by Isa Meyers //
This piece was originally published in Issue 1: Secret Edition (Spring 2022). To see past print publications, click here.
We are a generation raised on secrets. In an age where trends come and go as quickly as a few weeks on social media, millennials and Gen Z have become quick to distinguish themselves from one another. Gen Z wears mom jeans while millennials wear skinny jeans. Gen Z middle part their hair, millennials side part. Both generations, however, remain the same in the sense that technology has played pivotal roles in their adolescence. I’m not saying that technology has played the same role, but technology has been used by both cultivate and unleash secrets. And in this way, I turn millennials and Gen Z’ers into a “we.”
Technology and social media straddle a fine line between private and public. Oftentimes, what we think is private is actually public. Think: having a private account on Instagram with personalized ads (ie. having a private account that is still accessing all of the information on your phone to sell you something). This divide between private and public is meant to make the user feel as though they are in control of their personal information, when in reality, their technological footprint is accessible and permanently stored. Even Snapchat, which is marketed for its ephemerality, has ways for people to save chat messages or view stories for 24 hours. In other words, secrets exist in spite of (but also because of) social media.
The utilization of technology has drastically changed in the past two decades. I think of my older sister, a 2009 high school grad, who messaged on AIM with her friends: an account that required no authentication. I, on the other hand, texted. She was also a MySpace user before transitioning to FaceBook, whereas I have used neither. I have a Facebook that is checked maybe once a year.
She laughs at me when I take so long to choose a picture to post on Instagram, and I laugh at her when she doesn’t understand the latest TikTok trend.
What remains the same, however, is the threat of privacy. Amidst my sister’s AIM messages and my texts/Snaps are secrets of all kinds. Gossip, fake rumors, swear words, boys, and booze. The secrets are endless. Why is it, though, that we feel safe to talk about these secrets in online spaces? Don’t we all have some awareness of their digital permanence? Maybe most importantly, how does digital space reinscribe binary notions of gender?
When technology becomes so entrenched in our lives, it makes sense that we come to trust it with our secrets, more so than our parents and their parents’ generations. In addition, the current usage of technology and social media positions young women as inherently threatened by the digital world and the secrets they entrust it with. Technology, secrets, and girlhood become intertwined. Because the traditional gendered expectations of girlhood include being emotive, non-confrontational, and physically weaker, girls and gossip become inseparable in media’s depiction of adolescence and female friendship. Technology and social media have become so prominent in the lives of Millennial and Gen-Z female teenagers that gossiping and rumor spreading have become second nature. Thus, secrets threaten the private and personal lives of girls, when in reality we all harbor secrets, regardless of gender identification.
Secrets, for young girls, have become poisonous; they can become a girl’s downfall. Adults will often look upon these secrets and their wreckage with no pity, if she didn’t want people to know, why text it? Why did she Snap that picture if she wasn’t okay with other people, besides the receiver, seeing it? When the privacy of girls is threatened, people wonder what precautions she could have taken. This assumes her to be inherently in the wrong, erasing the need for accountability from technology platforms and abusers alike. Girls, then, are not worthy of sympathy, rather they are the creators of their own destruction. These notions deny young girls the complexity they deserve in relation to their gender expressions and their intersections to adolescence. The secrets they contain are no different than the secrets of young boys, yet boyhood affords boys privacy.
These issues remain pertinent when looking to popular culture as a blueprint for policing girlhood and reinscribing gender norms.
You Know You Love Me…
We all can hear Kristen Bell’s iconic voice narrating the intro to The CW’s Gossip Girl (developed and produced by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage). The 2007-2012 teen drama is based off of Cecily von Ziegasar’s fictional series of the same name. It stars Blake Lively as the beautiful “It Girl” Serena van der Woodsen with Leighton Meester playing her best friend Blair Waldorf, the Queen Bee. The two attend the Constance Billard School for Girls, a wealthy prep school on the Upper East Side. What marks Gossip Girl as different from other teen dramas during the early 2000s is the omniscient narrator that goes by “Gossip Girl.” She runs a gossip blog that sends out regular “blasts” about Serena, Blair, Dan (played by Penn Badgely), Jenny (Taylor Momsen), Nate (Chace Crawford), Chuck (Ed Westwick), among others. Gossip Girl hears all, sees all, and publicly tells all. The series revolves primarily about the drama between Serena, her classmates, and their wealthy families while Gossip Girl remains a narrative device that often steps in to aid the progression of an episode’s plot. Her identity remains masked and irrelevant until the series’ end when it is revealed that Dan has been Gossip Girl the entire time.
While all characters have the spotlight shined on their secrets, these blasts primarily target Serena and Blair, and when coming from Dan, it’s impossible to view these targeted attacks without considering the roles femininity and masculinity play. Dan’s attacks on himself (as a way to divert attention from Gossip Girl’s true identity), then, become calculated, whereas his attacks on the show’s front running ladies often degrade and belittle in the name of their femininity.
In Season 1, Episode 13, Gossip Girls posts: “Looks like the Virgin Queen isn’t as pure as she pretended to be. [If Blair Waldorf lied about that, what else might she be lying about?] Who’s your Daddy, B? Baby Daddy that is? Two guys in one week? Talk about doing the nasty, or should I say being nasty?” While Gossip Girl’s blasts about sex and other intimate secrets are not just contained to the show’s female characters (Chuck, Nate, and Dan’s sex lives are also publicized without their consent), Gossip Girl’s real identity as a man creates much more harmful implications for the show’s girls seeing as the show’s viewership is largely young female teenagers. In Season 1, Episode 16 Gossip Girl writes: “Breaking News: Asher Hornsby overheard bragging that Little J swiped her V card at his register. Didn’t anyone teach you, Little J? You shouldn’t give way the ending if you want him to pick up the book again.” And in Season 4, Episode 5, Gossip Girl blasts: “This just in. Looks like you can take the girl out of the party but not the party out of the girl. Rumor has it our favorite blonde could be spreading more than just good cheer. And if it’s true, then there’s a test out there a few of you might not be able to pass. Does SVW have an STD… !?”
The sex lives of Serena, Blair, and Jenny are used against them. If they didn’t want Gossip Girl to tell the entire Upper East Side, they shouldn’t have had sex (or even give off the appearance of having sex), they shouldn’t act promiscuously, and most importantly, they should stay virgins. The comedic relief paired with this drama seeks to satirize the show, its characters, and the role of Gossip Girl. However, this merely obscures the fact that Dan commits acts of sexual harassment
and violence throughout all six seasons. While he never physically is involved with this violence, his constant exposing of the series’ leading girls, true or not, threatens their reputations, mental health, and lives. Their secrets and rumors come to haunt them, as a result of Dan’s complex relationship with his masculinity and inability to fit in socially at St. Jude’s, the sister school to Constance. And he is able to achieve this policing of the female characters through his use of social media.
Gossip Girl and its portrayal of young girls, technology, and secrets remains pertinent as the series just got rebooted by HBO Max in 2021. Despite having all new characters, the show takes place in the original world. While receiving mixed reviews, this reboot indicates that girls can never escape their past, their secrets. Over a decade later, Gossip Girl still runs the show, pulling strings as though they are entitled to someone else’s secrets, someone else’s life.
Anderson, Felecia D. “A Thin Line Between Chuck and Nate.” Gossip Girl, season 1, episode 13, The CW, 9 Jan. 2009.
Hull, Robby. “Goodbye, Columbia.” Gossip Girl, season 4, episode 5, The CW, 11 Oct. 2010.
Sciarrotta, Paul. “All About My Brother.” Gossip Girl, season 1, episode 13, The CW, 5 May 2008.