“Gossip Girl” is a popular television show many of my friends binge watch on Netflix. As a fifth grader, I started watching the series live and followed the dramatic lives of high school aged Manhattan Elite, never missing an episode. On a lazy summer afternoon, after scrolling through Netflix with no luck, I decided to re-watch the first episode.

The pilot started and it was just like the good old days. It was as entertaining and dramatic as I remembered. I was comfortable with the characters and the storyline so I didn’t really have to pay attention. That is, until a scene where a female character was sexually assaulted by a male character. I was shocked. I didn’t remember this scene or anything of its nature on the show. I continued watching the episode, but again there was another scene with the same male character sexual assaulting another female character. This time I was alarmed.

I was disgusted and could not continue to watch the next episode. In anger, I began searching online to find what others thought after re-watching the pilot and found many mixed feelings. Some people just noticed, brushed it off and decided to focus on the parts they loved while others pinpointed all the reasons the show is bad for young women. With these different reactions in mind, I found myself wondering should I continue to watch shows that I enjoy even if they have messages that I do not support?

When I look back at some of my favorite shows, movies and music, they have underlying messages of misogyny through the actions of characters or the words of the lyrics. I’m aware of this and I think the first step is noticing the inequalities in our society that are portrayed in our media. But as a young person, I did not notice this when watching “Gossip Girl” for the first time.

Last winter in my developmental psychology class, my professor shared her findings on how adolescents learn by observing behaviors and attitudes from their media. This means, whether I was aware of it or not, I was learning about sexuality, gender and sexual relationships by watching programs like “Gossip Girl”. Now, in hindsight, that proves extremely problematic.

As young people, we so easily learn from our media. Thus, seeing storylines of sexual assault unfold time and time again can teach us, particularly in our youth, that this is how the world works. In the past, I’ve had experiences or heard stories from my friends about instances that I now know may not have been totally consensual. But when these experiences happened, we felt like it was positive because we learned from our world and the media that if a man was giving us attention, it was good.

This doesn’t mean I have to stop watching these shows but I’m not sure how I am supposed to enjoy them. Now, I’m actively choosing to find media with messages that empower me instead of reinforcing internalized misogynistic thoughts and actions. I try to find media that promotes a positive self-image and strong female relationships that are not always about what women think of men. For example, I have been watching “Broad City” and listening to songs by hip-hop artist Lizzo.  

We don’t need media that makes us feel inadequate or insecure. Explore new types of music. Watch shows and movies about things you normally wouldn’t have in past. Fall in love with new characters that are different from you. Listen to lyrics that make you feel good in your body. As adults, by understanding that the kind of media we consume impacts us, we have the agency to choose what we consume.


Ellery Rosenzweig can be reached at erosenz@umich.edu.

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