With #AYearInTheLife, The Gilmore Girls’ Emancipation Comes Full Circle

The cute, fuzzy and blazing fast Gilmore Girls returned to us with a four act epilogue that finished what writer-duo Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino started out to do sixteen years ago: an uplifting and subtle message of female empowerment. 

Beware: spoilers for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

There was always something strangely ambitious about the dramatic concept that ostensibly didn’t entail more than mother and daughter being best friends when Gilmore Girls premiered in fall 2000. Yes, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory (Alexis Bledel) captured the hearts of millions by having the kind of familial relationship many a millennial dreamed of having. That these two inherently divisive, but independent and beautifully imperfect women also had whip-smart, caffeine induced, pop-savvy dialogue, surrounded by a warm and fuzzy ambiance of the perfect small town only cemented the show’s success. Seven seasons of fights, food-binges, marriage proposals and career struggles played out like a heightened soap opera with the ensemble of the ridiculous, cooky figures that populated Stars Hollow or the blink-and-you-miss them cultural references. Underneath, the show was much more than that.

The Long Feminism

The backstory of how mother and daughter came to be shouldn’t have been progressive in 2000 but it was. On the same channel 7th Heaven promoted the Christian ideals of having a large family with the patriarch as the lead and later One Tree Hill and Everwood mirroring the show’s premise of single parent in a small town, focused on a son and a widower, respectively. Gilmore Girls, quietly feminist as the times allowed, focused on women. Its heroine was a mother, Lorelai, who wasn’t spit out by traditions or by tragedy. Yes by a twist of fate Lorelai got pregnant but she very consciously chose to leave her wealthy home at age 16 to raise her daughter on her own terms. Lorelai, the picture of female empowerment, thrives as a mother and as a businesswoman relying on absolutely no man. Indeed, the show’s starting point is when Rory, book-smart and driven, gets into a private school and for the first time, Lorelai does need to rely on a man: her father, Richard (Edward Herrmann) and his money.

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Richard, of course, is the embodiment of traditional success. He accomplished the American dream by hard work and now lives in wealth, treasuring his family name, tormented only by his daughter dismissing the values and life he laid out for her. Though Gilmore Girls focuses more on Lorelai’s mother, Emily (Kelly Bishop), and how, always looking up to Richard’s privileges, she perpetuates the traditional values of being a dutiful wife and projects them on her daughter. It’s Emily’s emotional manipulation that tricks Lorelai into the infamous Friday Night Diners that serve up much of the drama for show’s run. It’s indeed Lorelai and Emily’s deeply troubled relationship that is the main focus point of the first two episodes of the revival. Yet, by the passing of Edward Herrmann, whether intentional or consequential, Sherman-Palladino went all out with the Gilmore Girls’ emancipation.

Lorelai’s Emancipation Day

When Lorelai has to make a speech at Richard’s funeral she awkwardly tells anecdotes to Emily and his friends about him catching her having sex when she was fifteen. Therein lies a theme of the series. Lorelai, as a youngster rebellious in the world of her parents, owned her sexuality and thereby disgruntled her father. Many of the conflicts between Lorelai and Richard throughout the series stem from her unwillingness to conform to him and even at his funeral, she can’t shake the memory of his disapproval. It was Richard’s oppression of his daughter as the powerful patriarch, supported and enforced by Emily, which drove Lorelai away. Her pregnancy of Rory was more a path to liberation than it ever was the oppression Richard, Emily and society made it out to be.

Where did Lorelai flee to? A small town that was a little weirded out but nonetheless ever embracing of her rebellion. Lorelai made a home and a career far away from capitalism or patriarchy, in a place where everything was traditional in its own odd way. It’s no wonder that Luke, a business owner weary of the establishment and content with just his diner, caught her heart. Gilmore Girls tells the story of Lorelai finding herself outside of her society’s classist expectations in a world entirely her own.

But she’s a Gilmore!

Of course, Rory is raised in the quirky world of Stars Hollow, growing up with her mother’s rebellious nature, she longs for the exact opposite. It’s Rory’s studious character and intelligence that gets her into Chilton and then Yale but underneath is an inherent curiosity in the life she never had. Rory, without a father to dictate her and with a mother who only supports her, grows up with a sense of entitlement limited only by the society she wants to succeed in. Rory’s character has often been critiqued for being spoiled and perhaps that was precisely the point of her. Rory’s journey highlights that in a patriarchal society even the most privileged, brilliant, rich and beautiful white girl can still be limited. As the show progresses, we witness Rory’s struggle with living up to Richard. She’s the daughter he never had, he’s everything she wants to accomplish but can’t. She doesn’t go to Harvard like she always dreamed, going to his legacy university Yale instead, she gets crushed to his surprise by Mr. Huntzberger and when she has a fight with her mother, she moves in with him and Emily, completing the circle of Lorelai abandoning them.

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Rory’s arc over the course of the show was to find herself outside of her mother and her grandfather. Indeed, Rory’s boyfriends, starting off with a Luke-like small town boy Dean (Jared Padalecki) and ending with the entitled, privileged boy Rory pictured herself as, Logan (Matt Czuchry), highlight this graduate change. It’s no surprise then, SPOILER ALERT, that when Rory finds herself back with Logan he ultimately chooses conformity, just like her father, Christopher (Daniel Sutfcliffe). A traditional patriarchal society will let them succeed, even though they failed repeatedly. Not Rory, so she dismisses them both. In a dreamlike sequence in “Fall” Rory fancies herself among Logan’s friends one of the boys, ultimately realizing she is, in fact, not. Rory also doesn’t get the job she felt entitled to, nor the book she didn’t want to write. No, it’s not until Rory sits down at Richard desk and writes the testament to her mother’s emancipation that she herself has truly dismissed the notions she always admired.

Those Are Strings, Rory

What’s in a name? Gilmore Girls showed the struggle of three generations of women with patriarchy and their own place in the world. Though Lorelai gave her own name to her daughter, all three carry the name of the patriarch. It’s not until he passes away that all three find their own form of liberation. The show was never a dark, confrontational thematic criticism. It reveled in being positive, sweet even, choosing to focus on the comedy, strength and success of its female leads. It depicted a female rage under patriarchy only in rare brief moments, often when the three women clashed with each other. Ultimately, Lorelai found happiness on her own terms, with a man who needs her and who, contrary to limiting her, only wants to give her more space. When she takes the money Richard intended for Luke to expand her own business, she breaks the cycle that prevented him from ever thinking of her in the first place. Gilmore Girls always twisted what the women wanted into what they needed. And so, when the revival comes to a close and the four magical words fans have waited sixteen years for are finally spoken, Sherman-Palladino doesn’t let Rory escape patriarchy with a clean slate. Indeed, Gilmore Girls comes full circle ending right where it once began: with it a new generation of women trying to find their own place in the world.

GILMORE GIRLS
Gilmore Girls is now on Netflix.
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