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Gossip Girl - Serena and the Nice Rich Girl Fantasy

Why is everyone on Gossip Girl so obsessed with Serena? The Gossip Girl characters are fixated on Serena as the ultimate “It Girl”, someone who manages to effortlessly captivate everyone around her. But Serena’s appeal also comes, in part, from her ambivalence, the sense that she doesn’t actually want to be part of the world of New York’s elite. Still, is her “nice rich girl” persona just an act?

Transcript

Why is everyone on Gossip Girl so obsessed with Serena? The series literally starts with Serena returning to New York, and we learn in the series finale that Gossip Girl itself only exists as a way for “loverboy” Dan Humphrey to win Serena’s heart. The Gossip Girl characters are fixated on Serena as the ultimate “It Girl”, someone who manages to effortlessly captivate everyone around her. And fans felt the same way: Almost a decade after the series ended, Serena’s hairstyle is popular on TikTok and actress Blake Lively’s real-life outfits are scrutinized for ties to the character. We still love to talk about Serena, because she was just that attractive.

But Serena’s appeal also comes, in part, from her ambivalence, the sense that she doesn’t actually want to be part of the world of New York’s elite. Still, is her “nice rich girl” persona just an act? Serena is contrasted with the rest of the Gossip Girl characters and presented as the rare person who’s truly worthy of her expensive lifestyle. Here’s our take on how Gossip Girl encourages us to strive to be rich and gorgeous like Serena, while it reminds us there’s no way we’ll ever truly be like her.

“Everyone knows Serena. And everyone is talking.”

- Gossip Girl: Season 1, Episode 1

The Princess and the Pauper

Serena’s character is defined by the fundamental tension between her distaste for the trappings of the Upper East Side, and the ease with which she slips into many of the most luxurious, decadent activities the 1% has to offer. In the very beginning of the series, Serena tries to avoid her community, returning to New York largely in order to watch her younger brother. During the first season, she consistently tries to get her life back on “track,” like when she pushes Georgina away so she can focus on her college admissions tests. Serena is framed as trying to shed her party girl habits and be treated more seriously. Serena’s romantic interest in Dan is itself used to show how different she is from everyone else around her. The other elite characters like Chuck and Blair try to ostracize Dan because of his perceived lower-class background, but this is a plus for Serena. Not only does she attempt to use her relationship with Dan to feel down-to-earth and connected to his genuine literary talent, she also uses it to define herself in opposition to the rest of her social circle.

Serena: “The person that you just described is not who I am anymore.”

- Gossip Girl: Season 1, Episode 12

And when Serena and Dan date, their relationship is built in part on their shared innocence, and the sense that neither of them really want to be associated with the machinations and cruelty of their community. Serena is willing to risk her friendship with Queen Bee Blair in order to align herself with Dan’s theoretically more “authentic” persona.

The last season literalizes Serena’s resistance to her own identity by having her pretend to be someone else—the season begins with Serena going by the name “Sabrina” and claiming to be from Wisconsin, about to marry an unsuspecting vitamin CEO. Eventually, she even turns on Dan when she learns he’s been exploiting her socialite life for salacious writing material. In each case, Gossip Girl wants us to sympathize with Serena, and to think that she is more deserving of what she has – precisely because she tries to avoid having it.

Serena: “I wanted to start fresh without any of you. As for why I pretended to be someone else, well, I think that explains itself.”

- Gossip Girl: Season 6, Episode 1

Poor Little Rich Girl

Is all this… kind of an act, though? Though Serena often claims to reject the trappings of the Upper East Side, she frequently turns to the wealth of her family and friends in response to any adversity. After her breakup with Dan at the end of the first season, Serena flees to the Hamptons. After her breakup with Nate at the end of the third season, she flees to Paris with Blair to go on a months-long shopping spree. And while Serena uses her relationship with Dan as a way to try to break out of her stifling environment, nearly all of her other romantic interests are from the same social class: Carter Baizen, Aaron Rose, Gabriel Edwards, Tripp van der Bilt. Even Dan—who’s still pretty well off, even if he’s not Upper East Side royalty—becomes part of Serena’s social world, by virtue of dating her. Serena’s professional life, too, is largely defined by coasting on her proximity to power and status: When she works as a publicist, she’s able to convert her social standing into professional influence, since she can merely transfer her social connections into career ones and persuade VIPs to show up at the right events. And though Serena spends much of Gossip Girl trying to avoid her own destiny, the end of the series confirms that it’s actually good for her to just embrace being such an elite, bombshell star. Blair gives Serena a pep talk about how special she is, and how badly people can and should want to be her.

Blair: “Reinvention is for starlets from trailer parks who want to be you.”

- Gossip Girl: Season 6, Episode 9

So Gossip Girl ultimately suggests that her doubts and attempts to pretend to be someone else are unfounded, rather than rational reactions to the people or society around her. And who exactly is this self that Serena is embracing? Serena is not only born into wealth and power, she’s also naturally beautiful. So Serena deciding to accept herself isn’t an example to the rest of us—it’s just an indication that we’re right to be either jealous or obsessed.

Perhaps most damning of all, Serena lets slip that her performance of disdain for being Gossip Girl’s obsession is kind of fake. On the day of the characters’ high school graduation, Gossip Girl threatens to avoid talking about Serena forever. And though initially Serena seems to relish the idea of getting out of the spotlight, she eventually admits to Dan that she wants to be the center of attention, and secretly loves her status as the “it” girl. This is a funny way of conveying a classic film and TV lesson: That it’s important to simply be yourself, and to be proud of who you are. But it’s easy for Serena to be proud of who she is because she has everything.

Serena: “I don’t wanna be irrelevant.”

Dan: “Irrelevant? You’re Serena van der Woodsen.”

- Gossip Girl: Season 2, Episode 15

A Babe in the Woods

How does Serena manage this tension between her stated desire to disown her social status and her clear comfort and enjoyment of the attention and comforts that come with it?

Ultimately, Serena’s defining trait, the thing that allows her to have her cake and eat it too, is her naiveté. She has an inexhaustible ability to trust that things will work out for the best, even when they normally wouldn’t – at least not for non-one-percenters. And like she’s a character on a sitcom, everything just always manages to work out for Serena. Serena may claim this is because she’s a nice person, but her attitude is only half the story. Because, in contrast to Dan or most normal people, Serena can afford to be naive. When she does get betrayed or come close to a bad consequence, she can just retreat to her family, her friends, and her wealth—to retreat to merely being Serena van der Woodsen. And even though Serena acts shocked that Bart gave a donation to make sure she didn’t get expelled from high school, on some level, she’s really pretending—to herself as much as anyone.

Serena is magnetic to everyone around her because –in addition to her looks and status – she has a famed radiance and joyful vivaciousness. But the truth is that she could never maintain such an innocent, joyful-feeling aura if she let herself get too bogged down in the dirty details of the unfairness her privilege really entails or the true ruthless nature of many of her closest acquaintances. Her innocence is, in part, a willful ignorance. Serena can be friends with Nate for years and pretend she doesn’t know how he feels about her. She can maintain her optimism and free-spiritedness, even in grim circumstances like when she seems to be facing expulsion. Throughout the series, Serena tries to assume the best in people, whether it’s Dan, her parents, or even Chuck. And though she’s frequently burned by the people she trusts, her belief in them is still often proven to be justified in the end, as with Chuck’s eventual redemption.

Serena’s whole appealing vibe of innocence and joyful radiance is based on trusting in this certainty that everything will always be okay for her, while also ignoring why that’s the case and pretending she’s just like anyone else. And she can’t ever fully acknowledge this contradiction, or she’ll upset the balance that provides the foundation for the rest of her life.

Conclusion

Gossip Girl tries to get us to identify with Serena’s fundamental ambivalence about her own identity and background, so we can respect her as, at least, sort of a moral person. But what this really enables is encouraging us to like Serena and want her to enjoy all of her wealth guilt-free. Gossip Girl presents Serena as an example of the best the Upper East Side has to offer – someone who’s just that rich, looks the part, and kind of deserves to have everything.

Yet the only way for any of us to follow her example is to be as wealthy and beautiful as she is. All these years later and Serena is still a topic of conversation, proving one of the fundamental principles of Gossip Girl: It’s always more desirable to be at the center of the worst rumors than to not be in the conversation at all.

Dan: “That’s the point. You’re no one until you’re talked about.”

- Gossip Girl: Season 6, Episode 10