For the "Gossip Girl" and "Sex and the City" reboots to work, they must learn from past mistakes

Both shows must reckon with racism and general problematic-ness from their original iterations

Published June 7, 2021 6:43PM (EDT)

Original casts for "Gossip Girl" and "Sex and the City" (Photo illustration by Salon/HBO/CW)
Original casts for "Gossip Girl" and "Sex and the City" (Photo illustration by Salon/HBO/CW)

If the resurgence of popular '90s and 2000s fashion trends hasn't made it abundantly clear that this is the era of nostalgia, look no further than the much-hyped reboots of HBO's "Sex and the City," which ran from 1998 to 2004, and the CW's "Gossip Girl," from 2007 to 2013. 

The "Gossip Girl" reboot is set to air next month, while the "Sex and the City" sequel series, called "And Just Like That," has yet to receive a release date. Both shows will pick up years after where their original iterations left off, although unlike "And Just Like That," the new "Gossip Girl" will feature an entirely new cast of actors and characters, attending the same elite private schools in the Upper East Side as their predecessors.

As two of the most iconic TV franchises set in New York City, both reboots could be some of the most hotly anticipated new shows this year. But as they relaunch in a transformed political and cultural milieu from when they first aired, both shows have their work cut out for them to not make the same mistakes on race, class, and other identity-related matters. 

For those who haven't watched the original "Gossip Girl," which made stars out of main cast members Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford, and others, I'll let the summary of the series, from when the show was on Netflix, speak for itself: "Rich, unreasonably attractive private school students do horrible, scandalous things to each other. Repeatedly." The "Gossip Girl" reboot takes place in the present day, 13 years after the show first aired, with a notably more diverse cast of fresh faces taking on the elusive Gossip Girl in the age of social media.

As for the original "Sex and the City," the classic HBO series followed the unfiltered dating lives of four, 30something, female best friends living in New York City, each with personalities so distinct that more than 20 years since the show first aired, women around the world still identify as "Carries," "Samanthas," "Charlottes" or "Mirandas." "And Just Like That" follows the women's shared friendship now that they're in their fifties — sans Samantha (Kim Cattrall), who has not-so-secretly been in conflict with Sarah Jessica Parker, who plays Carrie, for years.

What worked 15 to 20 years ago, however, isn't necessarily going to work now — this means it will be crucial for both reboots to reconsider how they've previously portrayed matters of class, race, and gender and sexuality, and adapt to where we are today. Here are Salon's hopes for how these shows can make the reboots fit our modern sensibilities.

Addressing their class privilege problems

If either reboot is going to make it in a time of increasingly — and justified — anti-capitalist sentiment, stemming from rising, massive economic inequities, they'll have to sharply reexamine their portrayals of class from their original versions. The original "Gossip Girl" curiously functioned as both scathing critique and perpetuation of class privilege, somehow poking fun at and condemning the teens' exorbitant wealth, while also calling on audiences to sympathize with them. The entire premise of "Gossip Girl" is to give ordinary people a glimpse into the lives of problematic, ultra-wealthy young people, and it certainly delivers. But there are a couple problems the reboot should avoid — namely, presenting rich people who do horrible things and get away with it as something we should cheer for. Think: Serena van der Woodsen's (Lively) mother's avoidance of prison-time for lying that a boarding school had raped Serena in season 4, or Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) avoiding accountability for his creepy, predatory treatment of women and girls — whenever the main characters used wealth, privilege and connections to dodge accountability, this was treated as something fans should celebrate. 

Another glaring blindspot of the original "Gossip Girl" is the portrayal of the Humphrey family as poor and relatable, despite how Dan (Badgley) and Jenny (Taylor Momsen) are the children of a former rockstar who can afford a giant Brooklyn loft. Hopefully, the new "Gossip Girl" will A) not glorify how economic privilege allows the ultra-wealthy to perpetually evade consequences, and B) accurately portray its token relatable, middle-class characters as actually middle class. 

While "Sex and the City" wasn't overtly about class privilege, the show's premise certainly wouldn't be possible without it. Charlotte (Kristin Davis) comes from tremendous generational wealth, while Carrie (Parker) simply has an unrealistic amount of money for a weekly newspaper sex columnist with some pretty asinine takes. Carrie is somehow able to afford hundreds of designer shoes from writing one article per week. Hopefully, "And Just Like That" will be more honest about the economic realities of working in media, and the infamous NYC cost of living.

We need stories that meaningfully tackle racial identity

When it comes to race and representation, both shows are glaringly nearly entirely white, a setup that's no longer tolerated in 2021. While both reboots have announced the casting of several people of color, it will be crucial for these characters' racial identities to be explored in a meaningful way beyond being token best friends. For example, in "Gossip Girl," Chuck and Nate (Crawford) both have relationships with Raina (Tika Sumpter), a Black woman, but the implications of her identity in a predominantly white social scene are never even touched upon. Similarly, Vanessa (Jessica Szohr), a main character in the early seasons, is biracial, and her racial identity in a world of white wealth is never explored, either.

In "Sex and the City," it's simple: the show is about rich white women with rich white women problems. The few times the show wades into race are all cringe-inducing — especially in Season 3, when Samantha says, "I don't see color. I see conquests," of a Black man she's interested in.

As the adaptation of Netflix's "Bridgerton" showed, putting more characters of color on the screen doesn't happen in a vacuum, and how the show deals with race is also crucial to better representation.

We need queer representation — and less problematic relationships, in general

On gender and sexuality, both original series are rife with their own problems they should take care to avoid in reboots. "Sex and the City," in particular, was repeatedly biphobic, with Carrie dumping a male partner for being bisexual, and dismissing bisexuality as a new, young people's trend. Later, the women are shocked and disapproving of Samantha's relationship with a woman, and even initially dismiss it as a ploy for attention. In one Season 3 episode, Samantha misgenders and treats a group of neighborhood Black trans women particularly atrociously, supposedly for comedic effect. Meanwhile, the show's sole, queer supporting characters are two rich, white men who are basically caricatures of '90s and 2000s stereotypes about gay men.

To its credit, "Gossip Girl" portrays an openly gay leading support character (Connor Paolo) who's fully embraced and supported by those around him, and has several normal, healthy romantic relationships. But to fully live up to where we are today, the "Gossip Girl" reboot should feature queer identity and relationships beyond the tangential — which its writers are already promising they'll deliver. And, speaking of romance and relationships, hopefully the reboot will no longer romanticize adult men and even teachers dating or hooking up with high school students, this time around. 

"Gossip Girl" and "Sex and the City" are two of the most well-known and beloved shows of the late '90s and 2000s, synonymous with fashion, glamour and biting, witty dialogue. But both shows are also products of their time — a time of little to no quality representation of people of color and LGBTQ folks. But today, amid increasingly deadly wealth inequality, an uprising for racial justice, and rapid proliferation of anti-trans state legislation, these franchises can't afford to make the same mistakes in their highly anticipated reboots. 

"Gossip Girl" will begin streaming on HBO Max on July 8. HBO has yet to announce a release date for "And Just Like That."

By Kylie Cheung

Kylie Cheung is a staff writer at Salon covering culture. She is also the author of "A Woman's Place," a collection of feminist essays. You can follow her work on Twitter @kylietcheung.

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