I have spent the last week watching “Gilmore Girls.” If you know me, you’re not surprised. If you don’t, you probably have a friend or social media acquaintance who’s done something similar. You might even be a little worried about them, after they fell into a pumpkin spice-scented fugue state, giving up New Haven for Stars Hollow and midterm studying for arguments about Dean and Jess.
Even if you’ve never heard of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s early 2000s WB masterpiece, you’ve probably heard of Rory Gilmore. In part, this is because Rory Gilmore, daughter of rebel-child Lorelai, feels like a student on campus, or at least someone that many students want to be: She’s high-achieving, she nabs cute if dangerous boyfriends, she edits the YDN, she’s “basic” before the term existed. In other words, she’s aggressively bland.
I’m not passing judgment on Rory. Most people my age who watch “Gilmore Girls” see some aspect of themselves in her, myself included. And for that to work, for her to mean many things to many people, she has to be bland. There’s even a Buzzfeed quiz: “Which Rory Gilmore Are You?” On the scale from “rebel” to “serious journalist,” I got freshman year Rory — the one with the most stress and least man action.
But on some level, it’s pointless to consume entertainment that just reaffirms your own identity. This summer, Ruth Gratham wrote an essay for Slate called “Against YA,” in which she accused educated adults of shamelessly indulging in unchallenging art. When Ira Glass complained that Shakespeare wasn’t relatable, Rebecca Mead took the term to heel in the New Yorker, arguing that “to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize … is our own failure.” Nobody spends English class wondering which Lear daughter they are.
When we demand that entertainment be relatable, we end up twisting it to fit our own interests: We take quizzes that reaffirm that we are what we want to be, and gush to our friends about shows that justify our own navel gazing. “Gilmore Girls” arrived on Netflix a week before David Lynch said he would return to “Twin Peaks.” By now, the sum total of things you’re supposed to watch seems like a Sisyphean labor of nostalgia. Perpetual “Arrested Development.”
I found a website once where you can plug in the number of seasons of TV you’ve watched on Netflix and discover the hours you’ve wasted in front of the screen. The books not read. The serious cinema not appreciated. I couldn’t put in my whole viewing history, for fear I’d find a gap in my life as wide as “In Search of Lost Time.”
But as A.O. Scott pointed out in his essay on “The Death of Adulthood in American Culture,” the very notion that certain things are more serious than others is conditioned by a patriarchal culture. Scott examines the “grown-up” as a case study. Stories about men holding their families together, Tony Soprano and Walter White, automatically reek of prestige. Others stories — about wayward girls in Brooklyn (as in “Girls”) or frivolous women in Manhattan (as in “Sex in the City”) — automatically seem less important.
Scott also argues that adulthood has come under attack. A greater variety of TV shows and films means more possible ways to be adult. We imagine one trajectory, in which adulthood means responsibility and sacrifice, but the Seth Rogens and Lena Dunhams teach us otherwise. According to Scott, the concept itself is becoming obsolete — maybe it’s moved in with its parents or is taking time off to work on its memoirs.
“Gilmore Girls” appeared before the so-called death of adulthood, and its characters still bridle against the limited trajectory Scott identifies. Where “adulthood” might mean the gift of freedom and self-actualization to Walter White or Don Draper, for instance, it hangs like the sword of Damocles over Rory and Lorelai. To them, growing up is turning into your mother or acting like Donna Reed.
Lorelai has already bucked convention — as the explosive fights with her mother clearly indicate. But Rory — the ostensibly mature child — struggles with the norm in a quieter, more insidious way. In the series’ best episode, “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” Rory and Lorelai enter a dance marathon (these things happen). Midway through, Rory goes through her first big fight with her first boyfriend, Dean. If we’re being totally honest, it’s Rory’s fault. She’s too brittle; she’s clinging to him even as it’s clear her heart has moved on.
Rory clings, in part, because she buys into a myth of “adulthood” built around relatability, the notion that it’s somehow valuable to bend your own identity in order to reflect what other people want. If she’s the good girl, if she does everything society asks of her, isn’t that mature, and even noble?
Dean can’t take Rory’s excuses anymore. He knows that she wants to be, and be with, someone else. He leaves. The episode ends with Rory collapsed in Lorelai’s arms, the two swaying slowly in the middle of the dance floor as the “Rocky” theme song plays in the background (these things happen).
The Rory Gilmore of Buzzfeed quizzes, the archetype we see in ourselves, isn’t the one embracing her mother on the dance floor. Rory spends so much time trying to be that Rory Gilmore, but like most people, she has to learn how to become something more.