Recently, it was announced that Gilmore Girls would become available on Netflix starting October. A couple of my friends had been hesitating to start this series, and I think Netflix offers them an easy way to try it. Then one of them asked me, “Why do you like this show so much?”
As a feminist and a lover of the arts, it’s hard to accept the portrayal of women in fiction. Setting aside the obviously offensive objectification of women onscreen, I’m more disturbed by the subtle ways in which female characters are ill-served. Take, for example, a series that was hailed in its time as a smart, honest portrayal of women: Sex and the City. To my mind, that show was nothing resembled smart or honest. Sure, it gave us the heretofore unconceivable revelation that women like sex, but beyond that, the women were all cartoons. They sat around musing about clothes and men… and that’s it. They were caricatures of what writers think women are, rather than real women.
Gilmore Girls took a different approach. Though all promotional materials for the series feature Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel (who play mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore), there are actually THREE Gilmore girls. The jawdroppingly amazing Kelly Bishop plays Emily Gilmore, Lorelai’s mother, and the third part of the narrative triangle that drives the series.
The first season begins when 32 year old Lorelai discovers that her brilliant daughter Rory has been accepted into Chilton, an very exclusive and very expensive private school, one which only takes the most brilliant minds to prepare them for Ivy League colleges. Lorelai, a single mom, ran away from home when she was 16 due to her unplanned pregnancy, and has avoided contact with her upper crust parents ever since. Now, all that stands between her beloved Rory and the school of their dreams is the money and influence that Lorelai walked away from years before. Her parents, Richard and Emily, are very curious about their granddaughter, and they agree to pay for Rory’s schooling… on the condition that Lorelai and Rory have dinners with them EVERY Friday night until Rory graduates.
Though Richard and other male characters feature prominently on the show, the series is true to its title. The women of the Gilmore family are front and center, and the complexities of their lives and personalities are a joy to behold. Unlike other fictional portrayals of women, which focus almost exclusively on their relationships to men, Gilmore Girls is concerned with these women’s relationships to each other, as well as their ambitions, their dreams, their shortcomings, and their shared bond. Emily resents Lorelai- every day- for leaving home, and makes regular disparaging remarks about Lorelai’s choices. But she also loves her daughter deeply and tries (mostly without success) to connect with her. The saddest moments in the series are when Emily realizes the myriad of ways in which Lorelai has kept her out of the most important moments of her life, as well as Rory’s. For her part, Lorelai feels a great deal of contempt for everything that her mother believes and represents. Though she tries to cope with humor, her jokes have a bite that makes it clear she is not ready to come back into the family fold. Lorelai loves Rory, and considers that they are best friends, which makes it all the more baffling when Rory connects with her grandparents to a much greater degree than Lorelai herself. As for Rory, she’s trying to navigate the world through the dueling influences of her mother and grandmother, but she mostly takes after her bookish grandfather.
It is interesting to me that the women all have different life goals, and that these goals matter to the series. Emily wants to be a woman of influence in her local society scene. Lorelai wants to complete her interrupted education and save up money to start a business of her own. Rory wants to be a world-class journalist. The show CELEBRATES these women’s ambitions instead of mocking and/or punishing them, or worse, ignoring them altogether in favor of their romantic encounters. Rory is the first television teen I’ve seen that delights (as I did) in reading and studying rather than buying clothes or looking for a cute guy to date. One scene in the pilot rang particularly true, as it mirrored one from my own life: Rory, oblivious or uncaring about the reaction she’ll receive, opts for a long school uniform skirt. Most teenage girls (particularly as perceived by male writers) would be written to raise the hems on their skirts or try to sneak in a little make-up to school. Not Rory, and not me, and not many of us who fall outside of the stereotype that plagues so many female teenage characters. While most such characters can’t think beyond this week, Rory (like many teen girls) cares about her future, and works hard to achieve her career ambitions.
This insightful portrait of what it means to be a girl and a woman is owed to series creator and writer Amy Sherman Palladino, who wrote the lion’s share of the show’s 153 episodes. Clearly, she feels empathy for each of the women she is writing, and it shows. They are multi-faceted, flawed, and exceptional, all at the same time. Gilmore Girls unapologetically celebrates girlishness without ever being reductive about what girlishness is (many people make the mistake of equating girlishness with vapidity). The show has a wit that is fast and unrelenting (scripts were reportedly twice as long as regular 1-hour programs), full of obscure and not-obscure references. The speed brings to mind His Girl Friday, and Lorelai/Rory have more than a little in common with Hildy Johnson. Despite the fast dialogue, storylines are developed slowly, with resentments and arguments boiling up over the course of seasons (one notable argument in Season 6 was 6 seasons in the making!).
The fictional Connecticut town in which the characters reside, Stars Hollow, is fully realized with an almost Simpsons-level of attention to town residents. When the Gilmores need to eat out, or get their car repaired, viewers know the characters they will encounter in each location, just like we know Homer Simpson is going to see Moe when he steps out for a drink or Lenny when he goes to work. It is notable that the people of Stars Hollow exist in a hyper-reality of sorts, and a hilarious, loony one, at that. They are the “medy” part of “dramedy” here, since the Gilmores represent that “drama.”
I purchased the series on DVD, and I would definitely recommend that interested viewers catch it on Netflix next month. It is one of the few series I have watched all the way through multiple times, and the structure of the show, as well the writing and the acting just get better each time.