Monday, May 9, 2011

Sticks and Stones: Abuse and Gossip Girl

Last week, I reviewed the book Stay by Deb Caletti. I was excited about the book because it addressed the issues of an emotionally obsessive and controlling relationship and exposing such a relationship for what it is. The current culture of books and television shows geared towards young women often romanticize such relationships. Essentially, they idealize men that view women as their property, become possessive, and controlling because they "love them so much." On top of that is the appeal of the bad boy, a subject that Jill of Rhapsody in Books explained really well in this post about what women find erotic and why we love Mr. Rochester.

I still watch the show Gossip Girl, and furthermore, up until this week considered it a favorite guilty pleasure. It's a little embarrassing to admit, because the quality of the show has declined steadily since its first season (when it was actually kind of good) and it's arguably the most misogynistic show on television despite being aimed towards young girls. It has used things like rape, prostitution, and sadly now physical assault for cheap OMFG moments and sensationalism and that's just the tip of the iceberg. And it has one of the most toxic and degrading relationships being passed off as true epic love that I've ever seen, in Chuck and Blair.

What's sad about this is that this was a couple I was drawn to at first. In the beginning they had a much more Rhett and Scarlett quality--in fact, the very first story arc they were a part of was very reminiscent of Gone with the Wind. Unfortunately, I think the couple became more popular than the writers originally thought it would, and they transformed the story and altered the characterizations of both Chuck and Blair to stretch out their story over time. They tried to sell them as a deeply passionate, big epic love story.

Unfortunately what happens when you try to stretch out the life of a TV couple on a show based around romances is that it's necessary to throw huge obstacles in the way of the couple. I think there are any number of sane ways to do this, but since Chuck and Blair were sort of this larger than life couple who loved manipulating other people and playing games, living in the heightened reality of a teen soap, the lengths the writers went to were both utterly ridiculous and deeply offensive.

At first I still ate it up even though it was clearly dysfunctional because it was passionate! And it still appealed to me. But over time it became very unbalanced, blatantly sexist, and more and more people were identifying it as emotionally abusive. I hadn't considered it before, but when I started to look back on the relationship, I realized it was true. This season for me was the last straw, though. I no longer enjoyed it, I wasn't able to root for it, and I just desperately wanted Blair to get over it.

Blair has always been my favorite character on the show. She was introduced in the first season as this girl with a steely, bitchy exterior, she was ambitious and hard working, fierce and intelligent, while underneath all of that she had a mess of insecurities, but most importantly heart. Her best friend, Serena, was the kind of girl who was beautiful and bubbly and things came easily for her. Blair was both jealous of Serena and deeply loyal to her. This friendship, with these two girls, was always meant to be the heart of the show. In that regard, it should have been a very girl friendly show. Sadly, though it has turned into something far less, almost hostile to women, I would say.

Anyway, the Chuck and Blair relationship is emotionally abusive. And a lot of people have been saying so for awhile, but we sort of trusted the writers were going somewhere with it. In fact, it almost seemed as if they were intentionally subverting the traditional bad boy love story by showing, no Blair couldn't change Chuck. No, it's actually not a good thing he's possessive. (at one point he actually manipulated her into having sex with his uncle in exchange for a hotel--yes, the relationship is that repulsive) No it's not romantic to say you'll stand by him through everything and have him throw that in your face after he's done something horrific to you. No grand romantic gestures are never enough to erase all the hurt and make them right. Yes it's possible to lose yourself in a relationship, and no longer know how to make healthy right decisions for yourself. I honestly believe that this is where it was going.

In fact, this past Monday the show, in one of its most ridiculous episodes ever, had a scene where Blair goes to tell Chuck that she's now marrying someone else. He's upset due to some family issues and has been doing some heavy drinking. When she resists his advances and tells him she's no longer his, he grabs her, forces her onto the couch and when she tells him to stop, he does, but punches the glass above her and a shard of glass cuts her cheek. I figured, okay they decided to escalate the relationship in the natural way it would progress. Physical abuse.

Unfortunately, that was NOT their plan. The next day the executive produce, Joshua Safran did an interview with E!Online. Let me share the exact text with you:

I thought it was interesting that Chuck actually grabbed her and that the consequence of that fight was Blair had the most perfect, beautiful, dainty injury, which are two symbolically significant things. Did this moment verge on abuse? What was going on in this scene?

The way we viewed it, I think it's very clear that Blair is not afraid in those moments, for herself. They have a volatile relationship, they always have, but I do not believe—or I should say we do not believe—that it is abuse when it's the two of them. Chuck does not try to hurt Blair. He punches the glass because he has rage, but he has never, and will never, hurt Blair. He knows it and she knows it, and I feel it's very important to know that she is not scared—if anything, she is scared for Chuck—and what he might do to himself, but she is never afraid of what he might do to her. Leighton and I were very clear about that.

I have to admit when I read that I was almost blinded with rage. It's classic abuse apologism. They know it's abuse and by denying it they are essentially saying that in some cases it's okay for a woman to be treated this way by a man. They are saying Blair deserves this. They are protecting the character of Chuck at the expense of Blair.

What they don't seem to know is that it doesn't matter if he intends to hurt her or not. Apparently they think abusive people always aim their fists straight at the face of their victim, which is simply not the case. It doesn't matter if she was afraid or not (and she looked afraid and she should have been afraid) she was still in danger and she still got hurt. And the reason she got hurt? Because he is unstable, he doesn't know how to handle his rage, ultimately he doesn't respect her and views her as his possession, and he put her in harm's way.

Furthermore, they are denying the gravity of emotional abuse. Blair has been acting like an abuse victim all season, she has been unable to move on from Chuck, she forms a deep healthy friendship with a hot guy and when she kisses him, she decides she wants to go back to Chuck. She overworks herself in an attempt to become the girl she wants to be (a powerful woman) in order to get back to him and loses her job.

The writers probably don't consider it emotional abuse because he's not calling her stupid or slut. Rather, he controls her at every turn. When she tries to move on, he sabotages it. When she doesn't take him back right away, he gives her an ultimatum. When she drives his new girlfriend away, he declares war on her and destroys opportunities for her. He always tells her she'll never be happy or satisfied with anyone else.

I'm angry because the writers have written a textbook abusive relationship and denied it's abuse. And this is problematic, hugely problematic, because their denial uses the same excuses women in these situations make to themselves. "He would never hurt me, he didn't mean to hurt me, it was unintentional, I'm not afraid. I know he really loves me, and this is just the way we are, he was drunk, but this isn't abuse."

There are no exceptions. As a viewer, I genuinely thought he was capable of really hurting her in that scene. He was out of control, and quite honestly it fit into the progression of their relationship. And she looked terrified.

The response to the interview was immediate. People who are still hoping Chuck and Blair end up together (and they have a lot of reasons to hope so, despite all this the writing still protects the couple in certain ways) were like, "ok thanks, I was kind of upset after that scene but now that you've explained it to me, I know Chuck wouldn't hurt Blair." DO YOU SEE HOW WRONG THAT IS? It means that clearly the work isn't speaking for itself if most people were scared and shocked by the scene. There is no reason to come out and explain intentions and try to trivialize how serious it was. There is no reason to make the scene even more about Chuck when clearly the only person anyone should be caring about is Blair in this situation. There is no reason to explain away a clearly abusive situation as something less than.

There was also a lot of rage, and people began to immediately tweet the writers. Here was their response:
"Everyone, Josh was not condoning abuse by any means. He was just saying it was not Chuck's intention and Blair understands that."
"That doesn't make Chuck's actions right, and he will deal with the repercussions. Keep watching. The issue isn't glossed over."

Way to miss the point. And just confirm that they have no idea what they're talking about, should never have had such a scene on their show if they were going to be completely insensitive and try to get away with it. As far as the issue being glossed over, they pretty much glossed over the incident where he manipulated Blair into trading herself for the hotel. There are episodes stills of Blair and Chuck looking very happy in the finale, it's hard to believe they have any intention of taking this seriously.

I shouldn't be surprised, because they have a long history of doing this. Earlier this year when asked if they regretted making Chuck an attempted rapist in the pilot, they downplayed it and said he wasn't really an attempted rapist, more like a kissing bandit. Could they be more offensive if they tried?

I just don't understand how the CW, a network geared towards women ages 18-34 could let this go. I'm so sorry that Gossip Girl missed the chance to be truly instructive in their storytelling and opted for cheap sensationalism, favoring their most despicable male character over their most popular female lead. To even explain the situation in terms of what it meant to the character of Chuck over the character of Blair disgusts me.

Women in emotionally abusive relationships have a hard enough time being taken seriously. The myth that the term abuse applies only to certain couples needs to die. The idea that a girl will only ever love one guy in her life like this is a terrible message to send. The possibility for love is out there and you aren't chained down to one epic love you meet in high school. If he treats you poorly, cut him loose and keep looking. That's a really awesome story Gossip Girl had the chance to tell, but failed. I wrote this to calm myself down, and I'm posting it because the only way to fight bad information is to present good information.

Chuck and Blair on Gossip Girl are a classic example of an emotionally abusive relationship escalating to physical threat despite what the producers have said.

A guy who is a known attempted rapist, has sexually harassed his father's hotel employees, abuses alcohol, and generally views women as sex objects will not change just for you.

Other Coverage of This:

The scene in question.


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