F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 short story “The Rich Boy” opens with the line “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”
It’s 2015, and the decadence that differentiates the very rich is still a uniquely American obsession. And while the narrators have changed and the stories have shifted, we’re still listening. Wednesday Martin’s Primates of Park Avenue recently made headlines for its detailed, pseudo-anthropological study of the Upper East Side and its rarified inhabitants. The memoir is small enough to fit in a Birkin, but with the kind of explosive potential that gets you permanently barred from Temple Emanu-El. It charts the progress of Upper East Side mothers with the thoroughness of a serial killer and the eye of a Bloomingdale’s head shopper. Martin jots down details ranging from drinks of choice (anything alcoholic) to trending exercise regimens (if you have to ask, you’ll never be in the SoulCycle front row). From summers spent at Long Island’s East Egg—I mean East End—to alleged “wife bonuses,” no tidbit is too personal.
The Upper East Side Mom is similarly studied in Bravo’s new scripted TV show Odd Mom Out. Odd Mom Out follows one quirky mother, played by Upper East Side native Jill Kargman, as she navigates the world of Rockefellers, Roman numerals, and really, really rich people.
The Upper East Side has always held pop cultural appeal, from F. Scott Fitzgerald to The Official Preppy Handbook. More recently, a glut of TV shows including Gossip Girl, The Real Housewives of New York City, and NYC Prep have attempted to offer a penthouse window view of Manhattan’s elite. These shows are all fueled by an appetite that combines fantasy and righteous contempt, and they trade in stereotypes that recycle an unbelievable, ratings-pandering approximation of the Upper East Side that’s as unreal, tragic, and glamorous as Jay Gatsby himself. Like all TV shows that weren’t created by Shonda Rhimes, they follow a predictable recipe for maximum sleaze, shock, and envy, and revolve around predictable obsessions: prep schools, absentee parents, lavish parties, insane real estate, and designer clothes.
The Upper East side that spans around thirty blocks and a handful of avenues on the island of Manhattan contains a number of elite private schools, many of them single-sex, all boasting high average SAT scores and fro-yo machines with a range of flavors. The non-existent, magical Upper East Side that exists in the minds of Real Housewives and Gossip Girl fan club presidents is a whole different story. In Primates of Park Avenue, housewives are totally high on higher education. Ivy League admission is presented not as the goal but as the norm—attending the most expensive pre-schools and private academies is a progeny prerequisite, and having a Princeton-degreed daddy isn’t the golden ticket it used to be. Martin writes, “The specter of failing to land one's child in an elite school—in the altered ecology of the Upper East Side, this was the terrifying predator to be outwitted and bested.”
But according to shows like Gossip Girl and NYC Prep, the real challenge isn’t landing a spot in an elite private school, but rather surviving the best education you can buy your way into. Every girl’s book bag is designer, every boy owns an ascot and a boat in Maine, and being from Brooklyn is enough to merit social pariah status. Disappointingly enough, most of these juicy descriptions read more like the work of a private school creative writing class than an accurate reflection of reality—not that most traditional prep schools offer hippie classes like creative writing, which would be impossible to fit into a schedule packed with four AP’s, Latin, and Greek.
For one thing, not everyone at these schools is a Blair Waldorf. I attended one of the oldest private schools in New York, a school so status-obsessed that it actually boasts of being the longest continuously run school in Manhattan—because it sided with the British. While I saw my share of Cartier love bracelets floundering around on the wrists of 15-year-old girls, the over-spending was far more contained and far less evocative of the fall of the Roman Empire than television would have you believe. No one was mocked for wearing Abercrombie & Fitch jeans or Gap polo shirts. We did not all live on Park or summer in the Hamptons. In fact, I don’t think I ever heard summer sincerely used as a verb until I watched the first few episodes of Odd Mom Out. People actually worked hard; a rich boy like Chuck Bass would not be able to earn a diploma simply by repeating the motto of “I’m Chuck Bass” to school administrators (or club bouncers, for that matter).
Gossip Girl relied on the premise that rich Upper East Siders can buy, do, and get away with anything. It centered on drugs, sex, and parties, and looked more like a Madonna-envisioned bacchanalia than any teenager’s lived existence. Upper East Siders are actually just like other teenagers—they smoke pot in parks, hang out in living rooms with their friends, and try to convince people to buy them alcohol.
On NYC Prep, the tragically singular first season culminates in a lavish gala. On Gossip Girl, everyone and their literal mothers are obsessed with debutante balls, the WASP-y ceremony where young girls symbolically enter society. The debutante ball is another excuse for Blair, Serena, and their interchangeable arm candy to don Net-a-Porter level couture and drink and bicker like adults. For the record, debutante balls are the purview of a few, very traditional families. Similarly galas, like weekly drinks at Lavo, are a largely fantastical element of the Upper East Side experience, at least for the younger set. And when/if Upper East Side kids go out they have to use fake ID’s, just like the rest of us—having a trust fund and living on 70th and Park doesn’t magically make you look like Blake Lively.
Speaking of addresses, pop culture seems particularly obsessed with the geography of wealth. In multiple interviews, Odd Mom Out’s Jill Kargman describes her neighborhood as “Durito, for ‘Down under the Roosevelt Island Tram Pass.’” This differentiation between the fabled, gold-paved sidewalks of the iconic upper East and Kargman’s more humble real estate seems like a deliberate attempt at self-deprecation, equal parts reliable punch line and serious attempt to cast Kargman as an outsider amongst insiders. This subtle distinction allows Kargman’s Bravo character to parody the Upper East Side even as a one-percenter participant.
Pop culture approximations of the fabulously wealthy make a huge mistake in limiting their purview to one piece of Manhattan. Wolves of Wall Street mark out their territory everywhere from gorgeous townhouses in TriBeCa to Upper West Side apartments. Yes, they even live in Brooklyn (not to mention Tenafly and Scarsdale). The most laughable moments on Gossip Girl are when insiders like Blair shamelessly mock Brooklyn boy Dan for his pauper’s loft in Williamsburg. The aforementioned loft, which could easily cover Dwell magazine and sell for millions, is offered as shorthand for outsider status. The implication is that the truly wealthy wouldn’t dare leave the bubble of the Upper East Side; that privilege exclusively presents as a building with a doorman, an implicit dress code, and a view of the Met. This same erroneous logic fuels the much-repeated myth that Upper East Siders don’t go downtown, or have never set foot on the subway. Even if you attended a mythical school like Dan and Blair did, you’ve probably still heard of gentrification.
More importantly, the assumption that Dan and his sister Jenny’s real estate porn loft caused them extreme social discomfort erases the experience of those who truly deviate from the norm in prep school—students of color and kids who exist in a socioeconomic strata that’s markedly lower than their relatively wealthy peers. Despite well-publicized diversity programs, NYC private schoolers often self-segregate according to race or socioeconomic status. This phenomenon might explain, but does not justify, the lily-whiteness of shows like NYC Prep and Gossip Girl, where ambiguously ethnic characters are occasionally seen but rarely heard—transparent casting decisions that inadvertently mirror many real-life experiences of tokenization.
While living in Brooklyn is not realistic social suicide, Gossip Girl’s insistence on manufacturing a misfit is extremely telling. The myth of the Upper East Side is, after all, founded on the premise of privilege and exclusion. The 1 percent implies the other 99, outsiders with television sets and a complicated relationship to wealth that’s equal parts demonization and deification. Like all constructions, the Upper East Side serves a multitude of purposes, and is ultimately a reflection of those who are behind the lens, not under it. Almost every representation of the neighborhood features an outsider figure.
In The Great Gatsby, narrator Nick Carraway famously “liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter their lives.” While NYC Prep’s token public schooler Taylor DiGiovanni never cited classic literature, her story is an extension of Nick’s: outsider fantasizes about entering the world of the elite, admires their designer labels and lavish circumstances, but is ultimately disenchanted by the superficiality and brutality of the pretty lives that pass her by.
Similarly, when Gossip Girl’s Dan begins to associate with the upper echelon, fellow Brooklynite Vanessa narrates, “The outsider goes inside. A likable everyman's pursuit of his dream girl begins his descent into the bowels of hell. This is mythic stuff.” The couch-surfer pop psychology at work here is not difficult to analyze. We project on these outsiders, whose fringe existences highlight both the possibility of party crashing and the alluring exclusivity of the upper crust. The mythic Upper East Side is a classic, ivy-covered brick façade that doubles as a fortress. Through the eyes of the outsider, we are allowed to dream and aspire, and are ushered into a world that’s mirage-like in its decadence. Of course, that’s because it is a mirage, and our interlopers often find themselves unable to integrate and are ultimately cast out, thrust back into the “real world” of public school boyfriends and Brooklyn coffee shops.
While this voyeuristic exercise allows the viewer a degree of fantasy-fulfillment, it also acts as a foil. The superficiality of the portrayed elite in tell-alls like Primates of Park Avenue and Odd Mom Out serves to highlight and reinforce the humility, humor, and all-around goodness of the outside observer. While Martin and Kargman might outwardly aspire to belong, they are also presented as more intelligent, self-aware, and present than their Upper East Side counterparts. This idolization of the outsider is especially prevalent at moments when the complicated American relationship towards insane wealth accumulation tips more towards admonishment than admiration.
As the Atlantic pointed out, Gossip Girl was actually a victim of the recession. “When banks began to fail and the market plummeted in October 2008, a few episodes into Gossip Girl's second season, public opinion turned swiftly and dramatically against the very rich.” Aspiring to join the one percent became as passé as Tory Burch flats. We didn’t want to envy the ultra-rich—we wanted to crucify them. Cue the rising popularity of The Real Housewives of New York City, which was first aired in 2008. The real housewives, with their tacky dreams of fame and fortune and their televised social lives and squabbles, deconstructed the Upper East Side as it lampooned its inhabitants. Inverting Fitzgerald’s outsider’s fantasy, the show insisted that these wealthy residents were in fact just like us, that we could easily be Upper East Siders—if we were money-hungry socialites with surgically removed moral compasses. At the height of our hatred, we stopped looking in and sought to break through the penthouse windows—busting into private lives and passing judgment on the privileged.
Odd Mom Out and Primates of Park Avenue are products of a post-recession era. According to Holly Peterson, the author of the Upper East Side-centric novel The Manny, “There’s so much money on the Upper East Side right now. If you look at the original movie Wall Street, it was a phenomenon where there were men in their 30s and 40s making $2 and $3 million a year, and that was disgusting. But then you had the Internet age, and then globalization, and you had people in their 30s, through hedge funds and Goldman Sachs partner jobs, who were making $20, $30, $40 million a year.”
American dreamers are reverting to that potent mix of envy and admiration; fear of an increasing wealth disparity combined with a deep desire to wind up on the right side of the widening gap. The sleazy, semi-exploitation of the Housewives era is being combined with the classic envious outsider narrative. Martin and Kargman are self-congratulatory commentators who live in the world they parody. They might come across as smarter than the other members of their keratin’d clan, but they’ve still chosen to live on the Upper East Side in the first place. Martin is a wealthy woman with a Birkin of her own, and real-life Kargman is the UES bred daughter of a former Chanel president. As befitting a capitalist society that borders on plutocracy, the outsiders are looking more and more like insiders, as the bubble between the haves and the have-nots is growing a visibly thicker and less permeable skin.