Exploring Curriculum, Culture & Language through the Analysis of Gossip Girl by Justin Sousa for EDU 6460

Exploring Curriculum, Culture & Language through the Analysis of Gossip Girl by Justin Sousa for EDU 6460

I sit at a desk at the library, struggling to block out the bodies of students that surround me. I have just finished watching the first three minutes of the Gossip Girl pilot for what feels like the hundredth time. While I have seen this episode many times before, I have only ever watched it on a superficial level, uninterested in recognizing the interconnections of language, curriculum and culture that permeate the series. Gossip Girl is a television series that chronicles the lives of affluent teenagers living in the Upper East Side of Manhattan. While many of the characters enjoy their lives atop the social hierarchy, others struggle with their position, as they negotiate the tensions between what is expected of them by their families and what they personally want to achieve. The series is narrated by the Gossip Girl character and although she is central to the series, her identity remains unknown. She serves to document the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite, as she receives gossip and photos from her many sources and posts them on her website.

Video Clip Synopsis

The clip begins by depicting various scenes of Manhattan, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Empire State Building, an aerial view of Central Park and the Upper East Side, as well as a high-end designer store on 5th Avenue. “Writing is always situated in a place,” Chambers, Hasebe-Ludt and Leggo (2009) suggest, “and since the place of writing always motivates and informs and constrains the writing, it is important to grow more aware of the places where writing is situated” (p. 98). Such imagery of Manhattan provides a narrative aperture into the scenic environment and posh atmosphere that surround the characters.

We are introduced to protagonist Serena van der Woodsen at Grand Central Terminal, as spotted by Melanie91, one of Gossip Girl’s many sources. Serena is described as the ‘It’ girl who is returning from her mysterious and sudden disappearance to boarding school. In contrast to Serena’s ‘It’ girl persona, the Humphrey family is seen at Grand Central and they represent the lower end of the social spectrum in this series. They are a working class family from Brooklyn who make sacrifices in order to send their children, Dan and Jenny, to a prestigious private school in the Upper East Side of New York City. Gossip Girl refers to Dan Humphrey as ‘Lonely Boy,’ an indication of the interconnections between language, identity formation and social status.

The use of technology is a prevalent theme throughout Gossip Girl. The following scene portrays various teenagers in the midst of receiving ‘blasts’ from Gossip Girl notifying them of Serena’s return to Manhattan. A ‘blast’ refers to a new piece of gossip that is sent directly to the cell phones of Gossip Girl subscribers. The camera subsequently focuses on Blair Waldorf receiving a ‘blast’ to her phone informing her of Serena’s return. Based on her facial expression and body language, Blair is upset by the news.

The next scene depicts an upper class gathering, as revealed by the arrangement of desserts, caterers and the elegantly dressed guests, in addition to the expensive looking decor. This portrayal of high society further attempts to convey to viewers the affluent nature of the characters and their socialite families. The lack of warmth displayed between parents and children is evident in Blair’s interaction with her mother. After running into her daughter at the party, Mrs. Waldorf says, “Blair, if you’re going to wear one of my designs, tell me so we can at least get it properly fitted,” and then subsequently brags to a party guest that Blair is her “best advertisement.” This interaction further emphasises the blurred lines between business and family relations evident throughout the series.

Finally we are introduced to Nate Archibald, Blair’s boyfriend, as he discusses his college ambitions with his father and his father’s three colleagues. One man asks Nate if he has “started thinking about college,” to which Nate’s father proclaims that he is “a Dartmouth man,” thus indicating that Nate will evidently follow in his father’s footsteps in attending Dartmouth. Nate replies that although his father has always spoken very highly of Dartmouth, he is interested in going out west to USC or UCLA. Yet again, Nate’s father interrupts and states that “Nate’s mother wouldn’t hear of it” and that “Dartmouth is far enough away for her.” As a result, Nate reluctantly says that Dartmouth is his first choice, thus signifying the tensions that exist between family tradition and personal ambition.

While this short clip does not portray the teenagers at school, it does investigate the curriculum of gossip, as a result of their immersion in the culture of technology. The lives of the affluent teenagers appear to be defined by the traditions and legacy passed down to them by past generations, thus limiting their personal goals and desires. Although it is difficult to entirely comprehend the extent to which these characters must negotiate between their own wishes and those of their parents based only on the pilot episode, such a theme remains prevalent throughout the entire Gossip Girl series. As a result, such negotiations and tensions continue to stimulate and perpetrate the curriculum of gossip, thus influencing their identity formation.

Analysis

Identity & Language

The unique use of language throughout this clip provides insight into the dramatic lives of these teenage socialites, as they utilize many of the language categories Huebner (1975) discusses in The Tasks of the Curricular Theorist. Oftentimes these characters appear to be “flies caught in the web of someone else’s language,” as they manoeuvre between the language of their technological culture and the language of upper class society (Huebner, 1975, p. 214). The language of control is a driving force throughout the Gossip Girl series, as characters are constantly attempting to manipulate events and outcomes in a desire to control the social hierarchy (Huebner, 1975). Blair is best known for such behaviour, as she has accepted her position on top of the social hierarchy and she is comfortable with the expectations set out by her social status. In addition, language of affiliation also plays a prominent role in this series, as characters lower on the social hierarchy attempt to speak the language of the upper class elite in order to gain acceptance within this group. Although money and social status play a large role in their ability to be accepted within such groups, lower status characters attempt to hide their upbringing by mastering the language of the elite with the utmost proficiency (Huebner, 1975). Similarly, such would-be members also employ legitimating language, in an attempt to rationalize particular actions as an appeal to “someone else who is in a position to judge professional adequacy and competency” (Huebner, 1975, p. 217). Oftentimes Blair’s character acts as the moral authority over characters of lower status, thus she decides on the appropriateness of their actions and ultimately dictates their involvement with her elite group of friends.

In addition to Huebner’s language categories, the relationship between identity formation and technological language is also prominent within Gossip Girl. Many characters appear to define themselves by the titles and labels given to them by Gossip Girl, thus serving to influence their subsequent behaviours. Oftentimes labels and status symbols dictate the behaviour that is expected of us by society and our peers. My distinction as a ‘Graduate Student’ garners a different perspective on my expected behaviour and actions as compared to the expectations of a ‘First Year Undergraduate Student.’ As rudimentary as this example is, it ties back to our identity formation and the prescribed behaviours that are associated with particular titles and labels. Serena’s status as the ‘It’ girl is accompanied by the expectation that she will lead a wild and extravagant lifestyle, consequently attracting attention and envy from her peers. Likewise, Dan’s nickname of ‘Lonely Boy’ speaks to his role as an outsider, further distancing and alienating him from the privileged elite. What the series emphasises, however, is that each of the characters’ identities and life stories are intertwined, thus helping them to understand who they are in relation to their peers and to their cultural and geographic locations (Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009).

Technology Culture

While language plays a prominent role in Gossip Girl, it shares a reciprocal relationship with the culture of technology. As Huebner (1975) reminds us, “language can be used to create new environmental conditions, and new environmental conditions can lead to the emergence of new language patterns” (p. 225). The emergence and subsequent reliance of characters to their cell phones and laptops has led to the need for, and creation of, new language patterns. As such, the youth are able to effectively communicate within this new realm of technological advances, stimulating the popularity of social networking and blogging.

The technology culture penetrates all aspects of youth culture as portrayed in this television series. Such tangled relationships are representative of youth culture today, as friendships and personal identity issues often revolve around the use of technology. As Baldwin suggests (2005), “we have created a web of technology that frees stories as never before” (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 152). Current technological devices permit youth to share images and videos through text messaging and social networking sites, thus allowing their individuality and personality to be exposed on their profiles pages and through their writing.

Unfortunately, there are consequences associated with such a prevalent technological culture as it relates to the curriculum of gossip. With the ability of cell phones to capture images and videos, it has become increasingly evident that our actions are constantly being monitored, a notion described by Foucault (1979) as Panopticism. Our actions, behaviours and embarrassing missteps can be easily captured by a peer or even a stranger’s cell phone and posted on Facebook or YouTube, serving as a blow to our reputation and social status. This is evident throughout the Gossip Girl series, as characters are continually captured in compromising situations, often negatively implicating themselves and their relations. This society of surveillance that we have come to take part in continues to demand accountability for our daily actions and mistakes, with the constant reminder that someone is always watching. Evidence of this phenomenon can be seen with the ‘teacher lap dance’ incident, as it was recorded by a student with their cell phone, thus resulting in media outcry and discussions regarding appropriate teacher behaviour and expectations. Similar to the events that take place in Gossip Girl, such incidents serve as cautionary tales regarding the Panopticon-like state we participate in and the ease at which our mistakes can be documented, subsequently ruining our reputation.

A Curriculum of Gossip

Gossip Girl creates a space within which she can document the struggles of Manhattan’s elite in their difficulty negotiating the tensions between adhering to the curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-live(d). Aoki (2000) describes the curriculum-as-planned as the “conventionalized notion of curriculum,” referring to specific school subjects and mandated requirements to be taught by teachers to students (p. 322). In relation to the Gossip Girl video clip, Aoki’s description of planned subject matter corresponds to the curriculum of family life for many of the characters in this series. The characters of elite social status are expected to adhere to their family’s traditions and legacy by following the path laid out for them by their parents and grandparents. For example, Nate is expected to attend his father’s alma mater of Dartmouth and subsequently run for public office as his grandfather did. Much like mandated curriculum documents dictate the course of study for the school year, Nate’s family appears to have set out his entire life for him, regardless of his own personal ambitions or desires.

In contrast, Aoki (2000) suggests that curriculum-as-live(d) refers to the unplanned curriculum experienced by teachers and students “as they live through school life” (p. 322). In a similar way, Nate begins to question the life that is set out for him and challenges the expectations of his family through his live(d) actions. Aoki (2000) reminds us that the space between the curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-live(d) can be “a site of both difficulty and ambiguity and also a site of generative possibilities and hope” (p. 322). As a result, Nate appears to be “living in the spaces of between” and troubling the dichotomies of his planned and live(d) curriculum (Aoki, 2000, p. 321). The gossip curriculum captures Nate’s personal struggles negotiating between the planned and the unplanned, as his actions are reported by Gossip Girl and communicated to subscribers. His personal issues with social class and social hierarchy are constantly documented, as gossip contributors photograph him behaving in opposition to his parents’ expectations.

Personal Reflection

This analysis has pushed me to reflect on the curriculum of gossip and the culture of technology, particularly in relation to social networking sites and life writing. In certain instances, social networking sites like Facebook can work to propagate gossip, but they can also work as sites of empowerment. By taking ownership of your life narratives and emphasizing certain aspects of your life with friends, social networkers are attempting to control the information that is shared and exposed. While your relationships or event history may have formally been subject to gossip, it instead becomes a statement of fact, as you may choose to share this information with your friends. Social networking sites allow users to take ownership of their own identities and express their uniqueness in their own way. As Griffin (1995) reminds us “the self does not exist in isolation,” as we come to better understand ourselves in relation to those around us (as cited in Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009, p. 68). Our interdependence and interrelatedness is highlighted on Facebook, as we are able to view our shared relationships and understand our mutuality (Hasebe-Ludt, Chambers & Leggo, 2009). Our lives are intertwined, as our homepage mini-feed displays a métissage of stories, statuses and images that presents our lives as interwoven with those of our friends, family members, coworkers and acquaintances. Sharing our narratives and identities through the use of social networking and technology allows us to understand ourselves, while developing a greater appreciation and understanding of the relationships that surround us.

Conclusion

While Gossip Girl is often perceived as a superficial television series preoccupied with scandal, sex and luxury, further analysis of the pilot episode has allowed me to make connections to curricular literature. Its portrayal of the curriculum of gossip and its ability to expose certain characters while elevating the social status of others provides an interesting commentary on the art of manipulating the social hierarchy. Language patterns rooted in the prevalent culture of technology subsequently provoke identity formation among characters and fuels their need for belonging within the privileged elite crowd. Gossip Girl also provides us with an understanding of curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-live(d) in terms of the tensions between familial obligations and personal aspirations. The pilot episode also emphasises the ability of certain characters to negotiate between language patterns in order to assert their belonging to various groups within the social hierarchy. Although Gossip Girl’s identity is unknown, her ability to elevate or destroy the reputations of various characters through the use of technology serves as a reminder of her powerful position outside of the social hierarchy. Her omnipresence, in addition to her apparent omniscience, serves as a chilling reminder that the characters’ actions are constantly monitored. While Gossip Girl is merely a television series, it prompts viewers to be aware of the damaging effects of gossip and its powerful ability to improve or damage our reputation.

References

Aoki, T. (1979/2005). Reflections of a Japanese Canadian: Teacher Experiencing Ethnicity. In William F. Pinar & Rita Irwin (Eds.). Curriculum in a new key. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and Punish. New York: Vintage Books.

Hasebe-Ludt, E., & Chambers, C. & Leggo, C. (2009). Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos for Our Times. New York: Peter Lang is Publisher.

Huebner, D. (1974/1999). The Tasks of the Curricular Theorist. In Vikki Hillis (Ed.), The Lure of the Transcendent. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Levy, B., Morgenstein, L., Savage, S. & Schwartz, J. (2008). Gossip Girl [Television Series]. Burbank, California: Warner Bros. Entertainment.