When Chuck Bass swaggers his way across our screens in the very first episode of Gossip Girl, the picture of his character is clear, the scene is set.
He approaches his friend Serena, who is drunk and sad and teary. They are in his father’s hotel. He convinces her to go into the kitchen of the hotel for a sandwich. “If you’re looking for a way to thank me, I’ve got a couple ideas,” he says. His body aggressively presses against her, his intentions transparent. Her face frowns, she says no, she shakes her head, she shouts for him to stop. He takes both hands and kisses her. She pushes him away.
Ten minutes later, in the same episode, he targets 14-year-old Jenny Humphrey at a party. He takes her up to an empty rooftop. It’s dark and dingy and abandoned. Gossip Girl narrates the scene. She wants to know whether “[Chuck will] end up with a new victim?” He tries to kiss Jenny, she pulls away. She wants to go downstairs. He denies her that right, instead pouring her a glass of champagne. She texts her brother who is downstairs. He finds her pinned beneath the force that is Chuck Bass, unable – but desperate – to break free.
Thirty minutes of footage. Two attempted rapes. Six seasons of Gossip Girl.
If Gossip Girl mirrored real life, and Chuck Bass’ actions were recorded in reality, then his character, you could argue, could be played by Ed Westwick. Westwick who, in real life, is accused of assaulting three women with no consequence until all allegations were made public.
It begs the question: In a period where his real-life character is shrouded in a heap of ugly allegations, how much is the character of Chuck Bass like the man that is Ed Westwick?
The similarities, if the allegations against Westwick are true, are eerie. If they are fact, reality and fiction are seeming to blur in the most uncomfortable way.
Chuck Bass was the ultimate teen bad boy. He was the character who tried to rape not one, but two, different women. He was the one who pimped out his girlfriend Blair to his uncle, selling her on to secure a hotel. He was the one who engaged in what was an arguably abusive relationship, where both parties would physically hurt each other throughout the series. He was a serial cheater. A commitment-phobe. A partier. One who didn’t have the empathy to tell his long-term girlfriend he loved her. One propelled by self-interest. A master manipulator.
Ed Westwick is the man of accused of sexual assault three times.
The parallels are there, but is it okay for us to even draw them? According to Dr Lauren Rosewarne, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's School of Social and Political Sciences, absolutely not. She uses the example of Kevin Spacey - who, in the last month, has been accused of sexual misconduct by 14 different men - to explain:
"Kevin Spacey - throughout his career - has played characters that toe the line of impropriety. He is highly regarded as an actor and is notably as good at playing these types of characters. Extrapolating more from that however, is problematic: there are lots of very good actors - actors who are known to repeatedly play creeps and cretins - whose off-screen lives don't match up with their screen crimes."
When it comes to Westwick, the dialogue gets a little messier. This isn't just a character blurring fiction and reality - but one many women around the world idiolised as a sex symbol. So how do we make sense of that?
For Rosewarne, it's a lesson in "limiting how much energy we spend idiolising fictional characters". A lesson in the "necessity to separate the character from the actor".
"These people are fallible because all humans are," she says.
Of course, then there's the question of why we idiolise the bad boy at all.
"Women are drawn to bad boys for a range of reasons: they often represent unbridled sexuality, danger, living on the edge. Harbouring fantasies about such men however, is a very different thing to actually want to make a life with him (or even share a bed with him)."
But thing about Chuck Bass is that he was never really just a bad boy - though that's the lense so many chose to see him through. He was the attempted rapist. The one who hurt women. And for that, perhaps there's a little bit of onus on us, too. To see that behaviour for what it is early, and not in hindsight. Because when that happens, he'll never become our idol.
And when he's never our idol, we don't have to make sense of fallen heroes when they're inevitably exposed as the fallible humans they always were.