There I was, minding my own business on Monday night, when I noticed “Jenny Humphrey” from “Gossip Girl” became a trending topic on Twitter, i.e., something everyone is tweeting about. Jenny Humphrey, of course, is the precocious 16-year-old budding fashion designer from Brooklyn, played by Taylor Momsen. With her older brother, Dan, young Jenny attends a fancy Upper East Side prep school; she just wants to be accepted by the rich kids, who dismiss her as a social climber. I clicked on the trending topic and saw hundreds of tweets saying things like, “Jenny Humphrey is a ho!” and “I hate Jenny Humphrey, she’s such a skank!”
Clearly, this involved further investigation. Now, I should confess I have a love/hate relationship with “Gossip Girl.” I always knew it would be a fun, trashy, nighttime soap — like “Beverly Hills 90210″ for the FaceBook generation — but starting with its very first episode, the way “Gossip Girl” treated its female characters gave me conniption fits. One of the very first blog posts I ever wrote was on Huffington Post about the use of the word “slut” on the show when it comes to the female characters. “Slut” this, “slut” that — make no bones about it, the sexually active main character, Serena van der Woodsen (played by Blake Lively), was a big ol’ whore. Yet, the “bad guy” character Chuck Bass (played by Ed Westwick) is way more promiscuous than Serena and has never been called a slut. What’s more, Chuck tried to rape at least two female characters so far and has never had the word “rapist” applied to him, to my knowledge. In other words, if you look up “double standard” in the dictionary, you will find three seasons worth of “Gossip Girl” episodes.
And still, Monday night’s episode takes the cake when it comes to messed-up messages about teen girls and sex. Over the show’s run, Jenny Humphrey has become a bit of a “bad girl” character herself — conveyed, of course, by copious amounts of black eye shadow. On Monday night, her father is fed up with her defiance. She’s getting sent out of the city, away from bad influences, to move in with her mother in the suburbs. Jenny, of course, is, like, “whatever, I don’t care.”
So she heads over to her friend Nate’s place. Nate isn’t home — he is busy dealing with his girlfriend Serena, who has kissed Jenny’s older brother, Dan — but Chuck Bass is. Chuck is upset because he thinks he has lost his girlfriend forever. So, naturally, these two decide to wallow in their despair together; they have a pseudo-intellectual conversation about learning things “the hard way.” He shares his liquor with her and they kiss.
Things start to get nefarious, quickly. In the next scene, Jenny is lying on Chuck’s bed looking resigned about having sex, which is what Chuck tells her is going to happen if she stays: “If you want to leave, now would be the time.” To which Jenny says, “I don’t want to be alone.” In the next scene, they’ve obviously slept together and he charitably informs her that she can spend the night, instead of kicking her out like all the other girls. (Jenny later leaves of her own volition when Chuck’s paramour shows up, but not before ripping the blood-stained sheets off the bed.)
All of this is not ideal, but, hey, sometimes the circumstances of losing your virginity are not ideal. But the way “Gossip Girl” writers handled how Jenny feels about losing the V-card were inexcusable. She’s sitting in a hospital chapel — one of the other characters had a baby — when her stepbrother and best friend, Eric, discovers her sobbing. Black eye makeup smeared all over her face visually conveys what a mess she is. She tells him she lost her virginity with Chuck (not her ex-boyfriend, because she wanted it to be “special”) and Eric tries to tell her everything is going to be OK. She doesn’t believe him. Jenny shrieks at Eric to leave her alone, so he runs to find her brother, Dan, to tell him Jenny is upset. The next thing we know, Chuck Bass is getting punched in the face by Dan, for reasons that are not entirely clear other than Chuck slept with his little sister. At that exact moment, her father shows up (of course) and she falls onto his shoulder, sobbing. By the show’s end, she’s boarding a train out to the suburbs to stay with her mom. (Because, you know, you can’t make bad decisions in the ‘burbs.)
To be sure, plenty of teenagers regret how their virginity went down or choose to have sex for bad reasons. But it appears on “Gossip Girl” that having consensual sex once is enough to make a ruined woman out of you. It sends extremely messed-up messages about girls and sex when Jenny’s first response is sobbing with regret and her older brother arrives, riding in like a white knight, to hurt the guy who slept with her. Really, is it too much to ask that a female character on “Gossip Girl” loses her virginity without hellfire raining down upon her?
Given all the slut-shaming of Jenny, I’m surprised — sincerely surprised — none of the other characters on the show called her a slut.
Oh, but I forgot: everyone on Twitter just thought Jenny was a “ho.”