Saturday, November 14, 2015

A long consideration of an old show, or why you should watch Gilmore Girls when you are pregnant

Just in time for Netflix to revive it, I finished watching the entire Gilmore Girls run on Netflix last month. I don't understand how I managed to miss this show when it was originally airing, since my college roommates watched it then, and its main character was exactly our age and the plot was probably the closest thing to a depiction of our adolescent and college lives that will ever make it to TV. All that would've prevented me from watching then was the epic annoyingness of Lorelai, or that I was living in the library, a study cave to which TV shows could not yet be streamed.

Watching it now though, I was surprised that the show's strong strain of mid-century New England WASP nostalgia was such a hit so recently, and I'm not sure if discovering that it was created by a Jew from the Valley made that more or less surprising. It revives two different mid-century New England worlds - that of middling small town farmers and shopkeepers, and that of urban old money society. (There is also the world of Yale in the last four seasons, but that just looks like modern college to me and not a revival of an idyllic Yale Past.)

The show's sympathy towards the old money WASPs is the more surprising of these revivals. Of course, as far as it's a comedy, it's as much a caricature of mid-century New England WASP nostalgia as a celebration of it, so characters like the Gilmore grandparents must be at least as ridiculous as they are lovable. But the show's overall attitude towards this world and its ethic is pretty forgiving - not quite Whit Stilman levels of adoration, but some real affection. The grandparents, for example, make Rory's clearly deserved but otherwise out of reach education possible, and through genuine generosity rather than standoffish obligation. The show acknowledges that coming from a "good" family and having lots of money can be seriously morally deforming, but also that there really are "finer things" worth the price, that high culture exists, and it's not all some discreditable undemocratic illusion. It actually takes seriously the idea that the grandparents possess taste and discernment (Richard in books, Emily in aesthetics) that the small-town bumpkins lack. Moreover, Lorelai's intransigent opposition to them is clearly as excessive as their own over-the-top schemes. It's usually Rory's "if it makes you happy" acquiescences (to sit for a portrait dressed in a royal robe, to transform her dorm into a den of luxury, to donate a building to Yale in her name) that are played as the best response to their excesses. I doubt that this depiction of old money WASPs could survive social media's privilege call-outs today. 

Less problematic than the opulent Hartford Gilmores is the Tocquevillian Stars Hollow. Here is clearly the best place in the world to live - no one seems to have a college education or a white collar job, but everyone is comfortable and there is zero income inequality. Nearly everyone owns a beautiful old house, and everyone has enough money to eat at the diner or get take-out every day. All goods and services, including highly specialized ones like a cat store, are available in town (despite its population being no more than 40, judging by the number of chairs available at town meetings), and at apparently competitive prices, since no one ever drives out to Walmart to cut costs. In Stars Hollow, there are no economic downturns, no foreign or even local competition, no gloomy futures where a high school diploma (or less, in Jess's case) won't suffice to make ends meet. No one will ever have to leave, neighbors will help neighbors in between absurd spats, and there will always be lively seasonal festivals. Idyllic small-town New England! And I can see why we would eat this stuff up, because as much as we might resent overbearing Emily Gilmore and her DAR ladies with their heaps of unchecked privilege, we may never get over our longing for the democratic and communitarian vision of the original New England township, and that's just fine with me.

And don't get me wrong, I do appreciate that the show doesn't depict college as a universal pre-requisite for prosperity and happiness, especially given Rory's maniacal desire for it. It could easily have devolved into a glorification of the competition for prestige, but it's generally good about fitting Rory's ambitions to her particular talents and inclinations. She's obsessed with the Ivy League for naive and sincere reasons - she's a serious student who wants to seriously study. (This is, weirdly, also true of Paris Geller, even though she seems so aggressively competitive. I also like this aspect of the show, since it doesn't take the usual view that competitiveness and intelligence are mutually exclusive qualities, especially in women.) But there is no suggestion that Lane, an apparently also intelligent person who cares more about music than school, ought to take the same route as Rory simply because she's a good student and could get into a good school. The one thing that makes no sense to me though about the academic emphasis is why Rory's great life goal is to be a foreign correspondent given that she's a complete homebody whose primary interests seem to be literary. Over the entire series, she travels abroad only twice, to Europe, and the only language she studies is French. It's quite puzzling how these choices follow from a desire to be "the next Christiane Amanpour." Why not the next Dorothy Parker or some other highbrow magazine essayist type?

The absolute best thing about this show though is that it depicts smart people going to class and reading and studying! This is perhaps my greatest ongoing lament about shows and movies about "intellectual" or academic life - they always simply assert that the characters we are to regard as smart (brilliant even!) are so. But apparently because they're so smart, they rarely have to go to class or crack a book. They have time to go out every night and get involved in the most elaborate romantic intrigues and save the world from demons every week and still write all their papers and ace all their exams because that's what being smart is, the ability to read a book in one minute and write about it in two, so that the effort never has to be depicted on-screen. (Ahem, characters in Buffy.) Not so with the Gilmore Girls - there, school is depicted as both interesting and difficult, Rory is often shown reading and studying and, later, working at the newspaper. Her social life is limited, and her devotion to study is not just a means to some sexier activity like computer hacking or witchcraft, but an end in itself.

One of the most incongruous aspects of the show, which is otherwise intensely family-centric, is its treatment of marriage, which tends to happen Hollywood-style on a whim, and which ends equally whimsically with people left at altars or abandoned after a sudden move to France or when both parties come to their senses the next day. The trivialization of marriage is particularly strange in light of the show's celebration of childbearing, which is especially noticeable if you happen to watch the show while pregnant. There are at least five ambivalent children born on the show (six if you double-count Lane's twins), and all of them start out unwanted or at least unexpected and become irreplaceable. This is true even of the extreme case of Lorelai and Rory. There is obviously no endorsement of teen pregnancy, and there are occasional concessions made to the opportunities Lorelai lost by having Rory at 16 (in the episode where they visit Harvard, for example, and Lorelai sees the photo of the valedictorian of what would've been her graduation year). But the writers' general view seems to be the one expressed by the fractious high school students who turn Lorelai's talk about running a business into a Q&A about whether she regrets getting pregnant in high school: "But if you didn't get pregnant then, you wouldn't have Rory." Unwanted pregnancy is to be avoided, but when avoidance fails, then we discover that the resulting children are pretty valuable after all. So for a show that is politically pro-choice (judging by Rory's wall decor), it's morally quite pro-life. And it is so in a broad way - childbearing is never depicted as a private decision between a woman and her body, but an act that implicates and improves the lives of the (often absent) fathers and even extended family, like Rory's grandparents. I doubt this conclusion was intended, but perhaps it is required by the strictures of the family show genre, which would lose its appeal if it depicted really atomistic individuals.

All that said, I still couldn't stand the Lorelai character and skipped through many of her scenes because my patience for plotlines featuring the serial inability to get and stay married of marriage-obsessed middle-aged women is minimal. And if the interminable search for Lorelai's true love who is right before her eyes but to whom she is so tragically blind continues in the new Netflix resuscitation, there will be yet more skipping. However horrible the revival will be though - and I predict it will be pretty bad - there will at least be Paris Geller, and that will probably make it worth it.


Alex said...

I think it's totally reasonable that Rory would want to be a foreign correspondent, even though we recognize that she is a homebody. You don't know that much about yourself at 17 and 18, and serious young people want more adventure than they grew up with. I thought seriously about the foreign service for several years, even after college, though I now recognize that I am a homebody and would hatttttttttttttte the FS.

Miss Self-Important said...

But you considered the FS only briefly and with some experience living abroad. Rory set this goal when she was a child with no experience in journalism, travel, or international conflict, and then she apparently held fast to it straight through college, even as she was returning home to her tiny town each weekend to do her laundry. That seems less plausible. At least the campaign reporting job she got in the end matched her revealed preferences a little better than reporting from a foxhole in Syria.