Editing by Vicki Madden
Art: ‘Young Mother Sewing’ by Mary Cassatt
Gilmore Girls is a charming, idyllic television show with a large millennial fan base. The series focusses on mother-daughter duo Lorelai and Rory and their lives in the quirky New England town of Stars Hollow. Lorelai conceived Rory as a teenager and fled both her boyfriend and her wealthy, overbearing parents to raise Rory alone whilst living and working as a maid at an inn. At the outset of the show, we find Lorelai reaching back out to her parents, who have never quite forgiven her for cutting them out of her life, to ask for a loan to pay for Rory’s new private school (Rory is an archetypal brainiac with ambitions of studying at Harvard). From there onwards the show explores themes of family, friendship, work, love, ambition and all the small things that add up to make a life. Viewers most often describe the dynamic between Lorelei and Rory as more like best friends than mother and daughter – which is in fact the way creator Amy Sherman Palladino originally pitched the show (Lockett 2015) – and the Gilmore girls do indeed support each other through their individual and shared problems as best friends would. But the show is also a more general exploration of women and their relationships of all kinds, good and bad.
I first came across the show on a day off sick from school and was instantly engrossed by the all-day GG marathon scheduled on some highly numbered freeview channel. The famously fast-paced dialogue littered with more pop culture references than you could imagine possible hooked me initially, but I think I stayed with the show for the first onscreen portrayal of a single-mother/only-daughter household that I had ever seen, although perhaps not realising it at the time.
Like Rory, I grew up as an only child to a single working mother who, like Lorelai (and many single mothers the world over), did all that was in her means to give me the best possible life. She made a single salary work in a way that it never felt like it wasn’t enough, although years later I learnt that sometimes it wasn’t. Food was also a large source of bonding for us: like Lorelai, my mum helped me develop a long-lasting and positive* relationship with food as both sustenance and a bottomless source of pleasure, as opposed to using the damaging and value laden attitudes mothers often impart to their daughters about food (Waterhouse 1997). And, like Rory, I inherited my mother’s passion for strong black coffee. We also shared a supportive relationship, which, like theirs, contained complexities and went through a prolonged rocky patch when I, like Rory, began to make independent, yet questionable decisions about my life, counter to the semi-co-pilot style that our mothers had generously engaged in before (Rory at college, me at around 11).
Yet, whilst (unsurprisingly – it is television after all) there are probably more differences than similarities between Lorelai and my mother, and Rory and me, seeing a family structure just like mine, in which a father is perceived as an unnecessary addition, was incredible. Rory knows and generally likes her father. I do not and have never really known or been interested in mine. Of course, in many cases, a father can and should be legally required to make economic contributions to the upkeep of a child, but the normative claim that without a father, a child will necessarily suffer in the long run from a wide-ranging list of emotional problems (see Kruk, for example) is ludicrous. Gilmore Girls shows that single motherhood can work perfectly well for both mother and child and might even be desirable outwith situations where the father is an abusive presence.
Representation of diverse realities onscreen and in literature is extremely important and validating for those who live them. Nowadays, multiple films and television shows are filled with depictions of families with positive differences that work for them, such as Modern Family and Parenthood, but Gilmore Girls was at the time truly progressive in portraying a woman who had chosen to raise a child by herself and did so successfully, rather than being forced into the situation by factors outside of her control, such as the oft-relied upon trope of an absent and/or deadbeat dad.
Gilmore Girls would easily fit into syllabi exploring representations of diverse and non-normative family structures, depictions of mother-daughter relationships and even onscreen portrayals of women’s relationships with food. It may even be worthwhile to trace a genealogy of the shows that Gilmore Girls has spawned; for instance, Jane the Virgin drew inspiration from Gilmore Girls (O’Connell), to create a show about a Latinx family which also featured a teen pregnancy leading to a close single-mother/only-daughter bond.
The show is, however, not without its problems. Whilst it was novel in its family structure depiction, and is often lauded as a feminist masterpiece due to its almost unwavering focus on women, there is a definite lack of diversity amongst the cast and characters along the lines of race, sexuality, class and disability and is even littered with homophobic jokes throughout all seven seasons. It would therefore also fit well into syllabi exploring the conceits, fallacies and normalising of white heteronormative feminism (somewhat explored already in Stern and Johns and Smith for example).
* For any fans of the show it will be clear that I am setting the bar for a healthy and positive attitude to food fairly low – the titular characters tend to eat only burgers, pizzas and other forms of take-out but I would choose this joyous relationship with food over a constant fretting about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods any day.
Johns, Erin K., and Kristin L. Smith. “Welcome to Stars Hollow: Gilmore Girls, Utopia and the Hyperreal.” Gilmore Girls and the Politics of Identity: essays on family and feminism in the television series, edited by Calvin Ritch, McFarland, 2008, pp. 23-34.
Kruk, Edward. “Father Absence, Father Deficit, Father Hunger.” Psychology Today, 23 May 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/co-parenting-after-divorce/201205/father-absence-father-deficit-father-hunger. Accessed: 7 Jan. 2017.
Lockett, Dee. “6 Fun Facts About Gilmore Girls.” Vulture, 11 June 2015, http://www.vulture.com/2015/06/6-fun-facts-about-gilmore-girls.html. Accessed: 7 Jan. 2017.
O’Connell, Michael. “‘Jane the Virgin’ Showrunner Wants ‘Ugly Betty’ Meets ‘Gilmore Girls.’” The Hollywood Reporter¸ 18 July 2014, http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/live-feed/jane-virgin-showrunner-wants-ugly-719620. Accessed: 7 Jan. 2017.
Stern, Danielle M. “It takes a classless, heteronormative utopian village: Gilmore Girls and the problem of postfeminism.” The Communication Review 15.3 (2012): 167-186.
Waterhouse, Debra. Like Mother, Like Daughter: how to break free from the female food trap. Collins Educational, 1997.
About the author:
Nadia Mehdi is a philosophy postgraduate student at Sheffield University. Her research interests lie in the philosophy of feminism, the philosophy of race, the philosophy of art and interdisciplinary studies of culture.