For God, for Country, and for Gossip Girl

Last week, Gossip Girl took a charming weekend trip, eschewing upper-crust Manhattan for upper-crust New Haven.

Though exteriors were actually shot at Columbia in Harlem (which, admittedly, seems farther away from the show’s fantasy upper east side than charming and quaint little Connecticut is), the characters were headed for a weekend of schmoozing and partying at that most telegenic of Ivies, Yale.

(Full disclosure: All of this blog’s writers met as classmates at that very college.)

So how does a real Yalie find his alma mater’s Gossip-ified TV depection? (Hint: less realistic than it’s Gilmore-ified version.) Read on to find out.

Well, let’s Overthink it. It won’t surprise readers of this series that Gossip Girl treats higher education as a luxury good, an indicator of status to be acquired and trafficked in. Yale is like it’s own secret societies in macrocosm (the B-plot involves Chuck trying to get into “The Skull and Bones.”)

What is surprising is that the school’s officials are doing the same way. They — a tweedy dean, a lady professor who inexplicably talks in French at cocktail parties — are presented as being foremost stewards of the brand.

The episode’s conflict between Blair, who has dreamed of Yale her whole life, and Serena, who receives an inexplicable personal invitation to tour the college, hinges on the administrators’ attempts to change the schools “stuffy” image. (For non-viewers, Serena being invited to Yale is roughly the equivalent of Paris Hilton being invited to Yale.

So how do you gain entrance to this club? If you have to ask, you’ll never know. As Chuck says of The Skull and Bones, “You don’t find them; they find you.” That is to say, admission to the upper class is based on intrinsic worth.

Serena is charming, and she is handed the keys to the kingdom. Blair is striving, and she is made a fool of — she doesn’t understand the rules of the universe she is visiting (an inexusable lapse, considering they’re identical to the rules of the universe she came from.)

It’s not unusual for shows like this to ignore a school’s function as, um, a school. It’s a MacGuffin, a contrivance to forward the plot, important to our characters solely because it’s What They Want.

And the precise method of ignoring the education part of education is derision. Classes — two are mentioned: “The Role of Sex in Art” (hint: large) and “Great Hoaxes in Archetecture” — and indeed liberal education in general is mocked as being not merely irrelevant but laughable, useless and stubbornly proud of its uselessness.

This is not simply of a piece with the ethos of the show, is part of a larger cultural trend in America, a trend that the show speaks to, and that I’ve been trying to hint at in these quixotic attempts to set down via blog my fascination with Gossip Girl.

The American Dream is changing. Or, more precisely, the terms on which we ant to acheive the American Dream was chaing. We want a Super Sweet 16. We think we could win American Idol. We want to be discovered and elevated. And, crucially, we want this at no cost or inconvenience to ourselves, as though Cinderella could forego the evil stepmother and go straight to the ball and the prince.

But there have always been jerks with an inflated sense of their own worth. They go to Harvard. (Sorry. Had to get one in there. I kid, I kid.) What’s different here?

The difference, I think, is that there are billions of film, TV, and advertising dollars spent trying to convince us that the dream is realistic, or that it would be if we simply by X product. (This kind of self-worth is a house built on sand, a fact which marketers know and exploit.)

And we’re getting ’em younger and younger. The c-plot involves Jenny dropping out of school to work full-time for Eleanor’s fashion line. (Repeated uses of the word “atelier.”)

Apparently, dumb is the new smart. I should go tell this to the President. Over a beer.

He’s a Yale, of course.

11 Comments on “For God, for Country, and for Gossip Girl”

  1. Stokes #

    I think that the desire to be rich and famous without actually doing anything isn’t really about laziness… or at least it’s not ONLY about laziness.

    There’s this idea that the American Dream used to be “Man achieves his goals by striving through adversity,” and that the current generation has lost its way. But the master narrative of American fiction for at least the past 100 years or so has actually been “Man strives, gets fuck-all for his trouble.” Think Jay Gatsby. Think Tom Joad. Think Charles Foster Kane. Think Willie Loman. Hell, think Captain Ahab if you want to go back that far. Sometimes people are able to gain wealth and power at the cost of crippling emotional damage, sometimes they get the emotional damage WITHOUT the bankroll. Hubris is clobbered by Nemesis. (Or to put it in more distinctively American terms, “chumps jump up to get smacked down.”)

    So let me ask you this: do we all want to be “discovered” because we’re not willing to work, or is it that we’re convinced that working won’t get us anywhere? Are we just a nation of underchievers?

  2. Matthew Wrather #

    Yes! — you’ve clarified something that I was trying to get at, but didn’t quite —

    The latter. We’ve been convinced that striving won’t get us anywhere. And I agree with you that it’s not a new phenomenon.

    BUT the difference I wanted to point out is: There is now a huge, well-funded media apparatus — advertising, obviously, and more recently popular entertainment — encouraging us to persist in our delusion and spend money in its pursuit.

    I also think, and this is subtler, that there’s a difference in our relation to the Dream. During the gold rush, say, prospectors were largely derided as pie-in-the-sky dreamers, and even THEY understood that if they were to strike it rich, it would have mostly to do with unbelievable luck.

    Today, striking it rich — or sustaining a largely unsustainable standard of living — is treated like a birthright, an entitlement of every teenager. Again, I blame marketers.

  3. Melanie #

    This makes me think of a time when I was able to listen in on some focus groups of high schoolers in a very popular American tourist town. Many of the kids had crumbling schools, little motivation, and nobody to believe in their abilities. They would probably end up working in the tourism industry, and didn’t think much about the possibility of doing anything else.

    There was one incredibly eloquent young lady who said that she wanted to go to college and be a lawyer. Her school was old and overcrowded and in a dangerous neighborhood. The administrator who spoke with us about it afterward hinted that there was no way she would ever make it to college, let alone law school.

    After I picked my jaw up from the floor, I figured out where this (crazy) woman was coming from: she had seen too many kids give up trying in school for the easy get-rich-quick of the local industry or the drug trade, and was accordingly jaded. You know it’s bad when the culture of low expectations has spread to those who are ostensibly there to really help these kids! But the more I thought about it, the more obvious it seemed: can you honestly expect young kids in bad situations to believe that learning or hard work are worth anything when their parents are making bank in tips, or an older brother’s drug money is what’s paying the food and utility bills? Something’s broken, for sure.

    On top of that, I think “waiting for one’s ship to come in” was always at least a small part of the American dream (see exhibit “Wall St.”). But when people’s various ships started being televised, the idea of hitting it big became much more important than working hard and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. Horatio Alger is probably spinning in his grave.

    Thanks for your blog!

  4. Delicious Pundit #

    There is now a huge, well-funded media apparatus — advertising, obviously, and more recently popular entertainment — encouraging us to persist in our delusion and spend money in its pursuit.

    Isn’t this the plot of “Gypsy”?

  5. Matthew Wrather #

    Gypsy has boobs, which makes it far more compelling than Gossip Girl.

  6. fenzel #

    Isn’t it also the plot of “The Music Man?”

    That doesn’t have boobs, but it does have 76 trombones.

    And a big parade.

  7. Gab #

    “Today, striking it rich — or sustaining a largely unsustainable standard of living — is treated like a birthright, an entitlement of every teenager. Again, I blame marketers.” I agree, but I want to sort of elaborate.

    Not just teenagers. Young people in general. Loads and loads of self-entitled little sh*ts that don’t think they should have to work for anything and expect it all to be handed to them on silver platters are filling up colleges and the workforce. And by workforce, I don’t mean factory workforce, I mean offices and government departments and the like. Importantly, though, they would rather be unemployed and continue bitch about relying on Mom and Dad than take a job in a restaurant when they’re old enough and eager to live on their own because they are “better than that.”

    As for schools themselves, I do think there is some truth to how television portrays the education system as a whole. The increase of private institutions and the exclusivity of them, as well as the “feel” they have, all have a sort of elitist “mode of thought.” Smaller liberal arts colleges are getting more and more acknowledgment/recognition every year by surveys and lists like the Princeton Review as well as by how many students every year apply to these institutions versus bigger universities; and the number of degrees that don’t really serve much purpose outside of academia (wtf is someone going to do with a degree in British Literature except teach it somehow themselves?); and both may tie into the theory that education isn’t about education any more, but status. Still, a lot of schools, be they small liberal arts or big university, have the same overall outlook of superiority and “betterness” (for lack of a better term… sorry). The small college I graduated from is guilty of this, but so is Harvard.* They take themselves so seriously that they fail to see the flaws in how they function on a day-to-day basis, which isolates students that do not enter with the belief that they are owed everything and need to give back nothing. These places may be able to boast their retention rates sometimes, but if you look at the demographics of the dropouts, I’d bet they’re not very varied: you’ll likely see minorities and/or lower-income backgrounds taking up most, if not all, of the results.

    *I’m not trying to suck up by saying Harvard, either. I only mentioned it because I know more about it than Yale, and have concluded that Harvard seems to think it makes the sun shine.

  8. mlawski #

    “Young people in general. Loads and loads of self-entitled little sh*ts that don’t think they should have to work for anything and expect it all to be handed to them on silver platters are filling up colleges and the workforce. And by workforce, I don’t mean factory workforce, I mean offices and government departments and the like. Importantly, though, they would rather be unemployed and continue bitch about relying on Mom and Dad than take a job in a restaurant when they’re old enough and eager to live on their own because they are ‘better than that.'”

    Have to take exception to this paragraph, if only because one of my major pet peeves is generalizations about “young people” or “generation X/Y/Z” or whatever. Blah blah blah, the older generations worked harder, were more morally upright, walked to school uphill both ways in the snow yadda yadda.

    Anyhoo, I expect part of the reason some “young people” feel like they’re too good to work in a restaurant is because they were pushed into going to college. I don’t know about other places, but in the New York City schools I have familiarity with, EVERY student was pushed to go to college whether or not that was the best choice for them. Maybe it was for the status, but I think it’s just because, in the past, going to college meant making more money than those who did not.

    So let’s say you’re a not-well-off kid, and, because of these possibly great but somewhat pushy teachers and administrators, you end up going to college. It’s not the best college ever – maybe a community college or city school – but it’s relatively cheap and you get an education. Possibly a quite good one (but it’s hard to say what that means, and anyway we never test for it in higher education). But even though the school’s fairly cheap, you do run up debt – almost everyone who goes to college does.

    Then imagine you graduate and find you’re unemployable in this current economy. It’s not necessarily your fault; all the open jobs are going to those who have been laid off in the past nine months. Now, you must ask yourself a question: Do you want to work in a restaurant for less than minimum wage? Better yet, could you afford it? Would that income pay for your school loans, rent, transportation, and (if you need it) health insurance?

    Again, I’m biased ’cause I live in New York, which has a very high cost of living. If you want to live in Manhattan right out of college, unless you are really lucky, you need an investment banking job or an “investment” from your (hopefully rich) parents. Many people I know (including I-bankers and hedge funders!) are currently living at home with their parents to save money.

    Of course, I’m not saying that people shouldn’t work for a living. I’m just saying I can understand why many young people might have these feelings, especially right now. Our generation was taught that we could grow up and be anything we wanted to be, so it might be a shock to work through high school, graduate from college, and be told that you should stop whining and work as a bus boy when the economy falls to shit and you can’t get a good job that pays enough for you to live.

    Also have to take exception to this one: “wtf is someone going to do with a degree in British Literature except teach it somehow themselves?”

    First, that’s not true. There are plenty of things you can do with an English degree. Second, what’s wrong with teaching? Certainly it’s a big industry in the U.S., if you want to think about it in terms of dollars and cents. I happen to make my living from it. Third, should we assume the educational system in this country should be tailored towards specific careers? I’m not sure of the answer to this question, actually. If the point of education is to groom students towards certain jobs, then we need to seriously rethink liberal arts education in general. But if the point of education is to groom students into adult thinkers, then I think liberal arts schools do a good job. I don’t know which is right, and it’s interesting to me that all arguments about educational policy fail to answer this basic question.

  9. Stokes #

    Gab: “the theory that education isn’t about education any more, but status”

    Very true, except for the “any more” part. The fact that the liberal arts don’t prepare you for a job isn’t an accident: the liberal arts are predicated on the idea that anyone who learns them doesn’t need to work, kind of like how foot-binding in China used to be a way of telling the world that you never had to walk anywhere. When John Adams says “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy… to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain,” he’s not saying “I want my grandkids to be house painters, tapestry salesmen, and plumbers.” No, he’s saying “I want my grandchildren to be rich. Like, STUPID rich. So rich that people want to slap them.” Do you know where the term “liberal arts” comes from? In the days of the roman empire, when the population was divided (to a large degree) between wealthy landowners and serfs, the “liberal” arts were what you spent your time on if you weren’t “enslaved,” and when I say “enslaved,” I mean “no, like enslaved enslaved, i.e. you were somebody’s slave.” (There was a non-slave class of working poor, of course, but you weren’t really considered “free” unless you owned property.) We send our kids to college because we want them to be free.

    That being said: a college degree, even if it’s in the liberal arts, makes you employable in areas where you otherwise would not be. (If nothing else, you can go to law school afterwards.) And while I’m sympathetic to the notion that a college degree is a luxury, I’m less anti-luxury than your average communist. If every kid in the country spends four years getting drunk and reading Foucault, how is that really a bad thing? Well if they’re saddled with crippling debt, that’s bad, sure… but the answer is to reform the student loan system, not to tell little Billy that “four years spent NOT working at the Dairy Queen is too good for you.”

  10. Matthew Wrather #

    I think all the talk about education is and what it should be obscures the fact that there are as many kinds of education as there are kinds of person.

    A liberal education — whose aim, let’s say, is to train students to read carefully, question thoughtfully, reason soundly, and write gracefully (this is, by the way, what you “do with” your degree in British Literature, and it is unquestionably a worthy occupation) — is suited to some people and appropriate to their goals.

    Other people’s educations may involve learning a trade (in a school or in an apprenticeship) military service, travel, hard knocks, study of a spiritual discipline, or whatever.

    I think the one-size-fits-all model is not helpful either to individuals or the society.

  11. Gab #

    Well, I wasn’t trying to sound anti-liberal arts. I went to a liberal arts college and got a “useless” degree, myself (minor in classical history, so yes, I know all about freemen and stuff in the Roman Empire ;)). What bothered me when I was in school and what bothers me still is the attitude. Of course it’s meant to be a class-divider- that’s what I was trying to say, but I suppose I spun around it too much without actually honing in on it. I do think there is value in becoming an educator of the liberal arts, but acting as though you are intrinsically and inherently better than everyone else because of that is BS. What you get isn’t necessarily as important as how you got there. Take high school classes, for example. Most four-year colleges or undergrad programs appreciate a B or even C+ in an AP or IB class a lot more than straight As in “regular” ones because of the difficulty of and effort required in the first two. That mindset kind of dissipates at the next level (although no, it doesn’t go away completely).

    Oh, and I really get annoyed with the “I may as well go to law school”-types. I haven’t gone yet, but I’ve met some students my age that are applying for some of the same ones I am, but for that very reason (which is completely different from mine); and I can tell they’re going to be the same self-entitled, spoiled little shits in law school as they were at the undergraduate level. They’ll show up to class late, yawn the whole time, scratch themselves in various places, and then ask other students what just happened when class is over. And then they’ll wonder why they have trouble on an exam or paper and say, “Professor Suchandsuch is giving me a C, that’s bullshit!” There’s a difference between how someone like that approaches the education they’re getting than someone else, someone that IS taking out all of those loans and that has a passion for what they’re doing. The former have no respect for what they are doing or gaining and act as though the diploma is a piece of toilet paper, and they don’t want to put forth any effort to get it; the latter are appreciative and cherish every moment, even with the ominous fear of their loans hovering over their backs, because they want it badly and are willing to make that sacrifice for the long-term.

    It WOULD be great if the education system in the US got a major overhaul and was reformed so that more could afford it. But that’s not going to happen any time remotely soon- not unless certain political parties get some balls and stand up to their opponents, calling them out on their shit. No Child Left Behind was the beginning of the privatization of the entire education system, and private institutions aren’t going to make themselves affordable because they’re not open solely for the purpose of education- they each have a board of trustees with pockets that need to be lined. That privatization will only make the class divides greater, of course. I’m for luxury, too, but perhaps unlike any Commie punk that thinks everything should be distributed equally, I believe luxury is one of those things; but I also have a personal philosophy that education is a RIGHT, not a luxury- or, at least, that it SHOULD be. So a poor teenager should have just as much opportunity to go to college and law school as those little assholes that had it easier growing up; and BOTH should appreciate it and respect it.