“Where You Lead, I Will Follow”: Gilmore Girls and the Cyclical Project of Growing Up

by Bailey Herdé | October 22, 2020

These days, I am ruled by my whims. It’s something that would be easy to attribute to the pandemic and quarantine and the general limbo of life in 2020, but in truth, I’ve always been a bit impulsive; it’s just that, in the absence of pretty much every other normal aspect of life, there’s now a little more space for spontaneity. So each day I wake up and let the wind take me where it will — this is how, last month, I ended up watching Gilmore Girls, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, for the first time.

I knew even before pressing play on the series that I would be entertained by the antics of Stars Hollow’s gabbiest girls; I adore any piece of media exploring the complicated relationships between mothers and daughters, and I especially love a good pop culture reference. I was right in my assumptions: it was easy to fall in love with Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel), to watch them banter back and forth for hours on end, not only because of Graham and Bledel’s magnetic chemistry, but also because the Gilmore girls move with a sort of uncanny self-confidence that most of us can only dream of. 

Lorelai is a fiercely independent, stubbornly decisive woman who looms larger than life and certainly larger than Stars Hollow, but who nevertheless remains there precisely because she is intent on protecting her and her daughters interests — almost dangerously so. Rory, likewise, is unabashedly herself, innocent and naive and bookish, self-assured in her decisions even when they are bad ones (and, boy, does she make some bad decisions). Admittedly, I harbored reservations about Gilmore Girls for a long time because I was worried that the divide between my life and the (white, classless) utopia of Stars Hollow would be too great for me to sustain interest, but, in the end, that divide is part of what makes Gilmore Girls worth watching. Stars Hollow is the stuff of fantasy; the fact that it seems to operate outside all traditional practices of economics and society (how was Lorelai able to afford the mortgage on that house? How would the town function if Kirk [Sean Gunn] were not there to take on every odd job offered to him? How is it possible that the unseen Mr. Kim existed the whole time?!) is very much the point. It is Gilmore Girls’ fanciful, gilded vision of the reality that makes it so mesmerizing, rather than any contrived attempt at realism. It’s a reality that exists under only one set of rules: this is Lorelai and Rory’s world, and we’re just living in it. 

Gilmore Girls cast body image
Gilmore Girls cast. Warner Bros. Television

This truth is Gilmore Girls’ greatest strength. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino expertly conjures up a dream world in which Lorelai and Rory can defy the seemingly inevitable fate of women, in which they never have to compromise or make themselves smaller for the comfort of those around them. It’s wonderful to see, especially as a woman. However, the same thing that makes the show so endlessly watchable also makes it deeply frustrating; the Gilmore girls, though they run through the gamut of love and heartbreak and feuds and reconciliation over eight seasons, never truly seem to get a handle on the act of growing up. Lorelai and Rory are so firmly set in their ways that asking them to change — to grow — seems tantamount to asking them to give up their takeout habit. It seems impossible. “I can be flexible,” Lorelai tells Luke Danes (Scott Patterson), Stars Hollow’s resident diner-owner and caffeine-addiction-enabler, “As long as everything is exactly the way I want it, I’m totally flexible.” More than a bit of self-deprecating humor, it’s something of a Gilmore motto.

This line serves as a concise summary of Lorelai’s relationships with those around her — and by extension, those of Rory and even her parents Emily (Kelly Bishop) and Richard (Edward Herrmann). The Gilmores are not ones for compromise, and while that attribute makes them strong, charming, captivating characters, it also makes them maddening as protagonists. Sure, change and growth do not happen in neat narrative arcs, but we look to fiction because it demands a dynamism from its subjects for which the realities of life do not often leave room; is it so wrong to ask that the characters we love learn their lessons and move on? 

In Stars Hollow, it would seem, the answer is yes. Lorelai and Rory’s sharply-defined personalities make meaningful growth difficult, if not impossible, and at times, they seem to actively spurn it. Lorelai refuses to let go of her adolescent rage and resentment towards her parents, despite their sincere efforts to meet her at least a quarter of the way, if not half. She tries hard to throw herself into new romances, to let other people into the almost-impenetrable bubble of care and camaraderie she and Rory have created; but each time these boyfriends ask her to throw herself into something other than that bubble, she runs back to her former beau, Christopher Hayden (David Sutcliffe) — who also happens to be Rory’s father — the one man whose presence in her life would not require her to break down the walls she has so carefully built between herself and the world. Rory, who had been so mature and even-keeled as a high-schooler, who had so confidently built the foundations of her journalistic career, takes one criticism of her work and uses it to dismantle her entire life. She makes an uncharacteristically rash decision and suffers the consequences, all while refusing to speak to her mother for months and dropping out of college. Like her mother, she falls into familiar patterns in an effort to protect herself from the potential pain of chance and novelty and, most importantly, change. “You are my guidepost for everything,” Rory tells Lorelai during her graduation speech, and it’s true, for better and for worse. 

Gilmore Girls Lorelai and Rory body image
Warner Bros. Television

This Gilmorian aversion to growth and transformation is especially difficult to swallow because growth is precisely the thing that both Lorelai and Rory expect — and in fact, demand — from the people in their lives: In season six, Lorelai resents Luke for keeping his daughter April (Vanessa Marano) and his struggles with his newfound parenthood to himself, all while hiding her real feelings regarding the postponement of their marriage and her anxieties about the depth of Luke’s commitment; Rory implodes her life after a single criticism from media magnate Mitchum Huntzberger (Gregg Henry), but when her boyfriend Logan (Matt Czuchry) — Mitchum’s son — tries to do the same in Las Vegas after quite literally bankrupting his father’s company, Rory struggles to understand his impulses. The show would have us believe that this is all just part and parcel of that trademarked Gilmorian stubbornness, and it is, but it’s also indicative of the immature, almost regressive nature of that stubbornness. Lorelai and Rory are both blinded by the strength of their perspectives, much in the way a child would be. They struggle to place themselves in the shoes of others, and for that, their relationships — and the Gilmore Girls narrative — suffer. 

No one endures the ironies of the Gilmore girls’ expectations than Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia), Luke’s sweet but troubled nephew from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks. From his first appearance in Stars Hollow in season two, Jess is doomed to grate at the locals: he is mouthy and moody, far from the relentless cheer of and pep of his reluctantly-adopted hometown. But it’s obvious that his grouchy sarcasm serves as a protective wall between him and the hardships of his past — an overworked, self-involved mother (Kathleen Wilhoite) who struggled to give ample attention to her child — as well as the potential disappointments of his future. He is a young boy who needed nurturing but never really got it, who learned to lash out and keep people at a distance rather than let them in and risk disappointment — a past that mirrors Lorelai’s almost exactly (don’t just take my word for it — there are many gifsets on tumblr attesting to this). 

Like Lorelai, Jess spurned his parents’ authority and felt cheated by the gaps in their emotional understanding; like her, he rejects emotional depth through quips and sarcasm; and like her, given space and time and understanding, he is eventually able to make a success out of himself And yet, in spite of these obvious parallels, Lorelai’s sympathy for Jess disappears with his first misstep; rather than recognizing his sour moods and combative disposition as self-preservative behavior from a misunderstood teenager, she writes him off as bad stock, incapable of redemption. 

Gilmore Girls Jess Mariano body image
Jess Mariano (Milo Ventimiglia). Warner Bros. Television

But what Lorelai forgets — what she unwittingly benefits from — is that growth does not happen in one fell swoop. Change is the most difficult thing we do. We want to change, we try to change, and often, we get very close to actually doing it, but in the end, true change is rare. It is hard, and it is scary; Lorelai and Rory, who try to branch out, but eventually return to the comforts of the Hollow, are both proof positive of that. But because the women are so unequivocally Gilmorian, so enamored with their own perspectives, they forget that change and growth are hard for everyone. Even as a thirty-something mother, Lorelai expects time and space to grow and make mistakes, and often, she deserves it; it is one of the great deceptions of life that adulthood brings with it an inherent maturity. It’s naive to believe that every person over the age of eighteen will always make the right decisions. But Lorelai does not afford the same luxury of understanding to anyone else. She expects maturity from Jess and feels justified in vilifying him, blissfully unaware that her behavior mirrors exactly the behavior for which she so resents her parents; she expects her parents to have done better, but cannot recognize the injustice of that behavior in herself. 

It’s infuriating to watch Lorelai and Rory carry on like this, but their blindness is ultimately (and unwittingly) in service of a point: Lorelai’s judgment of Jess is not malicious or spiteful, but simply the product of her continuous growth. The irony is proof. But because of the fantasy world in which Stars Hollow finds itself, the Gilmores’ growth is not only slow; it’s almost unnecessary. Remember, this is Lorelai and Rory’s world, and we’re just living in it. If you’re always right, if you feel that the world is already your oyster, what motivation is there to adapt to it? Jess never feels that level of control, and so he grows and changes in order to obtain it. Lorelai and Rory have complete control, so for them, growth is less vital. They still try to change, they still work to make their lives better, but it’s not an imperative; it’s a long-term project, one they can return to at their leisure, one they can commit to completely or leave at the wayside.

Watching the Gilmores remain very much — and almost too much — themselves over Gilmore Girls’ eight season run was, in a word, vexing. But in many ways, their emotional stasis is the most grounded aspect of an otherwise airy series; it acknowledges that change is hard. Lorelai and Rory struggle to grow up, not because of immaturity or outright refusal, but because the theoretical rewards of growing up cannot hold a candle to the comfort and familiarity of their way of life in Stars Hollow; they remain the same because Sherman-Palladino created a world in which they easily could. Stars Hollow accepts the Gilmores in all of their headstrong glory, and so should we. This seems to be the ultimate lesson of Gilmore Girls: there is no magical age at which we become our best, most mature selves. Growing up and getting better doesn’t happen in the space of one episode; sometimes, we keep making the same mistakes. Perhaps that tendency makes Lorelai and Rory a bit coddled, a bit bull-headed, a bit over-confident, but it doesn’t make them failures; it simply makes them Gilmores.

Bailey Herdé is an aspiring film critic from Virginia. The time she does not spend watching movies and TV is generally spent, against her better judgement, on Twitter. Her film knowledge, much like her meme folder, is ever-expanding. You can follow her on Twitter @been_herde.

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