When you press the power button on a television remote, you expect to be transported to a reality that is far removed from your own. You want action, romance, and thrills. For many, television offers an escape that becomes a dream. According to Merri Lisa Johnson in her work Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts it in a Box in the chapter Ladies Love Your Box, “The small screen paradoxically provides a broader horizon…television can be the sole window into big-city subjects like homosexuality, singlehood-by-choice, multiculturalism, and…existentialism” and more importantly, feminism. (Johnson 3). Shows portray what the audience wants in their life whether it is more laughs, more love, or more power. Many shows have caught on to this trend and have begun incorporating messages that cater to the audience. During the time of Gilmore Girls, many teens were consumed in angst and girls were determined to assert their dominance to their male counterparts. They were not however ready to give up romance in their lives or the chase of a boy.
Gilmore Girls caters to both sides of the coin and offers a unique relationship of single-mother and daughter to its audience that is both pro-feminist and wholesome while also incorporating the romantic aspects that not only give the audience the warm feelings that they crave but also boosts views per episode. The trend of television shows and movies with the plot that consists of “a series of obstacles that must be overcome in order for the hero or heroine to fall in love…[which then ends] with… ‘the transformation of the man into an emotional being with a heart’” was worn out and audiences needed something new. They needed a show that could empower but also could satisfy their cravings of romance and drama. Gilmore Girls could be considered a show that meets all of those expectations. However, one thing to seriously consider is whether or not the show Gilmore Girls could be considered a show that embraces and promotes feminism or is it simply another show that falls victim to the patterns of many shows in the past? It is important to analyze these aspects in a popular television show to showcase the effect it is having on its audience and how it could potentially impact impressionable viewers who learn their lessons from fictional characters. Many women turn to celebrities and enjoyable fiction to learn and if a show is giving advice that will hinder their ability to be confident, independent women then it is something that needs to be addressed. If it is a show that not only promotes feminism and the importance of love in one’s life, then that is a positive attribute of the show to point out.
To truly answer whether or not Gilmore Girls is a show that promotes feminism or one that is a victim to the woes of men, starting with the first episode is key because that is where it all began. In the very first episode of the hit mother-daughter dramedy, we are introduced to the title characters in an iconic scene: Lorelai, the mother of our story, begging for coffee from a reluctant diner owner Luke while Rory, the daughter, is getting hit on by a passerby who moments before was hitting on Lorelai, her mother. The scene ends with Rory saying, “Are you my new daddy?” (Palladino). The scene set the mark for the following seven seasons. Fans were to expect quick witty banter, pop culture references every two minutes, and a unique storyline. What about Gilmore Girls keeps fans captivated is the true question: is it the constant flow of handsome suitors for Lorelai and Rory or is it the empowerment seemingly seen as a theme throughout the run of the show?
Quickly following the first episode, we get our first problematic storyline involving the Gilmore girls. Rory having been accepted into a prestigious private school wishes to throw it all away because a new, notedly handsome, boy has moved to town and has expressed an interest in her. Lorelai quickly battles this and tries to dissuade Rory from throwing away this dream of hers. This is where we see romance derailing not only the merit of the show but also the lives of the characters within it. Rory’s quick decision to throw away a dream of hers for the attention of a boy showcases the stereotype that women will do anything, even give up a hard-earned dream, to get the guy. Rory’s admission to Chilton was saved in the end after her mother, Lorelai, made clear to her that boys will always be there, and Chilton won’t and throwing this away will be a mistake she regrets for a long time. (Palladino)
Unfortunately, the romantic follies present in Gilmore Girls did not cease after the first few episodes. In fact, many problematic storylines set the lives of the title characters on destructive courses mostly because of men, but not exclusively. In Caroline E. Jones’s work Unpleasant Consequences: First Sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and Gilmore Girls, she states that “[these shows] offer strong female lead characters for whom sex is not a primary concern but who take the decision to have sex very seriously. These overtly feminist television shows intersect intriguingly and troublingly…” (Jones 66). The problem with shows such as Gilmore Girls is that they are marketed as empowering, but the audience sees the characters in the show falling victim to whims such as romance and boy trouble that would argue against them being considered a feminist work. Towards the end of the run of the show, things ultimately took a dramatic twist. Character arcs began to drastically change, and our beloved Rory and Lorelai began making decisions completely out of character, causing the show to take on a different tone. The Gilmore girls were changing, and it seemed the commonalities that were shifting their lives was romance and men. (Palladino)
During the sixth season, we see Rory get arrested and become estranged from her mother for a duration of an entire season, affecting her academic career that took many years of hard work and also affecting her close relationship with her mother. The season was aggravating and heart-breaking all because of not just a boy, but his father. Men were the reason for Rory’s out of character acts and ultimately for setting her life a year back. We also saw Lorelai marry her high school sweetheart and Rory’s father in a split-second decision in Paris, negatively affecting her relationship with her daughter and another romantic interest, Luke. (Palladino)
At this point in the show, we have watched these women with stars in our eyes because they not only empowered their audience but gave us a witty escape from our daily lives. Now, it seemed they were completely ruining what five seasons had built up – and all because of romance and men. Gilmore Girls had always seemed to empower and now, it just seemed like any other show which leaves one to question whether or not this show was overall empowering or overall a carbon copy of another romantic dramedy popular of its time.
The show did have it instances that promoted feminism and empowerment for women that would cause one to question whether or not romance was the main theme of the show. This is where the scale can teeter. One favorite storyline of the show was the banter between Rory Gilmore and Tristan DuGray present in the first two seasons. The banter between these two characters left viewers not only swooning but rolling in laughter as well. Tristan DuGray was your typical pompous character whose entitlement somehow left many female viewers breathless. Today, many women still fall victim to these characters because something about their entitlement leaves us swooning. Everyone except Rory Gilmore. Rory continuously showed audiences that she would not become Tristan’s next fling simply because he had a smolder and daddy’s credit card. From telling Tristan to learn her name (versus calling her “Mary” on account of her goodie-two-shoes appearance) to continuously shutting him down whenever he tried to make a move and flash a smile. Rory gave the audience of Gilmore Girls empowerment and showed them that they do not need to be a victim to a handsome face and money. In the end, we as an audience felt bad for Tristan as he left Chilton because not only was he a handsome face viewers looked forward to see, but he had finally humanized himself. Unfortunately, it was his time to exit and it was too late. (Palladino)
Another instance where we get to see the empowerment of women within the show was also a moment where romance seemed to be a key theme. Returning to the first season of the show and Rory’s wish to quit Chilton and her academic dreams, we see Lorelai voicing not only the feelings of a majority of the viewers of the show but also voicing the countless acts, riots, and moves made by many women before Rory to give her the chance to receive an education from a school like Chilton and to become an academic woman. Lorelai expressed frustration and anger at her daughter’s flippant attitude toward what they had been working towards for many years. In that episode, Lorelai taught a lesson that many female viewers would return to and remember: never let a man, or anyone you are attracted to derail your dreams. They will still be there, but your dreams may not. (Palladino)
We also cannot forget the countless moments throughout the run of the show, the seemingly throwaway lines that promoted the feminism and realizing one’s dreams. However, there is still the question of whether or not Gilmore Girls can be viewed as pro-feminism material or if it will be only remembered as another romantic show we wistfully watched on a Friday night. The problem with analyzing shows like these and determining whether or not they fall victim to the romantic storyline that guarantees viewers is shows like Gilmore Girls “engage and challenge the dominant social ideologies about virginity yet continue to rely on them as they tell their protagonists’ stories.” (Jones 68). The show’s questionable purpose is to empower women, yet it relies on societal norms such as saving your virginity and avoiding being sexual at all to further the show and raise the ratings. Rory was virginal innocence for many seasons which kept the show wholesome and Lorelai was our spunky mom simply searching for her one true romance. An audience wants a teen character to look up but does not want them challenging norms to the point it makes the viewer uncomfortable. They want romance and they want happy endings, but they do not want something they feel they cannot relate to.
When it comes down to categorizing Gilmore Girls as an empowering feminist show for women or placing it in the broad category of television romance, it ticks more boxes in the television romance category. Gilmore Girls without a doubt has its feminist moments and qualities but when you consider the main themes of the show and the main storylines, they all involve romance and a man. Storylines such as these are what keep women coming back to the show and looking up to Rory and Lorelai as inspirational characters. The writers of the show and the network relied on women’s craving for romance and used that to drive the show. Rory and Lorelai are undoubtedly characters that are driven and have big dreams for themselves and ultimately, those dreams come true after years of hard work and commitment, but not after obstacles that were placed in their way because of men. Why did Rory ultimately get arrested and take time off from pursuing her degree at Yale? It was because of a man. Why did Lorelai become pressured into a marriage she did not want to be a part of? It was because of a man. Why were the Gilmore girls the Gilmore Girls? It was because of a man.
Lorelai is a spunky character that is much like Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy because “[her] voice mattered; [she was] loud, [she wasn’t] afraid to yell, and…didn’t back away from verbal combat” (Zeisler 36). Lorelai is comedy and feminism and what an audience loves. Rory is a sweet-natured, innocent, driven character that audiences love. Unfortunately for these tidal wave characters, romance is what drives sales and what increases ratings. Romance is what ultimately turned this show from its intended spot in feminist fiction and placed it in a tiresome, decades-old category of romantic television; a category that is broad in nature and home to countless shows that have fallen victim to societal norms and expectations. The Gilmore Girls deserved so much better, but it can still be seen as a uniquely witty show with banter that will leave you on the edge of your seat as two lovely ladies invite you to experience their whimsical dreams.
Gill, Rosalind Clair. Gender and the Media. Polity Press, 2015.
Johnson, Merri Lisa. Third Wave Feminism and Television: Jane Puts It in a Box.
Jones, Caroline E. “Unpleasant Consequences: First Sex in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica
Mars, and Gilmore Girls.” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, vol. 5, no. 1, 2013, pp. 65–83., doi:10.1353/jeu.2013.0008.
Palladino, Daniel, and Amy Sherman-Palladino. Gilmore Girls, The WB, 5 Oct. 2000.
Zeisler, Andi. Feminism and Pop Culture. Seal Press, 2008.