High Class Satire or, Why I Love Blair Waldorf

IDiademas-blair-waldorf-5 love the trashy TV series Gossip Girl. To be specific, I love Blair Waldorf, one of the five main characters on the show. Blair has been, for a few years, one of my favourite people to watch on screen, to emulate in real life, to quote in any situation. I’m tempted to copy every other website on the Internet and put down my reasons for this in concise points (accompanied by witty gifs), but I think that would be an embarrassment to the teachers who put so much effort into teaching me how to write well structured, flowing essays.

Now, it’s easy enough to figure out why any ambitious, self-important girl would automatically have a fondness for Blair. She’s in abundant possession of both those qualities, and along with that, she’s smart, well networked, and downright ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants. ‘If you really want something,’ she tells Serena, ‘you don’t stop for anyone or anything until you get it.’ She certainly seems to employ this philosophy, and doesn’t always play by the rules to ensure that she’s successful in her endeavours. And despite her bitchy asides and scheming takedowns, Blair has her heart in the right place.

For someone who adores the conventional markers of success as I do, Blair seems the pinnacle of perfection. She has a near-perfect GPA, impressive internships and recommendations and, maybe best of all, an intensely passionate and never boring relationship. The last is something that takes up a lot of space in most discussions of Blair—how can you discuss her without bringing up Chuck, after all—but I’ll save it for another post.

Separated from her context like this, Blair seems a commendable achiever, and not someone you’d assume would provide much in terms of emotional variety. Lay out her traits, and she comes across as someone who’s always living life on the more intense plane, plunging from one dramatic escapade to the other (in her love life) or charting out strategies to get to the next goal. You wouldn’t think this is a girl who, more than any other in her social circle, would entertain you and keep you engaged. Surely she has no time to appreciate the lighter side of life.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

The Gossip Girl TV series is based, loosely, on the books of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. I’ve only had the privilege (or can confess to the shame) of reading one of those, and the tone of the books can’t be more different from that of the TV show. Where the books are lighthearted, irreverent and, at times, openly satirical about their over-priviliged characters, the TV show makes their hijinks life and death issues, their dating lives endlessly complicated and emotionally draining, and more than one character is faced with the prospect of utter and complete social elimination.

This is in keeping with the TV genre the series seeks to conform to: that of teen drama. Like the earlier show from the same producers, The OC, Gossip Girl is meant to portray a world that most of its viewers will never be a part of. It’s hard to get people invested in this world—how is it possible to feel sad for someone like Serena van der Woodsen, the perfect ‘it’ girl who seems to have everything? The only way you can do that is to make her life hellish, her family seem a toxic waste dump, and give her a sackload of issues that she can only deal with by running away to the countryside and changing her name. To keep up a satirical take on the Upper East Side for six seasons, for an audience that it not known for its interest in that kind of comedy, would have been difficult. So the makers opted to change the books’ tone and make it darker, more serious and much, much more deadly.

But suspension of disbelief fades after a while. It’s hard, no matter how many drug overdoses you portray, or daddy issues you dump in, to feel any sort of sustained

Sorry honey, it's just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

Sorry honey, it’s just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

sympathy for characters who quite obviously have much more than you. You can’t help but realize, after a while, that all their problems are self-created, and they must be the stupidest people on earth to find themselves in these terrible situations again and again. Why would I feel bad for Serena, who seems to get into Brown, Yale, Columbia despite doing nothing in high school? Why would I care about Nate’s broken heart when he’s shown me, time and again, that he can and will pick himself up just in time to fall for the next scheming, beautiful new face on the UES?

Seriously, this was me every time a new female character entered the show:

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‘Nate! No, Nate don’t look at her! No, don’t kiss her! Oh honey, don’t, don’t go and fall in—‘

Damn it,pretty boy. If only you weren’t, as Raina said, as smart as you look.

So all these characters get pretty unbearable, even Dan Humphrey. But the ones who constantly rescue the show from taking itself too seriously, who remind you time and again of what the books were originally intended to convey, are Blair and her posse.

Seriously, straight out of 'Mean Girls'.

Seriously, straight out of ‘Mean Girls’.

I dont know if it’s just Leighton Meester’s superb delivery and comic timing, but Blair, despite having as ‘intense’ and dramatic a storyline as any of her peers, never becomes an emotional drag in the same way. She alone of the main characters doesn’t appear to always take herself seriously all the time. Meester never makes her lack conviction in herself, but at the same time, her character is one that could as easily belong in a comedy as in a self-styled drama. Blair’s scenes on the steps of the Met, with the ‘mean girls’, her plans to wrangle an internship with Indra Nooyi and become a ‘powerful woman’, her ‘bridesmaid contest’ serve not only to make her appear a woman serious about her position in the world, but also underlines the utter ridiculousness of that world and its traditions and hierarchies. Around her, the other characters look silly and diminished too, while she just comes across as smarter for having realised and played along with the utter stupidity of her surroundings.

One of my friends once said that she liked people who ‘were so smart they can be openly silly because they are just that secure about themselves’. I think Blair, at least as played by Meester, is like that. Her overdone eyelash flutters, doe eyed looks and quicksilver facial expressions belong in a Mean Girls movie, or a romcom parody. And then she reminds you of her intelligence and intensity by declaring undying love for Chuck Bass—emotions which you can take all the more seriously because she’s not always operating on that register. Her ability to swing between levity and drama make her palatable, give you room to laugh at her and her world (thus reducing the threat an envy-potential of her world) as well as keep you hooked and rooting for her eventual happiness.

I don’t know if Meester intends to get into comedy a la Mindy Kaling,but she certainly has a talent for it. And given her life story and ultimate crossover marriage, I’m sure any book she decides to write will be a more than interesting read.

That's right, bitches.

That’s right, bitches.

An Empire State of Mind

It’s easy to find blogposts and listicles about how important it is to travel in your 20’s. The writers of these posts say inspiring things about how travel builds perspective, travel doesn’t have to be the provence of the rich, travel brings you face to face with people and situations you would never expect. I’ve seen so many of these, some of them with agendas more clearly discernible than others (for instance, there’s one about how girls should travel in their 20’s rather than get married. I have a problem with posts like these simply because they seem to judge those who do choose to get married in their 20’s, which I find a little discomfiting. People should be able to get married whenever the hell they want, and that includes in their 20’s), but rants aside, they all make this one point: travel broadens horizons, and really, you should do it.

I would describe myself as an indifferent traveler. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people all the time, neither do I need to throw myself into particularly ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ experiences in order to find my life enriching and fulfilling (I think I do well enough building and dispensing drama on my own—just ask any of my close friends). Certainly I enjoy seeing famous and touristy places, but my ambition does not include that oft cited by so many people: ‘I want to see the world’.

Having said all this, there are a few places I would like to visit, a short list of countries that includes, for various reasons, Peru, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada and one particular city: New York.

top-of-the-rock-photo-ispI visited New York for a day in 2009. It was a there and back again trip, consisting of a hurried Chipotle lunch with cousins, a quick trip through the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), three hours standing in line waiting for tickets to a Broadway show at Times Square, hurried gobbling of cheesecake, strolling through a little bit of Central Park—I remember rocks—and then rushing to Majestic Theatre, where I lost my heart to a singing Phantom and his Gothic tunes. We then took a night train back to the domestic haven of New Jersey, and New York and its treats were left behind.

This quick visit was enough to give me what I thought of as a ‘sense’ of the city, and the only word I could use to describe it was ‘life’. The moment I stepped out of Penn Station’s underground caverns and onto the street, I felt an almost electric thrill shoot through me. Here, I thought, is where I want to be. Ever since then I’ve dreamt of walking down fifth, sixth or seventh avenue, clutching a rapidly cooling coffee as I make my way to my skyscraper-housed office. This vision may or may not have been unduly influenced by The Devil Wears Prada movie. Given how much importance that movie and various other NY-based books/TV shows (cough Gossip Girl cough) have in my imagination, I wouldn’t be surprised.

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Totes going to be me some day.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in the Big Apple. I crashed at a close friend’s place on 125th and Broadway (like a true New Yorker, I have learned to locate places based on street and avenue number/name), very close to Columbia University. I took the Subway on my own—woohoo!—and travelled about Manhattan. I met a range of interesting people, old friends and new as the cliche goes, and undertook the grand mission known as ‘finding oneself’. I walked past humongous skyscrapers multiple times, looking up at the windows and wondering when I would sit inside and look out upon the commuters and tourists scurrying below. I stood outside the NewsCorp office for a full five minutes and plotted takeover, even messaged a partner in crime about how we would one day rule the publishing and television world from there. 

I have very small dreams, you see.

New York was everything I dreamed it would be. Granted, I spent only ten days there and didn’t actually have to brave rush hour crowds, eke out a living and pay a humongous rent, so my picture of the city is rather rose-tinted. But it felt, more than anything, like a bigger, more international version of Delhi, perhaps shinier and the teensiest bit safer, in some ways. In other ways, more dangerous.

Perhaps this, its Delhi-like feel, made me even more desperate to be seen as ‘part’ of the city, a true ‘local’. It’s impossible, at a glance, to tell who is from New York. It houses people from every race, every country probably, ever sort of social, economic and religious background. Given the smorgasbord of humanity, it’s easy enough to blend in, be perceived as someone completely at home here. I figured out the easiest way to pass off as a local, i.e, not a clueless tourist (which, whatever I say, I was) was to plaster a confident, vaguely arrogant expression on my face and just stride off in the direction I thought I was supposed to take. Luckily for me, my face assumes this expression almost by default, and even when I took the wrong exit from a subway, quick glances at the street corners enabled me to reroute myself properly.

Why was I so desperate to blend in? Perhaps I just wanted to extend the illusion of being part of the city, convince myself that yes, I am here and I will be here. If people validate this notion, all the better.

Did traveling to New York give me the much vaunted ‘perspective’? Yes. It taught me how very much I want to be seen as successful, creative, a force to be reckoned with—all images one associates, thanks to pop culture, with NYC. More than that, it showed me that I want to be all those things there. I want the skyscraper-housed office, the overpriced coffee, the snootiness of an Upper East or West side address. Impossible to get? Well, like Jay-Z said, ‘If I can make it here/I can make it anywhere’.

Challenge accepted. 

blair

Bring. It. On.

When Gossip Girl meets A Game of Thrones

I recently quipped that, based on a rewatch of the Gossip Girl series, the Upper East Side looks a whole lot like the seamier world of Westeros. It’s got the same elements: people from privileged backgrounds/powerful families fighting for control of a limited geographic space. What happens outside of that Upper East Side (henceforth referred to as UES) area is of little concern, but for some reason it’s a power base that even outsiders want to enter or are forced to contend with, and it ends up corrupting them.

And the true voice of power here? A Varys-like figure who collects and disburses information at his/her own discretion and can lay low the most elevated with one fell swoop.

I decided to have a little fun and lay out some of the parallels between my favourite UES families and their Westerosi counterparts.

The Humphreys – House Stark

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This was a no-brainer. The only family that pretends to have any sort of noble idealism, who live outside the polluting atmosphere of the Manhattan area, but who, for some odd reason (love or friendship or simple desire to climb socially) have gotten sucked into a world that leaves them scrambling for purchase. Whether it’s Jenny’s Sansa-like fascination for all things fancy or Dan’s Jon-like ‘outsider’ status, the Humphreys are the Starks, sans the direwolves.

The Waldorfs – House Tyrell

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The Waldorfs are the one family that has finished playing out its family drama before the show opens. Headed by a formidable matriarch (Eleanor Waldorf is a little scatter-brained at times, but it was she who, by her own admission, taught Blair her scheming ways), its pride and hope rests on Blair, the supposedly virginal beauty who seeks to rule the UES with an iron fist. Blair is perhaps the one character who is most open about her desire to rule (what, exactly, is debatable at times), echoing Margaery’s famous line in the show: ‘I want to be the Queen’. And Blair will do whatever it takes, marrying disastrously into the royal family of a tiny European nation if that’s what’s called for.

The Archibalds – House Baratheon

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Baratheon, to me, has always been a bit of a random house. What is their USP? It’s not dragons, it’s not wealth, and it’s certainly not misinformed idealism. The three Baratheon brothers we meet in the course of the books are all radically different from each other, and their motto, ‘Ours is the Fury’ is rather lacklustre compared to heavyweights like ‘Fire and Blood’ or the ever-doleful ‘Winter is Coming’. But they are rich, and they are royal—indeed, they were second in line after the Targaryens were bumped off. And people do seem to like (some of) them. The Archibalds struck  me as that sort of family—very random, very rich and sitting on a huge family history that they could use to their benefit if they chose to (which they do, a couple of seasons into the show).

And Nate, if he were anyone on Game of Thrones, would be Renly. Pretty, popular, but no way would he be able to handle the pressures of being king. That’s best left to…

The Basses – House Lannister

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You knew this was coming. The wealthiest house on the UES? The one with the most spotted reputation, with the scheming, cold-hearted father and the disappointing, profligate son who (SPOILER) ends up acting out in the worst ways possible? The Basses can afford to pay off Blair’s dowry and still remain top-dog on the UES, just as the Lannisters extend credit to the throne and manage to field large armies at the same time. The Basses know how to play the games of the UES perhaps better than anyone else, disappearing and reappearing as per their own convenience. They run with unsavoury types, but manage to come out of each scandal with their fortune and their name intact.

And finally..

The Van der Woodsens – House Targaryen

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I have never understood why the VDW’s are so popular on the UES. Aside from Serena’s obvious good looks, the family seems to have nothing but bad decision making skills on its resume. Their family affairs are more messed up than any others on the show, with cheating and lying about deathly illnesses running rampant. They even have a con-artist snuggling into their ranks (literally) and passing off as one of them.

But for some reason, they are up there, powerful and making terrible judgment calls to protect themselves. Like Dany, Serena wants to  dissociate herself from the madness of her forebears and tries time and again to shuck the UES-VDW mantle, to become one of the ‘people’, whether by dating ‘outsiders’ or changing her name. Time and again, she is hauled back to awareness that she can’t escape her past. Serena is perhaps the one idealistic and naïve figure in this bunch of messed-up blondes, and she seems well aware of that.

But when Serena wants, she can take the world down in more fire and blood than even Blair is capable of. In fact, in terms of sheer collateral damage on the show, its Serena who wins top-spot in her generation.

Really, when you step back and look at it, the parallels are rather uncanny. Are we sure the Gossip Girl makers were not reading A Song of Ice and Fire when they scripted their show?