When I first watched Gilmore Girls I was young and I watched it with my mother. At the time most of the references went over my head, but Amy Sherman-Palladino’s quick witted dialogue and quirky characters of Stars Hollow reeled me in. The main reason I stuck around for seven seasons, however, was the central relationship between Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory. Due to their small sixteen year age gap, they often related to each other more like friends than mother and daughter. They talked a mile a minute, they guzzled coffee, they ate as if they would never get a bite to eat again, and they loved and supported each other through every bump, every bruise, and every milestone. I used to wish that my mom had me when she was sixteen so that a relationship that close was possible. I cried when they fought, I was livid when Rory dropped out of college (spoilers, sorry), and I beamed along with Lorelai when Rory finally crossed that stage. I wanted a best friend/mother/guru all rolled into one that Lorelai was for Rory. I started watching Gilmore Girls after it had originally aired, so when Rory was applying for colleges, I was too. I finished season seven in my freshman year dorm room, excited for what was to come. Graduating would give me freedom and opportunity, Rory had proved that to me. Even after taking a semester off, she still graduated and with honors, she turned down a marriage proposal and headed off into the sunset with no plans, but with the confidence of a television character that guarantees everything will work out. I had always wanted to be Rory, but I aspired to be Lorelai. Lorelai was elusive. No man could tame her, no coffee was enough, no movie couldn’t be talked through. She walked to the beat of her own drum, she protected Rory fiercely and she was completely independent. She was the goal. Lorelai Gilmore is a complex and dynamic character that is under-appreciated. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing, Lauren Graham’s portrayal, and Lorelai’s arc, illustrates that although the show follows Rory’s journey into adulthood, Gilmore Girls is not Rory’s story, its Lorelai’s.
When I watched Gilmore Girls for the second time, it was in the midst of a global pandemic. I was alone in my small New York City apartment, out of school, out of a job, and I had just gone through a major surgery. Nothing was going as planned. Gilmore Girls was a refuge. The perfect, quaint TV show that would put me into an idyllic world where everyone succeeded. The first episode began, and it is charming in the way only small town eccentricities can be. In the first five minutes of the first episode it is revealed that Lorelai had Rory when she was sixteen. I stopped dead in my tracks (figuratively, I was sitting on my couch). Sixteen years old meant an entirely different thing to me now than it had when I was in high school. My perspective shifted. I haven’t been sixteen for a long time. Life was completely different for me at sixteen. I have since graduated high school, gone to college, traveled, graduated college, lived independently. A lot of life is lived between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. Lorelai gave birth to Rory at sixteen.
This realization brought along a whole new appreciation for the world that the Palladinos created. Suddenly, this world didn’t seem as innocent as it had seemed before. There was a life-lived underneath every joke. Gilmore Girls is a comedy aimed toward a younger audience, a family audience, and when I mention it to friends with high-brow taste, I usually get a look of distain. “Oh that must be a childhood thing right?” and I have to justify my appreciation as nostalgia. Gilmore Girls is more than that. The characters on this show exhibit an incredible amount of depth. Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino are often praised for their quick-witted dialogue and obscure references, but under their fast paced sarcasm is a tangible hurt. Each character has a past, and they don’t have easy ones. Lorelai had to fend for herself and raise a child without support. Rory went through a large part of her adolescence without a present father or grandparents. Emily and Richard Gilmore still feel as though they have lost their only child. While these situations can be funny and create good television, the Palladinos have illustrated what happens when two people just don’t speak the same language. The same fights come up every season, just like in life. The characters yell, laugh, drink, and scream all in the same night. They love each other but keep missing each other, unable to communicate. It’s palpable and it’s under every line.
In season one episode 19 “Emily in Wonderland”, Emily Gilmore (Lorelai’s mother) goes to visit Rory in Stars Hollow and Rory innocently shows Emily the place where she grew up. It is behind the Inn where Lorelai works, and although it is nicely fixed up and painted, this place is a shack at best. Emily is floored. She had never pictured where Lorelai had gone, or what she was willing to go through to be away from the family. Emily had never acknowledged her daughter’s hurt, or her own. Then she shoves it down. She uses disdain to bury her hurt and we see it, we feel it, in the writing and in Kelly Bishop’s performance.
We can’t discuss Lorelai Gilmore without mentioning Lauren Graham. A force to be reckoned with, Graham’s portrayal of Lorelai is layered and nuanced. It is clear from every side eye, every crossed leg, every mannerism, that Lauren Graham has carefully crafted her relationship to each character who enters Lorelai’s world. Her facial expressions alone create a life for the audience, and as the series progresses, as Lorelai matures, we can tell there is a shift in her character’s intentions. When studying acting, one of the first things you learn is that every character has a spine, a goal for their life. This can change, but the spine refers to a long term goal instead of a short one (such as getting your friend to go to a party with you, or getting one more cup of coffee). Lorelai’s spine for the longest time has been to protect and raise Rory. Every choice, every sacrifice, has been in service of that goal. As Rory grows up, she no longer requires the same care and attention that she once did, and Lorelai’s spine shifts. In Lauren Graham’s portrayal we see Lorelai struggle to figure out what she wants, what is possible, now that her life is hers again.
Watching the series for the second time, I related more to Lorelai than I did to Rory. Rory was an avid reader but that’s about where our similarities end. Lorelai, however, seemed closer to where I was in life. She didn’t have it all together but masked it with wit and sarcasm. She was an excellent pretender, and a formidable opponent in every way. She wasn’t emotionally available, or even emotionally mature, but she showed up. She had steadfast moral values and clung to them for dear life. Coffee was her lifeline.
In some ways, Lorelai is the female version of the “man-child”. She had her child at sixteen and while that experience forced her to grow up in many ways, she also stopped aging in others. When we meet her she is still rebelling against her parents, wearing clothing they wouldn’t approve of and eating exclusively junk food. She has learned to rely only on herself. Lorelai is afraid of commitment. She is described as floating from man to man by almost every character in the series, even Rory. She has a taste for travel and wants to see the world but she is also a homebody. Lorelai is so afraid of change that instead of getting a new car when her old one dies, she just buys the exact car again and has the engine put into the old one. She is constantly at war between wanting more for herself, and not wanting anything in her life to be unstable. She pushes people away before they can push her away, but is a fierce friend to those who have earned her trust. She is simultaneously sixteen and forty, and this dichotomy makes her incredibly relatable to twenty-somethings just starting to make a life for themselves. In many ways, Lorelai goes through the things we often go through in our 20s, but she goes through them late and only when she is given the opportunity. As Rory grows up, experiences a traditional adolescence, and moves out of the house, Lorelai is able to have more freedom. Freedom she hasn’t had since she was sixteen.
Ultimately, Gilmore Girls follows Rory’s coming of age but it is not Rory’s story. It is Lorelai’s. Rory has always been mature and self-sufficient, taught by her mother to rely on no one but herself. She grows up, makes some mistakes, but has a fairly normal childhood. She never worries about the clothes on her back, the money for private school, the Ivy league education. Lorelai takes care of that and she struggles to do so. Lorelai creates an entirely independent life, she finds a way to provide for Rory even when it requires extreme sacrifices, and throughout the series she learns to trust again. We watch her allow more people into her life, to let down her walls, to try and fail. While Rory matures physically, Lorelai matures emotionally. Lorelai is the character with the most growing up to do throughout the series. I want to say thank you, to the Palladinos, to Lauren Graham, and to Lorelai Gilmore herself, for giving me one of the best female role models I have seen on screen. Lorelai Gilmore is a brilliant character. She was incredibly ahead of her time.
BFA grad, actor/writer, located in New York City.