XOXO, Foucault: Gossip Girl and the Digital Panopticon

The final episode of the CW’s “Gossip Girl”  aired on Monday and pulled no punches with its twists and surprises. The writers did what they could to end the series (in a short ten episodes) and tie up loose ends by finishing its current storylines to a satisfactory, albeit semi-predictable conclusion. Their character’s trials and tribulations were neatly resolved by the episode’s end (with the classic flash forward motif often used in television finales) and everyone rode off into the sunset into years and years of happiness,wedded bliss, and financial security. As a sporadic viewer of the show, I couldn’t help but pick up on its unexpected side steps into psychoanalysis. Despite the show’s sub-par writing and inconceivable story lines, it grabbed and maintained our attention for six seasons, all the while alluding to a breadth of analysis that it may or may not have meant to conjure or deserve. 

The “Gossip Girl” webpage

First, a recap on what exactly “Gossip Girl” was. The show was co-created by Stephanie Savage and Josh Schwartz in 2007, based of off the hit young adult series of the same title. Schwartz, hot off of finishing another hit teen series, “The O.C”  developed a more ‘upmarket’ and elite television series following privileged and beautiful Upper East Side teenagers. The superior few include Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) the Queen Bee, Serena Van der Woodsen ( Blake Lively) Blair’s best frenemy and enfant terrible, Chuck Bass (Ed Westwick) the real-estate heir with daddy issues, Nate Archibald (Chace Crawford) member of a long and politically tainted dynasty that rival the Kennedys, and Dan Humphrey (Penn Badgley) the ‘outsider’ middle-class Brooklynite whom viewers are supposed to readily identify with. Together, the characters’ hijinks and messy relationships are documented via an anonymously run website “Gossip Girl”,  who thrives on tips sent in from her followers. Both Gossip Girl and Dan Humphrey are the viewer’s passports into the tight-knit ‘in crowd’ that Blair et. al occupy; Gossip Girl through her trolling website, and Dan through his own observations and literary missives (which are then published in his damning novel, Inside). All of their complicated arcs came to a close on Monday in true Shakespearean fashion: a death, a wedding (or two), and a revelation. If you have yet to see the finale and are eager to experience the twists first hand, you should probably stop reading right now.

The final and biggest revelation of the series has to be the discovery that Dan Humphrey is the mind behind Gossip Girl (despite the fact that Kristen Bell is the actress behind her voiceovers). In the final scenes, Dan reveals his secret as a means to win back the girl of his dreams, Serena, and thus finally be ‘in’ with the in crowd. Dan has long been the decided outsider of the group, who only wedges himself within them once he begins dating golden girl Serena in the beginning of the series. The writers’ decision to make Dan the architect of the website may seem like a hasty and obvious choice, but the deeper meaning of the ‘outsider’ as the all-powerful gatekeeper has a long history preceded by thinkers like Lacan and Foucault.


“The Gaze” is a  term first coined by the post-structuralist psychoanalyst  Jacques Lacan. The term refers to the hyper-awareness a subject feels when they realize they are visible objects. It also refers to the loss of autonomy a subject feels when they realize this visibility. The Gaze has come to mean the awareness one feels when they realize  that their actions are public, perceptible, and definable by others. Other academics have since added to the term and expanded its meaning to include genres like “The Male Gaze” in feminist post-structural writings and film analysis. Though the term has seen many interpretations, Michel Foucault’s adaptation of the Gaze as a commentary on surveillance will be the working definition that we’ll use to analyze Gossip Girl.

Foucault’s work Discipline and Punish, lays the groundwork for all subsequent studies of penal systems, from conceptualizations of surveillance to methods of incarceration. The oft referenced text notably introduces the idea of the “panopticon”, which combines Lacan’s image of the Gaze and Foucault’s own theories of surveillance. The panopticon refers directly to the design of prisons (and later schools, malls, factories, and cities) where the structure of the building is roughly circular with a large guard tower placed in the center. Inmates are rendered invisible from one another, cinder block walls separate their cells which face outwards, they also cannot see into the tower itself. However, the guard tower (the Gaze) can see and monitor every inmate, defining their existence within the prison. With the emergence of the Information Age, the panopticon image has shifted from the physical to discursive. The watcher or gazer, does not have to be physically present in order to be felt and define the behavior of others. Case in point: Gossip Girl.

An example of Foucault’s Panopticon prison

Gossip Girl represents the digital panopticon: an all-seeing presence that is not comprised of one direct viewer, but many people who contribute to the Gaze. In this way, the website (and show) break away from the Foucauldian panoptic archetype and into a system of ‘co-policing’ behavior (much like the MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” ad campaign); members of the ‘in crowd’ secretly submit tips to the website as a means of not only taking each other down, but upholding their narrative of supremacy. They trash talk and gossip as a means of reinforcing their worthiness to be trash talked and gossiped about. As Dan himself said in the final episode, “you’re no one until you’re talked about”.

Upper East Side ‘it-girl’ Serena

What are we to make of Dan Humphrey’s role as a secret insider? In a sense, Dan had been openly operating as Gossip Girl since the release of his Upper East Side tell-all expose (so, for at least two seasons). However, with his name attached to the novel, he became a traitor to the world he tried so desperately to be a part of and in so doing, was further relegated to the ‘outside’. Dan’s motivations for creating Gossip Girl are clear: he wanted to be inside and belong more than anyone else, so he created a way for each character to unknowingly rely or need him. However, with Gossip Girl being an anonymous presence, Dan was not free to enjoy his position as a rightful ‘insider’ despite all the knowledge he acquired. He had a narrative to maintain. In order for Dan to be both ‘in’ and reap its benefits (getting the girl of his dreams) Gossip Girl/the Gaze, must be destroyed. The revelation that this unassuming pedestrian Brooklynite was pulling the strings of the Upper East Side for four years must be acknowledged in order to shatter the narrative that every character was invested in. For Dan Humphrey, the only way in was out. Ironically, (or perhaps ingeniously?) Dan’s forthcoming novel, a sequel centering again around the Upper East Side, was titled Inside Out.


It’s hard to say whether the writers and creators of the series were aware of how much psychoanalytic theory defined the very fiber of the show. Whether we the audience (perhaps the biggest Gaze of all) were aware of the subtext, one thing’s for sure, we are currently operating in the narrative that the show both satirized and ushered along.  It’s first season came a year after Facebook became available to anyone with an email account, in so doing the show pointed to a sign of things to come: websites as watchdogs, Instagram, Tumblr, and a myriad of other digital platforms where we can be anonymously judged and defined by a Gaze of millions.

Consider the recent exodus of Instagram users after the app’s privacy terms changed. The company, who have a smartphone app that operates as a picture sharing service in a Tumblr-esque format, recently changed their terms of service to allow for the selling of user’s pictures whether consent is granted or not. Suddenly, smartphone users became aware that they are not only being watched, but sold. Of course, users knew that they were being watched on some level, (the purpose of the app is, after all, to show everyone how much fun you’re having, or how great your meals are) but this introduction of ‘judgement’ by an omnipresent  and deciding eye has shattered the idea that the app is for users only. With the new terms of service, the reciprocity of image sharing is destroyed. Buyers (whoever they are), sit safely in the guard tower invisible to others, while the users are expected to continuously take pictures, documenting their lives and validating their position as insiders.