‘Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life’ Has A White Feminism Problem

By Aaron Kappel and Jessica Friday

When Gilmore Girls debuted on the WB 16 years ago, it almost immediately cultivated a passionate fan following. And it’s easy to see why: Taking place in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, the show followed the lives of mother-daughter team, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Lorelai “Rory” Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), and effortlessly mixed small-town charm with surprisingly biting wit and sweet familial themes.

After a contract dispute went awry, the show’s creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, and her co-executive-producer husband, Daniel Palladino, left the show after season six. The final and seventh season was considered by many to be subpar, with the witty repartee lacking the Sherman-Palladino spark, and the storylines disappointing.

Especially considering this weak ending, many fans were ecstatic to learn that Netflix would be airing a new miniseries, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, with the Palladinos at the helm. The revival, which debuted last week, takes place 10 years after the season seven finale and, as the name suggests, features four 90-minute episodes spanning the course of a year divided by the four seasons.

We were among the many fans who were excited to see what the next chapter would hold for the Gilmores. But while our expectations were high, we also knew that this experience was going to be different — because we’d be viewing one of our favorite series not only as adults, but as feminists more recently concerned with intersectionality.

In our younger days, we viewed feminism from a limited point of view, completely ignorant of how gender-based oppression intersects with racial and other forms of discrimination. Gilmore Girls felt important and fully representative of the success of the feminist movement because it was a show created, written and produced by, and about women. But in retrospect, it was only revolutionary for a specific subset of women — one with privileges not afforded to all.

Watching A Year In The Life, we expected heartwarming drama interspersed with lighthearted, witty commentary that could sweep us away from the woes of the world. What we got instead was a white feminist monstrosity.

If White Supremacy is ever going to be abolished, those who created and maintain it — white people — must remain accountable and fully invested in its abolishment, which includes dissecting the films and shows we create and the stories we tell. And after watching the new series, we’re left wondering: Were these stories worth telling?

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A Year in the Life’s four episodes are centered around the three Gilmore girls: Rory, Lorelai, and matriarch Emily (Kelly Bishop). Throughout the series, these three ostensible protagonists of the show, as well as many featured secondary characters, display self-indulgent, self-centered qualities, displaying zero empathy toward others unless those others are of use to them. (Which isn’t, of course, empathy at all.)

In fact, Sherman-Palladino only appears to afford true empathy to characters that resemble her most — white, cisgender, able-bodied, and heterosexual. Anyone not Gilmore enough — meaning mentally ill, slow on the uptake, fat, not white, not English-speaking, not gender-conforming — is ejected from the inner circle.

While the series doesn’t display any overt racism toward the Black community, its dog-whistle casting decisions speak volumes. The first Black woman with a speaking role, played by Sasha Compère, is there to serve a cup of coffee and get yelled at by Paris Geller (Liza Weil).

Meanwhile, Rose Abdoo (the actress who plays the returning character of Gypsy) was double-cast in a new role as Berta, the housekeeper of unknown ethnic origin who has a huge family of brown people whose names Emily never bothers to remember. The main purpose of this family is to repair, clean, and maintain the Gilmore’s possessions. There are many layers of racism here, led by the casting of Abdoo as yet another fill-in-the-blank minority, and ending with Rory turning Berta into a punchline by saying that the housekeeper doesn’t speak any language that she’s ever heard of. The only other non-recurring, non-Black woman of color with a speaking role on the show is Paris and Doyle’s nanny — yet another casting of a person of color as a houseworker. (The fan-favorite character of Michel Gerard, who manages a local inn, is Black and revealed in the revival to be gay, adding some, if not nearly enough, diversity to Stars Hollow.)

Amy Sherman-Palladino (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Amy Sherman-Palladino (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Mental illness is also addressed in problematic ways. In one scene, the recently widowed Emily Gilmore makes fun of a woman who is bipolar. Sherman-Palladino would likely say that the moment was meant to show how awful Emily is, but we already know this; throughout the original series, the Gilmore matriarch was infamous for going through more housekeepers in a single year than Miranda Priestly does interns. The moment seems less like an indictment of Emily, and more like a way to cull easy laughs at the expense of someone with a mental illness.

The show also relies on fat-shaming for cheap snickers. In one disturbing scene from the opening of the summer episode, Lorelai and Rory are lounging by the pool when two figures walk by in front of them, their heads out of view, with the camera focusing on their large physiques. Lorelai announces, “Belly alert!” A couple minutes later, Lorelai is distressed at something off-camera. “Uh oh. Oh my God,” she exclaims. Immediately following, Pat, another full-bodied Stars Hollow resident, walks in front of them wearing a speedo, while the women cringe and cover their eyes as the scene fades into the opening title. A little later during the same episode, the Gilmores are back at the pool when Pat returns — but this time, he turns to face them and dares to engage them in small talk. Their body language portrays the horror they feel for having to look at and converse with a man in a speedo who is clearly unashamed of his size. After he leaves, Rory utters, “It’s just so stressful being here.”

Gay people aren’t spared from this mean-spirited “joking,” either. In the spring episode of the series, there’s a meeting led by the town selectman, Taylor Doose (Michael Winters), about not having “enough gays” to celebrate the town’s inaugural Pride Parade — a laugh line that relies on turning queer people into objects.

These moments illustrate a lack of compassion for marginalized folks, and understanding of why such callousness is problematic. And unlike with shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (which has its own issues), we’re never meant to think of Rory and Lorelai as self-centered narcissists swimming in their own grandeur. They’re intended to be relatable and likable.

It’s no accident that the show displays some troubling views on marginalized groups; Amy Sherman-Palladino herself has raised eyebrows with statements she’s made in the past.

Back in 2012, fellow showrunner Shonda Rhimes tweeted that she was disappointed to not see a single ballerina of color in Amy’s now-cancelled, Gilmore-esque show Bunheads. In response, Sherman-Palladino pulled the notorious white woman card, saying, “I’ve always felt that women, in a general sense, have never supported other women to the level that they should.”

Later on, in the same interview, Sherman-Palladino used transphobic language to emphasize how her successes as a showrunner paved the way for other historically underrepresented groups in Hollywood to garner success. She said, “It’s only going to make it easier for the next woman, man, transvestite, whoever it’s going to be, half and half, who’s got something special . . . “

This is more than a line in an interview; it represents an ethos that permeates Sherman-Palladino’s work — including, quite troublingly, Gilmore Girls.

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The problems with A Year in the Life go beyond insensitive jokes. There is also, more fundamentally, a cavalier ignorance of how deeply privileged Rory is. Throughout the series, we’re told why Rory couldn’t “make it” as a journalist; adult Rory seems to have left the work ethic she displayed as a teen behind.

Yet somehow, she is still successful enough to have big-name publications interested in her writing, and to curry favor from people with power. Early on in the revival, when Rory returns to her alma mater for Chilton Day, headmaster Charleston informs her that he wants her to join the faculty in whatever subject she prefers. He encourages her to obtain her Master’s Degree so he can legally hire her, but in the meantime, a place on staff is being held for her.

Meanwhile, as a “freelancer,” Rory is able to afford an apartment in Brooklyn, with no mention made of what help she must’ve received to pay the rent. And in typical Sherman-Palladino fashion, the only reference to the very real, 2016 threat of gentrification lies in the fact that her building is being turned to condos “anyway,” so Rory’s happy to cancel her lease.

Rory’s privilege is nothing new, of course; in season five of the original series, she only received 300 hours of community service for stealing a yacht. In the same season, it was suggested that she was invited to join the Life and Death Brigade (LaDB), a secret society at Yale known for its extravagant events and dangerous (and occasionally criminal) antics. In the revival, members of that society return to whisk Rory away for a weekend of extravagance, prompting 32-year-old Rory to find clarity and renewed focus on her future.

These scenes remind us that if you are youthful, thin, attractive, able-bodied, rich, well-educated, cis, and white, you can do anything you want with little to no consequences for your actions. And they make no effort to tell us that this fundamental lack of fairness is problematic.

More broadly still, the show makes the mistake of casually overlooking the world in which we now live. Part of Gilmore Girls’ charm in the original series were the nods to pop culture and the world outside Stars Hollow — the world its fans lived in. This worked pretty well in the early 2000s. But since then, the landscape has dramatically altered.

Pop-culture references remain in the reboot, but the harsh and inescapable realities of the real world — a world of Black Lives Matter, police brutality, a revival of the KKK, backlash to marriage equality, increased violence against the transgender community, and Donald Trump (though of course, the election itself happened after the show wrapped) — are glaringly absent.

Indeed, the entire show seems to take place outside of time and social context. We keep hearing about Rory’s well-received New Yorker piece about fictional environmentalist and feminist icon, Naomi Shropshire, but nothing about any civil rights figures or historic social justice upheavals. When we last left Rory, she was on her way to Iowa to follow Senator Barack Obama’s campaign for the presidency, which we now know was groundbreaking — but the show makes no mention of it. This storyline happened in the Palladino-less season, which they seem determined to forget . . . but still, at least mentioning Rory’s political journalism career could have been a much-needed thumbtack on the roadmap of the last decade.

Instead, we’re stuck in a white feminism bubble that blithely ignores the realities of our current world.

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We often hear from creators of media that they can’t make their work diverse because the market, network, or some combination of the two will not allow anything other than a white, cis, heteronormative, neurotypical, able-bodied production. That was not the case with A Year in the Life. By her own admission, Amy Sherman-Palladino had free reign to tell the stories that she wanted to tell, free from network constraints. Those stories could have been intersectional. But they were not. And they weren’t even absent of intersectionality by happenstance; they were actively aggressive toward minority groups.

In 2012, Sherman-Palladino made it clear in that she doesn’t do “message shows.” She went on to say, “I don’t give a shit who you learn your life from.” It’s evident in her work, including this revival, that she does not care how matters of race, gender, and sexuality (just to name a few) intersect.

But in the real world, there are consequences for this ignorance. These matters need to be talked about; we can no longer gloss over the bigotries that infect our society. And while Lorelai and Rory may always have everything work out for them in the end, off screen, the lives and livelihood of marginalized communities are at stake.

In 2016, we live in a world where, more than ever, subtle and overt displays of racism and prejudice against the most vulnerable in our society have become a matter of life and death. Now is not the time to be shy in making content that is as diverse as the world around us. If Sherman-Palladino is sincere in her desire to help clear the way for other marginalized groups to achieve similar levels of success, she has failed. Her success, all along, has been dependent upon perpetuating harmful stereotypes, and ensuring that the marginalized do, in fact, remain where they are.

Was Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life worth the 10-year wait? No.

Because if it’s not intersectional, it’s not a story worth telling.

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Lead image: Facebook

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