Culture

Breeding Envy

The new kid and parent ideals in Gossip Girl.

By Vanessa Richmond, 3 Sep 2008, TheTyee.ca

Gossip Girl cast

Cast of new hit TV drama Gossip Girl.

"Unlike the rest of us, sex lies and scandal never take a vacation, instead they take the Long Island Expressway and head east to the Hamptons," says the narrator on the season two opener of Gossip Girl. But unlike in Gossip Girl, many people are taking a permanent vacation from breeding, and the show provides one clue as to why.

As I look around at my friends who have adorable spawn, what strikes me is what a good job they're doing, but also how they're consumed by an ever-increasing list of things they should be but aren't doing and buying for their kids. It's a list that no one but those with abundant time and money can even hope to stay on top of -- like, say, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. If you don't want to join 'em, you can beat 'em by shunning mainstream values and expectations, but then you run the risk of being called a bad parent, possibly the worst slur there is.

I think it's one of the main reasons that breeding is in danger of becoming a spectator sport for the middle class. In the U.S., the birth rate is still high enough to replace the population at 2.09 babies per woman, but in Canada, it's at 1.53 and falling. And in both countries, the middle class is playing well below the average.

Silver spoons mandatory

Until the 1970s, says Nathanael Lauster, a professor of sociology at UBC, the expectations for what was required to be a good parent were that neither parent was still attending high school, that they had their own household (which just means they no longer lived with their parents, though renting or owning were equally OK, as was living in an apartment or house), that the man was employed and that his income was enough to provide for a stay-at-home mother (rarely inconceivable, ahem). And if you could meet those expectations, you were qualified.

Now, "we have defined upward the kind of staging required to be a parent; it's increasingly tied to affluence," says Lauster. Potential parents need to be able to not only afford daycare (which in Vancouver is around $1200 a month, if you can get a place) or a nanny, expensive kid gear like strollers and fashionable baby clothes and the keys to their own house. There's a growing expectation that one parent will take a year off work, and given the cost of living and housing, that means an even higher level of affluence is required. "Until you can afford this list of things, you're not ready," says Lauster, which means more people put off parenting until later or forever. And, if you do have kids, the list of expectations continues to grow with them.

So it's no wonder that viewers are glued to Gossip Girl. In addition to having the most compelling (kind-hearted) bitch on TV, some of the best writing around, fantastically soapy drama, perfect half-sincere and half-satirical tone and great music, Gossip Girl epitomizes the new ├╝ber-consumerist kid-raising ideal.

Inside the old girls' network

The narrative, according to Lauster, is that as a parent, your job is to help your kids in every way, and money is essential to doing that. In the season two opener, Jenny Humphries, who comes from the wrong side of the bridge (a large, loft apartment in Brooklyn), has an internship with a prominent fashion designer (all the rich kids bypass Manhattan's internships, spending the summer in Europe and the Hamptons). That designer doesn't even remember her name and brushes off Jenny's attempt to show her one of Jenny's own designs. So she calls on her friend to take her to the very exclusive White Party in the Hamptons, to which the designer also has an invite. After that, the designer calls her by name and looks her in the eye. Message: hard work and talent is a dime a dozen; respect and opportunity are pricey.

Believe it or not, this is a shift for teen soaps. On Beverly Hills 90210, which started in 1990, the kids were from the wealthiest zip code in the U.S., but went to public school, wore cringe-worthy '90s fashion like any other North American kid (including me), and generally acted like "normal" kids. Message: all kids are the same; some just live in bigger houses. (This certainly isn't the cultural backdrop of the new 90210 spinoff that premiered last night.

In The O.C., which started in 2003, and featured kids in a very expensive suburb of L.A., the kids went to private school but didn't wear uniforms. Some of the kids were into designer clothes, while others who wore jeans and sneakers and were considered equally cool: it was just about personal preference. Seth Cohen (played by Adam Brody) got into an Ivy League university, and there was never a discussion of whether the family would have to sell their house to pay for it, but everyone was equally impressed by his foray into comic book writing. And his family took in a kid from the wrong side of the tracks and let him live in the pool house. Message: money can help you help your normal kids.

Complex trysts and lots of sex

In Gossip Girl, the kids are gorgeous and have their own apartments, drivers, closets full of couture and reservations at Manhattan's most exclusive restaurants. They throw costume balls to which they wear gorgeous clothes and drink martinis and in which no parent is present. They have complex trysts and lots of sex. It's Sex and the City without the whining, wrinkles or work -- which helps explain its big non-teen audience -- and money is key to all of it. As Leighton Meester, who plays charming but eviscerating bitch Blair Waldorf, put it in a recent interview, "I think that Blair is what a lot of people wish they could be." Message: without money, you're nothing.

But very interestingly, the show also picks up on what Lauster says is the current counter-narrative -- good parenting takes money, but rich people make lousy parents. In this show, they are absent, neglectful and selfish (and are all about 35, but that's another story). And most of the kids shake their heads and sigh when they talk about their lame parents' silly mistakes, fourth marriages and loveless lives -- poor, sweet dears, they just get it so wrong.

In TV world, middle-class is radical

The only good parent on the show is the bohemian, middle class, single dad. Rufus Humphrey (played by Matthew Settle) knows about his kids' school and personal lives and gives excellent advice, but doesn't pry or try to be their friend. He sets limits and even grounds them, but is always there for them and even cooks every meal. On the second season's opener, when he's on tour with his band, he calls both kids every day; whereas, we don't even see the other kids' parents. We're never told how he procures "the best" for his kids -- i.e. private school and access to the privileged world. But maybe it's just that he's such a good dad, he also knows magic. Which is ironic, because in this breeding environment, Rufus Humphries -- with his middle class parenting values -- is exactly the kind of guy who's not doing the ultimate human magic trick of reproducing himself.

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