Rory Gilmore, Saint or Sinner?
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR GILMORE GIRLS: A YEAR IN THE LIFE, AND THE ORIGINAL RUN OF GILMORE GIRLS
Like many of my fellow millennials, I started watching Gilmore Girls when I was a kid. I was seven years old, I loved to write, and was always busy with one creative project or another - it's unsurprising that Rory Gilmore became my idol. For young girls who weren’t quite so interested in romance yet, or maybe just weren’t as sure of themselves as a typical CW heroine seemed to be, Rory felt like an understanding friend. Ambitious, creative, witty, career-focused; Rory Gilmore was who a lot of us felt we were, or wanted to be. If ‘boys don't like funny girls’, maybe that was part of the draw of Rory Gilmore. She argued with her mum, ate whatever she wanted unapologetically, obsessed over films, fumbled her way through a first kiss and a first relationship. She spent most of her time on schoolwork, or with her best friend. Rory starting a new school in season one takes up twice the screen time that Rory and Dean dating ever did. Aside from her sparkling academic record, she was very much average, and that’s why she was so special.
If I were a parent, I think I would want my kid to see someone like Rory on TV. But all of that changed with the release of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. The Rory of season one - shiny angel Rory - is not the Rory of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. The girl that so many of us loved, related to, cried with and for, was completely transformed in the four new Netflix episodes that we saw at the end of November. Rory Gilmore in 2016 is a bit of a mess. She is freelancing, but not really putting herself out there. She’s trying to juggle a couple of different writing projects, but not really preparing or dedicating much of her time to any of them. She’s dating, but repeatedly forgets to break up with her boyfriend of two years, and continues to sleep with her ex-boyfriend in the meantime. She spends little if any time with her friends and family, who were once vital to her everyday life, and she doesn’t seem to have made any new friends in the nine year interim since Season 7. She spends the entire year couch-surfing and apparently doesn’t own a single pair of underwear. She’s a mess. That’s not to say there’s anything wrong with any of those things, or with living a nomadic, chaotic lifestyle. The problem is that this Rory Gilmore is unrecognisable as the Rory of Season 1, or even of Seasons 6 and 7. Rory, despite her character flaws, was always defined by ambition and work ethic. Her most redeeming qualities were stripped from her, and she was presented to us as the protagonist of a Broad City-esque comedy. Which, again, would be fine - if that’s the purpose her character had served for the previous seven years that she graced our screens.
Of course a sixteen year old girl won’t be the same person at thirty two that she was at sixteen. And she shouldn’t be! That she has changed dramatically is not, in itself, a bad thing. But Rory is the heart of the show (and yes, I'll fight you on this). Whether you like her or not, we follow her from her start at a new high school, to college, to graduation and landing a dream job on Obama's campaign trail. I like to imagine that's where her story ends. The Rory we met in AYITL was self-absorbed, unambitious, a serial cheater, emotionally distant, and felt almost like a side note to the core narrative of the season. So what did happen to baby Rory? What could possibly have brought her to the point we see in AYITL?
Throughout the first three seasons of the original series, a lot of Rory’s personal change happens because of her relationships with guys. She's going through her first relationship dramas, from first kisses to first breakups. Her relationship with Jess is tumultuous at best, but she matures emotionally through her experiences of dating Jess and Dean respectively. Most fans would agree that seasons 1-3 Rory is pretty saintly. She's crowned valedictorian of her class at her prestigious private school, graduating as deputy class President & a well-respected contributor to the school paper. All the while dealing with excessive boyfriend stress, and keeping up with current pop culture and her wacky mother. Young Rory is a bit of a superhero. Things begin to go downhill a little in season four (when she meets Logan - totally weird coincidence, right?). While Rory is at Yale, she starts to get a dose of adult life. I’m sure plenty of us have experienced this: you go from a relatively sheltered high school life to a much more independent, competitive environment at university. The work is harder, you now have to take care of yourself - something you never knew took so much work - and start racking up enough extracurricular and work experience to launch you into your chosen career. It’s understandable that she stumbles. She enters a familiar, comforting relationship with her ex-boyfriend and cuts off her hair. She starts dating Logan, an arrogant rich boy, the antithesis of everything we expect Rory to be attracted to. She goes a little further off the rails when she gets her first major rejection, in the form of criticism from journalist and business mogul Mitchum Huntzberger. She steals a yacht and goes to prison. Who hasn’t? All of this, while upsetting, was recoverable. Rory was young and had a likely very bright future ahead. We knew she would bounce back because she’s Rory. Season 7 saw Rory begin to blossom. Her relationship with Logan was stronger and more mature than before, she got a job at the Stamford Eagle Gazette (whatever happened to that job?) and seemed confident, prepared to do what it took to be an excellent journalist. She reached her peak when she dumped Logan at her graduation, accepted a job on Obama’s campaign trail, and said goodbye to her beloved hometown. The Rory who pitched blog editors at parties was not the Rory who fell asleep in the street during an interview. The Rory who sat in the Stamford Eagle Gazette office every day for days on end, insisting on meeting the editor, is not the Rory who failed to prepare an answer to the question ‘What are you working on at the moment?’ for a Conde Nast interview. The Rory who turned down Logan’s proposal at her graduation was not the Rory who ended up casually sleeping with him - a dude who’s engaged to someone else - for years on end. If her behaviour in A Year in the Life was just supposed to be a slump in a thriving career, that would’ve been easier to take. Instead, the implication was that Rory had never had a great deal of success, despite nine years in the business. At thirty-two years old, she was still struggling to break into the world of journalism, and that is not something I would ever have believed of the Rory we said goodbye to in 2007.
Rory's character assassination is the result of Amy Sherman Palladino's hubris (and because Logan Huntzberger is literally a dementor). Amy wrote us someone to love, but she also wrote someone that she saw as being alternative, something missing from the market. She wrote a girl she hadn't seen on TV yet in 2000. So in 2016 when feminism (a concept Rory and Lorelai openly identify with in the original series) is more mainstream, and an evening of Netflix and snacks is pretty much everyone's favourite pastime, I guess Amy saw a need for something different. Rather than staying true to Rory's character, she shifted tack so that Rory (and Lorelai) would stand in opposition to the devils of the day - so rather than jokes about superficiality and privileged rich kids, it apparently means jokes about millennials and trigger warnings. Amy Sherman-Palladino (I like to pretend her husband and writing partner Daniel Palladino doesn't exist) had the power to do whatever she wanted with Rory, and she made her a mess. 2016 Rory was a Girls character, which would be fine if she was on Girls. But Gilmore Girls viewers had come to know her as someone else. The Gilmore Guys (a pair of excellent podcasting hosts, who have covered every single episode of GG) theorised that Rory's character was changed to fulfil a need for a messy 'real' millennial-hating thirty-something. Because apparently we need that more than we needed Rory Gilmore back. A role model was sacrificed for a storyline that supposedly better reflects today’s reality. All this tells us is that success isn't realistic, that even our heroes don't win, and that's disappointing.
Rory was never perfect, but she didn’t have to be. There’s an obsession in Western media with categorising women characters in particular as Madonna or whore; saint or sinner. Rory was flawed, but good. The only reason so many of us have obsessed over her characterisation, picking apart every new moment in the Netflix revival, is because we loved her. She was never saint or sinner, until these new episodes were released. Rory became the epitome of what Amy Sherman-Palladino seems to think the worst millennials are like. Perhaps the story is grittier and realer with a truly flawed protagonist. Or perhaps writers should resist the typically masculine tradition of writing a deeply awful lead character, and expecting your viewers to accept them as they are.
Ultimately, Rory fails even to redeem herself in the end. Her career’s saving grace was that she was writing a memoir about her and her mother’s lives. This is apparently her calling. Writing this book (cleverly titled ‘Gilmore Girls’...) was largely against Lorelai’s wishes, and seemed rather like a cop out, considering Rory’s decades-old dream of being a journalist was coming to an abrupt and dissatisfying end. Lorelai’s story in AYITL is far more emotionally resonant than Rory’s ever is. It is hard to care about Rory when she is so deeply unlikeable.
All of this causes me to wonder now how the ending to A Year in the Life would have impacted my twelve year old self. The ending of Bon Voyage, the original run’s finale, left young viewers hopeful and excited for Rory, whose years of hard work in school seemed to have paid off with an incredibly promising new job, and a tearful goodbye to the life she had lived. Rory was leaving her past behind and embarking on a journey that seemed to promise the fulfilment of her dream to be the next Christiane Amanpour. Dizzied by the possibilities this presented, I aced my English classes throughout high school, went on to study Literature at university, and started trying to write. I followed in the footsteps of my fictional heroes. So if Amy Sherman-Palladino had had her way and written the final season of the original run, how would Rory’s dead career and unwanted pregnancy have left me, and all young viewers, feeling about our own futures? The fact is that while it’s possibly narratively satisfying to depict a full-circle story where Rory ends up a single mum like her own mother was, it doesn’t do justice to the character the inspired and encouraged girls everywhere. Rory was neither saint nor sinner; I’ll choose to remember her as the hard-working woman who left us in ‘Bon Voyage’, and accept the Rory we saw in ‘Winter’ as she is: crude social commentary gone terribly wrong.