It’s been a hot minute since the Gilmore Girls revival premiered on Netflix, but like many, I am still not quite sure what to make of it. My biggest challenge has been in trying to wrap my head around what exactly happened to Rory Gilmore: how did a character with whom I identified so strongly ultimately become a stranger?
When people talk about Gilmore Girls, the focus of the conversation often turns to the youngest of the Gilmore women, her boyfriends, her career aspirations, or even if Rory is a good or bad person/friend/daughter/girlfriend. While these debates made a lot of sense when the original series was on the air and Rory was a teen, they should make little sense today now that she’s a bona fide adult, yet here were are…
When we first met Rory, she was only turning 16. I think part of the show’s appeal was that Rory was an instantly relatable female teen character. Although she was exceptionally intelligent and had a frighteningly strong tolerance for caffeine, Rory was written as an average, realistic teenager. She was bookish and introverted, but not shy. She liked books and music and eating pizza on movie nights with her mom. She did not wear designer clothes or solve murders or lead a glamorous upper-crust lifestyle. Her biggest conflicts revolved around her school work and classmates, crushes, and friendships. Rory was exceptional in that she was so incredibly normal. That’s probably why I saw myself in Rory and so did many other young women growing up with this show.
During the show’s run though, we saw Rory grow and change, and develop different facets of her personality. In some ways this helped the show. As we learned more about Rory, there were more opportunities for viewers to further identify with her (or, at least identify with facets of her personality). It was interesting to watch Rory becoming a flawed, complex woman with a variety of character traits, interests, and aspirations. However, precisely this growth and change is where the BIG question as to who Rory really is arises and maybe why Rory having been initially written as an uber-relatable 16-year-old became (I assume) the bane of Amy Sherman-Palladino’s existence.
I don’t think Sherman-Palladino really knew who Rory is when writing her, because as the series (and now the revival) progressed, who Rory is at her core became less clear. Rather than develop a complex, multidimensional personality for Rory, Sherman-Palladino gave Rory traits that appeared increasingly inconsistent, unexplainable, and contradictory. In fact, for just about every trait that Rory had been written as having, an opposite trait was woven into her character. Rory is introverted and maintains few (but very close) friendships, yet she enjoys parties with the Life and Death Brigade and Daughters of the American Revolution functions. She’s bookish and quiet and does not enjoy attention, yet she aspires to become a foreign correspondent. She’s loyal to her friends, yet she emotionally or physically cheated on just about every one of her boyfriends. She plans everything down to the smallest detail and is always dependable, except when she’s spontaneously running off to New York or stealing a boat. And I could go on for a while.
The enigma that is Rory’s personality is probably why her decisions have been so strongly debated. One could only guess whether Rory’s latest action is in character, a phase, a mistake, or growth. Better yet, you could pick and choose from any number of her traits to construct the “Rory” you want. This worked in the original series because it allowed more viewers to see themselves in Rory, or see someone they’d want to become. More importantly, it worked because any inconsistency could be explained away by the idea that Rory was growing and becoming more complex. For the creators of the show this also meant that they had the freedom to mould Rory’s personality at will to drive any particular story line without without thinking too hard about whether Rory would really do that, or how would Rory really react in that situation.
Unfortunately for Amy Sherman-Palladino (and fans of Gilmore Girls), these inconsistencies necessarily could not continue in the show’s revival. For almost a decade after the show went off the air, fans wondered who Rory became. Yet when we saw Rory again as an adult, we did not get an answer. In fact, what’s clear in the revival is that no one knows who Rory is, including herself. This was realistic when she was 19; it is confusing and frustrating when she’s 32. Even more frustrating is that Sherman-Palladino does not seem to know either, and consequently avoids giving Rory any kind of solid life, love, or career direction. The freedom (and strength) that Sherman-Palladino had with Rory in the original series became a glaring weakness. Rory did not turn out to have a rich, complex, multi-faceted personality, but a haphazardly written one.
Throughout the revival, things seem to simply happen to Rory. Her career has stalled and Rory’s attempts to change this are almost non-existent until an ex-boyfriend tells her to write a book. Is she smart, ambitious, and strong, or is she lazy, entitled, and lost? She’s dating one man, seems to forget this, and cheats on him with another ex-boyfriend. Is she a selfish, thoughtless coward, or is she in love, in denial, and afraid of commitment? Does she have what it takes to be a successful journalist? Is she in love with Logan? Will she keep her baby? Will she tell the father? Most importantly, how the hell did she get to where she is in her life, which is nowhere, and what tools does she have to change this?
In the revival, Rory is floating (or drowning?) because she doesn’t know what exactly she wants, which seems to stem from not knowing who she is. Sherman-Palladino’s failure to answer any questions about Rory or firmly cement even one or two of Rory’s core traits suggests that she may not know either. That leaves us, the fans, to continue to try and make sense of who Rory is, both as a child and an adult. Your guess is as good as mine. But now there’s little fun in figuring out who Rory will become if she’s made no progress in ten years. It’s a painfully unsatisfying, if not tragic, ending to a story and a character that so many young women grew up identifying with or aspiring to become. Rory is a big sister who became (at best) a stranger or (at worst) a phantom. Now that the revival is over, perhaps it is time to mourn the loss of whoever it is that we saw in her and finally let go.