Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Books on TV: Gossip Girl and The Beautiful and Damned (AKA Really Long Thoughts on Serena's Arc)

"Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off," Serena van der Woodsen quotes to a movie director in Gossip Girl's fourth season finale. "I relate to it more than I should admit," she adds. The quote is from F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned and Serena meets the director, David O. Russell, after a chance encounter with his assistant who was reading the book on the beach. When a book is given such prominence in a show, it's worthwhile to consider what exactly the writers are trying to convey by giving it screen time. This wasn't the first time The Beautiful and Damned made an appearance in the show, earlier in the same season Serena gifted it to her professor/love interest and told him it was her favorite book.

I decided to read the book to see if it could give me any insight to the way the writers think about the character of Serena. For anyone who doesn't watch the show, Serena is sort of the it-girl of the story, beautiful and desirable, things generally fall into her lap. But she lacks direction, is often guided by her impulses in the moment, and is constantly trying to remake herself and become a better person. Of course she is given a background that explains her behavior, her mother was neglectful, her father abandoned her, and she's often been objectified by men.

I'm glad I read the book, because I can see how Gloria Gilbert guided the characterization of Serena in season 4. The above quote is Gloria's, she says it to Anthony when they are looking at old buildings and Gloria is oddly offended by the idea of preservation. The full quote is: "Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they're preserved for a while in the few hearts like mine that react to them. Trying to preserve a century by keeping its relics up to date is like keeping a dying man alive by stimulants" It's fitting that Gloria in the novel, whose entire sense of self worth revolves around her beauty, would take issue with the attempt to preserve the fleeting and the temporal. She later says in this same section, "there's no beauty without poignancy" and it later bears out when they leave their honeymoon behind, she weeps over the fact that nothing can ever be repeated, and will never quite be the same again. Beauty by its very nature is transient, and since Fitzgerald casts Gloria as beauty incarnate, this combination of adoration and loss creates an interesting dilemma for Serena.

Serena as Gloria Gilbert

At the beginning of Season Four of Gossip Girl, Serena and Blair are vacationing in Paris. Serena is having the time of her life, having left behind a complicated relationship situation where she was torn between two boys, she's seeing many men, living in the moment ("home doesn't exist until we're there" she tells Blair at one point) and Gossip Girl herself even declares her "a muse to us all." This is Serena at the height of her Gloria Gilbert characterization, living in the moment, indulging in the pressing passion of the now, and captivating the people around her with her beauty and her presence. In The Beautiful and Damned, Fitzgerald describes this mentality as Gloria at her normal state of mind, "existing each day for each day's worth."

It's not only the way Serena herself lives, though, but the way people react to her. There has never been a time when Serena fancied a boy she couldn't have, and at the beginning of the fourth season she feels she must decide between two boys, Dan Humphrey--her first real boyfriend of the past, and Nate Archibald, the golden boy and friend since childhood. When she returns home, both boys have made attempts to move on thus delaying her choice. When they talk about her, it's almost as if she's an addiction they can't shake, and they strike an agreement to not have anything to do with her (purportedly to preserve their friendship). But when tough times hit Dan, he seeks Serena out as an escape, she represents a kind of idealization of the past for him, a sense of things being easy and free from emotional complications. The same holds true for Nate, after being emotionally manipulated by another girl, he shows up at Serena's doorstep in hopes of rekindling their relationship. Both of these relationships had ended for legitimate reasons, but Dan and Nate seem to forget them when presented with the idea of Serena. And a third love interest, Colin, feels that after meeting her he's willing to forgo his playboy ways in an effort to get to know Serena better.

The Colin relationship is somewhat puzzling, but I feel it holds some significance outside of it's linear narrative purpose. In the episode before she meets him, Serena declares to Blair that she can't choose between Dan and Nate and that she needs to find someone who can give her what she finds appealing about both men. It would make sense that this would be Colin, who, according to Serena is "handsome in an old Hollywood way and smart." Colin is a self made businessman and unfortunately, also Serena's professor. They decide to get to know each other outside of a romantic relationship while he's her professor and Serena gives him a copy of The Beautiful and Damned which he amazingly reads in like one day. (so unfair it took me a week!) In the original script for episode 4x07*, Colin was supposed to quote a passage about Gloria and say that it reminded him of Serena. The episode was changed to make his reference much more subtle and generic, but I think that we can believe that even though Colin might represent the ideal partner for Serena, he still viewed her as Gloria Gilbert. The passage from which Colin's favorite quote is meant to have come from: "...she moved him as he had never been moved before. The sheath that held her soul had assumed significance--that was all. She was a sun, radiant, growing, gathering light and storing it--then after an eternity pouring it forth in a glance, the fragment of a sentence, to that part of him that cherished all beauty and all illusion."


I guess all of this begs the question, why did the writers choose The Beautiful and Damned as a framework for Serena's character? The story of Gloria Gilbert is depressing and slightly outdated. Her relationship with Anthony more closely resembles Blair's relationship with Chuck than any relationship Serena has had. Personally, I think it's tied to the label Gossip Girl gave Serena at the end of season 2--irrelevant. Gossip Girl labelled Serena this way because her status as the it-girl in high school was coming to an end. On top of that, Gossip Girl herself gave Serena her relevancy--thus creating a complicated relationship between the two.

When Serena is first slapped with this label, she reacts badly. She attempts to take Gossip Girl down and fails. After all, if Serena can get rid of Gossip Girl, she is getting rid of the person who controls the narrative about her relevancy. It's also interesting that in this episode, Dan seems to think that perhaps their friendship might be over, feeding into Serena's insecurities about how she matters.

This is not unlike Gloria. Gloria is loved for her beauty, and dreads growing old. When she goes out for a part in a movie, she is at first encouraged but then rejected. She does not receive the lead role, but rather a smaller part, she is cast aside, her beauty is no longer opening the doors for her that it once did. I think this is at the root of Serena's insecurity--she is aware that she is known and often loved for things that are fleeting, and that the real Serena is overlooked or unknown.

In episode 4x19, she hits her lowest point on the irrelevancy scale when she discovers that Dan and Blair have formed a secret friendship and have become so close that they consider they might have romantic feelings for one another. She is angry and hurt, but Blair strikes at her deepest fears when she says that she shares a connection with Dan where they do things they could never do with her. Serena has suddenly become irrelevant to a relationship her two best friends share.

This drives her to make a decision in 4x22 to choose herself, which is the first step in developing a Serena beyond Gloria Gilbert. Her chance encounter on the beach centered around The Beautiful and Damned gives voice to her awareness of the limiting value of the superficial and it launches her into a career that gives her a chance to develop purpose.

Season Five--Taking Control of the Narrative

5x01 opens with Serena happily working her production job in Los Angeles as the filming for The Beautiful and Damned wraps up. She loves her job, she's eager to take on more work, and let her own ideas be known. But when a co-worker tries to sabotage her job, she's once again confronted with the existing narrative about Serena van der Woodsen, when he bitterly says to her, "So it looks like things really do come easy for Serena van der Woodsen, just like I heard." This prompts Serena to take responsibility and ownership of her actions. But, interestingly enough, The Beautiful and Damned also makes an appearance in this episode. The episode opens with a shot of the film Serena has been working on all summer. Anthony holds Gloria and declares "you're such a swan in this light." In the book, I feel this is another passage about the elusive nature of beauty, but I'm going to be rebellious and say that in the show it's about the transformation of Serena van der Woodsen.

Serena again butts heads with someone else's narrative about her life in 5x04. Her ex-boyfriend/step-brother/good friend Dan wrote a book about all of his friends and in this season's most fun episode to date, the book is released. Serena has served as a muse to Dan in the past, and fully expects that she will be portrayed well. She feels Dan knows the real her, and if anything she'll simply be put on a bit of a pedestal. But the reaction of her co-workers clues her in to the fact that this is not the case. Instead she feels she's been depicted as selfish, insensitive, and shallow. And while this leads to an emotionally charged scene with Dan where she tells him she always thought he was the only person who saw her for who she really was and who she wanted to be, it's also worth noting that because of Dan's book Serena loses a valuable and highly sought after meeting at work. The existing narrative about her interferes with her job and her own goals.

It's interesting that in 5x06, Serena and Dan's career goals come up against each other. Serena has convinced Dan to sign over the film rights to his book to her as a way of making things up to her boss. But her boss has different ideas about how to use Dan's book than Dan does and Serena ends up sacrificing her job to protect Dan and his reputation. In some ways, it's a precursor to her eventual goal to become a new and improved Gossip Girl. While she makes a sacrifice that's admirable, she also makes the choice on her own about someone else's portrayal. She is, in a sense, controlling the narrative about her friend. Additionally, she also agrees to write her own blog in this episode and tell her own story. Keeping in mind that part of Serena's Gloria Gilbert characterization is based on how others react to her, it's significant that both Jane and Diana express support for Serena being someone other than the current public opinion holds she is.

In 5x07, Serena is now writing her blog, but she doesn't know what to say about herself. Her cousin suggests that if she wants "people to read you, then they need to read about you first." In other words, get Gossip Girl's attention! It puts Serena back to the step one, her relevancy being dependent on Gossip Girl. She agrees, though, and a convoluted plot ensues. Diana suggests to Serena that Gossip Girl is heartless and cruel when a blast comes out that Serena has been stood up on a date, but Serena says it's nothing compared to the past, and the first example she uses is when Gossip Girl called her irrelevant! Diana says they need to work together so that Gossip Girl "loses her readers and their attacks lose their power." Serena declines at first, but when Charlie comes under attack by Gossip Girl, she agrees to help Diana take down Gossip Girl. Charlie also tells Serena she doesn't need to be seen with some guy to define who she is. ♥

One other thing that is kind of interesting to me about 5x07 was the choice to film at Sleep No More. I puzzled over the idea that this was a pivotal episode in the story line of Gossip Girl as an idea until I read a few reviews of the play from friends that went together. They each had an entirely different experience, because there is no one story to be told at Sleep No More. As a backdrop for an episode about confused encounters it works, but it also works as a framework for exploring the idea that there are multiple ways to tell a story and the perceptions and life experiences one brings to a story affect the way it is received. On the show, Gossip Girl generally sends out suggestive blasts with pictures, but could the same gossip have an entirely different impact in someone else's hands? This is the idea Serena engages with as the season progresses, so Sleep No More is actually a really interesting place to launch that part of the story.

Episode 5x10 is when old Gloria Gilbert!Serena begins to battle with new emerging Serena. Serena is confused about where her own story is going and wishes she had a way to look back at where she's been and maybe where she's going. Dan suggests she look back at Gossip Girl blasts to get a sense of things. As she does, feelings for Dan begin to stir within her as she reflects on their relationship. She knows that Dan is in love with Blair, though, and makes no mention of her feelings to him. Even so, when Chuck and Blair are in a car accident believed to be caused by the paparazzi who were alerted by Gossip Girl, Serena decides Gossip Girl has to go down for good...and Nate agrees with her.

In 5x11, with Nate, Serena decides to become the new and improved Gossip Girl after she realizes that it's not just the pictures and secrets that are a problem, but the assumptions that come with them. This is important to me in the progression of her story line this season because you start with Serena reacting and taking ownership over her actions due to what people say about her and in the important mid-season episodes, she's at the point where she now wants to take overall control of the narrative. But...you also have these lingering feelings for Dan that seem to me to based on old Serena, the Serena that looks to what someone else says about her and thinks maybe that part of being Serena is being with a man. I feel like since Serena's feelings were sparked by reading Gossip Girl blasts, her feelings for Dan come from a place where she's insecure about where she's headed. My understanding of her relationship to Gossip Girl thus far is that in order to defeat her label of irrelevancy she needs to come to a place where she no longer depends or cares about what Gossip Girl says about her.

I make no predictions about where this story line will lead, and I wouldn't be surprised if it takes a bit of a backseat to other story for the next run of episodes. And...I don't know I don't relate AT ALL to this idea of being valued for surface beauty and yet the irony is it all feels rather poignant to me, I can't help but sympathize with Serena as she struggles to find worth beyond the worth she has to offer men.

I HOPE that it's relevant that Nate is the one helping Serena forge this new identity even as he works on his own independence. And at the moment, he's certainly doing it out of friendship with no ulterior motives. But I'm slightly nervous it's just going to end up in some big mess where we find out everyone is even more related than we thought.

Coming Up

Next week is Gossip Girl's 100th episode and several weeks ago a video leaked of a dream sequence Serena will have. In the dream, she sees herself as Marilyn Monroe singing "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend." I feel like the song is the perfect choice and Marilyn the perfect movie star for Serena to see herself as. The song is about the importance of a girl securing a future for herself before her looks fade and in so many ways that seems like what Serena is battling towards this season. And yet, she's distracted by the fact that she has lost Dan's attention to Blair. My loose Serena-centric interpretation of this dream is that Serena is battling to be herself and yet she's not quite there yet, she still hasn't fully let go of the idea that Dan's/men's attention is important. And yet she realizes that Dan is interested in a girl who in the past would never have been a threat, a girl known for her smarts and incidentally, Serena's best friend.

*totally useless bit of information, but Marilyn Monroe was married for a time to Arthur Miller who described her this way: "She was a whirling light to me then, all paradox and enticing mystery, street-tough one moment, then lifted by a lyrical and poetic sensitivity that few retain past early adolescence" After all the Gloria Gilbert as light talk I waded through in The Beautiful and Damned I have to admit that I thought Marilyn was an excellent choice for Serena's dream. (along with the obvious--blond sex symbol reputation!)

*Gossip Girl had a huge script leak problem last season which is the only reason I know there were changes from script to screen in episode 7.


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