Politics & Policy

Carding Gossip Girl

Another example of what not to watch with your teenage daughter.

One evening last week, I found myself in sole possession of the remote, which of course meant that my spouse was out of town. Once the shock of possessing such a rare power subsided — it’s mine! All mine! — I decided to take advantage of the situation and check out some of the new fall offerings.

Before long I stumbled onto something that amazed me. There, on the screen, was a place I’d actually been: real life, right in front of me! So this is what happens when you get hold of the remote, I thought. No wonder the spouse hogs it.

The place in question — the landmark that was the bridge between my reality and that of the show — was the New York Palace Hotel. A Gilded Age mansion, once owned by the Archdiocese of New York (it’s right behind the Cathedral), The Palace is a New York landmark. In the 1980s, the Helmsley’s corporation converted it to a hotel. The current owners renamed it The New York Palace, but you can still read the outlines of “The Helmsley Palace” lettering above the Madison Avenue entrance.

It turns out that I had discovered not some occult power of the remote, but the new series Gossip Girl, for which the Palace is a set. The Palace wins a good amount of stage time in this new drama because one of the main characters lives there. Based on a novel of the same name, Gossip Girl follows the lives of a pack of wealthy Manhattan prep-school kids. They do cool things like cut class, wear designer clothes, smoke dope, and attempt statutory rape — all in a day’s work for the typical prep school kid. And to top it all off, they knock back martinis in fancy hotel bars –

Whoa. I said to myself. Just a cotton pickin’minute here.

The bar at the New York Palace is very distinctive. Probably its most obvious feature is a huge, tent-like structure right behind the bar, kind of like a high tech grotto. Thanks to LED lighting this structure is constantly changing colors, which must really be impressive after a couple of stiff drinks. I had been in that bar not two weeks before. Granted it was late and kind of dark, but I didn’t remember seeing any underage kids in the place. Yet here was our high school heroine sipping an elegant martini at the very same bar, and without even so much as glancing around for narcs or fretting about her fake i.d.

Now, high school kids can cut class, or plot against each other, or go around looking like well-heeled divorcees all they want. But underage drinking is well, illegal, right? And a bar that serves underage kids martinis would be, like, liable or something, right? Wasn’t this rather dicey p.r. for the hotel?

I wondered whether the powers that be at the New York Palace were aware of the grave legal risks they were incurring. Impelled as usual by the purest Christian charity, I decided to give them a call to alert them to the danger.

I spoke to Peter Holmberg, director of communications at the hotel, and asked him what he thought about the New York Palace bar’s new identity as the easiest place in New York for teenager to score a martini.

At first, Holmberg seemed even more surprised by my call than I was that he took it. No one else, he said, had asked this question. But he was willing to discuss it.

First of all, he said, it’s important to remember that Gossip Girl is a fantasy. The hotel you see on the show “isn’t really our hotel. Our hotel is called the New York Palace; the one in the series is called the Palace. Our hotel is playing a character in the series. It isn’t really us. Did you see the show? That reception desk wasn’t even ours. It was a fake.”

“But that really was your bar,” I said. “And that really was your courtyard.” Besides, I went on to tell him, “The Palace” might be a slightly different name, but there’s no way anyone who had ever seen the place would confuse it with some other hotel. The place has been a landmark for a hundred years. There is simply no mistaking it for anything else.

“We are the New York Palace Hotel,” he repeated. “The ‘Palace” in the series isn’t really us.”

I said that was like saying “The cathedral” across the street wasn’t’ really St. Pat’s.

Mr. Holmberg shrugged. (Well it sounded like he was shrugging.) “We’re very confident that in real life no underage drinking is taking place in our bar. Like everyplace else, we card.”

But what about in the show? The show certainly didn’t depict any effective “carding” of underage drinkers.

“I don’t get involved in creative decisions,” he ducked, insisting instead that Gossip Girl is a “quality” show. “Excellent writing, high production values — we’re thrilled with the way the show looks.” As for its fine moral values, he proudly pointed out that none of the kids were ever shown smoking a cigarette.

This, as it happens, is true. No matter how cruel, shallow, vicious, or even criminal the children in Gossip Girl may act, they will never permit the unpardonable sin of smoking a cigarette. On-screen tobacco indulgence would violate all of Hollywood’s ethics. And since they only have the one, they like to make the most of it. (This ban does not, however, extend to smoking other substances such as marijuana. The kids in Gossip Girl had plenty of time for that.)

“Look,”  Holmberg went on, “I read the script.” If it hadn’t included things like drinking and pot-smoking, he said, “it would not have rung true to me. This series illuminates some of the harsh realities of teenage life. It’s a quality program that touches on controversial issues.” But, he added, “If I felt it was endorsing [these behaviors] I would never have allowed it to film here.”

Holmberg told me he has two teenage nieces. Thanks to Gossip Girl, he said, he has had some very “fruitful, in-depth” discussions with them about things like underage drinking. It is his hope, he went on, that the series will promote similar conversations between parents and their kids.

And maybe Holmberg is right. Maybe the whole point of shows like Gossip Girl is to promote meaningful discussion between parents and their kids about the issues confronting teens today. But then again, if as Holmberg is correct, and these are the harsh realities of everyday teen life, what do they need to watch Gossip Girl for?

  –Susan Vigilante blogs from Minneapolis.

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