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The new ‘Gossip Girl’ is supposed to be woke — so why won’t it discuss racism?

“You know you missed me — XOXO.”

So read a sign trailing behind an airplane flying over Rockaway Beach last weekend. It was mysterious, but almost any millennial woman would know instantly what it was about.

“Gossip Girl,” the hit 2007 show about wealthy New York City teens cheating on each other and drinking martinis, is back.

There’s been a lot of buzz about the return of “Gossip Girl.” Where the original series highlighted the casual immorality and astonishingly careless behavior of the white, old-money families of the Upper East Side, the reboot has consciously billed itself as woke. The two main characters, feuding half-sisters named Julien (Jordan Alexander) and Zoya (Whitney Peak), are both Black, and several other main characters are people of color. A few of them are queer. They throw around terms like “the patriarchy” and “gentrification,” and support unionization efforts.

Yet the attempt to bring diversity and social justice to “Gossip Girl” misses the mark. The new show fails to engage with systemic racism, the social issue that would arguably have the greatest impact on its diverse cast. And it takes itself too seriously to be fun. It’s true that wealth has changed since the show’s launch in 2007. But the characters’ shortsightedness and total lack of care for the plebeian masses is what made the original show delightfully despicable — and so absurd it was lovable.

Julien, left, and Zoya face off.

Julien, left, and Zoya, right, face off. Courtesy of HBOMax

The reboot takes place at the same Upper East Side high school as the original, a fictional prep school called Constance Billard, and most of the characters map neatly onto the original cast — the queen bee and her minions, the outsider, the perfect couple who is secretly having problems, the bad boy who sleeps around. Gossip Girl, the anonymous figure who reveals secrets from the students’ lives, is resurrected on Instagram. This time, the first episode reveals, its run by the school’s teachers.

What makes the reboot most different from its predecessor is its characters self-awareness, which notably only extends so far. Students and teachers and students alike grapple with their privilege constantly. “Ever heard of the guilty rich? This one’s the guiltiest,” says one of her boyfriend. It’s heavy-handed, and a bit didactic, although it’s true that the nature of wealth has changed since the original show.

“In 2007, there wasn’t Zillow where you could see how much your parents paid for your apartments,” explained Joshua Safran, the reboot’s showrunner, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Now, 9-year-olds can go online and find out who donated to the Republican Committee. That really shifted a lot of dynamics for the teens on this show, because they are aware.”

Yet while financial and class privilege is central to the new series, white privilege is merely a passing reference.

“These posts are like a lost Edith Wharton novel,” comments one teacher while reading the original Gossip Girl blog. “And just as white,” quips another, symbolically patting themselves on the back for how diverse the reboot is.

But despite the characters’ references to white privilege, they never discuss the marginalization of people of color that comes with it.

The original show was very white, yes, but in a way it was more honest about it. Vanessa, its one Black character, was openly a social outcast, although other characters claim it’s because she’s “from Brooklyn.” And while the show was surprisingly — and inaccurately — devoid of Jewish characters given its Upper East Side setting, it approached the issue head-on when one finally appeared, as Blair’s stepdad. Admittedly, his Judaism functioned largely as a sign of how undesirable he was, and how little he belonged, but at least the show reflected some of the unpleasant realities of being Jewish in an aggressively WASPy world.

Queen bee Julien, right, with one of her minions.

Queen bee Julien, right, with Monet (Savannah Lee Smith), left. Courtesy of HBOMax

In the reboot, there’s no such acknowledgment. There’s a character who might be Jewish — Max Wolfe, a rule-breaking, prescription drug-abusing sex addict — but we’ll likely never know, because these characters would never discuss someone’s Jewishness, or Blackness, or race and ethnicity at all. The closest thing we see is Zoya, who is positioned as an outsider, carrying a “Black Owned” tote bag.

Apparently, the show suggests, high society has become so perfectly accepting of racial diversity — even as it continues to bully and exclude based on money and looks and popularity, as if those things are unconnected from race — that Black women, Asian men and Jews, among others, are smoothly integrated in a way they couldn’t have been in 2007.

It’s a strange message for a show that has trumpeted its diversity efforts, because it’s so detached from reality. Wealthy, exclusive, historically white private schools are, in fact, still a realm of legacy admissions for old white families.

Yes, systemic racism is a lot for a soapy teen drama to take on. But this iteration of “Gossip Girl” is already far out of its frothy original element. If the kids are going to discuss power dynamics in every other context, it seems absurd that they wouldn’t approach issues of systemic racism. The last year of racial justice protests and discourse have reminded us that racism affects every part of American life, including the games of wealth and social standing that dominate the world of “Gossip Girl.” Not to mention the fact that the reigning queen bee of a historically white prep school is Black is a glaring omission.

Of course, you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion in polite society. Perhaps discussing racism is considered gauche now too.

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