"Gossip Girl": Threesome's a crowd?

Parents Television Council takes the show to task for pushing porny sex ... without seeing the episode in question

Published November 4, 2009 7:05PM (EST)

Get ready for a brand new scandal, from the folks who brought us Nipplegate. This time, conservative watchdog group the Parents Television Council is all atwitter about "Gossip Girl." Of course, the show has been raising parental eyebrows ever since its debut: It does, after all, feature a gaggle of rich, largely amoral teenagers who don't think twice about downing martinis and jumping into bed together. And the series has been on PTC's shit list for a while, with the organization claiming it "conveys the message that sex is a tool used to manipulate people."

Now, PTC has finally stumbled upon something it can really sink its teeth into. Those of you who have already seen the promo for next week's "Gossip Girl" episode (posted below) may remember that we've been promised a "3s0me." The ad shuffles through the (now mostly college-age) main characters' images like a slot machine, begging us to guess which trio will hook up. That's all we know about what's to come... and that seems to be all PTC knows, too. But that hasn't stopped them from writing a lengthy letter (reproduced in full at EW.com) to CW affiliates promising that there will be hell to pay if they air the episode in question.

The arguments are pretty much what you'd expect. Here are some highlights:

  • "To include a story line like this on a program that is expressly targeted to impressionable teenagers is reckless and irresponsible."
  • "When television portrays attractive, popular teenage characters as sexually active, it sends a powerful message to young viewers that they, too, should be sexually active and in fact, there might be something wrong with them if they aren’t."

  • "Gossip Girl routinely depicts teenage characters engaging in promiscuous and consequence-free sexual behavior, and that’s bad enough.  But will you now be complicit in establishing a precedent and expectation that teenagers should engage in behaviors heretofore associated primarily with adult films?  Behaviors that not only increase health risks, but which are emotionally and psychologically damaging to participants, as well?"

Oh, and in case PTC's implicit threat wasn't clear enough, the group offers the following helpful hint: "May I also remind you that it is the affiliate, not the CW network, that will bear the financial burden of an FCC fine should any of the content of the November 9th episode be found to violate broadcast decency laws." (I think the lack of a question mark at the end of that sentence pretty much speaks for itself.)

Am I the only one who finds it strange that PTC has so much to say about the episode, sight unseen? How do they know that the threesome in question will a) occur on-screen; b) be as sexually explicit as they fear; and c) actually come to fruition? TV promos are, after all, pretty well known for making mountains of molehills. And as for the idea that ménages à trois are a porn-only phenomenon, well... perhaps PTC should talk to some real college students for a reality check on that assumption.

Even if the episode is as bad as PTC assumes, what will pulling it accomplish? Despite being a "Gossip Girl" fan myself, I would never argue that the kids on the series  are great role models. But I also don't think censoring the show -- which attracts a sizable adult following --  is a particularly effective way of keeping teens safe. It's ridiculous to imagine we can (or should) shield high schoolers from any and all unsavory influences. What we can do is help them interpret the messages they're getting. With that in mind, parents might want to consider actually watching and discussing "Gossip Girl" with their kids. Sure, most episodes are a blur of pretty clothes and soap-opera plot points. Yet the series has also raised a slew of issues relevant to teens' real lives, from eating disorders to coming out of the closet to virginity loss. Hell, earlier this season "Gossip Girl's" debauched villain-turned-devoted boyfriend Chuck Bass kissed another man and was totally fine with it. ("Do you really think I've never kissed a guy before?" he asked his girlfriend.) Parents searching for an excuse to start a conversation with their offspring about homophobia or Gen Y's unprecedented sexual fluidity need look no further.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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