Is there anyone besides the Parents' Television Council who looks to Gossip Girl for moral messages? We hope not, because when it comes to virginity, rape and consent, including in last night's finale, the show's confusing and pretty fucked up.
Gleaning a prescriptive moral code from this show, with its densely interlocked family trees and sexual dalliances, its ironic winks and self-consciously clever writing, might sound, well, futile. And yet it is clear that certain things matter in the Gossip Girl world that are pretty stable and that also matter in other cultural spheres.
One subject of unambiguous import: Losing your virginity. For all of the casual sex on Gossip Girl, that if you're a good girl, you want to save it for something special. Bad girls like Serena — who even remembers her first time? But Blair obsesses over losing her virginity and does so drunkenly in a limo, but it's okay because she and Chuck are meant to be together, and also he asked permission first. As for Jenny — the innocent girl corrupted by the big city over the course of all three seasons so far — her virginity manages to remain intact until — spoiler alert — last night.
Chuck's sleek, louche badness is a central motif of the show, but you have to be able to like him to care about his romance with the conniving but ultimately soft-hearted Blair. You have to forget that in the very first episode of the very first season, he tried to rape Jenny.
This was treated pretty straightforwardly at the time: she yells no and for him to stop, he's pushing her down. This is not what some people call "gray rape." And yet after that, the writers seemed to have no idea how to deal with it, and ignored the plotline for a year or more. He did apologize to Jenny in the second season, saying, "I deeply regret my actions of that night" and promises to stay out of her way. You see, having a non-regretful rapist around is rather inconvenient.
In the ensuing seasons, Chuck's cartoonish libido remained, but the writers took care of the issue of consent by making the sex mostly anonymous and, apparently, entirely transactional. The central tension of his character becomes not whether he'll have sex, but whether it will mean something because he will have shed his armor and opened his heart.
Jenny, on the other hand, manages to do any number of quintessential bad-girl things — lie, betray her friends and family, deal drugs, take sexy pictures while wasted, get roofied by a mean girl and almost get raped by some investment bankers — while still holding on to her v-card. True, Serena is also considered a bad girl on the show, when the writers remember. But for whatever reason — her relative youth, or lack of golden girl status or pedigree — Jenny is the only one who is truly considered damaged.
What makes her see the error of her ways? What is the final straw that makes her repent and leave the wicked ways of Manhattan? Having sex, plainly consensual, and regretting it.
Having withstood the pressure this season of her drug dealer Eurotrash boyfriend, the final straw for Jenny in last night's episode is being told no one will love her except maybe her father, and maybe not even him. Since she has nothing else left to lose, she loses her virginity.
In the above scene, Jenny is offered an explicit opt-out clause, and while she doesn't seem that enthusiastic about sex with Chuck, she clearly decides to stay without coercion.
Regret begins to set in, as we can see from her body language here.
But then the men in her life swoop in to protect her wronged honor: her stepbrother, and her real brother. She wanted it to be special.
Somehow, regret at her actions turns into Chuck getting punched in the face (again!) by Dan, and Dan seething that it's all Chuck's fault, and that Jenny bears no responsibility here.
Why is this so much more traumatizing than Chuck's consequence-free rape attempt in the first season? No one says rape here, but it's implied that Chuck took advantage of Jenny. (Which, given that she's supposed to be about sixteen, is arguably true. But this is another matter of selective memory.)
For Jenny, it's the ultimate lesson. She finally scrapes the raccoon eye makeup off her face and agrees to be deported from Manhattan, city of sin. Maybe Chuck assaulting her at the party in the pilot started it all, and the last three seasons have been post-traumatic. But there's not a lot of evidence for that. Instead, it looks here, even in the confusing froth of an amnesiac soap, that the loss of innocence — culminating in sex without love — turns out to have greater consequences than being a would-be rapist.