Cyberbullying was finally examined in Gossip Girl, the CW drama driven by a blog of the same name, touted as “your one-and-only source into the scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite,” this month. Though the high school student characters have posted rumors about one another and their parents for the past season and a half, threats of shutting down the site only popped up recently, in Episode 17 “Carrnal Knowledge,” which aired on February 2 and is still available online. What changed? This episode, the site targeted a teacher.
Accused of having sexual relations with a student, Ms. Carr reports the Gossip Girl blog to her boss, Headmistress Queller. The headmistress responds in three ways, all reminiscent of reactions by school authorities faced with critical, satirical, or hateful writing about their teachers online. Calling Blair, the student responsible for the rumor, into her office, Queller explains a familiar rationale: “This school has been aware of the Gossip Girl website for some time. Up until now the content has focused on students – the students haven’t complained, so we’ve turned a blind eye. However, now that a teacher has become involved, I have no choice but to deal with it.” On this blog, Sarah recently discussed the frequent application of this reasoning, and the results that follow.
But on the show, the plotline swings suddenly from the predictable crack-down to a more moderate consideration of the situation. At first, Queller tries to banish the problem by expelling Blair, effectively revoking her admittance into Yale. Though quick to expel Blair, the school administration does not take down Gossip Girl until conferring with the board. Parents attending the meeting express mixed concerns. Blair’s father argues, “This is a freedom of speech issue. The school cannot control what the students write on a public site.” But others consider the case slander, and want the site shut down. In the end, Queller decides in favor of Blair when she produces a photo that appears to prove the rumor’s truth. Blair un-expelled, Ms. Carr fired, and the website still going strong, the episode then ends with a smaller meeting between Queller and two parents. The headmistress decides to reverse the decision to fire Ms. Carr in order to avoid tarnishing her school’s reputation.
The themes at play in the episode – disciplining students for cruel rumors, protecting the freedom of speech, maintaining the prestigious school’s reputation, defining bullying of teachers, condemning the values gossip sites encourage, and questioning where those values find their origin – all feature in the current debates over censorship in schools and online.
The Lamp (Learning About Multimedia Project) recently emphasized the difference between Blair’s false rumor on Gossip Girl and the non-violent complaints about a teacher posted by Katherine Evans on Facebook. If only it were so simple. Gossip Girl is a user-generated content site, where some of the posts are true, some false, and others pure conjecture. These grounds would ideally lead students to question the content and avoid the site. But school administrators have no right to shut the entire blog down based on one post.
Last May, a student at The Dalton School in Manhattan ran a Gossip Girl-inspired blog whose history ended differently. New York Magazine and The New York Sun both covered the story. After bringing middle-schoolers to tears the site was shut down and, allegedly, the author expelled.
Gossip Girl is based on the Young Adult book series of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar, which made ALA’s Most Challenged Books of 2006 “for homosexuality, sexual content, drugs, unsuited to age group, and offensive language.”