Few things are grosser (or more illegal) than early season 1 Chuck Bass.
In the Gossip Girl pilot, Chuck lures drunk Serena into his dad’s hotel kitchen with the promise of a cheese toastie.
“If you’re looking for a way to thank me, I’ve got a couple ideas” he says calmly, before kissing and clawing at her while she shouts no.
Later on, Chuck coaxes Jenny to the rooftop at a party and forces himself on her (with Blair’s prior encouragement). “Will C end up with a new victim?” the Gossip Girl voiceover chimes.
Luckily, Jenny was cautious enough to text her brother beforehand, and Dan and Serena get there just in time. Chuck calls Serena a slut, and Dan gives him a black eye (one of the only times I’ve ever admired Dan Humphrey).
“Chuck likes to brag about his conquests, not his victims”, Blair Waldorf assures Jenny the next day. Charming!
Chuck is depicted to regularly have consensual sex. His rape attempts are an intentional abuse of power. Unfortunately, but fittingly in 2007, instead of being a flawed character that promoted awareness for sexual assault and noxious masculinity, he was just Gossip Girl’s resident villain, merely there as the token sleaze and plot device. In the Gossip Girl books by Cecily von Ziegesar, Chuck is a minor character who only cares about sex and money, epitomising Upper East Side evil – so it’s highly possible that the show’s writers didn’t intend for him to stick around very long. Perhaps it was an accident that Ed Westwick proved to be one of the strongest actors in the cast, quickly turning into an audience favourite (I will not even try to pretend that his array passionate fans didn’t include me at age 12).
In general though, 2007 was NOT a woke time in human history. While people were probably disgusted with Chuck Bass’s actions, many fell in love with the character as soon as he began to battle with ‘fixing himself’. Many completely forgot about Chuck’s actions prior to his romance with Blair.
The fact that Chuck was an attempted rapist did not, fans insisted, matter all that much for this storyline. That was all in the pilot, after all, and everyone knows that pilots only half-count. In the pilot, Chuck also had a living mother and rode the bus to school, while later episodes established that Chuck’s mother was dead and that he traveled everywhere exclusively by limo. The attempted rapes were like the bus: not really canon.
What went mostly unsaid was that Chuck’s backstory as an attempted rapist actually made his tryst with Blair more compelling than it would have been otherwise. “Are you sure?” he asks her after she kisses him, in a moment that both recalls Chuck’s history of sexual assault and establishes that it matters to him that this particular encounter be consensual.Constance Grady, Vox
Personally, as someone who writes scripts, creates characters and has been entranced by many flawed anti hero male protagonists in the past – hello Don Draper – I can definitely see this from the perspective of the writers, who probably didn’t realise Chuck would randomly become a romantic lead, let alone a irreplaceable central character who attracted millions of viewers, namely teen fangirls. I can confirm that once you make a character a one-sided villain, it’s incredibly hard to backtrack on that later on and propel them into a sincerely believable redemption arc. The Gossip Girl writers probably felt they had done their best…but it sure was clumsy.
There was plenty of trivialising dialogue about how Chuck used to be disgusting but now is a changed man. In season 2, Chuck is depressed and alone. He apologises to Jenny for his actions in the pilot. It’s a little half assed, focusing mostly on his personal sense of regret and not the trauma he inflicted on her.
An astoundingly odd choice the writers made was in season 4 was when Chuck and Jenny had sex. Chuck had just sold loving girlfriend Blair to his seedy uncle in exchange for getting the Empire Hotel back. Blair decides she can forgive him and plans to meet him at the Empire State Building, where he said he’d be waiting for her one last time. Dorota gives birth, making her late meeting him, and Chuck goes back to his suite heartbroken and alone…where Jenny Humphrey has also come, to look for Nate. I literally can’t believe that the writers genuinely sat down at this point and were like, haha, now let’s make Jenny consensually lose her virginity to the dude who sexually assaulted her in season 1. Naturally, Dan finds out and punches Chuck again.
At that point, I was done being disappointed with his behaviour. I was literally maxed out. But Chuck Bass struck again. In season 4, he was wasted and and got angry at Blair, punching a hole through the window behind her. A shard of glass fell on her, cutting her cheek while he yelled ‘you’re mine!’. Yeah, he loved Blair, but he was also possessive, treating Blair as an economic unit and regularly trying to win her over with expensive gifts.
I like to think we all understand how societal context can make older shows extremely hard to watch as they age. And anyone who writes understands the difficulty of executing a hefty character transformation, especially one that was unprecedented. Mostly all of us are guilty of rooting for a deeply flawed character who we would be a lil bit scared to be left alone with in real life.
Overall, Gossip Girl was my entire personality and is still an absolute classic. But I think the writers of this show could have come up with a better excuse for Chuck’s abusive behaviour than “I’m Chuck Bass”.