Let me start off by saying that I don’t care about Gossip Girl – at all, even a little bit – because that would be stupid, and I’m not stupid. I may have read a few of the books, but only under the guise of mocking them; I may have watched one or two episodes, but only to marvel at how dumb the show was. I most certainly never purchased the official Gossip Girl “Never Have I Ever” board game to play at a sleepover with friends, nor did I enter into a year-long contest with said friends wherein we all attempted to wear stylish clothes and get straight A’s in an effort to collect “Blair Points,” of which we all kept a meticulous tally in matching journals. I think wearing coloured tights counted for five Blair Points, and getting into Yale was ten thousand Blair Points. (None of us got into Yale, but I still have the nylon rainbow from American Apparel).
Okay, fine: the more complicated truth is that I always thought Gossip Girl was catastrophically dumb, but unlike the other dumb shit of my youth – i.e., the Jonas Brothers, Justin Bieber, Twilight – I was never really able to resist it, and I also inadvertently entered into a literal, actual cult dedicated to emulating a fictional Upper East Side heiress. Looking back, I feel like the immediate hook was the characters’ preoccupation with getting into the Ivy League. I, at fifteen, was busting my ass to take and re-take the SAT, and take and re-take three SAT subject tests, and pad my schedule with extra-curriculars and AP classes. I was closeted, so I couldn’t bring myself to give an authentic shit about any of Gossip Girl’s straight, straight romances. But the constant, catty showdowns over legacy admissions, or Blair breaking down and bawling during her Yale interview, or Blair’s rich gay dad donating a French vineyard to Yale in an effort to secure his princess a position in the class of 20XX? I lived for that shit. Briefly.
I revisited the show in my third year of university – at a very nice Canadian school, I might add; the Ivy League thing never really panned out. I’m not sure how I justified this particular binge-watch to myself except as a finals season stressbuster. The show had gone off the air a few years prior, its finale widely maligned for the revelation that Dan Humphrey had been writing the titular Gossip Girl blog all along. Fans pointed to occasions where Gossip Girl had leaked private information about Dan – and Dan, in the comfort and privacy of his own bedroom, had reacted to the leaks with dismay and concern. Popular consensus is that Dan being Gossip Girl is unmitigated bullshit, and it would have made much more sense for Blair’s conniving French maid Dorota to be the culprit.
But I get it. I get why Dan Humphrey wanted to be Gossip Girl. Speaking as someone who spent their adolescence as one of maybe four scholarship students at an ultra-elite single-sex private school, believe me: I get it. My mom sewed my prom dress by hand while my classmates flew to New York to shop at Barney’s. The year I worked a part-time retail job to pay for college, a whole cadre of these classmates rolled through the doors, paused for a second when they saw me in my polyester vest, and then strolled right on by to the merchandise. My social life consisted entirely of bible study and mock-trial practice; I don’t think I ever attended a party where alcohol would have been A Thing. So the thought of Gossip Girl being the work of a lonely, shit-poor kid who exists in a hyper-elite bubble with the knowledge that he will never, ever belong to it – it makes a lot of sense to me, and it lends the whole narrative a sense of gravitas that, frankly, the show doesn’t deserve.
There’s another layer here, though. It is a layer I alluded to in the title of this post, a layer that courses through the story from dumb start to dumb finish, a layer that endows the whole thing with strange radical energy: Dan Humphrey is queer.
Like, canonically. Officially. In the second-to-last book – which I have not read, but which I have ctrl-f’d for Dan’s name – Dan meets a cute boy while working at the Strand, and goes to a meeting of this cute boy’s queer book club, and gets loopy off absinthe and kisses this cute boy. He has a book-long sexual identity crisis about it, mails a postcard to sister Jenny which just says, “I’m gay,” and then endures his parents throwing him a hideously embarrassing literal, actual coming-out party. At said party, Chuck Bass swoops in and steals Dan’s man; Dan finishes the series by reconnecting with his childhood friend Vanessa – whose shaved head, he remarks, kind of makes her look like a boy – and figuring that he might be bi.
Absolutely none of this happens in the TV show, naturally. The CW wasn’t about to risk its hottest mid-2000s media property by making two of the male leads queer. I feel like Dan marries Serena and Chuck marries Blair and the catastrophically abusive nature of the latter relationship goes pretty much unexamined. Will I ever forgive the CW for denying me the chance to see Chuck charming the pants off of Dan’s boyfriend at a coming-out party thrown by Dan’s PFLAG hippie parents? No, but I also, like, don’t care that much. I never made it past early season 3.
But even just knowing that Dan, in this one universe, was imagined as queer – that he and his supermodel sister reminisce about when they were younger, and Dan would dive into their mother’s closet to try on her heels and smear on her makeup – it shakes the foundation of the show’s premise. Dan Humphrey is a working-class kid with sexual identity issues trying to survive in a surreal, strictly gendered 1% dreamworld; he invents an impossibly wealthy and impossibly beautiful girl, all-powerful and all-knowing, and he becomes her. He can’t perform the hypermasculinity of billionaire playboys like Nate or Chuck to save his life, but as it turns out, he’s pretty goddamn good at being Blair and Serena.
Even after he cracks this inner circle, though – even after he’s served time participant-observing Chuck’s wild nights, even after he’s dated Blair and Serena and Georgina and God knows how many other It Girls, even after he’s improbably established himself as a member of the hip New York literati with featured pieces in the New Yorker and publishing houses begging to put out his roman à clef – Dan keeps Gossip Girl afloat. He no longer really needs her to accomplish his social goals. He should be busy flying through NYU with every pore open and greeting fans on his book tour, but part of him just… needs to keep being Gossip Girl. If we mash the canons together, this is the same kid who once spent every day of his childhood dabbing on his mom’s blush and zipping himself into her flouncy dresses and tottering around in her too-big heels. Gossip Girl is no longer a canny tool for social climbing; it’s the only way Dan can remain true to that kid. It is, maybe, the only capacity in which Dan can be a girl without jeopardizing his relationships and his career and his social status.
Live your truth, Dan. I know you didn’t make it through undergrad at NYU without reading Gender Trouble. You know you love me.