My 2021 began hideously hungover. I wept at a BBC Four documentary about the cultural history of the poem ‘Auld Lang Syne’, wolfed down serving after serving of tomato pasta (the only thing I can stomach in such a condition) and winced at empty bottles of Corona lying around all over the place, the playful irony of twelve hours previous now seeming exceedingly gauche. In between the dollops of pesto and wailing, I stumbled upon a four-part documentary series on BBC iPlayer called ‘Celebrity: A 21st Century Story’. I watched the series compulsively and found that it immediately forced me to re-assess and reflect upon my own relationship with celebrity culture, particularly as a member of the ‘tween’ market targeted during those unchartered rampant days of celebrity consumerism in the Noughties.
What began as a New Year’s essay in response to that single series has turned into a year-long retrospective project: in the past twelve months I have found myself constantly musing upon and internally pickling the issues of fame, celebrity and the power structures and dynamics that shaped the beginning of this millennium, as well as my relationship with them. My grappling with personal feelings and thoughts about this aspect of popular culture has been both mirrored in and fuelled by what became a wider societal re-appraisal of the Noughties that only gathered momentum throughout the year. From the New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney Spears’ in February and her unprecedented address of the court in June regarding her experience living under a conservatorship; to Mischa Barton’s compelling interview with the Guardian also in June; to the article in British Vogue’s July 2021 issue about the resurgence in ‘vintage’ Noughties trends like Blink 182 T-shirts, Fendi ‘bag-ettes’ and low-rise jeans and more; to Beyoncé and Adele speaking to their experiences with fame in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue respectively; and the climactic ending of Spears’ conservatorship in November, the stories of the women harassed and demonised during the Noughties are, rightly, coming centre stage. What was confined and repressed is finally being given air to breathe.
Absorbing and horrifying in equal measure, ‘Celebrity: A 21st Century Story’ charted the Western obsession with fame and celebrity culture from Channel 4’s ‘Big Brother’ to Instagram, through the cultural intersections of gender, class and politics. The documentary is nigh-on academic in its scope, covering reality television, print media, the treatment of young women like Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, the ‘WAGs’, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, the Kardashians, Perez Hilton, TOWIE, the casts of Love Island and, of course, Britney Spears (in, I would argue, an even more gut-wrenching way than the New York Times’ ‘Framing Britney’ documentary, simply because her story is told within a four-hour wider context of misogyny and exploitation), and more.
Amidst the laying bare of the gross misogyny that many, particularly young women of my generation, consumed on a weekly basis in magazines like ‘Heat’, the documentary gave a platform for the likes of Kerry Katona, Charlotte Church and many others to speak about the hell that their lives were, so preyed upon they became by paparazzi and photographers. Who, however, to blame for this nauseating mess is ambiguous. Figures in the media industry pointed to an insatiable public appetite for such coverage, whilst the case is also made that the public’s desire for more was (and is) constructed and manufactured by those who claim they are just giving people ‘what they want’. Do we level the blame for aggressive, intrusive celebrity-baiting at the armies of paparazzi trying to earn a living, or the people who employed them? The magazine editors, the media conglomerates who published the images? The celebrities for making a choice to live a life that in the glare of public judgment? It is very unclear and maybe there doesn’t need to be a definitive answer: the point is, and well-articulated by YouTuber Broey Deschanel in her video essay ‘The Systemic Abuse of Celebrities’, is that a life lived in the spotlight as a ‘celebrity’, whether as an A-List actress or as a YouTube vlogger and influencer, becomes, perhaps inevitably, a form of abuse.
The opening notes of the 21st century are undoubtedly sour and sobering. In light of how amazing human beings can be, I couldn’t help asking: what the hell were we thinking? The opening of a new century, a new millennium, has been completely marred and defined by cruelty, excess, mass produced objectification and vilification as sport. The Faustian exchange that celebrity life encapsulates undoubtedly causes a huge amount of suffering for the human beings at the centre, which we may have always known deep-down but has all too frequently, perhaps, been forgotten in the mass-produced heady dopamine rush of alighting upon the latest mishap or scandal. These human beings, in their nuance and multiplicities, have been dehumanised and objectified, rendered symbols and screens for the shadow of the collective unconscious- everything we cannot accept and embrace within ourselves- and held to impossible standards of perfection in a game they can never win. For me personally, one of the most sobering moments was listening to footage of Keira Knightley on the BBC Radio 4 podcast series ‘Pieces of Britney’, another longform exploration of the treatment of young female celebrities during the Noughties. The clip, taken from an interview with Jonathon Ross in 2007, shows Knightley at the tender age of 22 beginning to shake as she describes relentless paparazzi intrusion into her life. It’s hard to believe that such a candid admission on national television was never taken seriously enough beyond Ross’ platitudes, and that no cultural conversation emerged around the terror facing young women on a regular basis. I cannot believe we were all, myself included, blind to it.
And, of course, it goes even deeper than this. What I think is important to analyse, along with the gender and class undertones of the abuse suffered by Spears, Lohan, Barton, Winehouse and Knightley etc., are the very obvious racial dynamics at play: there is a lot to learn about the inner psychology of white supremacy from looking at the ways in which these women were treated. Primarily, as brilliantly critiqued by Simran Hans in ‘Pieces of Britney’, the ‘white trash’ criticism levelled at Spears in particular was a deeply racially coded term, employed to shame her for her behaviour’s perceived proximity to blackness. Young white women were effectively punished by media outlets, acting as bastions for white supremacy, for acting in a way that was indicative of a betrayal of their race. As a result, this systemic punishing of white young women, bears all the classic hallmarks of breathtaking misogyny, with their bodies and whiteness being fetishized and objectified to the extent that their humanity is purposefully forgotten. It also demonstrates the sicknesses of self-loathing and self-hatred embedded within white supremacy. Ibram X Kendi describes white supremacy as a rain that we are all drenched in: white people believe they are safe from it because they are holding an umbrella, but that umbrella too is a structure of white supremacy. There is no escaping it. Similarly, writer and activist Rachel Cargle argues that white supremacy and racism are sicknesses that poison each generation: not just black people who are brutalised with it, but for white people who enact and espouse this violence, consciously and unconsciously. Perhaps the predatory behaviour of a culture that created a trap for preying on this group of white women is an example of this self-inflicted sickness. The seeming pleasure taken at torturing and brutalising these women, through paparazzi-hounding and endless abuse in print and internet media, is an offshoot of white supremacy, symptomatic of its paranoia in maintaining and perpetuating itself, punishing those who did not conform to its standards.
Of course, this coded abuse of white women walks in tandem with both the coded and overt abuse of BIPOC stars by the media. Whilst there was a predatory paparazzi focus on Spears, Hilton and Lohan in the Noughties, black artists and celebrities, then and now, have seen their lives, bodies and work unduly criticised, eradicated, appropriated and underappreciated by a white supremacist media culture. BIPOC stars face systemic racism that prevents them from being in the spotlight in the first place and then, once there, targeted with gaslighting, abuse and criticism from mainstream media as well as armies of social media trolls. As such, what I have observed is how boundaried some black muscians have been and become over this period of time, both preventatively and as a result of white supremacy’s toxic double standards and hypocrisies. Whilst none of these people have been strangers to racially coded criticism, it is clear that the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna, Frank Ocean, Childish Gambino/Donald Glover, Tyler The Creator and others have combined vigilance and artistic ambiguity to stave off unhealthy media attention, working hard to keep themselves at arm’s length from the media woodchipper. Perhaps this is a self-protective proactive response in light of the ways in which black women like Nina Simone and Billie Holliday were torturously celebrated and reviled with equal measure. Be it through surprise album drops, hints and easter eggs on social media posts or downright disorientation- Frank Ocean’s green baby at the Met Gala in 2021 was genius- these black stars have refused to play the media game and, in so doing, have carved out truly experimental and industry redefining modes of work, art and being. Of course, the secrecy and vigilance is an additional, expensive layer of work and comes at many costs. Beyoncé talked about this explicitly in her rare interview with Harper’s Bazaar:
‘I’ve been intentional about setting boundaries between my stage persona and my personal life […] I’ve fought to protect my sanity and my privacy because the quality of my life depended on it’.
In a world of media gaslighting and wars over whose narrative succeeds, Beyoncé has painstakingly prioritised her cognitive and emotional clarity, setting down multiple lines that cannot be crossed in order to keep her and her family safe. She is emphatic about the importance for her boundaries, stating that:
‘those who don’t know me and have never met me might interpret that as being closed off. Trust – the reason those folks don’t see certain things about me is because my Virgo ass does not want them to see it… it’s not because it doesn’t exist!’
Beyoncé’s attention to detail in her art is legendary; the fact that this is also required to an astronomical extent to maintain her privacy and safety is an additional layer of work and effort that, whilst seemingly non-negotiable, requires a huge amount of energy and resources. But that emphatic, imperative ‘trust-’ is unequivocal: white supremacy may condemn her actions as ‘closed off’ but, ultimately, she is protecting herself. It’s a power move.
Whilst these high-profile black artists have been able to establish and assert boundaries through a consciously constructed ambiguity artistically and through heavily controlled and managed PR, white supremacy, of course, still manages to openly violate famous black people in the media. Whilst it may have become more difficult to smear the likes of Beyonce et al., who have become increasingly adept at wielding their own narrativizing power, there are groups of famous black people who are still incredibly vulnerable to targeted attacks. In recent years, racists and trolls have openly abused Leslie Jones and Lizzo: both powerful women in the own rights but, upon entering mainstream awareness, perhaps did not yet have enough cultural ubiquity or capital to secure their boundaries and safety. Concurrently, black successful sportswomen are hideously exposed to the forces of white supremacy to police and abuse them: Serena Williams, Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka have all faced systemic and spectatorial abuse online. Unlike the musicians, who are, perhaps, more able to obscure themselves behind veils of artistic expression, sport is, by its very nature, unfiltered and exposing. White supremacy is almost granted more access to these women, and, therefore, they are perhaps more vulnerable to its violence. The derision that white supremacy levels at these women, with a whole host of stereotypes, criticism and condescension thrown in, is particularly potent and widespread. Visibility seems to walk hand-in-hand with media abuse, so it would be impossible to critique the targeting of BIPOC women without mentioning Meghan Markle in the same breath. As a royal, one of her jobs was to be professionally watched and looked it, open to constant judgment, evaluation and criticism, much like the sportswomen. This made her vulnerable to intrusive levels of scrutiny and abuse, perhaps most pervasively when she was pregnant and undergoing a hugely significant physical transformation. This is not a coincidence.
Perhaps it is unsurprising then that, now, so many famous people are not only asserting their boundaries but also reclaiming their lives and narratives. Noticeably, over the past couple of years, there has been something of an uptick in the number of celebrity-produced documentaries that aim to offer a form of insight into the personal, private lives of celebrities. It may be easy to be dismissive when embarking upon a viewing of these documentaries about how constructed and constrained these forms of storytelling are, but there is no denying the chillingly dead looks in the eyes of young people, in particular, who are exhausted and have been nigh-on tortured by the circumstances their fame has brought them. To date, I have watched self-produced documentaries of and by Taylor Swift (Miss Americana, Netflix, 2020); Paris Hilton(This Is Paris, YouTube,2020); Billie Eilish (The World’s A Little Blurry, Apple TV,2021); Demi Lovato (Dancing With The Devil, YouTube,2021); and Justin Bieber (Seasons, YouTube, 2020). With Mischa Barton also stating this year in The Guardian that she wanted to produce a documentary about her life and experiences during the Noughties, perhaps we cannot blame these people from wanting to reclaim some of the agency, self-worth and power that seems to have be routinely and, often, catastrophically denied them. A lengthy comparison could be made of the aforementioned docs: some opt for a fly-on-the-wall format; some give lengthy insight into the artistic process of song writing and music production; some form a personal and musical retrospective. Even if the claims to candidness, authenticity and ‘truth’ telling are awkwardly performative, and require a healthy pinch of salt for the cynical, there is no doubting the catharsis on show when these figures are in control of their own narrative and it is oddly relieving and emotional to watch. Of course, however, they are not all unproblematic.
Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato, in particular, have centred Scooter Braun in their recovery narratives, as much a friend and a mentor as he is their manager. Yet, this nurturing sage-like presence on their documentaries simultaneously functions as a redemption platform for Braun who has, seemingly and allegedly, gone out of his way to undermine the authority and self-determination of Taylor Swift. Famously, Braun sold the rights and master recordings of her first six albums to an investment fund for $300 million, without her consent, playing the game of music’s industrial capitalism to reap huge financial rewards for himself and leaving an artist with little sense of control or ownership over her own songs. His presence on Lovato’s documentary in particular, whilst important to Lovato’s recovery from addiction, feels uncomfortable when he is an active part in a system that has undermined the personal and professional wellbeing of another talented young woman.
It would be grossly naïve to think that as a result of this cultural moment of reflection that there will be an overnight rejection of celebrity culture. Fame may still be an enticing prospect for many, but I think it is increasingly clear that it is a double-edged sword. As with many areas of our lives, for example with regards to our relationship with the climate crisis, there is, I would argue, an increasing onus on personal responsibility and accountability to ensure the safety of the collective. We need to be conscious and honest with ourselves when we get dragged into having startlingly impassioned opinions and conversations about people we do not know anything about. Why do I care about looking at Jennifer Lawrence with a baby bump? What am I being distracted from? Where does our desire to stew in negativity and delight in other people’s pain come from? How is the language we use causing harm? Even if we never take the steps to actually target celebrities with viciousness, the dehumanising and objectifying language we use to talk about them infects the way we see and speak to ourselves, as well as everyone around us. As a public, we have to acknowledge how infantile it is to obsess over other people and their lives when we could so better serve ourselves by training that spotlight back onto our own shit.
What I think is different, however, now compared to twenty years ago is that a culture of activism has flourished through social media. Whilst the abuse of celebrities will shapeshift and morph into a new means of expression, there are legions of people online ready to resist. We are all better off in a world with Jameela Jamil in it, for example, whose modelling of honesty and criticality on social media is exemplary. She cuts through bullshit like no one else, and is able to use her influence to affect change and empower others to do so, whether its advocating for Britney Spears and vulnerable demographics like trans and disabled people, or taking the fight for eating disorder prevention right to politicians and lawmakers in the US. The key is to remind people of the power they do have: it may not be overt embodied power that they feel on a daily basis, thanks to capitalism, but we all have the power to observe and challenge our own patterns and behaviours in this. Ironically, for many people this may mean abandoning social media all together: whilst there is much to gain from social media’s potential for connecting people and causes, it is also an aggressive, manipulative place that actively causes harm.
And for the already famous? I think we are going to see increasingly controlled and boundaried behaviour. Stars have always reflected on whether the bargains made for fame have been worth it and I think we will see more and more reflections on this in the years to come, including retreats from visibility: symbolic of this, for example, is that Pamela Anderson left social media behind in January 2021, before this year’s reappraisal of celebrity culture even began. Whilst I don’t think we’ll see a mass exodus in her wake, because personal photos posted to social media will always be more valuable than paparazzi shots and the power this enables celebrities to retain is significant, celebrities will undoubtedly assert new means and methods of control to undermine and undercut the role of traditional media in abusing them. They have every right to do so and I believe we will all benefit as a result.
Me: It’s Friday night. This week has been insane. Let’s get self-indulgent.
In honour of the release of Chemtrails Over the Country Club, the new LP from Lana Del Rey, I’ve created something of an homage to one of my all-time favourite songwriters. There is no doubt that Del Rey is a controversial and, at times, problematic figure (see my previous essays on this here and here). Her relationships with power, race and patriarchy have been generally and radically underdeveloped at times, which is being incredibly generous. Additionally, as her recent interview with Annie Mac attests, for someone who captures emotion and feeling with such succinct eloquence and beauty in song, she is terrible at articulating a verbal and coherent viewpoint to herself and others.
However, I critique because I love her and always expect better (as we all should with the cultural figures we look up to). Her songs are pure poetry and there is simply no one writing and crafting lyrics and music the way she does and has done since she first released Born To Die in 2012. Call it what you like: sadcore, baroque pop, dream pop. Without Del Rey and, I would argue, Frank Ocean and James Blake, we would not have the contemporary musical landscape we have now: vulnerable, melancholy, introspective and, in many ways, increasingly wise. Furthermore, I think we have been lucky to witness her transform from self-objectifying Lolita figure to a woman who runs with the wolves, bedding into the deepest facets of the Wild Woman archetype, and an advocate for healthy masculinity.
No matter how many people criticise her for having glamorised submission and abuse, there is a reason why her stories and her lyrics resonate with so many, in particular young women. Young women who are barely given the hint of a helpful roadmap to navigate the West’s patriarchal, white supremacist power structures with their spirits and souls still intact. She has given voice to the dark, shadowy feelings, experiences and dynamics that women have luxuriated in, surfed, cursed in themselves, acted upon without knowing way, forsaken or indulged over months, years and lifetimes. No wonder she has made people feel both extremely uncomfortable and seen. Those criticising her penchant for playing with façade and persona may not understand how imagery, persona and glamour are means of survival in a world that simply does not accept you the way that you are, in all of a woman’s emotional ebbs, flows, chaos and glory. With Chemtrails Over The Country Club, it seems we have Del Rey at her most retrospective. Without putting too fine a point on it, there does seem to be an eerie quality of finality to it.
With all this in mind, I give you a comprehensive run down of my favourite things regarding Lana Del Rey’s music, starting with my personal top ten Lana Del Rey songs (in no particular order):
I’ve taken the liberty of listing my favourite Lana Del Rey lyrics and verses, all of which I typed out myself and, indeed, what joy it gave me to re-type and recall such rich and gorgeous words:
‘The poetry inside of me
Is warm like a gun’
– ‘Bartender’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘It doesn’t matter if I’m not enough
For the future or the things to come
‘Cause I’m young and in love’
– ‘Love’, Lust for Life
‘Give me Hallmark
One dream, one life, one lover,
Paint me happy and blue.
No hype under our covers
It’s just me and you’
– ‘Venice Bitch’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘Summertime is nice and hot
And my life is sweet like vanilla is’
– ‘Without You’, Born To Die
‘I had a dream that I was fine,
I wasn’t crazy, I was divine’
– ‘I Can Fly’, Big Eyes Soundtrack
‘I don’t care what they say
Drag racing my little red sports car,
I’m not unhinged or unhappy
I’m just wild’
– ‘Chemtrails Over The Country Club’, Chemtrails Over The Country Club
‘Will you still love me when I shine
From words but not from beauty?’
– ‘Old Money’, Ultraviolence
‘Nothing gold can stay
Like love or lemonade
Or song or summer’s day
It’s all a game to me, anyway’
– ‘Music To Watch Boys To’, Honeymoon
‘Catch a wave and take in the sweetness
Think about it
The darkness, the deepness
All the things that make me who I am
Are you ready for it?’
– ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘Calling out my name
In the summer rain
Salvatore can wait
Now it’s time to eat
Soft ice cream’
– ‘Salvatore’, Honeymoon
‘It’s fucking hot, hot
Winter in the city
Something ‘bout this weather
Made these kids go crazy.
Even for February,
Something ‘bout this sun
Made these kids get scary’
– ‘Heroin’, Lust for Life
‘And who I am
Is a big-time believer
That people can change
But you don’t have to leave her.
When everyone’s talking
You can make a stand’
– ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘Maybe my contribution
Could be as small as hoping
That words would turn to birds
And birds would send my thoughts
– ‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’, Lust for Life
‘Think I’ll miss you forever
Like the stars miss the sun in the morning sky
Waiting’s better than never
And even if you’re gone
I’m going to drive’
– ‘Summertime Sadness’, Born To Die
‘You hate the heat, you got the blues
Changing like the weather
Oh, that’s so like you.
The Santa Ana moves you’
– ‘California’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘Sometimes it feels like I’ve got
A war in my mind.
I want to get off
But I keep riding that ride.
I never really noticed that I had to decide
To play someone’s game
Or live my own life.
And now I do.
I want to move
Out of the black
And into the blue’
– ‘Get Free’, Lust for Life
‘I can feel it coming in the air tonight
See you walking on that blue Pacific
I can see you bathing in the summer light
Turning tan and you look terrific
You got game boy’
– ‘Guns and Roses’, Ultraviolence
‘I only mention it
Because it was such a scene
And I felt seen’
– ‘White Dress, Chemtrails Over The Country Club
‘I’d be lying if I said
I wasn’t sick of it’
– ‘Heroin’, Lust for Life
If you are still here, I have compiled a list of the best Lana Del Rey bops. I understand that not everyone wants to spend their evening wallowing in the inky waves of melancholy, so, here are some of her most up-beat songs. No less poetic, but a little more frivolous and fun to keep you from feeling too blue:
‘Fuck It I Love You’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘Florida Kilos’, Ultraviolence
‘National Anthem’, Born To Die
‘Burning Desire’, Paradise
‘Doin’ Time’, Norman Fucking Rockwell
‘In My Feelings’, Lust for Life
‘High By The Beach’, Honeymoon
‘Fucked My Way Up to the Top’, Ultraviolence
‘Summer Bummer’, Lust for Life
‘Diet Mountain Dew’, Born To Die
Here are my picks for her most underrated songs:
‘West Coast’, Ultraviolence
‘Coachella – Woodstock In My Mind’, Lust for Life
‘Terrance Loves You’, Honeymoon
‘Brooklyn Baby’, Ultraviolence
‘Change’, Lust for Life
And her, perhaps, most overrated songs:
‘Cherry’, Lust for Life
‘Lust for Life’, Lust for Life
‘High By The Beach’, Honeymoon
‘Gods and Monsters’, Paradise
‘Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems’, Lust for Life
And the biggest question of all: which is the best Lana Del Rey album, so far?
I am very hopeful after my first listen of Chemtrails Over The Country Club. So far, I am loving ‘White Dress’, ‘Tulsa Jesus Freak’ and ‘Not All Who Wander Are Lost’ (any song with a ‘Lord of The Rings’ reference gets a massive thumbs up from me). Ultimately, however, and even in light of the divine Norman Fucking Rockwell, I still think my heart lies with Ultraviolence. I will never get over Del Rey working with Dan Auerbach, and I definitely think it’s her most cohesive and complete work.
I’m curious to know if there are any here with which you agree, disagree or that are missing altogether! Please feel free to comment or message.
And, because she went there (and in case anyone particularly cares): my moon’s in Taurus, my Cancer is Sun (with Cancer Rising). If you know, you know.
This article is dedicated to Charlotte Bender, Francesca Bender and Hanan Isse: my fellow obsessees
Video essayist Broey Deschanel recently posed the question: ‘Have We Grown Out of Gossip Girl?’By looking at the class, gender and racial politics of the show, and the wider politics and issues with re-makes, her answer is an unequivocal and undeniable: yes. Whilst aesthetic nostalgia for Gossip Girl is high (because who wouldn’t want to eat lunch on the steps of the Met or venture an embellished headband?) it is a show that does not need resurrecting or an attempt at correction. Her analysis that Gossip Girl sided with elites, demonising working class characters, catching principled characters into a tangled web of deceit and selfishness whilst glorifying toxic chauvinism (Chuck sells Blair for a hotel), demonstrates that Gossip Girl is a show too riddled with the white supremacist hyper-wealth orthodoxy of its time to be worth redeeming.
The show is almost a historical artefact of capitalism’s anaemic attempt at self-criticism, eventually reinforcing itself and seducing everyone in its wake, characters and viewers alike, when arguments for capitalism were becoming increasingly tenuous in the context of recession, economic suffering and burgeoning inequality. This would go on to lay the groundwork for a subsequent decade, and counting, of austerity in the West. No amounts of references to F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, Serena Van Der Woodsen’s favourite novel, could distract us from class-bashing snobbery, rampant aspirationalism and full-bodied immersion and defence of white privilege and supremacy.
Ironically, we are living in a time of studios hyperactively re-making, sequelling and prequelling everything: capitalism is so desperate to reinforce itself to itself and ensure a buck, that it cannot stomach the risk of making something new. I wrote about this in 2014 and there are signs that things are beginning to change. With the emergences of more experimental forms of television storytelling such as Master of None, Fleabag, I May Destroy You, Pose, The Politician and The Good Place against the backdrop of a larger appetite for non-white heteronormative stories centring around race, sexualities, genders and philosophies that have been previously untold in a popular way, we are seeing progressive shifts that render the prospect of shows like Gossip Girl more and more redundant. It has been particularly promising this year to see the number of films and TV shows exploring stories of race and class being feted and nominated for awards, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Malcolm and Marie forming two of my favourite films so far, even if the jangling of white supremacy still echoes and reverberates throughout the creative industries (no Golden Globe nomination for I May Destroy You?)
So, where can we go for an aesthetically-fuelled glossy teen melodrama? Is there place for such a thing in the twenty first century?
My answer: yes. Do I want to see well-dressed people getting into romantic dilemmas, going on coming-of-age adventures, disappointing people around them, ripping up expectations, finding their voices, breaking up and making up and all set to a fabulous soundtrack? Yes. Whole-heartedly. But it goes deeper than that. This need for stories about teenagehood reminds me of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, a late nineteenth century German play that sought to express and plug the gap in stories for and about teenagers to navigate the upheaval of adolescence. The play, scandalous at its first performance, covers sexual repression and expression, abuse, suicidal depression, homosexuality and the relentless pressure of morality and achievement in arbitrary school exams: issues that still feel relevant and familiar to teenagers now, with a quintessentially new iteration of perfectionism that entails a life lived through the filters of social media. This rite of passage has been maligned throughout much of Western history, with teenagers demonised and ridiculed for the seismic shifts they experience in their bodies and identities, without any kind of holistic guideposts to nurture and respect them through it. Our experiences as teenagers lay the groundwork for our future relationships with ourselves (and our therapists) and, as explored so well in the documentary Beyond Clueless, secondary school is a charged space to explore a heady mixture of emergent and predominant ideas, with the teenage body a soil, in its perpetual state of flux, expansion and contraction, to do this. I don’t spend my time watching back-to-back teen shows or teen films because the chaos of melodrama and angst no longer feels like an outward projection of my own internal tumult. But I continue to hold the genre in high regard, in much the same vein as Mark Kermode in his advocacy for the Twilight franchise. If we are to live in a society where teenagers are not honoured, then why should we damn genres that appeal and speak to this dramatic, archetypal experience that they are going through? Whether we have anonymous whistleblowers and gossip mongers, vampires or quixotic righteous dudes, teen films and shows are crucibles and allegories for bigger shifts, both personally and societally that are, whether they mean to be or not, both vitally hyperbolic and fascinating. In the case of Gossip Girl, it turns out, we should have been paying more attention.
As such, we don’t need a new Gossip Girl or, god-forbid, the re-make of Clueless that we keep getting threatened with (the original should remain an untouched gem and deserves respect and adulation not an irrelevant, fatigued re-make). We already have a show that is compelling, compulsive, aesthetically pleasing and playing whack-a-mole with big teenage issues in a critical and entertaining way. Crucially, it also grapples with many of the issues that a new Gossip Girl may want to rectify and reconcile with to itself, which Broey Deschanel predicts will be watered down and disastrous. Issues like race, religion, sexualities and deconstructions of class power structures. My friends, I give you, Netflix original series, Élite.
Élite’s premise seems standard fare: told in flashback, three working class students are given scholarships to shiny, international, private school, Las Encinas, located in an ambiguous area of Spain, but most likely near Madrid. The scholarships are a form of compensation from the rich owner of a building company, who built a structurally inadequate state school that collapsed. The son of the owner of the building company also goes to Las Encinas with his extremely wealthy and aristocratic friends: immediately, as a result, there is discord, resentment and rivalry between the two groups. The backdrop of all of this is a murder investigation, as one of the students is found dead next to the swimming pool at Las Encinas. A heady mixture of Big Little Lies, Skins, Cruel Intentions and, yes, Gossip Girl, it is immediately aesthetically pleasing and riveting. At the very least, along with the rollercoaster ride of dramas and chaos, viewers have the additional pleasure of having learned a variety of Spanish swearwords. And the background reggaetón is always on point.
Without spoiling anything, the show deals with a plethora of teen issues: the standard first sexual experiences, family fall outs, teen pregnancy, ambition and inter-class/clique warfare. Additionally, there are higher stakes of HIV diagnoses, cancer diagnoses, threesomes, throuples, incest, blackmail, revenge porn and drugs thrown into the mix. In short: a whole lot of loco. Across the seasons, however, Élite goes on to explore the intersections of many of these issues in greater depth, most powerfully, the immigrant-working class experience and, in particular, the cultural tensions of growing up Muslim in the West. This includes relationships between faiths, homosexual relationships (the cutest gay couple ever has to be Ander and Omar), the politics of feminism and the hijab, and both subtle and overt forms of anti-Muslim hatred. We have rarely seen a character like Nadia presented on television and it is joyful to watch her unfolding across the seasons.
Even the intersections and illusions of wealth are explored: the differences between no money, new money and old money, with most of the judgment and consternation reserved for the aristocrats. Unlike Gossip Girl, the most despicable characters in Élite are the privileged who lie, cheat and betray others to maintain their social position, closing ranks and perverting justice through their family names and wealth. Self-preservation is constantly at work in Élite: this manifests as working class characters attempting to reject and resist the trappings of wealth and privilege to preserve their sense of dignity and self-respect; whereas, the wealthy pull up their drawbridges and manipulate the power structures to get their own way. They become unredeemable in the process. Yet there are some who do change, and there are some divine redemption arcs at work, the best I’ve seen since Steve Harrington in Stranger Things.
As such, where Broey Deschanel’s criticism of Gossip Girl focuses on the fact that everything, including the viewers, is subsumed by the inordinate toxic influence of power and privilege, in Élite, a form of equilibrium and, dare I say, comradeship between the classes eventually emerges. Of course, we are still based in a powerful, private school only accessible to the privileged few; but it feels like the upper classes are the ones who have had to adapt and give up something, in the form of their power and privilege, in order to survive and not the other way round. The only question that remains, as Season 4 approaches, is whether this will be maintained. My main criticism is that even with the introductions of Yeray and Malik in Season 3, there is plenty more space for black characters in the show, and I think the show has great potential in posing more questions on race. Needless to say: we don’t need a re-make of Gossip Girl. Élite is the show Gossip Girl should have been ten years ago, and I for one think we all need more of it.
Full disclaimer: I watched all three seasons of Élite during Lockdown 1.0 and it definitely became an emotional crutch when many of us, myself included, seemed to regress into a state of teenagehood, confined as we were to our rooms for months on end (explored so well in this article). If there is anything I need to add or qualify, let me know.