and tell a friend back home): Dan’s father’s loft—it looks to be at least 3,000 square feet—probably sells for about $600 a square foot now. That’s going by the general rule of thumb that Brooklyn condos (and we’ll assume it’s a condo as no co-op board, even in Brooklyn, would likely let in a rock musician-turned-artist who keeps odd hours) sell for half of what they would in most of Manhattan; and in most of Manhattan, condos sell for over $1,200 a square foot on average, according to research firm Radar Logic.
Now, of course, Gossip Girl is just a TV show and not that spectacular a one at that. (On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being The Sopranos and 1 being Two and a Half Men, I’d give Gossip Girl a 4.) But what makes it truly dangerous is that it falls snugly into line along a continuum of pop cultural messaging devoid of anything but a single one-trick pony: Do not adjust your sets—everybody everywhere in this wonderful country is doing fabulously well! Especially in the fabulously big cities! Buy! Buy! Buy!
The television networks long ago did away with most vestiges of working-class reality in their prime-time programming (Roseanne may have been the last such hit sitcom, and it went off the air in 1997), opting instead for an endless litany of shows about thirty-something women coming to terms with things, thirty-something men simply coming, and, oh yes, reality shows and shows made to unfold like reality shows.
This mass mental marketing of easily attained affluence as the New Normal wouldn’t be that big a deal if some people didn’t take it seriously. But they do; and we’re in danger as a city because of it. As the late Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, "There is no more disturbing consequence of the electronic and graphic revolution than this: that the world as given to us through television seems natural, not bizarre."
In other words, sure, to you and your friends, Gossip Girl seems silly and trite and stupid in places. You get the joke. Others may not. They’re banking on that $2 million loft and they’ll take the mortgage to get it.
So, when the average L train stop starts looking like the opening scenes of Heathers, don’t say we didn’t warn you. And to those of you who’re going to move to this city after absorbing the mental marketing of Gossip Girl, please, when you wash out about five years from now—six, tops—don’t move in next-door and play your TV loud. We don’t want to hear it.