Single White Females
Gilmore Girls is a series about an attractive, youthful, vibrant single mother and her more sober but equally fabulous daughter. It comes on the heels of some 1999 movies with the same premise, for instance, Tumbleweeds (directed by Gavin O’Connor) and Anywhere But Here (Wayne Wang). Both of these films illustrated how a girl’s already confusing pre-teen and teenage years are further complicated by relationships with mothers who do not fit the mold, and who often place their own desires above the presumed needs of their children. For these girls, having a wacky mother is something of a curse.
In the case of Gilmore Girls, however, the world is generally quite good. People in Stars Hollow, Connecticut (population 9,973), where the Gilmore Girls live, confront problems directly, through communication and after thoughtful consideration. The two Girls of the title are 32-year-old Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter 16-year-old Lorelai “Rory” Gilmore (newcomer Alexis Bledel). Graham is fresh off the short-lived NBC summer series M.Y.O.B., also about a single woman raising a teenage girl. As Opal Brown on M.Y.O.B., Graham had to play the heavy. In her new incarnation, she gets to be free-spirited and fun. The twist of Gilmore Girls is supposed to be that mom has the heart of a teenager, while teenaged Rory is serious, like an adult.
The series was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, who also wrote the series premiere and whose production credits include Veronica’s Closet. The director of this first episode is Leslie Linka Glatter, who has previously directed episodes of Ally McBeal and The West Wing. Gilmore Girls resembles The West Wing in its witty idealism, lack of sarcasm, and portrayal of people as either good or just misguided. Lorelai’s parents fit the latter category: Emily and Richard Gilmore (Kelly Bishop and The Practice‘s Edward Herrmann) are cold and status-conscious. Richard seems oblivious to all but his golf game, and Emily, while she means well, is starchy and interfering, and seems to want to remake Rory into the daughter Lorelai never became as a result of her teen pregnancy and decision to raise her child on her own.
Despite Lorelai’s short skirts, the script has her continually concerned that her daughter not follow in her footsteps. She is an ideal parent in that she is heavily involved in her daughter’s life, and also presumably better able to understand her daughter because of their age proximity. Mom looks so young that the two are often mistaken for sisters. And both are quite adorable. Lorelai has a successful career managing an inn and lives in a charming old house with plenty of room. She wears chic suits and high heels to work, but she’s so cool that she also looks great in cutoffs, a tight T-shirt, and cowboy boots. Plus, she squeals with delight when she hears the latest XTC cd. Daughter is a straight-A student who actually likes her private school uniform (despite the fact that this is the WB, the plaid kilts on the girls at Chilton fall to the knee and their sweaters are rather bulky—Britney Spears need not apply). Rory is smart and hard-working, even reading Madame Bovary just for fun.
While this inversion of parent-child cliches may seem to run counter to recent calls for more “family values” on television, the series has a stamp of approval from the Family Friendly Forum’s Script Development Fund, described on the WB Website as follows: “An initiative between some of the nation’s top advertisers and the WB, the program is intended to offer a greater array of compelling family programming on network television. The strong, loving mother-daughter relationship portrayed in Gilmore Girls reflects the growing reality of this new type of American family—approximately fifty percent of families today consist of one-parent households” (www.familyprogramawards.com/). Almost immediately, you learn that the decision for Lorelai not to marry Rory’s father was mutual, and the two remain on good terms (the yet-unseen Christopher is a successful entrepreneur who lives in California).
In fact, Lorelai appears to be a happy single parent—something rarely seen on television drama and quite a switch from the days of Murphy Brown, who was vilified by politicians (most loudly, Dan Quayle) for her decision to rear her child on her own. I think the difference here is in the amount of apology offered. Murphy Brown offered no excuses and was unrepentant. While Lorelai Gilmore is plainly pleased to have Rory in her life, she does talk of having “thrown [her] life away” and things not going as she had “planned.” Not that insisting that one’s child be educated and aware of the consequences of sex is surely a bad thing, but in the case of Gilmore Girls, never-wed single parenting falls into the “mistakes were made” category, while Murphy Brown made an active choice.
In addition, in both cases, the mothers are privileged, white, and have financial support on which to fall in case of emergency—Murphy through her career and Lorelai through her wealthy parents. I am still waiting for a show focusing on a non-white, content parent who is single by choice. The idealized New England setting also helps counter the non-traditional family in Gilmore Girls. This isn’t a mother and child in anonymous suburbs or worse, the city. What better place raise a child than in a quaint, clean, Connecticut village in which everyone knows everyone else. Without a dad, I guess it does take a village to raise a child. Go ahead girls, don’t have an abortion have that baby at age 16. It will all work out just fine, right? If you are pretty and charming and live in Utopia, everything will be great.
And this version of Utopia is indeed unbelievably healthy and endearing, full of quirky New Englanders. They take care of one another: the coffee shop owner is concerned about Lorelai’s caffeine intake; town busybody Miss Patty (Liz Torres) knows of a part-time job for a kid who needs money. Drella (Alex Borstein), the cranky harp player in the Independence Inn where Lorelai works, is an amusing curmudgeon who ignores the inn’s clients but plays her instrument beautifully. There are some less endearing folks on the show, but they’re clearly plot contrivances. The students and faculty at the Chilton school which is in Hartford, not Stars Hollow for instance, make Rory’s first day there miserable. One girl, unprovoked, tells her to “stay out of the way” and not work on the school paper; one boy continually refers to Rory as “Mary” (as in Virgin) and creepily comes on to her in the hallway; the headmaster, a friend of Richard and Emily’s, warns her she is likely to fail out of Chilton. What I get from this is that rich country club people are much more likely than others to be uptight and mean than anyone else; they are by definition critical and insecure. In my experience, this is not entirely false, but in Gilmore Girls it sets up a very neat and not terribly original “us against them” situation, reminiscent of John Hughes films, among many, many others. Still, it is an attractive premise Americans love the underdog, right? And the bad people really are not evil, just a product of their circumstances: they don’t know any better.
I get the same feeling watching Gilmore Girls as when I watch My So-Called Life. The situation and the characters seem too sweet and idealized; when people are less than kind, they have reasons psychological problems, trouble at home, unrequited love, too much WASPiness. Nothing that happens is too dire or pressing. There are no vampires in Stars Hollow. The Gilmores’ world is a relentlessly comforting and inviting one. So even if I’m not fascinated or much surprised, when the show is over, not only do I want to know how Rory deals with the mean girl at school, I want to help her out. Does the cute boy from Episode 1 come back? I want to go for drinks with Lorelai and discuss whether she should go out with the rich Chilton dad or with the cute, cranky coffee house owner. These questions and others equally insignificant may keep me coming back to the show, at least for a little while.