I have always had a nagging suspicion that I am a fraud. But this was never truly confirmed until I arrived at Yale, where I found myself surrounded by sweeping Gothic architecture, a staunch air of self-proclaimed intellectual excellence and approximately one million fast-talking, coffee-addicted, book-obsessed derivatives of Rory Gilmore. In 2008, the News published an opinion column titled “Are you the ‘Roriest’ of all at Yale?” in which the author opines about how many other girls at Yale shared her “ambition of being Rory Gilmore’s real-life counterpart.” You can walk into a campus library or nearby cafe and find a dozen telltale laptop stickers in the shape of a coffee cup that say “Luke’s” — a reference to Rory’s neighborhood diner. Better yet, head down to the Yale Daily News building to see budding Rorys-in-the-making scrambling to meet production deadline.
Rory Gilmore is the sun around which the television show “Gilmore Girls” revolves. When the series opens, we find Rory, too brilliant for her public high school, resolved to attend Chilton Preparatory School, some Phillips Exeter stand-in. Rory’s equally talkative and caffeinated single mother, Lorelai, cannot afford the tuition and must reach out to her fabulously wealthy but overbearing parents for help. The series ran for seven seasons, from 2000 to 2007. Yet despite the sprawling length of the show, there really are no important characters except Rory Gilmore. The rest of the cast is simply there to affirm how singular she is. Even the other titular Gilmore Girl, Lorelai, derives much of her identity from her uniquely unmaternal friendship with her daughter. The entire town of Stars Hollow — sleepy, pastoral and white — revolves around Rory, cheering her on as she carries on her fateful path from prep school to Yale to becoming the editor in chief of the News. Finally, the original series sends Rory off to the Obama presidential campaign as a reporter.
With Rory, quiet girls everywhere finally have a heroine who is studious and introverted, someone whose appeal is not tied to being cool enough to be invited to high school parties. And despite her aggressive bookishness, Rory still catches boys’ attention, doe-like in her prettiness and naiveté. She reigns as this special creature, supreme in both academics and boyfriends.
In middle school, I worshipped “Gilmore Girls.” Rory Gilmore was how I talked, dressed and thought. When my parents brought up moving to a different school district so I could attend a better high school, I suggested boarding schools. I picked out ones in New England with photos on their website that featured fall foliage and students caught mid-laugh. I imagined myself walking on cobblestone paths with a plaid skirt cutting across my thighs, arms full of Keats and Steinbeck, on my way to crew practice.
And of course, it escaped my attention that I didn’t look much like pale and blue-eyed Rory. The character I did most closely physically resemble was Rory’s hapless best friend Lane, who is first shackled by her oppressive Korean mother and then shackled by an unplanned pregnancy in her early 20s that puts an end to her dreams of fronting a rock band. Rewatching “Gilmore Girls” now, it is impossible not to see Lane as the butt of every joke, to not be hurt by her mother’s comically broken English.
But at 14, I had my blinders on. I ended up at a small Quaker high school in the next town over, the closest my parents would let me get to Phillips Exeter. I assimilated Rory Gilmore into my consciousness. If you asked me why I wanted to go to private school so badly, why I refused to entertain the possibility of moving to a better school district, I would have given you some half-truth about a better community and more supportive teachers. But really, I have been chasing the idea of Rory Gilmore for a long time. In high school, I was perpetually dissatisfied with how my classes were too easy, classmates too complacent and school paper perpetually understaffed. At the end of my first year, I tried again to transfer to a boarding school. I felt strongly that I deserved better. This was a feeling I managed to eventually dispel, but it was difficult to totally extricate the ideal of “Gilmore Girls” from my mindset.
I know it’s ridiculous to say that I was this influenced by a television show. But I am not the only one. Yale might as well be the headquarters of the Rory Gilmore Fan Club, where the most militant of her devotees have clawed their way to the ultimate Rory Gilmore accomplishment: attending this school. But outside of campus too, she is the messiah of writers, journalists and other people who act like reading is a personality trait. Sadie Trombetta, a freelance writer, wrote about how Rory Gilmore influenced her to start her high school newspaper and set her on her career path. Trombetta says that when her writing hasn’t gone well, she asks herself (apparently unironically) “What would Rory do?”
The most alluring thing about Rory Gilmore is how she seems predestined for it all — Chilton, Yale, the editorship. But this is also what makes the Rory Gilmore dream ultimately unattainable and deceptive, even beyond the fact that she is the brainchild of network executives, marketing professionals and a room of television writers. The show makes a big deal of how Rory is different from her wealthy classmates because her single mother works at the front desk of a local inn. We are shown many a charming montage of her mother hemming an oversized, secondhand school uniform for Rory. But Rory’s high school and college education are completely funded, at full ticket price, by her grandparents, who are both graduates of Yale. Her grandfather is familiar enough with the college dean to arrange for Rory to have a one-on-one meeting with him. She skates through her classes and ascends the News’ ranks helped by family connections and free of any financial pressure. Rory’s success is predicated on her privilege, but both she and the show act like it is not. Her single, working class mother helps offset the inherent privilege of her attendance of boarding school and Yale. Without this fact, Rory would simply be another one of her shallow, rich classmates.
The masking of Rory’s lineage of Yale nobility is emblematic of an insidious and ongoing practice of hiding wealth. There’s a Yale Daily News opinion column that cuttingly points out that many Yalies, seemingly regardless of income, call themselves middle class. There’s also a trend on campus of shunning less tasteful, more ostentatious displays of wealth. Replace Louis Vuitton handbags with Longchamp totes. Replace Louboutins with Golden Goose sneakers — $500 artfully tattered tennis shoes. It’s hilarious to call this modesty, but it operates as an equivalency.
This performance of middle class — or what rich people imagine the middle class to be — is in part due to social pressure. We saw what happens when the public turns against the wealthy: During the college admissions scandal, students accused of unfairly gaining admission to college were ostracized from their campuses and harangued on social media. One of most recognizable among them was Olivia Jade Giannulli, daughter of “Full House” actress Lori Loughlin and a social media influencer with millions of followers. Giannulli experienced such a backlash on her social media accounts after her fudged University of Southern California admission was revealed that she retreated from her social media platforms. Even now, users are limited from commenting on her videos and Instagram posts. In the wake of the scandal, the internet scoured through her online presence and recirculated old, but newly amusing, videos of her claiming to be disinterested in school. The figurehead for fallibility of the rich and famous, Giannull unintentionally tapped into some visceral part of the public’s psyche. Because there is now an overwhelming demand for admission to elite colleges, it is important that those who are allowed in seem deserving. Accordingly, powerful people often downplay their wealth in hopes of seeming more hard working and deserving. Public figures ranging from Kylie Jenner to Donald Trump have tried to pass themselves off as self-made, a phrase coined in the early 19th century by Henry Clay. The American imagination is saturated with this idea of a rags-to-riches, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps man. In a society that emphasizes the alleged possibility of upward social mobility, we are obsessed with stories of celebrities and business mongols who once struggled to make ends meet. While Jenner and Trump are trying to sell this concept to their consumers and voters, respectively, wealthy college students are trying to sell this concept to themselves. It’s important to us to feel like we deserve what we have. Wealthy students, like everyone else, want to believe that it was their hard work and talent that got them into Yale.
It’s hard to come to terms with your own privilege. When I came to Yale, I finally came to the realization that the Rory Gilmore refrain is hollow and flawed. She is the product of familial wealth and connections, and so am I. My acceptance to Yale has been made possible by factors beyond my control. I was able to spend my time overcommitting to extracurriculars rather than working to support my family. I was able to hire SAT tutors, piano teachers and tennis coaches. It would be misleading to say that it was simply my hard work and perseverance that got me here. Of course I worked hard — stayed up late writing papers, ran for student government, joined a half-dozen clubs — but that’s not the point. The point is that I had more opportunities than others. The game is rigged, and it always has been. In America, parental wealth is the best predictor of future success. We need to stop subscribing to narratives that pretend like privilege isn’t a factor in our achievements. Stories are powerful. They have a way of tunneling themselves deep into our lives and presenting themselves as truth. That’s why “Gilmore Girls” has such an ardent following, why so many people hold Rory Gilmore close to their heart.
Rory Gilmore, my old friend, I think it’s time we parted ways.
Serena Lin | firstname.lastname@example.org