Girlhood is liminal. It’s like an inhale, all anticipation. I like thinking of myself as a girl, instead of a woman. I am interested in perpetual girlhood, I like to think of my adolescence as ongoing. It’s a way to create distance between me and adulthood, to separate myself from responsibility. I like re-watching trashy films I watched when I was 12 or 13 – reliving the belligerence I felt watching the English boarding school antics of Wild Child (2008), the romantic humiliations of Angus, Thongs and the Perfect Snogging (2008). I like to see girlhood in motion. I like Sofia Coppola films. I like watching Kirsten Dunst play a dauphine who lives in a dream-like state; running through a field of white flowers, to a soundtrack of New Order and The Strokes. I like the feeling of potential and levity. I like to pretend I still live in a teenage world.
It may be these impulses that led me to watch Gilmore Girls, for the first time, last year, during lockdown. Gilmore Girls follows Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) Gilmore – a young, single mother and her sixteen year old daughter. The dynamic between Lorelai and Rory is the narrative starting point and crux of the show. They are close. This closeness exists, in part, because Rory is the result of a teenage pregnancy. Gilmore Girls invests itself in Rory’s girlhood. It indulges a vision of this girlhood: plaid skirts, bibliophilia, good grades, virginity, concerned teachers. Rory is a good girl. Lorelai – the protagonist of the show and the 30-something year old mother of Rory – engages in a kind of girlhood as well. She is irresponsible, needy, impulsive, emotionally unavailable. She is the opposite of virginal – she was a teenage mother. Lorelai lives in a state of arrested development, as if she stopped growing up the moment she got pregnant. She is a bad girl.
Despite these Madonna-Whore allusions and the age gap between Lorelai and Rory, the show is unique in allowing both of them to ‘come of age’ at their own pace, to grow up without sacrificing youth. Semantics are important here. Gilmore Girls is about a mother and daughter; Rory is sixteen and Lorelai is in her early thirties – but they are both girls. Gilmore Girls allows for the possibility of a perpetual kind of girlhood. It reminds its audience of the rapture of being a girl, the vitality of it.
Cinematic representations of girlhood are often dismissed by critics as shallow; not important or morally grave enough for serious attention. The dismissal of Sofia Coppola’s talent is the most obvious emblem of this tendency. Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette – her most feminine, visually symbolic and emotionally complex work – was booed at Cannes. Her films have been described as “tedious vacuity, uncritically rendered,” (Phillip French), “only for girls and gays” (Rolling Stone) and “like a manicurist aiming to capture the inner experience of your pinkie” (Anthony Lane). As Anna Backman Rogers tells us, “the misogynistic implication that is embarrassingly evident here is that Coppola’s ‘pretty’ and decorative mise-en-scene is taken to signify nothing beyond its pleasing surface…her oeuvre is frequently likened to cinematic pastry, a delightful cream puff, full of delicious air but lacking in meaty (and masculine) substance.” Like the work of Sofia Coppola, Gilmores Girls is unique in its interest in girlhood. Also like the work of Sofia Coppola, Gilmore Girls is often dismissed because of this preoccupation with girlhood; patronised for lacking “masculine substance.”
Gilmore Girls has also not been afforded the same level of cultural significance as other female-centred shows of its era, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sex and The City. Buffy has recently gained a special and sentimental place as a shrine to queerness, especially for LGBTQIA women. And Sex and the City was, as Emily Nussbaum notes, a forerunner in the current television obsession with female anti-heroes. Without the bratty narcissism of Carrie Bradshaw, perhaps we would not have Fleabag or Hannah Horvath. Although Gilmore Girls is adored by a cultish following, large enough to facilitate a successful reboot, it is not taken as seriously, nor given the same level of wider, critical attention as these other shows of the early 2000s. It is strange therefore to apply critique and moral seriousness to a show that has been afforded little of either. To do so is to navigate a kind of cultural no-man’s land. The blank page prompts reflexive justifications – like this one. I question what draws me to the show. I negotiate insecurities about taste, I rehash the same dull high-low culture debates. I remember I stopped watching The Sopranos (acclaimed, hard, cool, masculine) for Gilmore Girls (not acclaimed, fuzzy, uncool, feminine).
Gilmore Girls is often characterised as too twee, too smug, too low-stakes. Fair enough. It can be a frustrating and contradictory show. It takes place in a classless, apolitical, utopian Connecticut town named Stars Hollow. Although money is a driving narrative force of the show – the pilot opens with Lorelai asking her Waspy parents for money to fund Rory’s schooling – class is performed as an aesthetic point of difference, rather than a material one. As TV scholar Daniela Mastrocoola tells us, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s depiction of wealth inequality concerns itself solely with “individual autonomy and interpersonal dynamics,” obscuring structural factors and the material realities of class differences. Gilmore Girls is also sexless, drained of any libidinal energy or drive. This is especially strange because the entire conceit of the show begins with a sex act – a teenage pregnancy. Gilmore Girls interfaces with reality sporadically and selectively.
In spite of these contradictions and political oversights, Gilmore Girls is a deliberate and well-constructed show – held together by the auteurism of its creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. I use the word auteur – instead of showrunner – deliberately. Like Sofia Coppola, Amy Sherman-Palladino has the qualities of a true auteur: a distinct and unique sensibility, a specific worldview, and the ability to translate both into her work. The Sherman-Palladino signatures – speed of dialogue for its own sake, chronic intertextuality, an autumnal Waspy aesthetic – allow her to construct a stylised, idealised world. In her dialogue, Sherman-Palladino flirts with moral seriousness and then pushes it away – offering occasional overt arguments in favour of community, love and authenticity. Underneath that dialogue however, these values underpin the entire show, they give it its warmth and its comfort. This allows Sherman-Palladino to offer her viewers an endearing argument for a kinder, more loving world, without having a moralistic effect. Sherman-Palladino picks up cultural artefacts (Sylvia Plath, Susan Faludi, Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal and the Brady Bunch Christmas Special among them) as if they were inconsequential; everything flattens out into pithy one-liners.
In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes that ‘that is what the time when my mother was alive before me is – History (moreover, it is the period which interests me most, historically).’ To have a mother is to be mortal. There will always be a gap between mothers and daughters, mothers and sons – the gap created by the time when one was alive without the other. As Eugenie Brinkema notes, in Gilmore Girls, “speed is the formal impulse that attempts to close the gap that generates failure, history, finitude, and the ontological gulf of mother-daughter time itself.” She goes on to say, “Gilmore Girls is a show that is as much about speed, allusion, density, and excess as it is about mothers and daughters and, furthermore, that this is a series in which mother-daughter closeness is as much a formal strategy as any of the above traits of language.” This is its genius.
Sherman-Palladino interweaves form and content carefully. Quick dialogue and shared, excessive cultural allusions become the way that Lorelai and Rory understand each other and the way the audience understands their closeness – which is the centre of the show. It’s their favourite kind of language. Eugenie Brinkema extends this a little further. “Intertextelasticity has an insistently taut material presence,” she writes. ‘It stretches but never rips. The elasticity of televisual play in Gilmore Girls permits an extended relationship to surface meaning without collapsing back into a depth structure of uncover and recovery.’ Intertextuality is the key to the audience understanding the depth of Lorelai and Rory’s relationship. It is the allusions to Bananarama and Dido and Anne Sexton and PJ Harvey that pulls the audience into the central mother-daughter dynamic.
“I believe that people are born evil,” Amy Sherman Palladino said in an interview with the New Statesman in 2017, ‘and you have to beat goodness into them. I don’t believe it’s the other way round.’ More than anything, Gilmore Girls is a testament to this belief, to a line of reasoning that values goodness and decency. It does what most good TV does best: holds a strong moral core without moralising or lecturing its audience. Like The Sopranos or The Wire, Gilmore Girls always follows its own logic. Sherman Palladino constructs for her audience a world that we believe in, the kind of world we want to live in.
by Bella Suckling
Bella Suckling (she/her) is a writer living in Naarm (Melbourne). She is a co-host of the cultural and political commentary podcast Clitical Thought. You can find her on Instagram (@bellasuckling).
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism, TV
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