By Patricia Comitini
I love watching Gilmore Girls. My daughter loves watching Gilmore Girls with me. It is something we do together, watching the mother-daughter relationships unfold on the screen as I sit in the glow of the TV with my own daughter—a very Lorelei and Rory thing to do. It is something that comforts me when I am anxious and can’t sleep in the middle of night; I turn on the TV and listen to the witty, rapid-fire dialogue that lulls me back to sleep. I enjoy the numerous literary and pop culture references, the quick quips, the jabs at wealth and middle-class suburbia, and the complications of family life particularly with mothers and their daughters. And I am not alone. There is a tremendous afterlife of the show—the original streaming on Netflix, the Netflix reboot, and social media fan accounts of the actors and both shows, a whole cottage industry of T-shirts, mugs, and other GG paraphernalia. Nearly 13 years after the original series ended, there are still so many fans: older like me, younger like my daughter.
But sometimes I think “Oy with the poodles already” (for the uninitiated: this is a memorable line from the show). Why am I not tired of this show yet? What is the appeal, the very sources of my constant, and some would say obsessive, enjoyment? I used to say to my husband, who liked and watched the show originally but couldn’t (and can’t still) understand how I could continually watch it over and over and over again, that the appeal was to women and there are few shows that focus on women and women’s relationships with other women. That it appealed to my feminist sensibilities; while there were always men around and they were often the objects of desire, the real appeal was on the bad/good relationships between mother and daughters. That matrilineal aspect of the show is unique, and in the end complicated. The matriarch Emily is the obvious bad mother to Lorelei who is also a good grandmother to Rory. Lorelei is the ideal mother to Rory, but a bad daughter to Emily. Rory is both good daughter and good granddaughter, bridging the Mother’s and Grandmother’s fraught relationship. While men may come and go (and they do), the mainstay is tensions within the Emily-Lorelei-Rory relationships.
Another reason I would give him that it is one of the few shows that is explicit about class privilege and interclass relationships—which appealed to my more leftist sensibilities. Lorelei is born into wealth and privilege, and her rejection of that wealth and privilege is the basis of the show—pregnant at sixteen she leaves home when Rory is a baby to become a maid at an inn. When the show begins, Rory is turning sixteen, Lorelei has worked her way up to manager at that inn, but she needs money to send Rory—a bookish but beautiful young woman (it is a TV show after all)—to an elite private high school to prepare her to attend Harvard. The ostensible reason for this in the show is that Rory is so intelligent that she is not challenged by her local suburban high school, good enough for common kids, but not for Rory. The show understands that the Ivies are a closed society for the most part unless you are of the manor born. That little fact comes out clearly later on in the series in a tussle between Lorelei and her parents over Harvard or Yale, with Rory eventually going to Yale, her Grandfather’s alma mater. In the meantime, Lorelei and Rory can fit right in living in a small tourist town in CT, but yet still take part in the privileged world of her parents—from prep school, to charity and social functions, to business investments that by season 4 enable Lorelei to invest in her own inn and become a successful business owner. So the class conflict in the show becomes how to be born of wealth without really being a snob about it.
That class conflict is manifested in the romantic relationships of Lorelei and Rory, which drives many, if not most, of the storylines of the show. The ultimate goal of any romance is “marriage” and the pleasure of the journey—much like in Jane Austen—is how you “discover” whom you love, or should love: finding Mr. Right is ultimate the goal. GG is a very standard romance in this sense. Lorelei is caught throughout the series between the father of her daughter, Christopher, who is her economic and social peer, and Luke, the closest the series comes to an everyday “Joe”—an uneducated diner owner whose only achievement is making great coffee, a heroic feat in the Gilmore world. Rory is likewise torn between the nice, suburban Dean, the bad boy Jesse who moves to Stars Hollow from NYC, and the rich and worldly Logan who she meets at Yale, and with whom she continues a romantic relationship in the reboot (though she had refused his marriage proposal at the end of the original series). As in most love stories, class relations are transmuted to love relationships and the representations of those positions of the characters are fairly clear. The biggest disappointment at the ending of the original series is that Lorelei and Luke did not get married; however, that was remedied as the goal of the reboot (sorry for the spoiler).
Ostensibly, these are rational reasons for my enjoyment, but perhaps they are rationalizations. Why would these reasons give me such pleasure or such comfort? Why would they lead to what can only be described as obsessive watching? I have loved many shows, but not like this one. These are not the real reasons, or at least not wholly. Representations and plot content are not really the ideological focus of the show; that relies more on the tone of the show which imbues an “imaginary” quality of the fantasy function of the show: the suggestion of a world without real material strife, a promise that love relationships if properly recognized are the key to human happiness, and that the 50s never really died—we just don’t all live in Stars Hollow. That is the ideological function of the show that keeps me coming back for more on those sleepless nights when I am anxious about a world that is troubled by racism and vast wealth inequality, my family, my career. As much as I hate to admit it, it is a treat to retreat into this fantasy.
One of the ironic and iconic episodes that I count among my many favorites is “That Damn Donna Reed.” The episode is meant to be an ironic take on the 1950s TV show, but the episode also reifies that representation in contrast to the Gilmore girls’ own life without a father-figure or a husband. What the episode does is point out the ideal of the 50s nuclear family that Lorelei and Rory do not have, that they most particularly want but contradictorily reject in a quasi-feminist appeal; the show revolves, like many romances, around the rejection or loss of that male object of desire. Lorelei herself has rejected this model in her parents’ relationship: Emily and Richard Gilmore are the paradigmatic 50s couple, though wealthier than the suburban Donna Reed. Richard works as an insurance executive in Hartford, CT, spending most of his time providing for the kind of luxurious lifestyle necessary for his wife to participate in her social circle. They live in a rather spacious home, employing a cook and maid, which relieves Emily of the typical household duties that Donna Reed apparently enjoys spending her time doing on her show. While Emily is a contrast to the suburban housewife that Lorelei and Rory mock in the opening scene of their episode as they watch an episode where Reed goes through the elaborate progress of making donuts for the family breakfast in high heel and pearls, Emily’s relationship with her husband is very much the model of a 1950s middle-class wife in a nuclear family in various representations in popular culture: the family man who goes to work in a suit and tie, provides the financial support so that a wife can manage the household (but only do the work of it as a kind of hobby or else hire someone to do it) and support their upwardly mobile child(ren) by providing – as Emily would say “the best of everything.” Like The Donna Reed show, financial strife, unfulfilled potential or desire is not a part, or allowed to be a part, of the Gilmore household. That is, until Lorelei rejects that world—and that’s what sets the plot of GG in motion.
The ideological focus is not to celebrate a world without men—as Lorelei’s rejection of marriage would have you believe. But, rather, to have men relegated to the function of status symbol they always serve in romance fiction, and to have them desire Lorelei and Rory for their beauty and quirkiness, as Darcy comes to love Elizabeth or Knightly comes to love Emma. True, in the early 2000s, Lorelei and Rory must be made to be the cool kind of feminists; they make their own rules, achieve their success on their own terms, and don’t let men get in the way. They mock Emily’s vapid life of accumulating antiques, shopping at malls and attending social events (Richard is never mocked in the same way that Emily is for the way he spends his time—making deals and playing golf). Lorelei is the single mother working her way up in the hospitality industry from maid to executive manager of a posh inn in Connecticut –with a baby in tow and no college degree. Rory, who we constantly see with novel in hand, is the genius who is as versed in all forms of pop culture as she is in the classics of Tolstoy and Shakespeare, and has her pick of ivy league colleges. The show is billed as a feminist fantasy of a life of possibilities without men: as Richard says at one point about Rory’s kind but ordinary boyfriend Dean “some people can hold you back.” The grandfather’s reference is to Dean’s class position as well as his intelligence, but the sentiment that men can hold you back from achieving – climbing even higher on the social ladder, having continued affluence and privilege—is the ostensible message of the show. But, even so, for the demands of romance a woman needs a man, and the right man who can ameliorate her and elevate her social status—that is, a man of Rory’s own pedigree—she is a Gilmore after all. There is a comforting realization (or discomforting to any real feminist sentiment), that nothing much has really changed in our image of the nuclear family, or romantic relationships, since those images of the 1950s shows like Donna Reed. Lorelei says, without irony, “I like my life,” and “I fancy myself as wonder woman, but every once in a while, I wish a had a partner….” Her deepest desire is for a man, yet she has rejected men throughout the series: her fiancé Max, Christopher, Jason, and eventually Luke. As feminists we may mock the marriage of Richard and Emily, of Donna Reed and her husband whose name I never knew—as Lorelei and Rory do—but we can’t escape the desire for that kind of coupling quite yet. There is no subtle subversion here; it is a romantic fantasy that women still want to believe a man will “take care” of them, be it financial (Lorelei’s successful inn is built with the money from her father’s investment) or psychological (Lorelei’s boyfriend Luke invests in the inn but also puts up with her emotional baggage); the fantasy is just dressed up in more fashionable feminist catch-phrases.
For me, that is the familiar enjoyment of the show and the disturbing one at the same time; it’s like reading Pride and Prejudice, an old tale of the perpetuation of romantic desire for “the right” man, for the nuclear family and appropriate “class-based” marriage coupling. GG makes clichéd gestures that touch the fringe of feminism, but never really commits to it. For example, rather than see the possibilities of Rory’s bright future – as an intelligent, independent woman—she leaves Yale in her second year to make herself into the party girl she thinks her new boyfriend wants her to be, while also making herself into the “daughter” that Emily had always wanted by joining the DAR, hosting tea parties and dinner. While Rory returns to Yale, reunites with Lorelei, and becomes Lorelei’s good daughter again, she also founders because Logan and his very wealthy family want her to be Emily. Instead of thumbing her nose at them, she feels sorry for herself, and determines to “make it on her own”—and then doesn’t in the reboot. Rory, without a job or career in journalism, returns home after another affair with Logan, pregnant.
The show makes this outcome not only seem right but fun and desirable. A whole discussion on social media is about who is really Rory’s baby daddy (there is some ambiguity, but all signs point to Logan). Realism, or “relatability,” is as prevalent in GG as it is in The Donna Reed Show. Like The Donna Reed Show, the tone of Gilmore Girls is un-ironic, even when it’s mocking the clichés it turns on. Its characters are earnest. Stars Hollow is the ideal place to live, and to return to after the real world “spits you out” in Babbet’s words. Stars Hollow becomes safe harbor: the small town where everyone knows everyone and everyone’s business— in which town hall meetings are attended, small town festivals are central to social life, and a cast of weird but lovable humans make a community that supports and rallies around Lorelei and Rory as one of their own. This is the picture of small-town America that we want to believe exists or existed somewhere, is still possible, if only we could find Stars Hollow on a Connecticut map (and people do try by the way). The atmosphere of Stars Hollow is a large part of the aesthetic of the show. It is relentlessly positive place, cool in its “uncoolness,” where the worst thing that happens is Kurt (a man with 100 jobs in the show) breaks into Lorelei’s house to install an alarm system that she doesn’t want or need, or kids break out into a fight at a party where, horror of horrors, there is a keg! It is a soothing place, which makes viewers feel comforted by their own nostalgia.
In order to have a place like Stars Hollow, as in the world of Donna Reed, class privilege must be ever present but not seem so. There is no “working class” proper in Stars Hollow, nor is there a precariat. Economic relationships are transmuted in romantic ones, as previously discussed, but small-town America is firmly rooted in the nostalgia of the petit bourgeoisie. There are no corporations in CT apparently—except for the insurance industry that has made Lorelei’s father rich. There is no labor, other than the tourist trade in Stars Hollow, and the construction workers who remodel inns, houses and businesses. Every character on the show has a particular “small town” job, and is usually the proprietor of his/her own business. Even Luke, who has the accoutrement of the common working-class guy—high school graduate, flannels, backward baseball cap—is really a property-owner of two small businesses. Stars Hollow is like a snow globe: economic disparity can’t exist inside its bubble. There are no poor people in Stars Hollow, no closed factories or boarded-up businesses on Main St; no one is ever out of work. This is the “small town” image born in The Saturday Evening Post that we haven’t quite learned to let go of. Even New Haven, where Rory goes to school at Yale, or Hartford, where Rory goes to prep school and where Lorelei’s parents live, are seen as prosperous cities where the elite live—without crime or ghettos. Everyone in Stars Hollow can live on a shopkeeper’s salary—just like Lorelei’s journey to home ownership is paid for by her rise from maid to manager. The one character, Jesse, who takes a part-time job at Wal-Mart is berated by Luke because there is no future in it (and he’s right, but…that’s a little too much realism for the show). A fantasy of economic plenitude awaits Jesse, if only he would quit his job, graduate high school and recognize his true calling: to be a writer. The absurdity of this character’s trajectory is perfectly plausible in the world of Stars Hollow. The Gilmore world is a very small place, far from the global workings of capital.
Economic diversity is one thing, but social diversity is another. The one black character in the show, Michelle, is French, and the stereotypical Frenchman to boot. He is hilarious, but Lorelei can’t quite figure out if they are actually friends because he is even snarkier than she is. The unspoken of the original show, which is made clear in the reboot, is that Michelle is also gay. Lane, Rory’s Korean best friend, might as well be white. More than her race, her strict Christian upbringing is a barrier to her romantic relationships and the modern world view of dating (though not a big one and only serves comedic purposes in the show). Racial difference, diversity of experience, is not focused on or even acknowledged in the world of Stars Hollow. It’s either utopia, or 50s America: everyone is ok, everyone is welcome, as long as there is no real difference, no real strife that will make me as the viewer feel bad about my own economic or social privilege (or lack thereof).
Lastly, and probably most importantly, GG is about mothers and daughters. While the focus of the plots tends to be romantic relationships, the mother/daughter relationship is what the show continually pivots on: sometimes they argue, sometimes they enjoy each other. Literally, this is what mothers and daughters are thought to do—ad infinitum. It’s the balance that’s the difference: Emily argues with Lorelei more often, and Lorelei and Rory argue less; Rory argues with both but only sometimes. But their relationships with each other are quite static. Lorelei is the fun mom, thought to be the ideal in the world of the Gilmores, and among all the fans. She provides financially for Rory, but also gives her encouragement and friendship satisfying Rory’s needs as a way to fulfil her own. Especially in the early years of the show, Rory is clearly the disciplined adult in the relationship enabling Lorelei to be emotionally messy as well as fun-loving. She is, however, never a negligent parent despite becoming one at sixteen—focusing solely on Rory’s wellbeing. Emily was negligent of Lorelei’s emotional needs and so is the bad mother. There is no emotional breakthrough between Lorelei and Emily that ever alters their relationship, nor is Lorelei and Rory’s emotional bond ever broken. Rory is always the good daughter or granddaughter, an amalgam of both women, conventional in all the ways Emily is but fun and emotional just like Lorelei. However, their relationships are curiously static—unalterable but natural, and completely unhealthy. This is the conception of mother-daughter relationships on the show—the ever-present maternal figure that makes or breaks her daughters. Men, fathers, are apparently tangential to this primary relationship; they are either absent (in the case of Christopher); emotionally unavailable (in the case of Richard); or otherwise sidelined to the periphery (Luke, Max or Jason—Lorelei’s boyfriends). So, the real oppression that one must challenge, but never revolve, is maternal.
Would Freud agree? I feel incapable of a psychoanalytic reading, but it’s clear these static relationships enable the comedic turns, the mockery, and it is where most of the interest of the show lies. What’s “pleasurable” about these relationships is that it enables an infantilization of womanhood—Lorelei is the perpetual adolescent of the show. Throwing tantrums, saying inappropriate things (even in the reboot) that rankle her mother, making poor decisions at every turn of her emotional life: this is what makes her a colorful character and attractive woman—mostly to women (though the gaze of the show is to have her be attractive to men). She eats junk food, watches TV and movies for hours; she is like 16 year old who doesn’t age. Luke is a grounding force that injects some amount of common sense into her life, but he has little power to change the maternal dynamic that dominates her life. It’s also clear that while Emily is demonized and Rory is (as my 12 year old daughter says) “relatable” as the ideal of womanhood in the show, Lorelei is the linchpin of the feminine triad. She is the character who wants to be loved, most especially by her mother, but can’t seem to figure out to how to grow up. Emily, conversely, is the consummate “adult,” the worst offence in the world of the show. It also makes her the bad mother: uncool in her interests, hopelessly mature and serious about her obligations to family and social circle, and conventionally wedded to a life partner. She is the albatross around Lorelei’s neck, from which Lorelei is constantly trying to shake free.
There is an unhealthy pleasure in this, psychologically but also socially because it suggests that women are, in fact, children at heart and that undercuts the “feminist” message of the show. The ideological function of the show is to prevent woman from noticing this regressive gender politics by substituting gestures toward feminism while creating an illusion of gender and class equality. Women don’t grow up, can’t move on or forward with the people who are most significant in our lives, or do anything that isn’t inspired by emotion—and more importantly, we shouldn’t want to. We cannot change the basic make-up of our feminine subjectivity. And that subjectivity is locked in a battle with our mothers—a personal and psychological battle, not a social and political one. A social and political one would question why a woman can’t actually be financially independent (Richard’s investment pays not only for the financing of Lorelei’s dream to own her Inn, but also pays for Rory to attend prep school and Yale) or have professions that go beyond “hospitality” at an Inn that looks like a home (Lorelei) or “writing a book” about her relationship with her mother (as Rory does in the reboot) . If the Gilmore girls are static subjects in a static world, that is the fantasy that is attractive: that damn Donna Reed. Because the show is so well-written, so sleek, so seemingly cool in its surface feminism, we tend to overlook this deeply problematic gender and class ideology that leaves no place to question or for change: whether in family structures, mother-daughter relationships, romantic relationships or even communities. GGreflects back to us a more modern version of The Donna Reed Show, but not a more progressive one. And while we keep watching it, being soothed by it, we will not question that ideology either. Women who love the show are comforted to know that it really is all their mothers’ fault. That’s the point.
As I watch the show with my daughter, I wonder if I’ve become Lorelei unknowingly. Too willing to be the “fun” parent, the understanding parent, but not enough of the “parent” á la Emily. There’s lots of criticism these days about permissive parenting, or helicopter parenting that merges the identity of mother/child in a similar way that Lorelei/Rory are merged—Lorelei exclaims at one point “We’re just one person!” after Rory is refused admission to a Shakespeare test at her prep school. The show seems to idealize this kind of parenting, and I do wonder if my daughter thinks that is the model of parenting that is to be aspired to. Does she want me to be Lorelei? As she’s told me, she “relates to” Rory, and she is meant to as the show reaches across generations of women who enjoy the show. And I am doing just what Lorelei and Rory do: binge watching TV with my daughter. Everyone wants a Rory, after all. But while I’m paying attention to this show, binge watching it with my daughter, I also think that I could be doing other things with her. Teaching her how to live: to understand that it’s not the mother’s job to make everything ok for the child, and teaching her to do things for herself that includes domestic chores like cooking, cleaning and doing one’s laundry (all of which are gendered and all of which Lorelei—and Emily—never do in the ultimate feminist gesture). Traditional women’s work is being independent and responsible for oneself regardless of gender. But parenting also includes not being her best friend at times, and making her do things she doesn’t want to do. Good parenting is helping her understand that independence is gained by responsibility and discipline rather than a psychological rejection of her family. A woman’s struggle is more than whether to become a domestic matron or a lovelorn business owner, or to be a cold shrew (as Emily is) or a fun-loving narcissist (like Lorelei). As much as I love my Gilmore Girls, the imaginary pleasure serves the purpose of maintaining the kinds of gendered associations that in the abstract I rationally despise, and reinforcing the relationships that enable women, particularly, to avoid questioning any responsibility toward making gender/class equity real, assuming that’s what women really want in the end. What we are motivated to do instead, is to feel satisfied with the status quo in a representation that hasn’t changed much from 1950s America.