Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Where the WASPs Aren't

Cross-posted from Taki's Magazine.

The TV show Gossip Girl, now in its second season, chronicles the “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite”—“elite” meaning private school kids and their families.  Replete with iPhone-toting teenagers, haute couture and on-location filming, the show pretends to at least a surface verisimilitude. When it comes to underlying sociological realities, however, it offers nothing but the most fatuous distortions.

For example:

• In Gossip Girl, the obligatory fish-out-of-water character lives in a capacious Williamsburg loft with sliding industrial doors and exposed brick.  From this, we’re supposed to infer that his family not only has less money but that they’re more authentic and less status-driven that the denizens of the Upper East Side. In reality, many New Yorkers would cut out their own eyeballs to get a big Williamsburg loft. Here are some of the prices. Further, as status symbol, a Williamsburg loft arguably trumps a Park Avenue co-op. Williamsburg is where the cool white people live; only sell-outs live on the Upper East Side.

• In Gossip Girl, kids get into elite colleges by not-so-deftly signaling their membership in the good old boys network. One applicant even says to an interviewer, “Why should I get into Dartmouth? Because I’m a [impressive family name].” In reality, name-dropping in an interview is probably the one thing (other than telling a racist joke) an applicant could do to ensure that he doesn’t get admitted. Further, as colleges like to trumpet the “diversity” of their student body, an Hindu or an Eskimo has a better chance into college than a preppy with an ancient pedigree. Finally, colleges compete for do-gooders with exceptional brains. The world of Gossip Girl, where slackers and nincompoops get in through family connections, simply doesn’t exist.

• In Gossip Girl, rich kids all have names like Waldorf, Archibald, Bass and van der Woodsen. (In keeping with media’s loathing of the Texas Bass family, the villain is named “Chuck Bass.”) In reality, however, the families of the old Protestant Establishment make up only a minority of New York’s wealthy elite. They haven’t entirely disappeared; they still host their debutantes balls, the Forbes family still keeps the Social Register afloat, and a handful of institutions (mostly hidden from public view) are still controlled by WASPs. Some WASPs even have substantial fortunes. (Those fortunes, however, are rarely very old; no Knickerbocker family like “van der Woodsen” can afford New York’s social whirl.) But WASPs as a whole just don’t have the numbers, much less the will, to dominate New York society. As Louis Auchincloss gently puts it, they have “lost their monopoly.”

Instead, perhaps a plurality of the rich private school kids in Manhattan—even at historically Protestant schools—are Jewish. The Jewish Daily Forward goes so far as to report that Trinity and Dalton, two of the top private schools in New York, are “largely Jewish.” An entire media industry follows the lavish bar mitzvahs of Manhattan private school kids. The closest real-world model for the high school in Gossip Girl, The Dalton School, has historically been the most recherchĂ© school for Jewish New Yorkers. (Most WASPs prefer to send their children to the old single-sex grammar schools.) Tellingly, the media now treat Dalton as the most posh school in Manhattan.

In Gossip Girl, however, Jewish kids don’t even exist, much less predominate. Everything about Gossip Girl is modern, from the drugs to the iphones, except for the sociological background, which the writers may as well have lifted out of the Gilded Age.

• It almost goes without saying that Gossip Girls gets nothing right about WASPs. WASPs don’t flaunt their wealth; on the contrary, they cultivate their shabbiness, the better to signal to the world that they don’t need money (which they probably don’t have anyway) in order to rank socially.  To demonstrate your WASP bona fides, you drive a 1980s Buick station wagon, not a Rolls Royce.

In fairness, in mischaracterizing America’s upper class, Gossip Girl is merely following pop culture convention. Virtually every Hollywood movie and TV show, from Scent of a Woman to Family Guy, assumes that a WASP episcopacy that collapsed two generations ago still controls this country’s wealth and power. (Indeed, it is hard to think of any pop culture product that doesn’t associate wealth with WASP privilege.) I’m told even told that “chic lit” novels routinely assume that all Upper East Side socialites hail from patrician WASP families and despise anyone who doesn’t. The authors of these novels then do book signings on the Upper East Side in front of audiences that know full well that the novels bear no resemblance to the world they actually live in. 

In the end, Gossip Girl is an example of market failure. The public probably really would like to know how the rich live. WASPs, however, unlike others wealthy groups, have not formed a pressure group to punish studios that portray them unfavorably. (WASPs instead prefer to express themselves politically through benign environmental causes, with perhaps a little feminism mixed in.) Consequently, pop culture purveyors have zero tolerance for unflattering depictions of other groups, but give writers absolute license to defame WASPs.

Don’t pity the WASPs, who surely deserve their fate; pity instead the audiences who have to suffer though one hackneyed treatment of the upper class after another. Great fame and fortune awaits anyone who somehow manages to overcome this market failure. When he does, I might actually tune in and watch.