One of the more intriguing facets of Gossip Girl’s narrative structure is its reinforcement of the idea of the panopticon.
The panopticon, originally conceived by architect Jeremy Betham, is a circular prison structure in which prisoners can be watched without them seeing the person watching them. Michel Foucault famously deconstructed the philosophy behind the panopticon in Discipline and Punish, but many people will recognize it in a more literary context—that of George Orwell’s Big Brother.
In Gossip Girl, it’s not Big Brother who’s watching, it’s Big Sister, speaking to us (the audience) in the purring, confidential voice overs provided by Kristen Bell. But there are a few important differences between Big Sister and the panopticon:
1. Gossip Girl doesn’t actually watch anyone herself
2. Gossip Girl doesn’t report what she sees, she reports what she knows.
It’s true. Gossip Girl is the twenty-first century version of Big Brother because she deals in knowledge, which in the reality of the show is the ultimate currency, trumping even the enormous trust funds of its denizens. Gossip Girl’s free influx of information comes from her army of watchers—her loyal readers—who can be anyone.
Although Gossip Girl is the enforcer of what is “good” behavior and what is “bad” (although her definitions tend to be in alignment with contemporary society’s), she isn’t simply an enforcer. She is also a tool, an elegant, sophisticated form of punishment various main characters use to serve their own sense of justice. Blair is the most notable user of Gossip Girl as a tool for retribution, sending her juicy tidbits on her friends to pay them back for their perceived misdeeds. Unlike Big Brother, Gossip Girl doesn’t just enforce societal codes; instead, she enforces justice.
Justice is a malleable ideal. It’s more than simply “wrong” or “right.” As a friend of mine once told me, evil people never conceive themselves as committing acts of evil. The human conscience requires justification—a ha! justice—in order to act. Jacques Lacan referred to this as “passage l’acte” (permission to act); the lack of it is essentially what keeps “good” people from stealing, committing murder, etc.
In Gossip Girl, justice often entails facilitating someone getting their comeuppance for being too upwardly mobile, too downwardly mobile, too self-righteous, or too hypocritical. It’s this last crime, the crime of hypocrisy, that is most widely enforced. In the world of Gossip Girl, there is no greater transgression than to criticize one person’s behavior and then commit it yourself.
And really, what’s so wrong about that?