In defence of Rory Gilmore: The Gilmore Girls under the lens

Gilmore Girls (the hit TV series created by Amy Sherman-Palladinohas successfully revived itself after all seven seasons were added to Netflix recently, and a special eighth season was announced (resulting in an en masse return to Stars Hollow). Since the announcement, I don’t think there’s been a day where I haven’t seen someone discussing the show over social media. Along with the influx of viewers, there has been pieces floating around about the show, boasting criticisms on how ‘overrated’ the show is, how ‘overrated’ Rory is, and there was a particular piece doing the rounds discussing how Paris Geller deserved everything Rory got in life (which I can’t find right now, but when I do I’ll update with a link). I watched Gilmore Girls with my mum when I was younger, and watching it again over the last five weeks I’ve realised that the Gilmore Girls phenomenon has so much depth to it, it’s no wonder that nearly 10 years later people are still talking about it. As with all popular TV shows and all popular anything, really, there are a number of people who delight in heavy criticism of the characters and the show itself. Criticism is inevitable, and useful, so long as it’s constructive. If effectively voiced, criticism can spark a debate, and if it is faceted enough, it can be testament to the existing material and the ability of the writers, directors, and actors, to bring a story to life in such a way that it becomes believable and worthy of profound levels of critique.

The judgement laden on Rory Gilmore’s character is, perhaps, unfair. To say she does not deserve things she works for compared to Paris, is unfair. In fact, most of the criticisms I’ve seen pertaining to Rory have been unfair. Lorelai Gilmore gave birth to Rory when she was effectively a child herself. S3E13, ‘Dear Emily and Richard’, shows a flashback of 16 year old Lorelai who was every bit as willful, stubborn and frustrating as her character could be described as an adult. At the beginning of Gilmore Girls, we meet Rory when she is 16 and Lorelai just 32. One has to imagine that 16 year old Lorelai arrived in Stars Hollow stubbornly attempting to make something of her life. She worked and lived at the Independence Inn for years, which she only achieved through the kindness of the people living in Stars Hollow at the time, giving a whole new layer to the term ‘it takes a village’. Lorelai walked out on affluence and privilege and into a life of hard work and sacrifice – no mean feat for any adult, let alone teenager, to achieve – and as a result, made sure Rory never felt the brunt of the burden of being totally alone. While utterly imperfect as a parent, Lorelai did her best to shield Rory from the realities of starting an independent life as suddenly as she did and encouraged her to make the best of herself.

With that in mind, Rory’s time at Chilton is sharply contrasted to Paris’s. Rory was brought up to believe she could do well. She didn’t doubt herself too often because self-doubt was never an option. It wasn’t wrong – it just didn’t happen. Lorelai, Emily and Richard, the rest of Stars Hollow, were all aware that Rory worked hard and achieved and there was never any question of her not doing well. Any perceived failure was met with consolation and support. Rory went through school life never once having to suffer ridicule or criticism for her work without the support of someone who felt she had done her best. Indeed, in the episode where she is not allowed sit a test at Chilton for being late, her mother is there to fight her corner immediately. Failure was never a question for Rory because it wasn’t in her nature to fail, and any non-success she encountered saw her spirits bolstered by her friends and family who all wanted the best for her, and reminded her regularly that she was worthy and that failing did not make her a failure. Rory worked hard through school and Yale, and got the results to show for it. In stark contrast, Paris was never given the option of failure. Her family expected her to achieve, achieve, achieve, even in their extended absences where she’d be left in the company of her Portuguese nanny (presumably selected to enable Paris to learn a foreign language in her own home). Achieving, and overachieving, became the essence of her personality, alongside an unhealthy competitive streak. Achieving was not a reward to her, merely a stepping stone for her to push herself further and further. Other students were competition and a threat against the very core of everything she’d built herself around. Failure was not an option. Failure was not something she could do. Both Rory and Paris were chronic overachievers, but Rory’s desire to achieve was based in something healthier (though arguably not entirely healthy) than Paris’s.

Even in comparing the two in the context of academia and family structure, it is unfair to say that Paris ‘deserved’ the things that Rory got. Paris had a number of issues, yes, but had she been afforded the same continuous successes as Rory, she may never have come to a point where she was able to somewhat resolve her issues of insecurity. Not getting into Harvard was the making of Paris. Choosing to not go to Harvard was the making of Rory. That’s not to say that had she gotten into Harvard that Paris would not have made attempts to deal with notable schemas and self esteem issues, but the fact she attempted to better herself in a holistic fashion before the commencement of the chapter in life that is college perhaps helped her life pan out better than it would have had she continued into Harvard on a high, with the negative connotations of over-achieving hanging over her in a way they did not for Rory. Simply because Paris had it harder than Rory does not mean Rory did not work hard and diligently to achieve the way she did. Even the fact she got accepted into Chilton in the first place is testament to the fact that Rory worked for what she got, as a child coming from a public school from a single parent family without the high income earners that Chilton students can rely on. Not only that, but suggesting Rory got everything Paris deserves undermines the gravity of the instances where she did fail – not getting to take the test at Chilton, getting her first ever D grade, being told to drop a subject at Yale after trying to take on as much as Richard Gilmore did before her, being told by Mitchum Huntzberger that she didn’t ‘have it’ and wouldn’t make a good journalist. Each of these failures surmised a pretty big learning experience for Rory in the same way as not getting into Harvard was for Paris. I’ve seen many critiques of Rory for giving up after being told she didn’t ‘have it’ by Huntzberger, but the important thing to remember here is that she had never, ever been told she couldn’t do something before. Rather than in the case of the spoiled child who doesn’t want to hear no, Rory’s desire to achieve, although supported, made for the rocky foundations of self-esteem defined only by how good she was. Her entire life was built on a dream of going to an Ivy League college and becoming a journalist like Christiane Amanpour. If one’s entire identity is built on dreams and goals, having someone shatter that is going to be chalked up as a failure. Hearing ‘no’ meant hearing ‘you failed’.

Evaluating the fact that Lorelai did a pretty good job bringing Rory up, especially given her circumstances, it’s important to also look at Lorelai as a person. It’s easy to see, even from the flashback episode, that having Rory did not make her grown up. Throughout the seven seasons (though this wained a little in season 7) she maintained her childlike defiance and an inability to resolve conflict. Perhaps a desire to avoid conflict led Rory to try so hard to achieve. It’s hard to know, but what is evident is that her bookish ways and love for learning were celebrated and a very firm part of her identity. Lorelai worked hard to disassociate herself from the typical ‘mom’ image and established that she and Rory were ‘friends first, mom and daughter second’. Perhaps this is the most appealing part of Gilmore Girls, as they presented an enviable, idyllic mother-daughter relationship, and most of the Stars Hollow residents seemed to treat Lorelai and Rory as sisters and best friends before mother and daughter. There are many things I could hypothesise about Lorelai, but the most evident is that she was so determined to not end up like Emily Gilmore that through the seven seasons, her character went full circle. Lorelai had lived the life of affluence for 16 years, attempting to defy all of Richard and Emily’s rules and demands in an effort to assert herself as an individual (which is not something unique to Lorelai and I imagine many can relate). In going out on her own so young, Lorelai never really learned conflict resolution, or how to maintain stable relationships, or how to really express her feelings. Her parents approved of Christopher but when she fell pregnant they wanted her to marry him, which understandably jarred with her desire to be an individual. Having never been given the opportunity to really discuss her feelings without it descending into a row, Lorelai’s first response is to withdraw, whether that occur through leaving, or not expressing her feelings. Throughout the seven seasons Lorelai embarked on a number of turbulent relationships with Max, Digger, Christopher, Luke and probably someone else which all had really unhealthy features that mostly boiled down to lack of communication. Watching it now, ten years on, it’s easy to see Lorelai is still a defiant teenager in many ways.

As a result of this, Rory’s relationships weren’t particularly healthy either. It’s important to note that Lane Kim, her neighbour and best friend, also doubled as her only friend. While Paris did eventually become Rory’s friend – and only through a combination of Rory attempting to reach out, and Lorelai and Sookie bringing Paris, Madeline and Louise to a The Bangles concert – it was through a severe amount of effort, and after a sizeable amount of time at Chilton had passed. In that same vein, Rory met Logan at Yale, but made no friends outside of Paris until Paris threw her out of their apartment and thus into the friendly arms of Olivia and Lucy. I don’t think anyone can say for sure if this was intentional or not, but it may be that part of Rory’s character is to not trust people, which could in part be something instilled in her from Lorelai, and in part a small-town outlook. Rory’s romantic relationships suffered in a similar way. Her first boyfriend was lauded as a lovely ‘nice’ guy by Lorelai and the Stars Hollow residents, but from a viewer’s perception, but Dean Forester was not a nice guy. He was jealous, emotionally manipulative and for some reason thought Rory belonged in the kitchen a la Donna Reed, but instead of Rory taking a feminist stand and telling him no, she belongs in a Harvard alumnus photograph, she indulges him on his twisted fantasy in S1E14 (‘That Damn Donna Reed’) – because he was ‘a nice guy’. Far too many episodes involved Rory running off to ‘make things up to Dean’ and not a single person sat her down to tell her that there was something wrong with him. Granted, when Jess appeared on the scene, he was overtly a quiet, brooding bad boy and people were quicker to try protect Rory from him. Sadly, Jess was not the one she needed to worry about. Jess was a 17 year old boy with a lot of emotional baggage that he’d eventually learn to shoulder and would make something of himself. Dean, on the other hand, married a girl he barely liked at 18 in an effort to prove to all of Stars Hollow, and Rory, that he was over her. Similarly, Rory’s relationship with Logan was tumultuous and I feel the only reason it lasted (through scripting) is because he had her financially dependent on him in a lot of ways and leaving would possibly feel like another failure.

Of course, Lorelai not being able to spot the fact that her daughter’s first boyfriend was emotionally abusive is not her fault. Looking at the relationship between herself and Emily, it’s no wonder Lorelai remained sarcastic and obstinate and very emotionally unavailable. While it’s easy to place blame on Emily and Richard’s parenting, it’s also easy to see that Emily always tried to do the right thing. Her entire life, her marriage to Richard, came from her coming from a world where getting married and being a homemaker was the job she was expected to do. Emily had a history degree and was educated as well as affluent, but we learn in S4E16 (‘Lorelai ‘Trix’ Gilmore) that Richard’s mother had deemed Emily unsuitable as a wife for him. Despite Richard marrying her anyway, it’s clear that three generations of Gilmore girls have a history of fighting feelings of inadequacy. Although never alluded to, one can assume that in naming Lorelai after Richard’s mother, Emily constantly made attempts (in her own little way) to appease Trix and get her to like her, which contrasts Lorelai naming Rory after herself, as Lorelai seemingly wanted Rory to end up more like herself than like a Gilmore. Not expressing feelings was a cultural norm in Emily’s world, but one that bred difficulties for both her daughter and her granddaughter, who were not privy to the cultural contexts of affluent society for most of their lives. As the seasons progress, seemingly selfish moves on Emily’s part are explained as viewers get closer to her as a character and begin to understand that most of her motivations – get this – come from a desire to achieve. Although her achievements are not academic, they carry a social weight which is important in the circles she moves in. Often well-intentioned, Emily regularly tries to do the right thing, even if it doesn’t seem that way. She plays games and can be regarded as quite passive, but at the crux of it all, she just wants and needs things to work out – as praise, respect and admiration for her achievements are an intrinsic part of her character.

What all of this means, simply, is that despite the fictitious nature of Gilmore Girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino succeeded in creating real, flawed people with real, flawed stories and backgrounds. She succeeded in illustrating real family connections, and how generations of family members relate, and how despite the ages and times they grew up in, they’re really not all that different. Putting the Gilmore girls under the lens served to illustrate the depth to which their characters have been developed, and offered an alternative view to the Rory-bashing form of criticism that often happens. Given how well-rounded the Gilmores were by the end of season 7, I look forward to season 8 and seeing how the four special episodes flesh out character growth of parts that haven’t been played by the cast in almost ten years. As far as revivals go, I’m hoping season 8 will be as true to the original as possible. Only time will tell.

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