Monday, December 5, 2016

Gilmore Girls and Social Commentary

We’re having a discussion about civilization today. But it will look a lot like a TV show review. I can’t promise there won’t be spoilers ahead, but you’ve had a full couple of weeks to watch the four new episodes—one per season—of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

The official Netflix poster;
I found it on Wikipedia

I watched all four on Netflix this past week. And then discussed them with daughter Social Sphere, because that is what mothers and daughters do with Gilmore Girls.

Social Sphere got me started on the original series about a year and a half ago. I hadn’t been interested during the original run. They talked unnaturally fast, and I just couldn’t tune in often enough to get acquainted with the characters. It worked better for me to binge watch the entire series over a three-month period.

Let me start with things I like. Except for one of the seasons, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore have a close, honest, delightful mother-daughter relationship. It felt familiar to Social Sphere and me.

Eventually I got used to the pace of the conversation. I don’t know if it’s even possible for people to banter that fast; there’s no time for thinking up the quick comebacks and shared references. It had to be scripted and memorized. But it was fun to imagine that minds and mouths could function that quickly.

I think the show did a good job of showing the variety of personality types. It’s all right to be different in style and personality. Sometimes it was portrayed as a difference between the wealthy upper class Gilmore parents down the road in Hartford, Connecticut—with cold stiffness, rules, and expectations—and the quirky small town Stars Hollow people, where Lorelai and Rory lived, independent and comfortable. There was that contrast. But I thought the more personal contrasts were more interesting.

If you’re aware of classical philosophy, there are four elemental types: air, fire, water, and earth, described in various ways, but my explanation will do for our purposes here. “Air” is high energy. Tends to be full of ideas and possibilities, quick thinking but not deep thinking, light-hearted, fun-loving, often impulsive. There are possibilities for good and bad in this type, as with them all. Lorelai is quintessential “air.”

“Fire” is also high energy, maybe a stronger whoosh of energy even than “air.” Tends to be pushy, results oriented, practical. Luke might be this, maybe also Paris, but this type wasn’t a major component of the show’s dynamic.

“Water” is a slower energy: flowing, smooth, connected, emotion-based, detail-oriented, tends toward worrying—especially about whether they personally measure up, or whether they have offended someone. Rory fits in here.

“Earth” is slow, even still, and certain, immovable, rule-oriented, and exacting. Emily Gilmore is here, possibly combined with fire.

So much of the series is about the dynamics of Lorelai’s somewhat flighty “air” being unacceptable to her unyielding “earth” mother. Rory’s “water” connects them, and connects to both of them.

In the first season Emily Gilmore seemed over-the-top unlikable. But as we saw more of her, we began to see that she just had a different way of dealing with hurt, and showing love (or refusing to show love) after being hurt. She isn’t a villain; she’s just different.

Lorelai, who left home, pregnant, at 15, eventually achieved her dream of owning and operating an inn. She is still young, in her mid-to-upper 30s in the original series, so we also see her go through a series of failed relationships. And we hope eventually she’ll figure out that Luke is the steady center meant for her.

We see Rory go through high school at a private prep school that her grandparents pay for (exacting the price of weekly family dinners). Then she goes to college at Yale, her grandfather’s alma mater. During all this time, she experiences boyfriends, teenage angst, and worry about what direction to take in her future.

There were some bad years for Rory—mostly once she’s in college. On an interview on Jimmy Fallon, actress Alexis Bledel described that the writers were worried Rory was too much of a good girl, but then they overcompensated. Her first sexual encounter was with former boyfriend Dean, married by then (way too young, and not happily). Even Lorelai was morally taken aback, because that was adultery, and her own promiscuity never included that.

They have no church, or belief system that they can rely on. No way out of errors except to stumble about in yet another direction. But they’re mostly good to other people, loving of each other, and likable by those around them.

In the original series finale, the whole town celebrates Lorelai. She gets back together with Luke (we hope permanently). And even her mother comments that someone who inspires this much love and respect must have earned it.

Rory, meanwhile, turns down a marriage proposal from longtime (two-year?) boyfriend Logan, and gets a journalist job on the campaign bus for Barack Obama, which if he were to do well (in real life we know how that turned out) could be a great career starter.

Then there’s a nine-year break.

In Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, we have Rory back in Stars Hollow for a visit, and everyone is congratulating her on her recent piece in, I think, the New Yorker. Lorelai is still with Luke—though not married yet. It is a few months after the death of Richard Gilmore, Lorelai’s father (this following the death of actor Edward Herrmann in December 2014).

Lorelai’s ability to find things to be anxious about continues. We’re expected to believe that, after nine years with Luke, it suddenly occurs to her he might want a child, and considers a surrogate, much to his puzzlement. That’s the winter season. By summer, she’s anxious about losing concierge Michel (a haughty attitude with French accent, but somehow lovable) to a big city hotel. She decides to do what the character in the book The Wild does—go backpacking out West. She does indeed find herself, even without the actual hiking. She decides to marry Luke, and also grow her business, successfully recruiting help from her mother, who has also found herself in surprising ways. Lorelai seems, at last, to have grown up.

So, then there’s Rory.

She doesn’t have any work after the New Yorker piece. Nothing lined up. Opportunities seem to beckon, but nothing she wants. Until she gets desperate enough, and then she finds those opportunities aren’t really there either.

She’s 32, unmarried, unemployed, and aimless.

She has a boyfriend of two years that we meet briefly, but he’s totally forgettable—and she does. She treats him as disposable, and then chastises herself for it, but procrastinates breaking up until, in the final episode, he ends it—by text.

She has an ongoing affair with old boyfriend Logan, who isn’t married either, but is engaged. He’s content to continue the affair with Rory, as long as they’re discreet enough not to alert the fiancée. Rory’s OK with that as long as the fiancée isn’t living with him. Once she moves in, Rory realizes Logan’s marriage plans are real, and she’s just a mistress. Maybe we could use the old word “concubine,” where the man gets all the sexual benefits he wants from the woman, but she has none of the social respect or legal advantages of marriage.

And then, while she’s ostensibly out seeking a story, Rory gets drunk with a bunch of people waiting in line for something, and has a one-night stand with a guy dressed as a Wookie. She doesn’t know his name, and certainly doesn’t want to see him again. Even her mother admits that’s pretty slutty; Lorelai had never had a one-night stand. They brush it off as just a minor mistake. Maybe even as progress toward learning how to fully live life, we are supposed to believe.

Old boyfriend Jess offers occasional wisdom. He suggests Rory write about the story of the Gilmore girls—“write what you know.” So she dives into that. But without a book proposal, without her mother’s approval (until eventually).

I’m wondering about a 30-something in this day and age, in a writing/journalism profession, who doesn’t have some kind of online presence, where she makes her writings available, and continues to add content, regardless of whether she’s getting paid. Because without that platform, what’s the likelihood that she’ll get a book published, let alone sell it to an audience? But, because we’ve been interested in their story, of course we’re supposed to believe that all will work out for her once she has a manuscript in hand.

I’m looking at her generation. Her friend Layne, who married early, is happy and lively as ever. Her husband has settled in to a more respectable (confining?) job, but they continue the band, Layne still as drummer. Her friend Paris is unhappily married—but she was always unhappy, so no surprise. Logan is unmarried. His friends are all unmarried. Jess is still unmarried (although at least he seems to be doing well enough in his career dreams). There’s a group of 30-somethings in Stars Hollow, whom Rory must have grown up with but does not recognize or befriend. They live in their parents’ homes after having failed in the larger world.

Social Sphere tells me this is a reality today for a lot of 30-somethings. I thought this was maybe true for mid-20-somethings. But the Great Recession that has been going on since the end of the original series has been a serious hindrance to getting launched for a lot of young people.

I would have considered it less economic and more social, but the spheres are possibly interrelated.

The one exception was old boyfriend Dean, who back in the day wasn’t heading toward college or much of a bright future. We don’t know if he got educated in the interim. But he’s now happily married, fourth child on the way, gainfully employed in another town, and just in Star’s Hollow to visit family. He has no regrets about leaving Rory in his past.

So I’m thinking back on the formula for avoiding poverty in America:

·         Don’t have sex before age 20.
·         Don’t have sex until after marriage.
·         Stay married.
·         Obtain at least a high school diploma.
Dean eventually found his way back to the formula. So did Layne. But Rory and pretty much every other 30-something in the show have failed in everything except getting a college degree—learning without wisdom.

Clearly the realities of a near-decade-long economic downturn affected this particular generation. They didn’t have the opportunities they had been led to expect.

But the failure—not just for these fictional people, but for this demographic in real life—seems to have more to do with resilience. They’d rather wait out the bad times with their lives on hold, in hopes that things get better someday. Or they give up hope entirely and limit their expectations to whatever parents will provide for perpetual children.

Rory, who seemed to have so much potential, took until age 32 to get where her mother was at 15.

In some ways she’s worse off. She doesn’t have as many years to recover. And she doesn’t know who the father is; we can guess either forgettable boyfriend who just broke up with her, Logan who is marrying someone else, or mystery Wookie guy. At least Rory knew her father all her life. Her child won’t have that.

Lorelai and Luke will be more comforting and demonstratively loving grandparents. Rory might figure things out; she used to know how to work hard and seize opportunities. Maybe she’ll get that back with a child as motivation. But the possibilities of successful career followed by love and marriage followed by children just got thrown away.

Those people who say single moms can do just as well as married parents, note this (albeit anecdotal and fictional) example. Lorelai really did sacrifice and work hard to give every opportunity to her daughter. Yet the circle of unwed mother raising fatherless child continues.

Our disappointment in Rory must be a hint of what Emily Gilmore felt when her hopes and plans for Lorelai got thrown away.

There was a piece in the Houston Chronicle Wednesday, November 30, by Maggie Gordon, who had enjoyed the original series during her late teens and with her mother. She ends with this:

Maybe the reboot is a critique on society’s idea of how entitled the millennial generation is. Maybe the character traits and decisions that seem endearing at 16 don’t hold up at 30. Maybe I was too self-absorbed to realize the character’s shortcomings the first time.
And maybe I outgrew her. That’s good, I guess. I just know that my mother would have wanted more for—no, make the from—Rory.
Maybe there wouldn’t have been an original story without Lorelai’s teenage mistake. But in real life a child raised like Rory probably wouldn’t have the advantages of a successful mother whom she is close to, and extraordinarily wealthy grandparents.

Maybe, in real life, odds are better for kids raised by their married parents and taken to church—even when the economy is bad.

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