On 'Gilmore Girls' Overarching Theme || A Response to 'Like Mother-Daughter, Daughter-Mother'

I recorded a video version of this topic - which is a lot less concise, but jump into that if you're keen... now.

If you'd rather read, or even better - you want to hear me in multiple forums, here's your chance! Since this post is being written a few weeks after recording the video, there may be some more and improved content here. Anyway...

Even if you've never heard of 'Gilmore Girls', it's become a household name in its exploration of an 'unconventional' mother/daughter relationship - where friendship comes before parenting. It's drawn all kinds of reactions - but some of the most memorable ones are hearing about the excited mothers and daughters who are just happy to see their relationship reflected on television. Its memorability is not only in its exploration of a specific type of a relationship, but also the fact the show is not rooted in the stigmatisation of single mothers. There is no expectation a nuclear family must be on the cards for a child to be raised correctly, and that in itself is empowering.

But, as Stacie E Fleegal's essay 'Like Mother-Daughter, Daughter-Mother' (an essay from 'Gilmore Girls & The Politics of Identity') highlights, this form of empowerment also happens to be the root of the show's conflict. 

Lorelai's relationship with Rory is a direct result of the amount of control Emily exercised over her life, with an apparent misplaced belief that believing she knew what was best was always going to be enough. Emily's upbringing led her to believe that social class defined the quality of one's life - that in the upper class where her family belonged, a nuclear family was vital. It's a belief which defines the volatility of Lorelai and Emily's relationship - as Lorelai's story is an embodiment of one which offers 'praise for the strong women who live at the edge of what society deems traditionally proper' - something which Emily cannot wrap her head around throughout the course of the show.

'Rory's Dance' (1.09) suggests the possibility of a healthy relationship between Lorelai and Emily, as Lorelai relies on Emily heavily for the first time in a long time because of a freak injury - something which Emily savours long enough to admit that Lorelai has truly done a great job raising Rory. However, that moment shatters the next morning - as Rory ends up falling asleep and missing curfew. Suddenly, it seems we are transported back sixteen years, as Emily strikes multiple chords with Lorelai, implying that Rory was always going to turn out like her - in the worst way possible. It's a painful argument, but it's one which truly emphasises this relationship is unlikely to change, unless they either address the history which has torn them apart or a life-changing event occurs which forces both of them to re-establish their greatest priorities.

It doesn't just set the precedent for Emily & Lorelai, however. It reveals how Lorelai's attitudes about how she was raised affects the nature in which she raises Rory. Fleegal references a psychological study by Leon Hoffman, which notes that '[p]regnancy, and later, the new baby, reawaken or intensify in the new mother her feelings about her own mother'. This idea is reflected throughout the show - and it becomes blatant that even Rory recognises that their relationship is a product of Lorelai's past. When Lorelai gets angry at Rory at the end of 1.09, Rory immediately calls out Lorelai on the root on her anger - something which stands to create immense difficulties in the future. In Rory being aware of Lorelai's personal insecurities, Rory forgets to hold herself accountable, a theme which runs rampant throughout the series, particularly as Rory moves out of home and starts attending college. When Rory makes some life-changing decisions, Lorelai's reaction is always presumed to be personal. The establishment of 'friendship first, motherhood second' always leaves Lorelai behind several steps when their relationship is at a tipping point. In Lorelai's choice to deliberately avoid making the same mistakes Emily did so she does not lose Rory, she makes different ones - and that's something that Lorelai battles throughout the episodes and beyond.

This is evident in one key way. Lorelai gives Rory one major thing which own parents did not - the right to choose the life she leads. Lorelai provides Rory with a life, full of books, dreams and the freedom to map out any path she chooses. It's funny almost, that Lorelai gives Rory that power, but Rory settles on a path by the time she's sixteen - eager to become a fully-fledged journalist after being equipped with a Harvard education. Perhaps there are two reasons for this.

The first is that Lorelai is eager to provide Rory with a life she deserves - but without the influence of her own parents. We meet Rory at age fifteen, totally unsure how she is so certain about a future at Harvard, before eventually landing at Yale - but over the course of the series, we find out exactly how much Lorelai prioritised Harvard. In 3.08, Lorelai is frustrated when she finds out Rory has been manipulated into attending a Yale interview. She has a point, but Emily also correctly calls her out on her bias - an assessment which is glaringly obvious in 3.09 when Lorelai learns Rory actually applied to Yale, Princeton and Harvard. When Rory 'takes a break' in 5.22 - Lorelai vents to Luke, her voice breaking as she says the following:
"Rory dropped out of Yale... Everything we worked for all these years. She was supposed to have more than me. She was supposed to have everything. That was the plan. We had a plan."
It's a strong indication that while Lorelai was willing to let Rory make her own decisions, it's underpinned by a plan that Lorelai did have for Rory, even if it's not as loudly discussed. Lorelai's plan is more reasonable in that it does not map out Rory's future, but it does raise questions of whether Lorelai's own childhood has caused her to expect Rory to live out the future Lorelai could not. The questions itself is difficult for viewers to answer - but the true challenge lies in determining whether Rory's awareness of this makes it almost impossible for Lorelai to truly reveal how she feels, only for Rory to not listen and presume it's not about her.

The second reason is perhaps more important. Rory is given the right to choose - and she chooses one path, and spends almost an entire series barrelling towards that goal of becoming a journalist - sometimes without assurance that this is where she is meant to go. Rory grew up in a state of flux, at least in the early years - living in a potting shed as Lorelai relied on the kindness of Mia to have the job and money she needed to raise Rory. This may be my personality talking, but the fact she's grown up without certainty - except in Lorelai talking about Harvard since she was very young and always having her mother around, likely made Rory eager to establish long-term goals very early on.

This underlying wish for stability on Rory's end affects her perception of the world - especially when her small-town life collides with the high class life her grandparents lead in Hartford.

Lorelai has presumably not faced an obstacle she could not overcome when it came to helping Rory follow that goal, but the Pilot episode changes that. Lorelai is initially excited when Rory is accepted into Chilton, but that feeling turns to stress when she realises that she, alone, cannot afford the inane amount of money required. Lorelai broke her parent's heart leaving - but in doing so, she gave herself the freedom and happiness she deserved, and making a deal with them to get that money is likely akin to apologising for a choice she's not sorry for. In accepting the conditions to pay Rory's tuition, Lorelai risks the feelings of her childhood overwhelming her, as the voice in her head about her choices is only magnified with the ever-growing presence of Emily Gilmore reminding her of the life she could've had. While Rory finds out the extent of the deal Lorelai makes to ensure Rory's place at Chilton almost immediately, it seems to be a long-lost memory as she begins to forge a relationship with Emily and Richard - one rooted in support, kindness and shared interests - something that Lorelai has rarely experienced. Rory is exposed to a world with endless wealth, some fancy events and a new support system. Her long-term goals are still intact - but it becomes a faint possibility that Lorelai giving Rory the right to choose may lead to a consequence she never envisioned - Rory falling hard and fast for that world. (Let's be real, the most intact ship on this show is not Rory and the boyfriends, it's Rory's rollercoaster relationship with the two worlds she is entirely immersed in.) This idea starts to form in early episodes - when Rory tells Emily about the termites despite Lorelai's refusal (2.11), or Rory finds herself completely frustrated at Lorelai returning the $75,000 - when borrowing the money in the first place catalysed the healthier familial bonds that have occurred (3.18). It's not necessarily wrong how Rory views money, but she and Lorelai's views diverge - as Lorelai views the money as an obligation (and Emily has no problem fulfilling that expectation), while Rory just remembers that money is the reason her future is still intact. It has the potential to divide them - and the most heartbreaking exploration of that is in 5.08.

When Lorelai finally gets through to the scheming Emily and Richard to berate them for trying to indirectly break Dean and Rory up under the pretence of a Yale alumni party, the following conversation ensues. (Some parts have been cut to save time.)

Richard: Rory is in a new phase of her life now. She needs to be exposed to different things, different people. That's all we were trying to do... She's 20 years old, Lorelai. She's not going to be with that boy forever.
Emily: That's right. And when she's ready to move on, she'll have met some nice young men that will represent a new phase in her life.
Richard: I'm sure Dean is very nice young man, but he is certainly not good enough for Rory. Now she is young and needs guidance. And since you seem to be so little help in this department, we have to step in.
Lorelai: Well, step on out again. Because this is none of your business.
Emily: Lorelai, I am tired... We want more for her, period. Now obviously, it is too late for you, but it is not too late for Rory and we are going to make sure she has the life she deserves.Lorelai: It doesn't matter what you think of me. Rory will choose her own path in life and there's nothing either one of you can do about it.

Lorelai calls out Emily and Richard for presuming they can manipulate Rory into the life she 'deserves' - likely experiencing an uncomfortable onset of déjà vu - but until next moment, it likely doesn't occur to Lorelai that she may need to be the one that needs to accept the path Rory chooses. Lorelai walks towards the window - to find that Rory has returned home in a limo, drunkenly fumbling on the grass in the tiara that she was dressed in by Emily. Suddenly, Lorelai is struck with the feeling that she may be the one that ends on the outer of Rory's life, unless she can come to terms with this development. It's scenes like this in context with Emily's seemingly outlandish claims which give context to one of Fleegal's opinion: that 'for every instance of wistful motherly longing on Emily's part, there are two more disguised as her lashing out on Lorelai for what she believes are misguided life choices'.

In 2.07 (aptly named 'Like Mother, Like Daughter'), Emily says the following, "Funny, isn't it? How nicely you seem to be fitting into the world you ran away from." 

To the essay author, this seems to be a dig on Emily's part (although they rightfully acknowledge that the intention of Emily may have been innocent) - but to me, it's interested me to see, not only Emily says things like this, but how often Lorelai takes it to heart - and doesn't really know how to acknowledge it without apologising for the life she chose. It's intriguing to see Lorelai attempt to understand the intricacies of a world that she only begrudgingly fits into sporadically to further Rory's future or support Rory unconditionally, as she hears more in Emily's words than I, and possibly most viewers, gather from it. Despite that implicit judgment, Lorelai does truly try to support her mother - when she feels it's not infringing on who she is.

When Jason Stiles belatedly cancels the dinner party Emily organises for Richard and his impending partnership (4.06), Emily is forced to tell Lorelai that the catering plan is off. While Lorelai initially takes it as a personal vendetta against her, Emily revealing the truth has Lorelai on edge, snapping at Rory for her freak out over the loss of a study tree and Sookie for her complaints. It's a moment which isn't acknowledged often, because in hindsight, it's not the most important - but it does indicate there is a level of care Lorelai shows towards her mother, which she is sometimes capable of separating from the lack of connection she feels towards the upper class lifestyle. If only that could be shown more regularly - from both parties...

But if that were the case, this story wouldn't be what it is. As I initially mentioned, 'Gilmore Girls' is unique in its exploration of a mother who has been relatively self-sufficient in raising her daughter outside the bounds of expectations and how this decision creates the central conflict of the show.

The conflict is not only prevalent between Lorelai-Emily and Lorelai-Rory, but also Emily-Rory. At the beginning of the year, I posted this little parallel accompanied by a barely-polished blogpost. But with the help of this essay, relentless discussion with friends, and some casual rewatches - it's become very clear that their relationship is the way it is because of Lorelai's choices. In Lorelai leaving at age sixteen, Emily never truly saw her daughter grow up, so when Rory arrives in their life on a regular basis after a lengthy absence, Emily views it as an opportunity to alter Rory's path before she ends up doing wrong too. In some ways, Emily is successful - somewhat helped by Lorelai letting Rory choosing the life she wants, as Rory sees benefits of money, and associates risk with the shenanigans of the 'Life & Death Brigade'. When Rory drops out, Emily is willing to follow Lorelai's plan - but things change and Emily seems to be turning Rory into a surrogate daughter of sorts - as Rory joins the DAR, is driven to her community-service, and it all comes to a head when she accidentally refers to Richard as Rory's father. Fleegal is right. Even the poised Emily can't recover from a Freudian slip like that.

Rory and Lorelai share massive life events which will potentially change her future outlook and attitudes in life, but Rory is part Emily too. She shares a connection with the Gilmores that Lorelai couldn't ever identify with - which is likely why her first three chapters were written in that 'sanctuary'. Her life is highlighted with moments of rootlessness, with an immense craving for stability.

Rory once said the person she most wanted to be was Lorelai (3.22). At that time, it sent Lorelai into a flood of happy tears - but as the story of 'full circles' has been confirmed, the question is this. Is that a good or bad thing?

I leave you with one parting thought from Fleegal: Lorelai is both a creator and conduit or a sounding board for various constructs of motherhood, those both in the traditional (both biological mother to daughter) and non-traditional (daughter assumes mother role) sense. Do you agree or disagree?

If anything, it's confirmed one thing. This story might be about all the 'Gilmore Girls' and the worlds built within the show - but this show is certainly centred on the Lorelai Gilmore experience.