Gossip Girl Revisited
Once a generation, there’s a bit of content, so relevant, so transformative - definitive, that it affects the lives of everyone within a certain age and income bracket. It changes how we speak, it influences what we say. It bleeds into how we dress, alters our values and defines the culture of an era. For the Nigerian millennial that definitive television show is Gossip Girl.
Every episode of the show started the same way.
“Gossip Girl here, your one and only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan's elite... And who am I? That's one secret I'll never tell. You know you love me.”
She was a spectre, a ghost, a blogger that followed the lives of privileged teenagers in New York’s Upper East side, and revealed their secrets to a captive audience of their peers. She followed four of them, the main characters of the show: Serena Van Der Woodsen, Dan Humphrey, Blair Waldorf and Chuck Bass, particularly closely. She was our window into their world, and what a world it was! There were limousines, and designer clothes; caviar, truffles, and champagne; trips to the Hamptons, casual weekends in Monaco, private jets and helipads - the good life.
The first episode of Gossip Girl dropped on the 19th of September in 2007 on The CW network in America. I was at a rather odd place in my life or at least that’s what I thought at the time. I’d just graduated from Loyola Jesuit College, a very good private high school in Abuja, Nigeria’s Capital. I hated it there. I always believed that wherever I went, I would shine, that I would excel, but I didn’t there. I felt that I’d been overwhelmingly mediocre. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t the star of the football pitch, 22 bodies running around a field chasing a ball is a health hazard. It shouldn’t be something people do for fun. I wasn’t that academically gifted, I struggled to stay awake in class, and doing homework felt like torture. But, new school, new me. I planned to reforge myself, to be the most loved student at Cheltenham, blackness, Africanness, and Nigerianness be damned. But I didn’t know how, until Gossip Girl came along. The show seemed to have answers for everything. How to flirt, how to lose your virginity, how to dress well, how to raise people up, and how to tear them down.
I tuned in illegally every week, making notes as the show progressed. I stripped my closet of every manifestation of Fubu, South Pole, and PDiddy’s Sean John, essential items in Loyola Jesuit College, but they didn’t translate to my new very British and very white audience. The jeans had to be skinny, the shirts had to be Ralph Lauren, and the sweaters, the hoodies, and underwear too. All of this on a $150 dollars a month allowance. In today’s Naira that’s 72,000. Back then the exchange rate was 140 Naira to the dollar, and that came to 21,000 Naira. I was perpetually broke, always asking, begging, my parents to send me more money.
“What for? You have more than enough clothes! You’re not paying for accommodation, or tuition, or food? I don’t understand how always broke! Are you doing drugs?” My father would ask.
“Daddy! I have to fit in! $150 a month simply won’t do. I need the money to maintain my happiness. It’s very hard being away from you and mum, and Grandma Opebi, and Grandpa and Grandma Agbara (I named my grandparents for where they lived when I met them), and Aunt Yinka, and Aunt Nike, and my million and one cousins. It’s simply torture! I’m suffering daddy, suffering!”
“I suppose you are doing quite well in school.” My father would say, and 3 days later a lump sum would arrive, and within the hour of that injection, I would be trotting about like a prince in a new violently bright yellow Ralph Lauren sweater and a scarf to match. I started wearing scarves because Chuck Bass did. He seemed to me, at the time, to be the very pinnacle of good style. In hindsight I was desperately silly. In the very first episode the character sexually assaulted not one, but two girls! This was the boy I was fashioning myself after, and I wasn’t alone in this bout of complete and utter idiocy.
The show caught on like wildfire. Everyone my age was watching it, emulating the characters, what they wore, what they did for fun, and the utterly vicious way they treated one another. Nigerians at school in the diaspora were some of the most strongly afflicted. The boys started wearing bowties, scarves, they traded their baggy jeans for well cut trousers. The girls started living in heels, wearing headbands like Blair did, borrowing their mother’s designer handbags, and paying attention to fashion week. Parties got fancier. A birthday pre-gossip girl may have been a get together with close friends and family. With the show in the picture, it required a fancy club, preferably in London, or the biggest city in whatever country you found yourself, bottle service and very expensive clothes. The parties also grew names like Spotlight, Euphoria, Kiss on the lips (this one was an actual party on the show.) And our parents supported us in our efforts to keep up appearances. I think they called it networking.
In 2008, the average oil price was like 108 dollars, Nigeria’s petro-economy was in full boom. Champagne grew even more popular than water. Some particularly devious people even thought to bring the show to life, building a blog called Gossip Girl Nigeria and populating it with the misadventures of Nigeria’s rich kids in London. Who went to which night club, whether or not they had a table, how much they spent, what they wore or didn’t wear, who was sleeping with who. It was brutal for everyone, those featured and those not featured. Those featured were happy to be raised to cultural relevance, but unhappy about the scrutiny that very often follows any degree of celebrity. Those not featured were happy to maintain their privacy but unhappy about their unpopularity. The blog, Gossip Girl Nigeria didn’t last for too long, maybe about a year, before its creator was forced to shut it down.
The show ended in 2012, but its impact remains. We forged ourself in its fire and recast ourselves in its image. And we all remember. I asked some of my followers on twitter what they made of it 8 years on.
One said: “That white, male, good-looking attempted rapists and abusers like Chuck Bass are still afforded redemption.”
Another said: “The friendship between Serena and Blair was weird but some moments they shared taught me what true friendship was.”
My sister said: “In this life make your own money and let no one shame you.”
At some point next year, the show will be reborn on HBO Max - a reboot. Taking into account all the changes in technology and social interactions that have happened since 2012. I wonder if it will spawn its own culture, just like the first iteration did. I wonder if its shadow will hang over the younger generations just as it haunted mine. I hope not, but it will certainly be interesting to see what happens.