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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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