Last week, Vanity Fair put out an article reexamining the iconic show Gossip Girl for its upcoming ten-year anniversary next month, and in it is an examination of the show's waning interest over its five-year run. This reopened an old wound of mine from when I watched the show two years ago ─ how awfully the show handled it's best character, Blair Waldorf.
Gossip Girl hinges on the fabulousness of it's characters, and this is especially true of the two main characters Serena van der Woodsen and Blair Waldorf. Two supposed best friends, they often find themselves at each other's throats, simply because each is entirely self-centered and oblivious to the other's needs. These young women are outrageously successful at the life of a socialite, each getting away with their own brand of bad behavior: Serena is a carefree party girl, sleeping with anyone and turning glamour into a career, while Blair is the manipulative bully, a self-appointed "Queen B" building an empire wherever she goes. In this manner, the two seem to be on almost equal footing. However, from a critical standpoint, Blair has always been the superior character.
Queen Bee Versus The World
There's something about Queen Bee that makes people root for her. In the first season, freshman Jenny Humphrey stumbles wide-eyed into the clutches of Blair Waldorf, and it seems everyone knows something bad is going to happen. However, we find ourselves on Blair's side, entranced by her beauty, style and utter fearlessness. More than anything, Blair is entirely in control of the situation, and one always gets the feeling that she will end up on top. There is a safety in her rule, a safety in knowing that she can exact revenge tenfold on her enemies.
This menacing reign is in stark contrast to Serena's effortlessly cool vibe, and this is very purposeful. Blair is meant to be the dark to Serena's light, but this contrast between the best friends only really works if they are both (relatively) self-aware, and each have depth to defy their stereotype as the show progresses. Here lies the problem with Serena: you aren't missing anything by just looking at her. She is little more than she appears to be ─ a beautiful girl who dances through life and ignores the misfortunes of others. She exchanges boyfriends regularly, thinks of her friends only when she's having a slow day and exhibits no hints of common sense or self-awareness throughout the series. Blair, on the other hand, knows she is evil. She embraces that evil, dominates with it and still manages to be a better friend than Serena in the process.
All this is the beginning of a compelling character, with Leighton Meester playing her deftly. Yet by the time the series was stumbling it's way through the final ten episodes, her flaws and quirks had been reduced to a love interest with very little complexity. So what went wrong?
Don't Mind Me, I'm Just Here For Plot Convenience
One of the show's biggest mistakes was investing too much time in Serena: they created an indomitable warrior in Blair, and then realized around Season 2 that she had to be dominated, if only so that Serena could profit from it. Season 2 has the feuding pair visit Yale's campus, and while Serena charms the Dean of Admissions, Blair kisses his cheek in a panic and leaves herself worse-off. This was a plot line adapted from the books, in which Blair ends up going out repeatedly with the (younger and more attractive) Dean. The show instead put Blair in one of her worst outfits and made her seem socially inept, while the Blair of Season 1 could have handled the situation seamlessly and probably embarrassed Serena in the process.
This is the pattern for the rest of the series: Blair loses her handle on her group of friends, Blair can't go to Yale, Blair is shown up by Jenny Humphrey, Blair embarrasses herself at a party. The introduction of an all-powerful Blair is continually undermined as the show threw her and her character development to the wolves in attempts to bolster the plot lines of Serena, Jenny, Vanessa, Georgina and Juliet.
Chuck And Blair's Glorious Toxicity
The worst offender for ruining Blair's character might be her portrayal as a love interest. While many herald her and Chuck's first night together as the moment they fell in love with the show, it was also the beginning of a slow demise for Blair's independence. Throughout the first season and some of the second, Blair does put up with a lot of terrible behavior from Chuck, but she still maintains an ounce of control in the relationship. By the time we make it to the end of Season 2, Blair's entire identity has been wrapped up in her relationship with Chuck. Her primary goal for much of a season is to get Chuck to say he loves her, and this is an obsession that leads to the horrific events of Season 3.
What is often referred to as "the hotel incident" might the shocking event that ripped apart Chuck and Blair's relationship, but a closer examination will reveal that this is simply the most extreme in a long pattern of Chuck taking advantage of Blair's devotion to him. In Season 3, we see Blair fail in most of her pursuits outside of Chuck, all the while he develops more as a character. While there is a short victory when Blair breaks up with him at Dorota's wedding (that scene still makes me cry), the show reverses that progress in a repulsive way when she "follows her heart" and agrees to forgive him, despite him showing almost no understanding or regret towards his actions. I could delve into the later seasons of Louis/Blair and Dan/Blair, but the issues with those relationships are so obvious I shouldn't need to. Besides, by that point, Blair as an individual is practically non-existent.
(I do still enjoy the Chuck/Blair storyline, and I find the most beautiful scenes in the whole series are between them. However, I have to compartmentalize a lot just to sit through most of those scenes.)
The Character That Might Have Been
It's worth noting that Gossip Girl never showed much consistency in its script, so it might be asking too much of them to have Blair reach her full potential as a character. Still, 10 years after the fact and reading quotes from the show's writers and creators, it's notable that none seem to have taken notice of the mistakes made with Blair. Not only was the writing of her character disturbing from a feminist perspective, it's problematic that she was used so carelessly as a plot device. The show offers her no loyalty or respect. With a show like Gossip Girl, when the central characters are so outrageously out of the ordinary, it's important that they are both critiqued and considered as real, consistent people. A character with as much potential as the fabulous Blair Waldorf deserved more careful work that simply being well-dressed. (Although her clothes really are impeccable.)
(Source: Vanity Fair)