So, my partner and I started watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix – we have made a habit, after dinner, of watching a episodes of whatever television show we happen to then be following. And we decided that we ought to start following Gilmore Girls after finishing the latest season of Grace and Frankie – a wonderful program – great writing, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are phenomenal – and so far I’m really enjoying it. Last year we watched all eleven seasons of Cheers, so I feel like my standards for television are pretty high right now. Cheers is a ridiculously good show, especially given it’s long run. And also a show with a lot of cultural caché. Gilmore Girls is, it turns out, similar.
I went into the show thinking it was set in the 1990s, but it turns out (according to Wikipedia) it premiered in 2000. Television shows can often feel a bit behind the times, I suppose. Anyways – we just finished watching the third episode, and I wanted to bang out a quick blog post to record some thoughts I had about the show.
The basic tension of the show is set up by Lorelei, the 32 year old single working mother of 16 year old smarty-pants Rory, sending her daughter to a fancy prep school, with the hope of getting her into Harvard. The prep school is characterized as competitive, not so much fancy, although it is made clear that it is very expensive. In order for Rory to go to private school, Lorelei has to ask her fancy-pants wealthy parents, and her parents use the loan to force Lorelei to let them hang out with their grandaughter. The grandmother character is crucial – she on the one hand is clearly the representative of tradition and traditional gender roles, i.e. women are not supposed to work or support themselves, they’re supposed to get married and be housewives and so on. Lorelei, a Generation Xer hellbent on asserting her independence, is characterized as the rejection, the admonition, even, of her parents morals and sentimentality and so on – and in episode 3, an interesting exchange about gender came up: in a conversation where Lorelei is being outraged by her mother not knowing the names of the house servents (Americans, to my knowledge, only have house servants if they are old money wealthy – which implies that the family is not merely affluent, but quasi-aristocratic, which is to say, these are capitalists, patricians, the ruling class, modern nobility), and her mother confuses a male servant with a female servant, and questions the distinction between men and women among workers.And Lorelei insists that the difference between a man and a woman merits recognition. Lorelei is a worker herself, so she does recognize the difference between men and women. But from the capitalist perspective, workers are abstracted from their gender identity.
In episode 3, Rory plays golf with her Grandfather. Lorelei feels threatened when her mother suggests it, but it turns out to be a good time. Here’s what I think is really interesting about Rory playing golf: when she goes, she’s hanging out with the men, except in the steam room. And the basic idea of her going to private school is so that she can get into an Ivy League school. Effectively, Rory is going to join the elite world of her grandparents, except in a way that is not necessarily traditional. The three generations of women are the heart of the show, and also gives it what feels like a feminist slant. Rory, although she is certainly feminine, is competitive and independent in a way her grandmother could not be.
It’s also a show about white people. Set in Small Town New England, almost all the characters exemplify what Americans mean when they say “white people.” I mean, yeah, there are white people in all 50 states, and lots of them have funny accents and outrageous religious practices, and sometimes when they say “white people” they mean it in a whole different context, but in general, in the United States, when people say “white people” they mean the people who live in small towns in upstate New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachussetts, Vermont, and parts of Maine and New Hampshire. The culture goes back to the Puritans, America’s original shit talkers. Nothing is ever good enough with white people, hence they are always miserable, bickering with each other, gossiping, conspiring, and so on.
Why make a show about obnoxious white people? Why them? Because this particular sub group of white people basically run the country. Not completely, not always effectively, but they run it and they’ve been running it since the end of the Civil War. The main reason for this is the influence of the educational system in New England, which is the oldest and best established in the United States. The Puritans, you see, were very concerned that everybody learn to read and to interpret texts, as reading and interpreting the Bible was an important part of religion for them, so they always had good schools. They also have Harvard, originally a college for Puritan ministers, now the leading university of the US, and perhaps the world.
The main point of interest for me with Gilmore Girls, is not that it’s all about white people, but the way it treats issues of class and wealth. Lorelei obviously resents her mother’s condecensing patrician airs, but her job involves a lot of dealing with people just like her mother. There’s almost an upstairs/downstairs feeling to the relationship. The fact that Lorelei’s job is managing a hotel makes the whole show so much the better. It’s like an aristocrat’s worst nightmare: a daughter who ends up as the help – except in the US, Lorelei is actually closer to an idealized everyman character, earning a living through hard work and raw talent. In the real world, she would be considered a success at her supposed age of 32, especially as a mother. Within the context of the show, it’s clear that not relying on her parents was a choice she made – and in the real world, it’s not a choice all women can make. Sometimes there aren’t parents there. Sometimes jobs don’t pan out, and hard work isn’t enough. But this is television. What’s important are the choices made by the writers and producers, not the characters.