Months ago I got a message from an old schoolyard chum, "It's our 10-year anniversary. Can you believe it?" The thought of a reunion had me super excited. We could flip through our high-school memories like flash cards. The time Ms. Dumoski taught an entire period of trig with her skirt tucked into her control tops and no one said anything. The time we stole Señora Para's grade book and then someone sent her a ransom note "written" in torn-out magazine letters. Scandal!
I know, not exactly the scintillating stuff of Gossip Girl—the CW's dangerously addictive teen soap opera that's a little 90210 and a lot Sex and the City. But as a black student on scholarship at an exclusive school in L.A., my private-school experience was nothing like that of Serena and Blair, the uber-entitled Upper East Side stars of GG. Critics have complained that Gossip Girl is glaringly, blindingly white. I, for one, am glad to be blinded.
When Gossip Girl premiered last year, Entertainment Weekly described the show's two minority characters—Isabel and Kati—as "practically mute, ostentatiously-dressed and subservient." The New York Daily News' "I Love to Watch" blog referred to "the twins," as Isabel and Kati were often called, as "the minority chicks who never say anything." The show's creator, Josh Schwartz of O.C. fame (another teen opera known for its homogenous cast), admitted that "weirdly" he "failed" to assemble a diverse ensemble in New York, a metropolitan melting pot if there ever was one. "I was working off of the source material," he explained.
He's got a point. At most private schools the non-white kids are rarely wrapped up in this rarefied world of two martini lunch periods and Page Six morning announcements that dominate the Gossip Girl set. It's not that black private school kids are all High School Musical and Saved by the Bell virtuous. But in general, they have less to fall back on and more to lose. Most just couldn't get away with acting out the way the rich white kids do.
At Pilgrim High School in downtown Los Angeles, where I went to school, only one of the 35 kids in my graduating class was white and privileged. The rest of us were scholarship kids from South Central L.A., first-generation kids who went to Korean school on Saturdays or black actors' kids with something to prove.
But even at east coast schools that more closely resemble the Gossip Girl demo, minority kids tend to fall outside the GG script. We "had a certain fear that should we get into too many fights, smoke too many joints, impregnate the wrong girl—our dream education could be taken away as quickly as it had been given to us," said India Birdsong, 27, who attended Brooks School, an elite prep school in North Andover, Mass.
Getting characters like Isabel and Kati right would require stepping outside the overarching construct for the show. It would require adding nuance and layers and whole storylines that might distract from S and B's constant battling, Nate's nice-guy with a bad last name routine or Chuck's conquests.
Isabel, a nearly invisible member of Blair's group of "mean girls" is now the one remaining non-white "regular" on the show. A search for quotables from Isabel, played by actress Nicole Fiscella, on the fan site Gossip Girl Insider, produced all of six hits— in seasons one and two.
There are plenty of things I want to know about Isabel Coates. Do her parents weigh her down with Ivy League ambitions? Does she hate always being the sidekick and never the scandal? Who does she want to get in the back of a limo with? Does she ever feel isolated or afraid or angry or all three? She's a teenager, so I'm going with yes. But let Gossip Girl tell it, Isabel is happiest when her mouth is closed.
Still, Isabel's vow of silence keeps her from being sucked into the hyperbolic universe of sex, drugs and Cocoa Puffs, commonly referred to as the Upper East Side. And that's not so bad. Not for her. And not for the young, black private school girls who might be compelled to act like her. Maybe keeping Isabel's character hopelessly bland is keeping some real life Isabels from getting kicked out of their fancy schools. Or getting grounded.
I'm not the only one who has mixed feelings about adding more color to the in-crowd. "I'd hate to see the black and Latino kids carrying on in the sex-crazed, drug-addicted 'fun' that seems to plague the show," said Cecilia Ramirez, 25, another Brooks alum. "But I think I'd equally cringe at the sight of seeing the token black kid as the captain of the football team wearing baggy jeans and saying 'Yo' at the beginning of every sentence. It's a tough call."
So, Entertainment Weekly was right to argue that slapping "on tired stereotypes to supporting characters is painfully out-of-touch and downright offensive." But simply giving Isabel more stupid things to say or more blonde-haired boys to do won't cut it either. Until the show decides to paint shades of gray in her black-girl-at-private-school experience, I'd rather she stay in the background.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.