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Gilmore Girls’ subtle liberalism and universal empathy

Gilmore Girls wasn’t necessarily a political show, but it was a liberal one in a conservative climate.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Netflix

In May 2007, a young reporter named Rory Gilmore took a bus from Connecticut to Iowa to start her very first job in journalism, covering the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama for a small online outlet. To those who knew her, it must have come as a surprise. Rory had always been a Hillary Clinton supporter, and was even planning on writing her application essay to Harvard on Clinton before someone told her just how common a subject Clinton was.

But like many young men and women of her generation, Rory’s fate was about to become entangled with that of the young black senator from Chicago with a funny name. We know what happened to him, but Rory’s fate was left open, since she’s not a real person. She’s one of the two Gilmore Girls. The episode where Rory goes off to follow the Obama campaign was the series finale, and she was never heard from again. Until now.

After running from 2000 to 2007 on the WB (later the CW), Gilmore Girls will premiere four new episodes on Netflix on November 25. The show was only a modest hit, never breaking into double digits in the Nielsen rankings but consistently ranking first in its time slot among women ages 18 to 25. Its proportionally small but mighty fan base was and still is ravenous, showing up en masse to a recent promotion for the Netflix revival in which dozens of coffee shops around the county were transformed into Luke’s Diner, a central location on the show.

It’s fitting that Rory went off to work for Obama in the finale, and not Clinton, who was running 10 points ahead in the polls at the time, or John Edwards. Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino has always had her finger on the pulse of liberal America. Running for almost the entirety of the Bush years, the show was an antidote to the conservative values that pervaded that era. And now, with another, much more divisive Republican president on the horizon, maybe it can be that again.

Gilmore Girls subtly rebuked conservative values from its premise on down

Gilmore Girls was a rarity among hit television shows: It was made by, for, and about women. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino, formerly a writer on Roseanne, the show is driven entirely by the characters’ emotional lives. It begins when Rory (Alexis Bledel) is 16 and her mother, Lorelai (Lauren Graham), is 32, a symmetry that casts a long shadow over the events that follow. Although Lorelai can never quite say it, her worry that Rory will make the same mistakes she made as a 16-year-old is the basis for every dramatic moment on the show.

Alexis Bleidel and Lauren Graham, Gilmore Girls

In fact, Lorelai’s very situation might have inspired criticism from conservative circles, had the show been popular enough to warrant a response. Gilmore Girls premiered in 2000, only eight years after Dan Quayle criticized the character of Murphy Brown for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone.” We can only imagine what he and his supporters thought of Lorelai, who raises a single daughter to adolescence without even dating a man, and works full time as the sole breadwinner.

Through its central mother-daughter duo, Gilmore Girls served as a celebration of working women. Lorelai’s first job at 16 was as a maid at a luxury inn, and when the show begins, she has worked her way up to manager. Her affluent mother, Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop), looks down on the accomplishment. Rory suffers the same indignities when she first meets her college boyfriend Logan’s parents, who are even wealthier than the elder Gilmores and judge Rory to be a poor choice for Logan because she aspires to have a career. In their world, wives plan charity events; they don’t have professional lives. Lorelai and Rory stand as clear correctives to that ethos.

While this conservative-correcting ethos is built into its premise, Gilmore Girls never shied away from making its liberalism explicit in more direct ways, either. Emily is a devoted member of the conservative Daughters of the American Revolution, which she is often mocked for. Rory’s dorm room at Yale prominently features a Planned Parenthood poster, and her friend Lane’s room sported a Fahrenheit 9/11 poster. There are derogatory mentions of “swift boating” and celebratory references to Noam Chomsky, not to mention the aforementioned reverence for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Madeleine Albright even appears in a dream sequence as herself.

In some ways, Rory could be seen as a prototype for Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation, an overachieving, public service–minded young woman who thinks of Democratic female politicians as major celebrities.

Gilmore Girls offers a small antidote to current political tensions

Despite its liberal bent, though, what makes Gilmore Girls universal is its empathy, even for its characters who seem disagreeable at first. The best corollary may be Freaks and Geeks, the high school dramedy that famously made time to give an empathetic backstory to even its most despicable characters. At its best, Gilmore Girls does the same thing.

Kelly Bishop, Gilmore Girls Netflix

Some of the show’s most poignant moments are when its steeliest characters show their vulnerability, like when Emily feels her involvement with the DAR has been mocked by her husband, or when Taylor (Michael Winters), the town’s overbearing selectman, grieves an electoral loss with only a can of whipped cream to cheer him up.

Gilmore Girls was also was far more diverse than it’s ever been given credit for. Even in complimentary reviews, the show is referred to with terms like “horrendously white.” While it’s true that there was only one black series regular — Michel (Yanic Truesdale), a snooty French concierge at Lorelai’s inn — the townspeople of Stars Hollow included three Latinos (Miss Patty, Gypsy, and Caesar), a Korean family (Lane and Mrs. Kim), and at least one character who can be read as part of the LGBTQ community (Michel is generally assumed to be gay, though the show never addresses it specifically).

The ethos of inclusivity and empathy seen in the original series is vital to the revival’s relevance in the Trump era. Again, Gilmore Girls will accompany a new Republican president. Again, it will be born into a world in which outsiders are increasingly viewed with suspicion. Members of various marginalized communities fear for their physical safety, while tensions between Americans of different political parties, religions, and race seem to be at record highs.

It’s too much to ask Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life to fix all this, or even seriously grapple with it — but it could provide a meaningful antidote. It’s a simple reminder that if we can find a way to coexist, it will be based on the recognition that each of us has a life behind our words, and that we’re all vulnerable in the same ways, no matter how different we may seem on the surface.

That message is particularly poignant today because if Stars Hollow did exist, it would likely be filled with Trump supporters: The show’s references to neighboring towns like Woodbury, New Milford, and Washington Depot situate Stars Hollow firmly in Litchfield County, Connecticut, where Trump won 54 percent of the vote. So maybe we can understand Gilmore Girls as a vision of the future in which Trump supporters can coexist with liberal working women, Latina dance instructors, and gay black Frenchmen. To paraphrase its title song, where Gilmore Girls leads, we should follow.

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