“I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
When I was 11 years old, my life was split between three concerns: making friends, impressing boys, and wrestling my guilt over this new, sexual sensation I felt that none of my friends seemed to talk about. Since there was so much silence around it, I figured self-pleasure just wasn’t supposed to be done, and I tried dodging anything that made me feel horny. That was, until one morning on the way to school, when an MTA bus pulled up beside my mom’s Toyota. There, towering over the rest of the cars on Nostrand Avenue was a bus with a giant poster of Blair Waldorf, eyes shut, bikini MIA, sucking the face off Nate Archibald in the swimming pool of Constance Billard School for Girls. Over the photo were five giant words, plucked from a crabby New York Post review and intended to describe Gossip Girl’s second season: “A NASTY PIECE OF WORK.”
Gossip Girl had a history of making me horny. In 2008, the book series was as close as my middle-school friends and I could get to watching the scandalous new television series on the CW. My sister, who was two years older, had the first book tucked away on her shelf. I stole it in a matter of days. One afternoon when she was out at lacrosse practice, I curled up in bed, ready to be immersed in an alternate universe of martinis and maids. Instead, from the moment I read about the “sexy St. Jude’s boys” and Blair’s sex pact with Nate, all I could feel was a familiar, uncontrollable heat between my legs.
It was an occurrence as frequent as pimples and fake friends. I’d be watching Full House when an innocent make-out sesh between D.J. and Steve had me squeezing my legs together. Showing my notes to a crush in English class left me touching myself to the thought of him shoving me against a locker that night. Still, the word masturbation was as foreign to me as tax returns. The “sex talk” I got from my mom before middle school was a sudden, 60-second aside during the commercial of one of her Bravo shows. She barely got to the specifics of condoms and Plan B, let alone how to say “screw it” and screw yourself. Our short talk made me think sex was something that was meant to be discussed in private — and masturbation just, well, didn’t exist. The guilt that I felt from wanting to please myself made reading Gossip Girl feel like committing a crime. Before I could even reach the third chapter, the book ended up right back on my sister’s shelf.
But I wasn’t able to hide from Gossip Girl for much longer. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I was greeted by that ad on the MTA bus. Here we were, driving through the conservative neighborhood of Midwood, Brooklyn, while Blair Waldorf’s moment of pure lust was being broadcast for the whole borough to see. I felt bad for watching innocent kisses on TV, but it was okay to display soft porn on public transit? At the same time, seeing Nate’s bare broad shoulders and his lips on Blair, I couldn’t fight that familiar feeling between my legs. I felt insane, being turned on by a poster on the side of a bus, and like I had no one to talk to about it. So, I went through another day, fighting my urges while listening to the boys at school make shitty jokes about getting off to Jessica Alba.
Still, I wasn’t the only person with the ads on my mind. From the New York Post to PopSugar, people were pointing out Gossip Girl’s inability to avoid the inappropriate. A billboard in the Financial District pictured Chuck Bass feeding a cherry to a scantily clad model, captioned by the San Diego Union-Tribune’s verdict: “VERY BAD FOR YOU.” Meanwhile, another poster depicted Serena van der Woodsen getting her neck kissed by an unidentified bachelor, alongside the Boston Herald’s takeaway: “EVERY PARENT’S NIGHTMARE.” The more I thought about the ad, the more I began to understand Gossip Girl’s strategy: to take the critiques of its first season and turn them into its biggest appeal. Groups like the Parents Television Council had claimed that the show “corrupted young viewers” before it had even come out yet. These ads were Gossip Girl’s version of a sarcastic “Ooh! You caught me!”
Seeing these yawn-inducing complaints, I began to feel less disturbed and more intrigued. Gossip Girl was able to look itself in the mirror and accept that it’s a show where there’s going to be a lot sex, and it wasn’t going to try to be anything else. I needed to realize that I got horny sometimes, I could do something about it, and it was nothing to be ashamed about. It was kind of a superpower.
I knew that I couldn’t get away with having the show playing in the family room, but I could at least look at the posters and dream. I spotted the ad on another bus later that fall. This time, it depicted shirtless Nate Archibald, side-swept bangs to the nines, abs flourishing, as he lay in bed with an older woman. I smirked at the caption, ripped straight from the critics: “MIND-BLOWINGLY INAPPROPRIATE.”
This time, I looked around, from my mom in the front seat to the 40-somethings waiting on the B44. No one was paying attention to this bus, even if it was perched at the stoplight, rising high above the other small cars. Nobody actually cared. Sex was just as much a part of life as Gossip Girl was to the Upper East Side.