Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life . . . in the Trump Era
Over the 2016 Thanksgiving holiday, the much-anticipated revival of the popular television show Gilmore Girls was released on Netflix. Both entertainment critics and fans eagerly awaited the premiere, and in the year leading up to the release, Netflix rolled out clever promotions. There were teasers for the show throughout the summer. Luke’s Diner coffee shop pop-ups opened up across the country. Seasonal posters were released, since the four-part mini-series, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, would be organized around the changing seasons.
While the roll out for the series was carefully controlled, the cultural climate in which the series was released could not be. On Tuesday, November 8th, what could have been the ultimate “girl power” moment, with the election of the first woman president, turned into something else entirely – something the residents of Stars Hollow, the fictional town where the Gilmore girls live, would undoubtedly recoil at. Privilege flaunting, racial slurs, and talk of pussy grabbing became ugly symbols of the next four years.
Prior to and since the release, there have been some pieces that connect the revival to 2016 election. Writing for The Washington Post, Emily Yahr chronicled the times in the series when Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were mentioned. In a much less light-hearted piece for The Verge, Kaitlyn Tiffany links what she sees as the anti-feminist messages of the revival to the vitriol of the Trump campaign. Aaron Kappel, writing for The Establishment and Jen Chaney, writing for Vulture, provide strong critiques of the series in terms of both race and class. For critics, Gilmore Girls, which places heterosexual, privileged, white women at its forefront, aligns too closely with the imagined nation state seemingly desired by some Trump supporters.
As both a long-time Gilmore Girls fan and a concerned American citizen, I find these critiques to be valid. The original series as well as the revival do focus on the experiences of the hetereosexual, privileged, white Gilmore women, and arguably, the viewing demographic for both is the same. But, when read in light of the highly performative pieces that pepper the revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life reminds viewers not to get lulled “the light magical realism” of the series. Instead, the revival seems to be reminding viewers to take comfort in Stars Hollow but to ultimately realize that in the real world there’s still a great deal of very hard work to be done.
In an interview this past winter at the historic D.C. synagogue, Sixth and I, Lauren Graham spoke about the revival and her new memoir, Talking as Fast as I Can. At one point, she addressed one possible allure of Gilmore Girls, which aired between 2000-2007, noting that the mother-daughter team of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) provide viewers with characters a bit more familiar, comforting, and less scary than today’s popular anti-heroes. Indeed, fans were drawn to the quirky, loveable characters who reside in Stars Hollow, and they responded positively to the fast-paced, witty, pop-culture laden dialogue, which became a trademark of the show. For many, the revival was a chance to see the ending that the show’s wife/husband team creators Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino imagined. (The team did not participate in the final season, which aired in 2007.)
The same sense of comfort that those early seasons provided was present in the revival. Fans saw their favorite characters return – from major characters – such as Sookie St. James (Melissa McCartney) – to minor characters – such as the members of the Life and Death Brigade. And, many of those beloved characters seemed to be even better versions of themselves – Michel (Yanic Truesdale) and Paris (Liza Weil) were praised in particular. The dialogue was just as witty (“Don’t stand there shaking. Just go. Apologize to your parents and tell them you’ll pay them back for the two semesters you spent studying Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s effect on the feminist agenda”) and pop culture laden (“’What are you doing?’...’Organizing my magazines by Kardashian’”). The town of Stars Hollow – despite the montage of people using cell phones in the revival’s opening – is still very much unblemished by the ugliness of the outside world. As James Poniewozik writes for The New York Times, “Like Lake Wobegon or Mayberry, Stars Hollow is a wish in the shape of a town, an idyll where everything is low stakes…Stars Hollow is not just a safety net, it’s a giant, fluffy featherbed.”
It’s this insularity that has caused concern amongst critics, especially in the cultural climate surrounding the 2016 presidential election. Kappel calls the revival “a white feminist monstrosity” while Chaney wonders “did the recent election results, which threw multiple logs on the preexisting white-intolerance fire in this country, make us less inclined to embrace the oblivious bubble that is Stars Hollow?” Of feminist politics – or lack thereof, Tiffany writes, “the four-part movie ends on November 5, 2016, just before the election that gave us President-Elect Trump. It’s a sparkly, sinister message-in-a-bottle from the final days before female ambition was excoriated on the grandest scale imaginable.”
However, I would argue that the meta-moments written into the revival signify that the Sherman-Palladinos are hyper-aware of the artifice of the town. We have a second film by Kirk (Sean Gunn), and we have the magical, musical montage of the Life and Death Brigade. In “Fall,” we have Lorelai go on her own Wild quest, inspired by Cheryl Strayed; two of the park rangers are actors from Parenthood, another popular television show which starred Graham. The women Lorelai encounters on the trail are decidedly team book or team movie. The Wild scene sequence is self-referential, calling attention to both the film’s adaptation of Strayed’s book and the Sherman-Palladinos’ adaptation of both.
Most notably, we have Stars Hollow: The Musical. The inclusion of this performance piece draws attention to the fact that Stars Hollow and its residents are fictive. Inspired by Mayor Tyler Doose’s (Michael Winters) love of Edward Albee, the musical, which includes real-life Broadway performers Sutton Foster and Christian Borle, is in every sense of the word absurdist (twice, Borle’s character throws a glass at the wall, and it fails to shatter). Through campy song-and-dance numbers and a Hamilton-inspired rap sequence, the musical revisits the beginnings of Stars Hollow. At one point, a character asks, “What’s there not to love about the town of Stars Hollow?” While some of the responses are comical (man buns, the price of wine), others – post November 8th – sting, hitting a little too close to home (terrorism, Putin). At one point the female lead declares, “I wish I was in the past; it’s better than any future with you;” the liberal viewer watching, post-election, can’t help but nod in agreement. These meta-moments continually reminded me that Stars Hollow is, indeed, a work of fiction and that outside of fiction, the current moment is a tenuous and uncomfortable place to be.
When the revival was announced, a fellow Gilmore fan from graduate school and I planned to hold a reunion viewing halfway between our current residences (me in D.C., she is Savannah, Georgia). That September, when we booked our hotel rooms in Beaufort, North Carolina, we didn’t know what the future would hold. The weekend of the premiere, just a few weeks after the election, we ate junk food, drank wine, and watched the revival in one hotel room while our partners and our five-year-old children (one boy, one girl) amused themselves in the other hotel room. At the end of the day, we all met up to walk on the dock and eat seafood for dinner downtown. Beaufort, like Stars Hollow, was really quite charming – with its own General Store and a little shack downtown from which Santa and Mrs. Claus greeted visitors.
We agreed the visit was just what we needed post-election, not because we were running and hiding but because we needed to fortify. We needed to sit with people we love, to have easy conversations, to remember what’s good. In watching my son, hand-in-hand with my dear friends’ daughter, skipping down the dock, oblivious to the political climate, Rory’s words from the revival’s conclusion echoed in my mind: “I want to remember it all. Every detail.” Stars Hollow – like Beaufort – is a comforting fiction, but Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life reminded me that fiction is never a tidy fix; that the real world is messy. The final words of the series points to this messiness, as Rory shares her unplanned pregnancy with her mother. As the screen cut to black, I couldn’t help but read the ending as a warning for what’s to come for women in the Trump era. Whether you are a woman navigating a financial world in the wake of your husband’s death, opening your own business, struggling in a male-dominated field, or dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, these struggles carry a new weight and bear even more consideration in a political climate which promises to be less than kind to women - even white, privileged women like Emily, Lorelai, and Rory.