Take any rundown of Gossip Girl‘s worst characters, and no doubt Serena van der Woodsen will be sitting (un)comfortably near the top. But why is she so universally hated while much nastier characters, such as rapist and abuser Chuck Bass, are showered with praise?
It’ll come as no surprise to your average Gossip Girl hater/fan that Serena van der Woodsen, the phenomenally blonde It Girl of the Upper East Side, has a little bit of a popularity problem. Of course, little could easily serve here as the understatement of the century: a more truthful assessment would be that Serena van der Woodsen is a hate sink. Fans will merrily argue about many things regarding the series (‘Dan was Blair’s true love!’ ‘No, Chuck Bass is not an abuser, he’s Chuck Bass!’), but there seems to be, at least in this regard, a quasi-universal political consensus: Serena is the worst. The absolute worst.
Considering that the Gossip Girl cast is primarily composed of odious bullies, narcissistic pricks, and lying backstabbers, managing to rank so high among what would be considered the worst is honestly quite a feat. So what exactly has Serena done to incur the wrath of viewers?
April Leygraaf at Odyssey Online criticizes “her complete lack of self-awareness and inability to cope with any issues”. Nicole Pomarico from Bustle describes her as “the worst role model ever” with “poor decision-making skills” and, um, “messy” hair. Hannah Whales from Metro says she was “incredibly annoying” and made “the worst choices ever”; meanwhile, Amanda Ross from Babe states she has “virtually zero redeeming qualities” and that “no amount of La Mer cream could make up for the sinister nastiness that resides within Serena’s perma-tanned soul.” Ouch.
Now, it’s true that Serena could hardly be described as the most cautious individual. Throughout the series, she’s been a major instigator of drama and conflict through her impulsive, reckless decisions. These include, but aren’t limited to: sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend (twice); fleeing town with no explanation instead of admitting to her faults; trusting (and dating) a string of questionable men (a married congressman, a con artist, her college teacher, the ex-convict who originally planned to destroy her life, Gossip Girl herself, etc); prioritizing these men over her family and friends; inviting yet another con artist into her family circle despite said con artist’s obviously suspicious background; insisting on lying or hiding things from her peers despite the thousand times it backfired on her; and so on.
Serena has shown herself to be careless, selfish and hopelessly naïve on multiple occasions; a poor judge of character with dubious problem-solving skills who could easily worsen a situation precisely by trying to help. Not the greatest role model, indeed.
And yet, the level of vitriol she receives still comes off as wildly disproportionate.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no particular fan of Serena. Actually, I’m no particular fan of anyone (save for a couple of exceptions). I have no problem pointing out the general unsavouriness of the characters and dearly wish they’d gotten their fair share of “Reasons You Suck” speeches. But, after all is said and done, I find Serena to be pretty harmless as a character. She’s actually one of the few characters on Gossip Girl who manages to act like a decent, pleasant person, at least most of the time. She’s sociable, outgoing and exudes positive vibes, which is refreshing. She’s rarely driven by malicious motives (so much that, when it happens, it feels more like contrived character derailment than anything else.) Her heart is usually in the right place, she regularly expresses genuine remorse for her past faults, and she can be very kind and generous to outsiders, which is more than can be said of the rest of her posse. Yes, she’s selfish sometimes, but who isn’t on this show? Frankly, the most damning thing that could be said about her is that she’s somewhat gullible and weak-willed when it comes to men – that’s hardly the worst thing.
Critics, however, are needlessly vicious towards her, sometimes rewriting her entire personality to paint her as much more unpleasant – and cruel – than she actually is. I could use dozens of examples, but here I’ll focus on the harshest piece of criticism yet, Amanda Ross’s article for Babe. It simply isn’t true to claim, as Ross has done, that Serena was “out for blood” and that she would “send off a Gossip Girl blast that would ruin [someone’s] entire life” if she “even felt marginally slighted by [them]”, nor that she was “brutal to her mom, her never-ending list of boyfriends, her brother, her friends, teachers, whatever.” It’s also not true that she carelessly ended someone’s life:
Serena had an incredible knack for making bad situations worse. Just fucked your best friend’s boyfriend and you’re feeling shitty about it? NBD, just kill a man with a line of coke. Casual. Whatever.
As a matter of fact, Serena shared coke with a man who then died of an overdose (which isn’t exactly her fault) and felt so horrible about it that she left town. Her guilt is a major plot point in season one. Describing what happened as “casual, whatever” is dishonest.
Beyond the undeserved level of vitriol, what’s downright ridiculous is that, while Serena is mocked and criticized for her supposed recklessness, other, much more revolting characters get all the accolades.
Gossip Girl‘s Queen B. and “break-out character”, Blair Waldorf, is a case in point: if a woman ever deserved the label of nasty, that would be the one. Serena’s misdeeds are, frankly, nothing in comparison to Blair’s. I mean, we’re talking about a young woman who deliberately sabotaged a classmate’s SATs by forcing her to relive a painful break-up so she would show up too emotionally and physically exhausted to focus. And why did Blair do this? Because she was afraid of the competition. Did she ever show remorse for her actions? Not once.
Blair Waldorf truly is a shitty person with zero redeeming qualities: throughout the show she’s schemed, lied, and destroyed people’s lives with such jubilation that calling her an outright demon wouldn’t be far-fetched. Serena has never conspired to humiliate and emotionally break other human beings the way Blair has. In fact, a lot of the criticism levelled at Serena would be much more fitting if it were directed at Blair instead. It is Blair who would “send off a Gossip Girl blast that would ruin their entire life” if she “even felt marginally slighted by someone”; it is she who was “out for blood” and “brutal” towards friends and foes. Time and time again.
I mean, we’re talking about a woman who said this to her ex-boyfriend’s new partner:
Blair: “Oh, you’re the one who’s going to end up being hurt, ma biche, and not by me. Chuck will soon realize that it doesn’t matter if the dress is couture if the girl is off the rack. And as with all things that don’t fit, you’ll be sent back to where you came from. Oh, and if I were you, I’d accessorize with some gloves. Not even a manicure can disguise those peasant hands.”
“The Undergraduates”, 4×3.
Yet there are no listicles detailing “All the times Blair Waldorf was a terrible person”, no hastily written essays picking her unpleasant personality apart to prove how she’s the absolute worst. Instead, we get article after article explaining why Blair is Ze Best and how she deserved so much more than Serena as a friend. Amanda Ross even states that Blair “showed her up” at the end of her piece. This is almost amusing, considering the truly awful things Blair has done to Serena – and many more – out of pure spite throughout the series.
And let us not forget Blair’s co-dependent boyfriend, the despicable Chuck Bass – a rapist who tries to force himself on three of the female leads (Blair included), regularly pays for prostitutes, and attempts to trade his girlfriend to his uncle for a hotel. Chuck is easily the most horrible character cooked up by the show, and how he could ever be considered a valid Romantic Lead is a grim testament to our society’s twisted views of love and romance.
Yet Chuck is celebrated as a stylish and tormented anti-hero while Serena, a mere dim-witted It Girl, is deemed “the absolute worst”.
So, what exactly is going on here?
First, let’s get something out of the way: seeing how loathsome characters such as Blair and Chuck are routinely acclaimed, it’s very unlikely that the fans’ hatred of Serena actually stems from her supposed flaws: if it were really about her being selfish, thoughtless or flat-out dumb, they’d also eviscerate the rest of the cast instead of putting them on pedestals. In the end, those are excuses. The truth is, Serena is reviled for petty reasons. Sexist reasons.
What sort of archetype does Serena represent? She’s the It Girl. The beautiful girl. She’s blonde, leggy, hot – and she knows it. She’s extremely popular with boys – and not particularly shy around them either. She’s funny, extraverted, makes friends easily, the life of the party. Everything seems to come to her effortlessly: popularity, boyfriends, jobs. She’s clearly comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t mind showing it off with revealing clothing.
Such a woman is bound to attract her lot of haters. The hot, popular woman has long been an object of jealousy and therefore, contempt: not only from women who are trained to see their sisters as rivals, but from men who are trained to scorn the very objects of their desire (especially if they’re out of their league). What’s execrable about her is how her beauty and charm supposedly win her everything, when all of us average daisies need to struggle half as much to achieve half the same results; it’s the ease with which she moves through the world, her perfectly coiffed hair trailing behind her.
Our culture doesn’t care much for this kind of woman. Hell, our culture doesn’t care much for women, period. But the hot little number brings upon herself a special kind of disdain, especially if she dares be confident about her looks and collect boyfriends like Kleenex. It’s no secret that sluts are bad and that hot girls are dumb and shallow.
Of course, ugly prudes are all wrong too. Funny that.
Serena embodies the type of female character which our society considers an acceptable target for misogyny: the Bimbo, the Dumb Blonde, the Whore. As such, it’s unsurprising that she would end up being considered more repulsive than a rapist. Susan Cox at Feminist Current aptly describes how, in patriarchal culture, women’s smallest flaws are often judged far more harshly than they deserve:
The hatred of female celebrities/public figures often seems connected to the fact that our sins are treated as being more egregious. While women are told to “die in a fire” for being a “dumb slut,” it seems men need to be literal criminals or child rapists before they are objects of public scorn. (And even then, Kobe Bryant continues to be a basketball superstar and Woody Allen makes successful movies). Charlie Sheen becomes a legendary party animal, while Lindsay Lohan is viewed as a cracked-out crazy with no career to speak of. Justin Timberlake is allowed to evolve into a respected and multi-faceted performer, while Britney Spears is forever branded as a trashy, talentless dumb blonde who fell from grace.
And Serena van der Woodsen becomes a slutty, shallow, cruel bitch who fucks up everybody’s life while Chuck Bass is revered as a charming bad boy.
But what about Blair Waldorf, you may ask? She’s also impossibly hot, isn’t she? Why is she then worshipped as a sassy heroine?
What’s interesting is how Blair’s character actively feeds into the hatred of Serena. Gossip Girl revolves around the antagonistic friendship between these two women: the show is led by Serena and Blair as deuteragonists and mirror images of one another. Blair is clearly written as the Brainy Brunette to Serena’s Dumb Blonde. Contrary to Serena, Blair is a perfectionist, a bookworm and a high achiever: an obviously cultured individual who’s fond of intellectual debates. She rarely wears revealing clothing and dates very few men, including her “One True Love” Chuck Bass, the male star of the show. She struggles with low self-esteem and bulimia and feels inferior next to Serena, who was always more popular without breaking a sweat. As such, she feels much more relatable to female viewers. She’s the anti-Serena, the one who will show her up. And boy, does she ever – the terrible, humiliating things she’s done to Serena over the course of the series could fill up a book. There’s a reason articles tearing Serena apart usually end with praising Blair, hailed as Gossip Girl‘s “true Queen B.” Blair embodies a well-known fantasy: the intellectual, witty type who ends up with the most coveted guy and wins against the hot bitch. It also helps that she regularly shames Serena for her active sex life, as sexist female protagonists tend to carry more favour with the public.
Then there’s the fact that Evil is Cool. As I’ve argued elsewhere, our culture bows down to Asshole Characters: the manipulative, cunning sociopaths who boldly shock the do-gooders with their political incorrectness. Blair Waldorf fills pretty much every criteria on the Asshole Character Checklist: she lies and schemes the way other people breathe and has destroyed countless lives without a second thought. Serena, on the other hand, is nowhere near as cunning: she’s more foolish than she is villainous and hurts others out of impulsiveness rather than cruelty. Therefore, she is Not Cool.
Last but not least, women crave strong female protagonists. We’re tired of seeing women get relegated to the sidelines, allowed only to look beautiful in men’s shadow while occasionally quipping a clever line or two. We’re tired of men being overrepresented in the media and in politics and pretty much everywhere and still commanding respect while speaking absolute bullshit. We want to see women in power. Women who aren’t afraid to go after what they want, who shut up nay-sayers with witty one-liners, who pull the strings in the dark with a wicked smile while stroking their evil black cat. That’s why Blair Waldorf is so popular with female viewers: pulling the strings in the dark with a wicked smile is kind of her thing (minus the cat). She dominates the show like a ruthless empress, reigning over her cowering minions while destroying the livelihoods of those who displease her. She’s an asshole, sure – but I suspect that women will take what they can get. In the end, Blair Waldorf fulfils a much needed power fantasy.
By contrast, Serena is much more hesitant and sloppy. She’s not ambitious, she doesn’t know what she wants to do in life, and she’s dependent on men for… pretty much everything. It’s striking how often her character gets castigated for being flaky, undecided or weak-willed. We want to convince ourselves we’re not like this, so we collectively look down on the carefree party-goer who likes men a bit too much, while praising those female figures who appear theoretically autonomous. But not too autonomous, of course: Blair Waldorf, after all, remains devoted to Chuck Bass in spite of all the awful things he’s done to her because he loved her so. What matters is that female characters at least put up a pretense of being independent. That doesn’t happen with Serena.
Ultimately, Serena van der Woodsen functions as the ideal punching bag in a sexist culture that glorifies insensibility and assholery. The excessive hostility she inspires shows how society will gleefully lash out at women for petty reasons, especially the kind of women who are deemed acceptable targets for misogyny (sexy, carefree, party-loving…). It shows how the public will be quick to judge women’s perceived flaws much more harshly than they actually deserve, condemning them for weaknesses that, all things considered, should inspire some degree of compassion rather than animosity. Because it’s not a mortal sin to be lost in life, naïve or even stupid. It’s actually pretty damn human.
I’ll finish with the words of Susan Cox regarding another, infamous woman who serves as glorified hate-sink – one we surely know all too well:
In the end, Kim Kardashian actually does have a job, which I imagine is extremely difficult and taxing. (I’m exhausted just thinking about her job!) She is a professional bullseye, absorbing the misogynistic hatred of millions as an embodiment of hyperfemininity in all its subhuman, objectified glory. Considering this, it’s little wonder that, when asked how she feels about being “dethroned” by her 18-year-old sister, Kylie Jenner (who was groomed since childhood to do so), Kim replied, “I love it. Like, I love it.”