On the Entrepreneurial Feminism of Stars Hollow

There’s something excessively sad about the new episodes of Gilmore Girls. The central characters, particularly Lorelai and Rory, seem adrift and weary. The dialogue, slightly stagy in the original, sounds like a series of halfhearted bits, failed attempts to recapture a long-lost sparkle. The difference is more than simply the bittersweetness of growing up and growing older, more than just post-crash millennial malaise, the dawning of the reality that all the money and time and hope everyone has invested in Rory’s future cannot land her the journalism job she’s always wanted. The hopelessness seems cross-generational, and is jarring when juxtaposed with the cheerful end of the previous final season, season 7, when Rory headed off to report on Obama’s 2008 presidential run.

Even though the original show cites Clinton as an inspirational figure — “See you when Hillary’s president,” Lorelai says to Luke at one point — it’s hard to imagine the characters getting excited about her campaign. And even though the new season was made before the recent election’s results were clear, it captures something important about where we’ve been, and how we relate to where we are now. The despondent feeling of the new episodes throws into relief the entrepreneurial feminist dreams of the original, which died so definitively on November 8.

gilmore-girls-1First, the feminism. The show features an intricate, fiercely intense mother-daughter relationship of a kind rarely explored on television. Lorelai and Rory are a compelling pair: a charming yet hard-nosed young mom with her serious, sweet sidekick of a daughter. Together they form a fearless, wisecracking duo whose mastery of a wide range of conversation topics is also rare: despite the men in nearly all the A plots, every single episode passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. The combination of snappy dialogue and slow, low-stakes plots (the conflict on which the entire show hinges is that Lorelai and Rory must endure a fancy dinner with Lorelai’s acid-tongued mother Emily once a week in exchange for Rory’s prep school tuition) deliberately recalls the 1930s screwball comedies Stanley Cavell calls comedies of remarriage, set in the Shakespearean green space of Connecticut. But Gilmore Girls updates the story in a beautifully feminist way: despite the men and boys who pass through their lives, the most important remarriages are between mothers and daughters — Lorelai and Emily, then Lorelai and Rory — who banter, fall out, and ultimately return to each other.

The world of the show is also compelling, if a bit sickly sweet. Lorelai and Rory make their home in Stars Hollow, a beautifully lit, folksy New England town that, as the inimitable Paris remarks upon her first visit, “would make Frank Capra want to throw up.” The characters’ patter, too, recalls the fast-talking broad swoop of 1930s comedies (“Aren’t you going to act?”/”Yes, I’m going to act like you never came in here!”), but the female characters get to do more than most women in comedy: they’re allowed to be funny without ever being whacked in the head with a literal or figurative two-by-four. The world of the show is expanded by the literary delights, which are strewn about like the numerous wedding cakes Sookie is constantly whipping up. Norman Mailer cameos as an insufferable blowhard; Rory packs fat Gore Vidal novels in her backpack for the bus ride to Chilton Academy; and she ends prom night curled up in a hay bale with her hunky boyfriend Dean, falling asleep with their noses in a Dorothy Parker anthology, a nerdy teenage dream if ever there was one.

Murphy Brown!
Murphy Brown!

Like all good TV, Gilmore Girls not only referenced cultural touchstones, but also charmed audiences into a new era. Though it’s hard even to remember now, the show nudged us beyond the pathologizing of single mothers, making Dan Quayle’s attack on Murphy Brown a decade earlier seem bizarrely antiquated. While gross-out comedies like Knocked Up were imposing outdated family values on their beleaguered heroines, Gilmore Girls gave us a heroic mom who chose to strike out on her own and succeeded in raising a sweet, preternaturally calm delight of a daughter who gets into Princeton, Harvard, and Yale; expertly calms the many boys fighting over her; and still finds the time to attend improbably numerous town events. Single motherhood, and with it a certain kind of feminist commitment to women’s independence and community, was suddenly not only accepted but celebrated.

However, this feminism comes with some conditions. One of those conditions is that abortion must not be mentioned, much less undertaken: surprising and unwanted pregnancy, carried to term as if there’s no other option, causes every major dramatic development of the show and occurs almost as frequently as its literary references.

The other conditions for Gilmore Girls’ particular brand of feminism seem to be cheery ceaseless work and deference to the super rich. Despite being framed as a (causeless) rebel, Lorelai immediately excels as a 16 year-old hotel maid, clawing her way through the ranks to manager. As her benevolent boss Mia tells it, “The other maids hated you.” Lorelai: “Yeah well they were so slow.” Mia: “You were special.”

The cheery, ceaseless entrepreneurial drive that sustains Lorelai also sustains Stars Hollow, where nearly every character runs at least one successful business, and many run more than one. The ubiquitous Kirk as inept mail carrier is the only public employee we ever see: there are no public school teachers, librarians (though we hear that the library has only 12 books), police, or paid public servants of any kind. As is the rule in neoliberalism, public services are associated with fear and shame; as Rory says, “Stars Hollow does not have a seedy underbelly. We don’t even have a meter maid.” Barely any wage laborers exist at all, except the teenage bag boys in the grocery store and Lane, Jess, and Cesar in the diner (Stars Hollow, true to edenic form, still reserves most of these jobs for teenagers).

The town clerk, town troubadour, and everyone else responsible for Stars Hollow’s elaborate folksiness refuse to be paid, as if they subsist only on the recognition of their proper community spirit. The entire town needs nothing from the state, and yet lives not just comfortably but lavishly, endlessly donating their time, energy, food, flowers, and carpentry skills to the perpetual town parties. They keep the town running and the festivals flowing without even imagining the need for material recompense. Endless entrepreneurial drive and cheery it-takes-a-village optimism is all they need.

Reverse Capra
Reverse Capra

Showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino thus functioned as a kind of reverse-Capra for neoliberalism: if he made America comfortable with the New Deal expansion of the welfare state, she offered us post-safety net instructions for survival, which included sucking up to rich people and embracing a privatized, right-moving world. Not only does the entire story hinge on Rory’s desperate need to attend Chilton, but she later spends an entire season working with the right-wing Daughters of the American Revolution. The characters also venerate free-market heroes: Rory woos her rebellious second boyfriend Jess by lending him The Fountainhead. She later calls Lorelai “a regular Howard Roark,” and then when chosen to give a speech on C-span, she quotes Lee Iacocca, Malcolm Forbes, and (for balance) Oscar Wilde on the value of education. Later, when her grandfather has a heart attack, she brings him a Milton Friedman textbook in the hospital. These references are startling if you think of liberal feminism as far removed from the world of these neoliberal gurus. But by sprinkling these references in with the more standard literary ones, the show helps us see how fully entangled those two worlds have become.

To the extent that Gilmore Girls enacted the reabsorption of the white single mother into the world of middle-class respectability (the same fate is not available to tiger-mom caricature Mrs. Kim), we might say the show did an important service to (white) feminism.

The revival acknowledges as much when Rory, in her capacity as unpaid editor of the Stars Hollow Gazette, scrolls through old issues on microfilm and finds a headline reading “President Ronald Reagan” directly above another reading “Teen Mom Lorelai Gilmore Arrives in stars Hollow, Takes Job at Independence Inn,” as if Reagan himself bestowed Lorelai’s independence upon her. The gulf between the gauzy entrepreneurial heaven of Stars Hollow and even pre-crash America — where businesses often fail and workers, especially women, are undervalued — was wide, but Lorelai and Rory worked hard, so everyone cheered them on.

Even before these latest episodes, I had already been skeptical of Stars Hollow. I, too, grew up in a small New England town, but one where money and festivals did not flow so copiously — certainly not enough to make up for the receding welfare state. Many people I grew up with struggled. One of my closest childhood friends, every bit as witty and lovely as Lorelai or Rory, had a baby as a teenager and had some legal and emotional troubles, from which she didn’t have a bevy of rich relatives and neighbors clamoring to save her. She died in her early thirties, after a prolonged drug addiction. Looking back, I’m sure that she and her tough, hard-working single mother got some support from their friends and neighbors. And I’m equally sure they didn’t get enough of it, despite their wit and beauty. Sometimes you don’t get the village you need.

rory-madeilineI don’t bring this up to blame the people in my hometown for my friend’s untimely death. Rather, the point is that unsupported American parenthood (and childhood) can be brutal, particularly in the shadow of the Reagan-inspired, Clinton-perpetuated myth that an entrepreneurial utopia exists in mainstream small town America, or that it could exist if we just worked hard enough. These are the myths that allowed the Democratic party to oversee the falling of real wages and gutting of the welfare state alongside the rhetoric of extreme personal responsibility. Now, looking back at Stars Hollow’s vision of valiant female entrepreneurship in post-crash, post-Clinton hindsight, it seems as far away as the brutal world of whaling Emily recreates for terrified children in the best scene of the new installment. It seems remarkable not that this era has now ended, but that it lasted so long.

Molly Geidel: Talks pretty fast.