XOXO: Six Grey Zone Tactics Straight Out of Gossip Girl
Who else understands the subtle arts of constant conflict like Manhattan's scandalous elite?
Wakey Wakey, Upper East Siders.
Experts characterize the Grey Zone as a thin veneer of peace which conceals ruthless political backstabbing. And who better understands these sultry affairs than the kids from the teen drama Gossip Girl, which aired from 2007 through 2012 and has become, let’s face it, a guilty pleasure for far too many of us.
Don’t believe me? Here’s what the kids of the UES can teach us about the Grey Zone.
Who am I? That’s a secret I’ll never tell.
Gossip Girl, the anonymous blogger who chronicles the lives of Manhattan’s scandalous elite, is central to the show’s plot, as the show’s main characters send salacious emails and text messages to the mysterious webmaster to leak dirt on their classmates. Sometimes it’s true (Spotted: Chuck and Blair). Other times, it’s completely contrived (“Uh-oh, does SVDW have an STD?”).
Gossip Girl’s identity remains a secret through most of the show’s running, despite several efforts to unmask her (as well as a few episodes in which Serena van der Woodsen and Georgina Sparks fill in as the real GG takes a hiatus). It isn’t until the final episode that we discover Gossip Girl isn’t even a girl — it’s (SPOILER) none other than Lonely Boy Dan Humphrey.
Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, created its own Gossip Girl — DCLeaks.com, run by the mysterious “Guccifer 2” — to leak scandalous documents its hackers stole from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. (Guccifer 2 would later work together with WikiLeaks during the summer of 2016)
Guccifer 2 initially claimed to be a lone Romanian hacker. However, experts quickly pointed out Guccifer 2 seemed to have a poor grasp of Romanian and was likely a Russian-speaker using an online translator. Later, in 2018, the US Justice Department charged a pair of Russian military officers in GRU Unit 74455 with operating the Guccifer 2 persona and establishing the DCLeaks website.
That said, it wasn’t quite the “Dan is Gossip Girl” plot twist we were expecting. While few suspected Lonely Boy of being Gossip Girl, most suspected Guccifer 2 was a Russian all along.
Bombshell, Sparrow, Grifter, Spy
Seasons Five and Six feature Serena’s long-lost cousin, Charlotte “Charlie” Rhodes, grifting her way into Manhattan’s high society. But as we later find out, Charlie Rhodes isn’t really Serena’s cousin — she’s actually struggling actress Ivy Dickens, hired to bilk millions of dollars from the van der Woodsen estate. (She also sleeps with two of Lily’s ex-husbands)
The Grey Zone is no stranger to these sorts of scandals, although they often have an even more sinister twist. In 2010, the FBI arrested a Manhattan-based real estate CEO named Anna Chapman — formerly known as Anna Vasilyevna Kuschenko, daughter of a former KGB official and herself an agent of Russia’s foreign intelligence service, the SVR.
Chapman was arrested along with ten other Russians alleged to have been part of the “Illegals” program — deep-cover SVR agents trained to spend years undercover to get close to influential Westerners. Chapman, along with the other illegals arrested in 2010, was eventually returned to Russia in exchange for four Russian intelligence officers who had been working with the West, including a GRU officer named Sergei Skripal.
Chapman wouldn’t be the last Russian influence agent arrested in the US. In 2018, police arrested a Russian gun rights advocate named Maria Butina for failing to register as an agent of the Russian government. A real-life Red Sparrow, 29-year-old Butina dated and lived with 56-year-old GOP operative and former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne.
But while Byrne is believed to have helped Butina with her homework and even answered exam questions for her while she attended American University, Butina frequently complained about him to her FSB handlers and even offered sex favors to another man. Who knew being a femme fatale could be so mundane?
Politics Makes For Strange Bedfellows
Gossip Girl made for some unlikely bedfellows. Nate and Serena. Blair and Chuck. Dan and Serena. Dan and Vanessa and Olivia. Nate and Vanessa. Nate and Jenny. Dan and Blair. Blair and the Prince of Monaco (that was an odd season). Chuck back with Blair. Dan back with Serena. It’s even more intriguing considering most of the kids’ parents have married each other at some point in the series, making most of the kids step-siblings.
The Grey Zone also makes for interesting bedfellows. As nation-states turn to third parties and proxies to do their bidding, traditional enemies may find themselves tackling common foes, while allies might undermine one another.
The US and Iran are hardly friends (a point worth mentioning as we approach the first anniversary of the killing of Quds Force commander Qassem Solemani). But the two nations both recognized the threat posed by Sunni jihadists from the Islamic State, which swiftly seized control of northern Iraq in June 2014. With the Iraqi Army mostly in shambles, most of the burden of fighting ISIS rested on US airpower as well as Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces — a coalition of nearly 40 fighting groups, some of which were directly sponsored by Iran, including the Badr Organization. The situation grew so bizarre that US servicemembers found themselves sharing a base in Anbar province with fighters from an Iranian-backed militia known as Kataib Hezbollah.
US soldiers sharing a base with Iranian militants might seem strange, but it pales compared to the episode in which Dan slept with Blair. Who saw that coming?
Fake Deaths Aren’t Just For Lazy Writers
In Season 5, it’s revealed Bart Bass is secretly alive, having faked his own death in a car crash in Season 2. Bart claims it was because powerful people wanted him dead (even though we all know the real reason is that the writers ran out of ideas).
But truth can be stranger than fiction. In 2018, Ukrainian security forces learned of a Russian plot to kill Arkady Babchenko, a Russian-born journalist based in Kyiv and a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
According to Ukraine’s intelligence service, the SBU, Russian officials paid a Ukrainian citizen named Borys Herman to hire a hitman to kill Babchenko. Herman offered $40,000 for the job to an Orthodox priest, adding, “If you refuse a job like this — you’ll probably end up dead.”
The priest immediately alerted the SBU, who concocted an elaborate plot to fake Bushenko’s death involving pig’s blood and makeup. A day after Babchenko’s purported death, the SBU announced during a press conference that not only had Borys Herman been arrested but that Arkady Babchenko was alive and well.
As Frank Herbert wrote in his 1965 classic sci-fi epic, Dune: “Do not count a human dead until you’ve seen his body. And even then you can make a mistake.”
“Queen B” Blair Waldorf loves to scheme, but she rarely does the dirty work herself. Instead, she outsources most of her subterfuge to her “minions,” whom she orders about from her throne perched atop the steps of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In the Grey Zone, nation-states — often reluctant to escalate to full-scale war — also outsource their foreign policy to third parties. According to one expert from the London-based Royal United Services Institute, these third parties fall “on a spectrum from violent terrorist groups to civic institutions.” They can make for quite a cast of characters, too — Russian biker gangs, cyber crooks, money launderers, mercenaries, Little Green Men, and yes, even freedom fighters.
Jared Kushner keeps showing up for some reason.
Gossip Girl featured plenty of cameos, including Lady Gaga, Cyndi Lauper, and even New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But one cameo will always stick out. In Season Four, we’re introduced to an up-and-coming pair of newlyweds, both children of famous New York real estate moguls:
Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.
The episode, which aired on Jarvanka’s first wedding anniversary in 2010, takes place during a posh gathering hosted by Kushner’s paper, the New York Observer, in which Jarvanka meets Lily and Rufus.
Kushner’s no stranger to stranger to surprise appearances, having infamously met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya in a much-scrutinized 2016 meeting in Trump Tower. Kushner got off scot-free after it was determined the man responsible for everything from the Middle East peace process to the coronavirus response had no idea what he was doing meeting with Veselnitskaya in the first place. Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss.