Insensitivity and Privilege: The Problem with Gilmore Girls

When I was younger, almost immediately after arriving home from school, I found myself in my room, watching television. By no means was this the most productive way to spend my late afternoons/early evenings, but it kept me entertained until dinner. My after-school television routine in middle and high school consisted of sitting down and watching whatever ABC Family had on during that time.

One of these shows was Gilmore Girls, a program that captivated me from the start. It was quirky, and, in the early seasons at least, had a character I could relate to. Rory Gilmore was an introverted bookworm. Seeing some of myself in Rory, I actively rooted for her. At the same time, I cheered for her mother, Lorelai, the other Gilmore girl. Despite having almost nothing in common with the character, I found her interesting, her story compelling. She referenced things I didn’t – and still don’t – always understand. She was funny, eclectic. As a teenager, I thought these women were smart, strong, fascinating, and all-around good. I watched all of the show, though eventually blocking out memories of the last season, which I was profoundly disappointed in, and considered it a favorite. However, I never returned to it as a whole, instead picking and choosing select scenes I remembered fondly, watching the best moments, reblogging the best gifs on Tumblr. Besides the lackluster last couple seasons, I felt the show had no real flaws.

Without really realizing it, I had changed a lot since first watching the series in its entirety. I became more educated, more aware, more conscious regarding issues in the world. I understood politics more and had been educated on a variety of social issues. I graduated high school, went to college, studied literary criticism, and learned how to “properly” critique various forms of media. Since then, the way I read books, listen to music, and watch films and television has been greatly altered, and I realized shows I once loved were not spared.

Since the summer, I have been revisiting Gilmore Girls. While it is a show I still laugh at and occasionally relate to, it is also a show with a lot of problems. The jokes are still there for sure, but often, they are made at the expense of marginalized groups. For instance, Lorelai makes a habit of homophobic jokes, while another running gag of the program is poor dietary choices of the mother and daughter pair – yet the two are both incredibly thin and openly scoff at the thought of exercise. While these “jokes” may not directly affect me and my life most of the time – though I could do without the occasional anti-vegan/vegetarian remarks – they could and likely do have a much greater impact on other viewers. The characters’ comments take aim at very specific groups of people, making it seem as though they would be in no way welcome in fictional Stars Hollow.

Upon this second viewing, something else becomes very clear: though viewers are meant to sympathize with Lorelai and Rory throughout the series, the characters make that increasingly difficult. Of course, the mother-daughter pair face many challenges – including but not limited to Lorelai being a single mother, the result of a teenage pregnancy. However, many of the issues, or the financial ones at least, appear to be easily resolved. For as much as Emily and Richard Gilmore, Lorelai’s parents, do wrong, they are incredibly quick to rescue the two main characters. They finance Rory’s education at Chilton and then later at Yale with the one condition: a Friday night dinner with the two girls be implemented. Emily co-signs a loan from the bank that Lorelai would otherwise never receive. Meanwhile, Richard is more than happy to help her with insurance issues regarding her inn. They offer a home – a safe haven – for their granddaughter when she chooses to leave Yale and provides her with what they believe to be a great lawyer to help with her legal problems. Sure, Emily and Richard are at times overbearing and do create a lot of problems, but Lorelai and Rory are not much better. In fact, the two come off as incredibly privileged, self-centered, and unlikable.

The show’s negative characteristics really come as no surprise once you learn a bit about Gilmore Girls’ creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino. By claiming “I don’t do message shows,” she in fact does just that. However, the message she inadvertently sends is a poor one. It is a message that shuns personal responsibility and care for other people’s feelings. It is one that laughs at other people’s expense, mocks them for being different. Characters like Mrs. Kim and Michele are clearly the “other.” They do not fit the same mold as the other residents of Stars HollowHave you noticed how any person of color (besides perhaps Lane) is portrayed negatively? The prominent non-white characters, Mrs. Kim and Michele, are harsh, mean, strict. They are largely there for comedic effect, showing in contrast how wonderful and brilliant Lorelai is. But the message becomes more than that. By having almost no diversity in her shows – which extends past Gilmore Girls and into shows like Bunheads, which was criticized by Shonda Rhimes for its predominantly white cast – the creator says only one kind of person belongs in her world: thin, privileged white women. Only these characters should be continuously praised, supported, and coddled, and, in turn, only actors who fit this criteria should be hired. Amy Sherman-Palladino may not like messages, but she sure sends some big ones.

The phrase “problematic” tends to get a bad reputation, as some people throw it around flippantly. Some things are mistakes, of course – problematic ones – but those mistakes do not necessarily have to result in a boycott or condemnation of a product or person. At certain points in our lives, we may have laughed at homophobic jokes, but do we now? Or can we recognize that we have evolved – our opinions, our views, our sensitivities, our values? Knowing what we know, do we still find those “problematic” jokes funny? Knowing what we know now, can we?

Being aware of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s opinions (including her proclamation that she does not give a “flying fuck” about eating disorders) can make watching a show like Gilmore Girls infinitely more difficult. It is one thing recognizing the issues within the program, but it is something else knowing its creator did not care about them then and does not care now. Perhaps it would be easier to digest if Sherman-Palladino accepted criticism better. For example, instead fully acknowledging Shonda Rhimes’s gripe with Bunheads, she instead chose to fault Rhimes for not supporting her creation merely because they are both women, and, evidently, women should never, ever criticize each other. Had she acknowledged the critique and perhaps expressed regret over the decision, watching her products may be a bit easier. However, it is mostly her carelessness and insensitivity that creates a problem.

The poor messages in Gilmore Girls went unnoticed by me in my first viewing of the show, but the more episodes I rewatch, the more problems I catch. Of course, all this is not to say the program or others like are evil. However, it is not suffice to just say that and let all its problematic features slide. Growing up and recognizing this does not necessarily mean giving up what we once loved and tossing it aside. Such an act would be nearly impossible when you consider all the other positive aspects. It does mean being willing to recognize how wrong some things are, even if they are our favorite show, even if the other 99% of it makes us happy. As we evolve, we must admit that what was once funny to us reflects poorly now – and was a poor choice then as well.

Admittedly, I have yet to see the Netflix revival of Gilmore Girls. Perhaps the new additions to the series will right the wrongs of past episodes. However, considering Amy Sherman-Palladino’s own sentiments, I have my doubts.

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