Gilmore Girls and Writing in Others’s Book Margins

A few months ago on Twitter:

Then I saw this thread about MMM, which brings up whether the show is ‘good’ but particularly if it and its titular protagonist are self-aware and . . . well, here we are. A slew of thoughts about writing, responsibility, depiction of reality versus fantasy, etc. A mini-treatise on ‘accurate writing and responsibility to craft’ versus ‘idealised writing and responsibility to impressionable viewers.’

I’m curious to hear your thoughts in the comments; both your thoughts on whether or how much responsibility certain types of shows have to types of depiction, and your ‘preferences’ IE the types of shows you most enjoy as a viewer, and how consciously aware you are of how they impact your interactions with those around you.

Housekeeping first: this is not a Jess Appreciation Post, nor will I insist Rory and Jess should have remained together in this season or subsequent ones. I will note he’s the only one of Rory’s boyfriends who apologises, made big life moves, grew and improved himself, and didn’t cheat on his wife; all despite having by far the most fucked-up family life and non-existent support system. And he turned the sprinkler back on.

This is also not an Amy Sherman-Palladino Defence Post. Like all writers she has problems and blind spots, including: fat jokes, sidelining the few not-white characters who populate her worlds, and clinging to plotlines far past their expiry date to the detriment of future plots (see: A Year In The Life, the way ex-boyfriends absolutely can never move on). But I want to engage with ASP’s writing and shooting style, dense dialogue, and – most relevant here – extensive understanding of both pop culture and the psychologically diabolical way people hurt and manipulate those closest to them.

ASP’s protagonists do truly fucked up things, but the key is: does she understand they’re fucked up. Yes. She more than anyone appreciates characters of Gilmore Girls are flawed, awful to each other, and that intergenerational emotional abuse is TRAUMATIC and also incredibly sad. Rewatch the fourth season of Gilmore Girls and look at the desperate push-pull between Emily and Lorelai over Rory as she becomes and adult. Look how Emily (and yes, this is partly due to the magnificent, glorious, perfect work of Kelly Bishop, but it’s also in the writing) manipulates everyone around her, from the DAR members to playing her husband and granddaughter against each other. 

I’m not claiming Gilmore Girls is satire, but it does have satirical elements (hello, Taylor Doose, MadelineandLouisewhosenamesareone) within a thoroughly complicated observance of thoroughly fucked up humans. Said humans – who happen to have iron stomachs and excellent taste in TV – try to do such things as “get into a big school by leveraging grades but also generational connections” and “start a business with the help and support of an entire town, except the crotchety school school principal who thinks women should be seen and not heard,” and along the way they are not perfect nor do they respond so to every occurrence. First, that doesn’t make for good television. Second, it’s not realistic at all.

Not to say ASP (or any writer) always recognises all of which of her fictional characters’s actions are bad, but she certainly doesn’t think of all their actions as ‘aspirational.’ If you’re still not convinced, listen to the words of the author herself discussing Gilmore Girls as a show about intergenerational trauma and the inherent tragedy in struggling to distinguish oneself from one’s parents and distance oneself from one’s upbringing only to commit many of the same mistakes you’re trying to avoid. Lorelai can be self-absorbed, stubborn, pushy to her staff, dismissive of her best friend’s needs, manipulative, demanding, and more . . . all traits she both deplores in Emily, and passes down to Rory. Is it true Lorelai has more positive traits than Emily? Well, she may apologise more often and make more ‘liberated’ mistakes and sexual liaisons, but as Season 6 shows, she’s not above estrangement over ideas about what her daughter should be doing with her life, justification or no. The sins of the mother reverberate for generations . . . including mistakes with boyfriends, oh boy does it ever.

In amongst all that unfolds one of the more complex, long-running depictions of mother/daughter (and grandparent/parent/child of any genders) relationships on TV. People who’ve fallen-out with their mothers have had various responses. I’ve had a close, then complicated, then fraught, and back around again, relationship with my own mother, in which there have been periods of estrangement and a few role reversals in terms of who is ‘adulting’ (a term I generally cringe at when used in context of daily tasks but for which I have no suitable replacement in this context). Gilmore Girls Season 6 is not as good as the three before it, but the storyline where Lorelai and Rory are estranged is magnificently done, partly because neither of them (nor Emily and Richard) are wholly in the right or in the wrong, but both are willing to wield their stubbornness, wiles, and words with destructive power, exactly how we’re all best able to hurt those we know and love best in real life.

I could write a thesis on how sins of the mother are less valued in Serious Literature and Prestige Television than sins of the father, particularly when women are involved in imparting and receptions of such sins. If “Gilmore Guys” was placed in political halls, shot in moody grey and blue tones, and involved the exact same brand of interpersonal politics, it’d be “a local The West Wing.” It does involve patriarchs trying to undermine their former employer’s high-powered firm by entering an arrangement with said employer’s son before having his hard-built business swiped from under him, at which point his estranged daughter has to make the choice between continuing to fuck a man who’d fucked over her father, or leaving him in a fit of righteous indignation . . . yet nobody’s comparing it to Succession or Billions. So why is it neither hailed nor understood as a sociopolitical examination of humans manipulating each other, how uberwealth corrupts relationships and people, and a lack of proper communication (and accountability, and therapy) lead to trauma and disconnect and distance and cycles of abuse? Surely not because it’s created by and about women and involves a town named ‘Stars Hollow’ ? Or that said business backstabbing is seen from mostly the daughter and wife’s POV and involves more human elements than the legal minutiae?

Like Succession (but not so much The West Wing, yet again another story), Gilmore Girls doesn’t believe its heroes always do the right things, or mean to do the right things, or do the wrong things for the right reasons and thus bear upon their souls the weight of the nation yada yada. I argue Gilmore Girls doesn’t see Lorelai and Rory as heroes or examples of what to do at all, just two protagonists in a murderer’s row of capable, smart, sometimes-right-and-often-wrong women figures: Lane breaks all sorts of rules from religious to familial to municipal; Sookie is a Type A chef whose husband has all the stereotypical ‘caregiver’ traits; Paris . . . is Paris.

Look not just at the characters but the hundreds of pop culture references sprinkled throughout: guest star Liz Freaking Torres; constant references to Marlon Brando and Liz Taylor and the first three A Star Is Borns*; recreating works of art whose artists were considered sensational, sensuous, and salacious; one of its best episodes named after a Sydney Pollack psychological drama; an entire episode dedicated to excoriating the concept of a stereotypical 50s housewife (one reason I think ASP is well aware of Midge Maisel’s problems); lauding Medea and Rosa Parks and many rebellious women in between. This shows knows what it means to be wrong and troubled, pushing-and-pulling and raging at the world, and right or wrong, be interesting, damn it. 

Don’t let the bright colours, fast-talking dames, and general summaries of Gilmore Girls and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel fool you: they’s just as vicious and complicated as Prestive TV (like ‘adulting,’ a  term I generally cringe at when used in context of daily tasks but for which I have no suitable replacement in this context). Shiv may be pretty, successful in her own social spheres, and hailed as talented, but few argue the creators are positioning her as an ideal figure to be emulated. Nor are Logan Roy or Abe Weissman.

Neither is Rory Gilmore. 

Which takes us back to the question of how to gauge Rory’s response to Jess, and whether it matters that it’s not ideal. 

I agree with Kieran; Jess’s move is not just bad, but violating and gross. For context, it’s still within his introduction, demonstrating Jess’s rudeness, particularly in relation to Lorelai. While both Emily and Lorelai’s responses to Jess were often justified, occasionally sharp, and sometimes cruel (considering he’s a high-schooler abandoned by his mom and they’re grown-ass women), their analysis of his entitled assholery is bang-on. Stealing and defacing someone’s book – someone you barely know, though I truly don’t know if that makes it ‘worse’ ? –  isn’t romantic. But does the show acknowledge its fuckeduppedness? For that, mostly I’ve been pondering the presentation of Rory’s response. Just because she is fine with it, does that mean the show condones it? 

When I was 16, if a boy (or girl, but that’s a different and more confused story) had done that to/for me, I would have been rapt. Should I have been? No. Boundaries exist for a reason. But that a boy was interested, that he read books, that he would put his thoughts down for me to pore over: Young Me would have swooned. (Part of this is probably dependent on whether or not you’re a Margins Writer. I have strict policy on *which* of my books I wrote in the margins of and/or underlined, but with a few exceptions I would have let that go out the window because, swoon.)

Back to my main question: Should television depict what Rory would have done – or at least a reasonable depiction, considering her personality is created through a combination of wizardry, study of the human condition, malleability for plot purposes, projection, and writer’s wish fulfilment? Or ‘should‘ have done?

Does the show/writer have a responsibility to reflect one possible reaction Rory should have had, or at least have someone point out how problematic Jess’s actions are? If so, why? Gilmore Girls often gives multiple sides of an argument, some of which even reach for Better Call Saul‘s dizzying heights of inducing sympathy and/or empathy, but it can’t in every case, nor should it! Not every show is The Facts of Life, which even when its characters respond poorly, has a Mrs. Garrett (or later, Beverly Ann) to help exposit and course-correct.

Do we place this ‘must be painfully explicit the character is doing wrong thing’ burden unfairly on shows which are not explicitly antihero shows, or shows about primarily women (such as some criticism of GLOW), or are about ‘smaller stakes’ problems such as high school education, inn management, and boyfriend transgressions instead of national legislation,  and divorce? (Nevermind people who would argue Walter White has the moral high ground or is responding ‘rightly’ to anything.)

Why do we expect fictional characters’ actions in the first few cases to be the ideal ones, but those in the latter categories can make as many poor, horrible, complicated decisions and responses as they like and it ‘adds to the realism’ or ‘is a delicious moral conundrum’ or ‘creates a beautiful greco-roman tragedy’?

Does it matter if the show is already a heightened fantasy about generational trauma and the cycles of emotional distance, versus a realistic depiction of life? How do we apply that ‘realism’ test in a fantastical medium?

Is it purely the ‘job’ of a show to spark conversations like this one, nothing more? Does it depend on the goals of the show, stated or otherwise? What about something like Watchmen, which clearly has different goals but also shows its characters doing much worse things with much more gleeful acceptance?

Back to the ‘what would I / Rory have done,’ is it that both the fictional Rory and the verymuchnotfictional Young Me found the gesture romantic because I’ve been inundated with boundary violations depicted and/or accepted as romantic? That I didn’t have as clear a compass as Young Kieran because I was exposed to different media, or have parents who taught me differently, or wasn’t as critical a thinker, etc? Where does the ouroboros of fiction eating reality’s tail become reality regurgitating fiction’s depictions as a learned response? 

Gilmore Girls isn’t a depiction of the worst human impulses at the highest levels of society, but neither is it an after-school special or even 80s sitcom. Under the sheen of small-town absurdism, heightened neighbour characters, and hi-jinks, is not some ideal to aspire to, but a portrait of what we really are:

sometimes wrong, sometimes joyous, sometimes doing things we’ll look back on in horror, sometimes accepting as romantic things which aren’t, and always messy as fuck.

Stray Observations

– *One of my main wishes for another entry in the Gilmore canon is wanting to hear Lorelai’s opinion on the Bradley Cooper / Lady Gaga A Star is Born.

– Also interesting most hour-long US shows are considered dramas, but Gilmore Girls is treated mostly as a comedy . . . but that’s another, broader post about TV classifications and who makes them. 

– The AV club has 
a list of 10 episodes which ‘highlight the small-town charm and of course I think they’ve missed a couple tricks, but still worth a read.

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