Feminist Criticism / TV

Confronting Privilege and Feminine Constructs in the Gilmore Girls Revival

The much-anticipated revival of Gilmore Girls was met with various criticisms. Most were directed at the “sudden” unlikeablitiy of the girls themselves, particularly the Ivy League princess Rory. As the Washington Post’s overtly harsh headline put it, the revival confirmed that “Rory Gilmore is a Monster.” But was Rory Gilmore ever meant to be “liked” (which is a vague and shifting term in and of itself)? Many viewers expressed frustration at the fact that Rory did not grow—and that her trajectory did not fulfill the televisual or cinematic expectations of an upward trajectory. This raises larger questions about how audiences consume television and its representation of the female.

The Palladinos shoe-horn their original idea for the final season of the show into a new piece documenting the Gilmore’s lives ten years later. Many critics commented that their original intentions fit better for a recent college graduate as opposed to a woman in her early thirties. Such a long separation led many audience members to have high expectations about where their favorite gal pals were in life. Many envisioned Rory living her dreams as a full-time reporter and her only quandary being her choice of beau. For the many audience members who view Gilmore Girls as a comfort food for the soul, the fantasy of the season seven finale: Rory’s farewell party, meeting her childhood hero, and getting a dream gig covering Obama’s presidential campaign is as sickeningly sweet as the cornucopia of treats the girls relentlessly gorge themselves on. That ending redeems Lorelai’s sacrifice and positions Rory once again as the star of Stars Hollow. The revival completely upheaves this, envisioning Rory as a struggling freelancer who cheats on her boyfriend with an engaged man and finds herself single, pregnant, and jobless by the new finale.  The Palladinos’ ending ominously fulfills the full-circle premonition of the opening credits: “Where you lead, I will follow.”

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life confirms that once Rory entered the privileged world of her grandparents, it fundamentally changed her character for the worst. Her lack of financial worries combined with Stars Hollow’s collective doting and inexorable praise caged Rory within her own vainglorious bubble. We saw how she collapsed under the one bit of criticism from Logan’s father, or receiving a D at Chilton. Rory has never truly had to work for much in her life, and this persistent acclaim and privilege has clearly led her to become enormously self-entitled. Throughout the revival Rory scoffs at and squanders several opportunities such as a teaching position at Chilton and a cringe-worthy interview for a publication where she cannot come up with a single pitch. Rory’s reassuring bubble is popped, and this frustrates viewers who embraced the upward mobility of her character solidified by the season seven ending. For Kaitlyn Tiffany at The Verge, the revival’s finale shows “female ambition cut off at the knees. It’s hurtful to see talented, brainy, driven Rory spiraling out 10 years down the line because she still has a terrible self-aggrandizing attitude.”

Yet considering this was the Palladino’s original intention, perhaps Gilmore Girls is not the confectionary we thought of it as. Gilmore Girls can now be read as the story of a teen mother who, in her attempt to escape a suffocating lifestyle, ends up overcompensating the alternative and damaging Rory in the process; molding Rory into a spoiled brat raised to believe everything should be handed to her. This may be a dark subtext to hand to what was originally a bright WB coming-of-age comedy, but it is hard to ignore in light of the revival.

Detaching a bit from the Gilmore Girls universe, I want to consider the idea of the unlikeable woman. In many television shows, especially the The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, the leading male characters are given a pass for deplorable behavior while the female characters, typically their wives, are scorned and labeled a “bitch.” Audience members are encouraged to identify with these leading anti-heroes such as Tony Soprano and Walter White. This comes at the expense of the female characters, for such identification is rarely extended to female anti-hero protagonists. Shana Mlawski conducted a quantitative study to determine how viewers consume women in media. Drawing from a 100 favorite characters poll from Entertainment Weekly, she concluded that viewers are receptive to a wide variety of male character types but prefer women to occupy oppositional ends of the spectrum–unflinching evil or submissive naiveté.  The men, however, “range across the entirety of human experience, from Shrek to David Brent to Edward Scissorhands…etc.” For women, there is no in between.

Therefore, I would like to suggest that instead of being frustrated at the lack of growth of the lead characters, we should credit Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life for having a female character that discovers harsh realities of her detrimental upbringing. Rory learns that money and status cannot buy success, even if you try to deny having it in the first place. In both television and film, there is an incessant need to construct female characters as perfect beings, models that no real woman can live up to. We cannot accept the indefinable gray of a personality when it comes to a woman on screen, but fully embrace it in a man. Perhaps this is what makes the revival interesting and worthy. Why are we so adamant to admonish a woman in her thirties who does not have it all together, however ambitious or successful she was as a young girl? This is a very credible reality that many women could relate to. Women are pressured by an ageist society to have their lives together by a certain expiration date that usually ends within their mid-twenties. It is a reality for many to fall short of these unfair and hard-to-reach expectations.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life celebrates, if not wallows, in the flaws of its characters. And such a position from a major component of the television institution is refreshing. The revival reveals that not all television shows have to have an obligation to enforce a bow-tie, wholly satisfying ending, nor does the female character have to occupy a singularized and successful position in life for her to be a worthy and satisfactory protagonist. Although present in the original series, the revival fully exposes the beloved mother-daughter team as highly unpleasant and frustrating women. Perhaps the revival’s changes would have been easier to swallow for long-time fans had they not been waiting nearly a decade to see how their favorite characters were doing. Any less-than-shiny Stars Hollow existence would surely be disappointing to them.

by Caroline Madden

Caroline hails from the home state of her hero Bruce Springsteen. Some of her favorite films are Amadeus, King Kong, When Harry Met Sally, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Jaws, and An American Werewolf in London. Her absolute favorite will always be The Lord of the Rings trilogy. 70s/80s era Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are her faves. She blogs even more about her film obsession at cinematicvisions.wordpress.com.

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