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Back in the 90s: How ‘Gilmore Girls’ Broke Stereotypes And Redefined Female Bonding

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Editor’s Note:

Only ‘90s kids remember the ‘90s.

A meme that won’t quit, and with good reason.

Something about the unprecedented rate of changes taking place in the decade – new technology, new social mores, liberalization policies – had put society at a vantage point from which new themes and experiences could be explored. Narrative was maturing, and we were sinking our teeth into cult movies like ‘Shawshank Redemption,’ ‘Jurassic Park,’ and ‘Pulp Fiction.’ But it was the conversation on gender that really took some very valuable turns during that period. Among those turns was a re-energized way in which woman-to-woman relationships were being portrayed.

Disney aced the Bechdel Test with Merida and Queen Elinor in Brave last year, but the pair were preceded by another mother-daughter story that really switched things up in the 90s. We’re talking about Gilmore Girls’ Lorelai and Rory.

Before the 90s, one rarely saw complex, functional and mature bonds between two or more women. There was either always a boy thrown in the mix—for whose attention they competed for, or they fell into the protagonist/sidekick trope. But, when the Spice Girls sang: “If you wanna be my lover/you gotta get with my friends/make it last forever/friendship never ends”, they were pretty much summing up the ethos of the decade, because female bonding and friendships were everywhere—from Thelma and Louise to Carrie and her gang on Sex and the City. However, what’s even more interesting is how the kinds of female bonding explored was not simply limited to friendships. Mother-daughter relationships finally started getting the complex treatment they deserved, with a special focus on single mothers—which hardly saw adequate representation in popular culture before this. Though there were many such examples of this, the one I’d be focussing on is Gilmore Girls, since it pretty much redefined not just mother-daughter relationships, but almost every kind of female bonding seen on television.

The Lo’ Down

Growing up, Gilmore Girls was probably my first brush with feminism—and not just because most of its protagonists were women. The show centred around mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore and followed their lives in small-town Connecticut—exploring not just their relationship with each other in nuanced ways, but also their romantic and platonic attachments with other people. Lorelai conceived Rory when she was only 16, decides to raise the child on her own beyond her domineering parents’ and indecisive boyfriend’s control—and does so splendidly! This was perhaps the first ever positive portrayal of a teenage pregnancy on American television (unlike another hit 90s show, 7th Heaven, which pretty much saw teenage pregnancy as a sin), and is handled with remarkable sensitivity. Not only does Lorelai raise Rory with great affection and dedication, but also gets a degree in business, and becomes a successful inn owner by the end of the show. Again, this was something very rare—a woman on a television show succeeding both as a mother and a businesswoman.

It Made Mother-Daughter Relationships Cool

While the show does dwell a lot on both Lorelai and Rory’s various on-and-off romantic relationships, the biggest relationship it focuses on is the one between them. They are each other’s biggest support systems, and ground each other whenever they are faced with tough situations or decisions. Though their relationship is not always smooth (they do have fights and misunderstandings) it always stands the test of time. Even on the occasions they don’t approve of each other’s choices, they never cease to support the other and be there for them in times of need.

Breaking Stereotypes, Redefining Representation

The portrayal of almost every main female character on the show breaks some important stereotypes—especially that of Rory. She’s the nerdy kid—the straight A student, the rule follower (albeit breaking a few rules here and there), the one who cares more about her academics than her love life—and having the nerdy kid be the protagonist, be in charge of her life and of her romantic choices was something extremely refreshing. Before this, nerds regardless of their gender were treated abysmally in popular culture. They were either completely othered, branded outsiders,or were turned into massive stereotypes. To be noticed or found desirable, the nerd girls always had to go through makeovers which made them “conventionally beautiful” to the male gaze (case in point: My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Dirty Dancing, The Breakfast Club, She’s All That and countless others). But the depiction of Rory marvellously flew in the face of that. Here was a girl who loved to read and didn’t have glasses slapped on her face to prove that she loves reading (a trope that’s recurring even today); she still loved to dress up, still had a bevy of suitors. And really, Gilmore Girls was full of women who challenged such stereotypes. Take Paris Geller for example. She starts out as Rory’s competitor at her prep school, fiercely dedicated to academics, to politics, and pretty much a nerd par extraordinaire. At first, she almost seems like a type—like an academically sound version of Regina George—but slowly, we see the various layers that are to her. She’s largely ignored by her parents and doesn’t have too many friends (except Rory) and because of that, she is lonely and doesn’t know how to behave in social situations. She is fiercely dedicated to her academic and professional careers, but also is the first one in Rory’s immediate circle to loose her virginity. Oh, and some of the best feminist rants on the show are by Paris—who calls out sexism on more than one occasion.

Here you have Paris’ sarcastic response to her sexist headmaster, who assumed that the argument she and Rory were having was about a “boy”.

Then, you have Lane Kim, Rory’s best friend. Coming from an orthodox Christian Korean family, she grows up in a repressive household, which prohibits her from doing even the most innocuous of things such as listening to non-Christian music, or even looking at boys. But dorky, bespectacled Lane is a lover of rock-and-roll music, and dreams of becoming a professional drummer. Here is a girl who, on the surface, looks the opposite of someone who would fit into a rock band, but that’s exactly what she does—forms a band, and becomes a drummer to be reckoned with.

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Lane often finds herself suspended inbetween her orthodox Catholic upbringing and love for rock music

Lorelai, Rory, Paris and Lane are only a few examples of the diverse kinds of women that the show is home to—women of different ethnicities, different financial backgrounds, different body types and so on.

Passing The Bechdel Test—‘What, like it’s hard?’

Source: fyeahgilmoregirls/tumblr

Most importantly, though, Lorelai and Rory skewer the Bechdel test before Hollywood even thought that was possible. Though the men in their lives become important plot points, they never eclipse Lorelai or Rory’s individuality and take over the relationship they share with each other. In fact, what’s extremely heartening is how, in the end, Rory chooses her career over a romantic entanglement, and sets out to pursue her dream of becoming a political journalist. Again, this is something that was never before done by a female protagonist on a TV show. Remember when in the show Felicity, the eponymous protagonist left a position at Stanford for a boy? Or even how strong female characters like Dana Scully (of The X Files) ultimately got defined by their romantic relationship with a man? This was a truly refreshing change from that.

Why It’s Required Viewing

Though this show never really used the term ‘feminist’ openly, it explored a lot of progressive issues and challenged some important stereotypes. Most importantly, it showed us that women can love other women in diverse ways—as friends, as family, as co-workers. It set a milestone in the portrayal of women’s relationships—and especially mother-daughter relationships for the times to come. The characters do have their flaws, and there are times one feels frustrated with both Lorelai and Rory—but that’s how complex they are. They too have their flaws, and that’s totally okay. Television, though it has progressed markedly in terms of the portrayal of female characters, still finds itself saddled with certain harmful tropes that Gilmore Girls subverted so effortlessly. This is one of those shows that’s almost required viewing for every feminist—and the fact that it belonged to the late 90s just goes on to show how diverse the politics of the time was.

Watch out for the next in this series, where we look at how 90s pop culture started interesting feminist conversations

 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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