There's been a lot of talk lately about fictional teen romances setting a bad example for young-lady viewers (thanks, Twilight). Whether the portrayal of a relationship can be deemed "good" for girls seems to rest on the morality of the boy involved. Sure, it'd be great if more teen females on TV would exert their girl power and be with super nice guys and join a band and play sports and have unbreakable friendships. But just cause that's a good example doesn't mean it's an entertaining one.
And, honestly, would that image reflect our experiences? Did we really refuse to get distracted by romance in favor of extracurricular activities? Were we sure to fall for fellow teens who would always treated us with maturity and respect? Or did we sometimes fall for someone bad? And is falling for a bad boy somehow anti-feminist?
No show examines teen morality like Gossip Girl. While the main female characters (Blair Waldorf, Serena Van der Woodsen , and Jenny Humphrey) tend to move freely between common decency and pure evil, their male characters are a little more fixed. Dan Humphrey is a bookish outsider on the Upper East Side struggling to navigate this wealth and privilege with his integrity intact. Nate Archibald is an upper-crust puppy dog whose Tiger Beat looks and sweet demeanor make him a worthy crush for any youngster...as long as they can overlook the blandness. And then there's the show's most popular guy, Chuck Bass:
Chuck was introduced in the first episode as the show's villain when he attempted to a date rape 15-year-old Lil' J. The writers immediately buried Chuck's old habit of sexual assault and replaced it with strictly consensual promiscuity. Now he's a sex symbol who's as well known for his daring fashion choices as he is for his villainy. He's also part of the show's most compelling love story: the never-quite-a-relationship between him and Blair (one of the most compelling female characters on TV right now, BTW). This dark pair bonded over social manipulation and sinister plots, but their inability to trust other people ultimately prevents them from finding happiness.
Gossip Girl may romanticize the fact that Chuck sleeps around, but it's his tragic love affair with Blair that makes the girls swoon. (And honestly, I don't want to live in a world where teenagers aren't moved by tragic loves stories.) Blair's aware of Chuck's libertine sexuality, but that doesn't hurt her as much as his selfishness and emotional isolation. "Only a masochist could love such a narcissist!" she despairs.
And this brings up my question: Does loving a bad boy really mean a girl is messed up? Before you think on all the lost little Twilight fans and answer with a horrified "Yes!" please remember the crushable bad boys of pop culture past:
I could write a whole other post on the major sexism expressed many times by of each of these characters. Yet who among us hasn't crushed? And if we really believe women have as much sexual agency as men, then we can't assume that their fictional fantasies involuntarily corrupt them. If teenage girls are capable of being strong and independent, then they know what they're doing when it comes to the pop culture and their engagement with it..
Whether they're called womanizers or heartthrobs, bad boys can represent dangerous sexuality, social deviancy, and even rebellion, all of which seem like healthy pursuits for any young feminist.
[Now published at www.loveinthelivingroom.com]