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Lifestyles of the rich and bratty

BY TRINA MANNINO
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 30, 2008

In the second season of “Gossip Girl,” Serena van der Woodsen tried to put an end to her queen bee persona. But after being the victim of a mean-spirited prank, the old Serena is back with a vengeance.

The producers of “Privileged,” “The Hills,” “90210” and “Gossip Girl” seem to think catty rich girls are the kind of people you might want to idolize. These shows follow the turbulent lives of wealthy young people. Teen shows aren’t original, but they continue to be popular because they sensationalize issues that are important to the demographic. But despite their success, the shows send the wrong messages to young people, touting the idea that they need to be beautiful and rich to be valued in our society.

The success of these shows depends on a simple formula: An attractive cast with mediocre acting abilities — containing actors who are, in reality, too old to play high-schoolers — combined with a pop soundtrack and ridiculous storylines. All of the shows have a similar premise with a few minor differences. “Gossip Girl” takes place in Manhattan while “90210” takes place in Beverly Hills. “The Hills” is a scripted reality show instead of an hour-long drama. Even with their logistical differences, the shows have the same basic premise.

Despite the lack of originality, kids gobble this shit up. The premiere of “Gossip Girl” this season brought in 3.4 million viewers, the highest ratings the CW has had in its short-lived history. Since its debut season in 2007, the cast has soared to the level of tabloid fame. Fans and paparazzi alike are obsessed with van der Woodsen’s (Blake Lively, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) and Dan Humphrey’s (Penn Bagdley, “John Tucker Must Die”) on and off-screen romances.

Even though these shows are basically carbon copies of each another, young people are fascinated by their subject matter. Jetting to San Francisco on private planes and attending parties that could rival the bashes on “My Super Sweet 16” is way more exciting than the average teen’s Friday night of hanging out in a friend’s basement, sipping Boones Farm out of plastic cups. The current crop of teen TV shows has effectively exploited this contrast between reality and fiction.

Some may argue these teen-orientated shows are just a means of escapism that allow girls — the main demographic target — to get up close and personal with exclusive social circles and their posh lifestyles. The female characters are depicted as materialistic and catty, not to mention dumbed down to attract the opposite sex. Let’s face it: Watching girls backstab one another and use people to get what they want is not cute or funny. Blair on “Gossip Girl” and Lauren on “The Hills” aren’t role models; they’re painful reminders of stereotypes girls shouldn’t strive to emulate.

“The Hills” has managed to continue for four years with a loyal following while its characters haven’t evolved and its plots haven’t changed. The show’s main character, 23-year-old Lauren Conrad, continues to act like an immature girl by picking fights, making up with her “frenemies” and dating douchebags. The show’s “realistic depiction” of a young woman’s shift from girl to adulthood is supposed to reflect the lives of girls in Conrad’s peer group, or at least in part. How many girls do you know who have their own clothing line and party with young Hollywood types? Sure, there are girls who live like that, but the majority of people don’t. The content in these shows lead young people to believe that superficiality and deceitfulness is a normal part of what it means to be a teenager.

Thankfully, TV has some redeeming characters, but strong and intelligent females are few and far between. Characters like Betty on “Ugly Betty” and Molly on “The Starter Wife” have their flaws but don’t conform to others’ expectations. Betty and Molly don’t intentionally hurt others for personal and professional gains, even if someone else has wronged them. Unlike Betty and Molly’s good consciences, Blair Waldorf on “Gossip Girl” is the queen of mean. If someone dares to wrong her, they better be ready for the social sabotage Blair has planned for them. Watching Blair out her ex-best friend Serena’s alleged drug problem in front of their whole school is like witnessing a train-wreck.

Shows like “Gossip Girl” aren’t going away anytime soon, and they shouldn’t be cast off all together. People of all ages watch frivolous TV to escape from everyday life, and these shows aren’t the only programs on that depict stereotypes or use sensationalism to attract viewers.

In high school, the need to fit in causes adolescents to become impressionable. Consequently, these shows will most likely have more of an influence on a teenager than a mature and independent adult. If a young girl watches “90210,” she isn’t automatically going to become the school’s biggest gossip queen. But in recent years, adults have become increasingly concerned about how young women interact with one another and project themselves in society. TV shows aren’t the only cause, but they can promote problematic behavior.