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Gilmore Girls is slyly smart about class and how isolating money can be

In this screwball comedy, you might escape the lure of money, but that doesn’t mean your loved ones will.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Lorelai and Emily go to counseling together in the new Gilmore Girls miniseries.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Gilmore Girls is one of only a few American TV shows of the past 20 years to seriously acknowledge class.

On the surface, that’s sort of a bizarre statement; the show centers on the child of two rich parents, who leaves their moneyed life behind and ends up … still pretty rich. She owns her own inn and lives in a giant house, and her town is the sort of quirky oddball community that the rich probably vacation in. Gilmore Girls isn’t a show about upper versus lower classes. It’s about upper versus slightly less upper classes. Financial difficulty visits only rarely.

And to some degree, that level of wealth is baked into the show’s genre. Gilmore Girls is a screwball comedy at heart, and screwball comedies almost always view hitting the financial jackpot as the best thing that could possibly happen to someone.

The classic Hollywood screwball comedies were very class conscious — usually by placing a poor wastrel in the same room as a rich heir or heiress — but they very often featured stories where the real victory was a poor or middle-class person convincing some rich person to marry them. (Think It Happened One Night for a classic example.) At the end of every movie, capitalism and the American dream won out. Your best life was only a marriage certificate away.

And Gilmore Girls mostly plays by those rules. On one level, it’s a show about how the rich are just as quirky and weird as the rest of us. But the closer you look, the deeper you dig, the more the show reveals some of the tensions behind that idea. See, Gilmore Girls — especially in its recent Netflix revival, A Year in the Life — is about how you can never escape money. Once you have it, its claws are in you.

Lorelai thought she escaped her parents (and their money), but Rory is still subject to their pull

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Emily’s memory looms large over Lorelai.

The inciting incident of Gilmore Girls — the event that kicks the story into gear — is teenager Rory Gilmore being accepted into the prestigious Chilton Academy. Rory is the only child of a single mother, and she attended public school in her hometown of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, before being accepted to Chilton; she’s going to need some sort of financial assistance to attend.

Enter her grandparents, Richard and Emily Gilmore, who have more money than they know what to do with. They’re happy to help pay for Rory’s education — provided that she and her mother, Lorelai, attend a weekly Friday night dinner. There’s some irony to such an arrangement: Lorelai left her parents’ home at the age of 16 so that her child might not have to grow up in their stuffy, stultified world. But if drawing slightly closer to them means her kid can have a better education, Lorelai is willing to do what she must.

It’s worth noting that Lorelai struggles demonstrably more with money in Gilmore Girls’ early seasons than she ultimately does by the show’s end. Once she co-owns her own inn — and is presumably a successful small business owner — she seems to have a greater financial cushion than she did in the early going.

But over the course of its run, Gilmore Girls is incredibly smart about all of the ways that the life Lorelai left behind, and all the easy cash that would’ve come with it, act as siren songs for Rory. Where Lorelai saw leaving her parents’ home as a kind of last-ditch moral stand, Rory has no such compunctions. She’s drawn to the trappings of the upper-class, and her longest-lasting relationship is with Logan, the mega-rich heir to a newspaper fortune.

That’s how Gilmore Girls casts the classic screwball comedy story arc into a different light. The show is still a mostly silly, happy one, but it has an undercurrent of financial tension that divides generations of Gilmores.

Often, when Lorelai and Rory have a falling out, money is either at the center of that argument or directly adjacent to it. (One exception: their fight over Rory’s rekindling of her relationship with her now-married ex-boyfriend at the end of season four.) Their biggest rupture comes at the end of season five, when Lorelai worries that Rory’s relationship with Logan has essentially turned Rory into the person Lorelai hoped never to be — spoiled, bratty, and oblivious to the destruction that can be wielded with a pocketbook.

Lorelai might also be influenced by the trajectory of Rory’s father, Christopher, a fellow child of privilege who eventually abandoned his young girlfriend and child to return to that cushion of wealth. In that sense, wealth also represents betrayal to Lorelai — but holds the sway of family for her daughter.

In short, Lorelai could escape her parents’ money, sort of. But she could never guarantee that her beloved daughter wouldn’t fall right back into it. Once you know it’s there, money becomes hard to resist, and it inevitably corrupts.

A Year in the Life deepens these themes

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life
Lorelai learns her father was trying to help Luke franchise his coffee shop.

In the new miniseries, Lorelai struggles in this financial battle with her parents on two fronts. Rory continues to be lured by her grandparents’ wealth and status, to the degree that she spends much of the miniseries jetting around the world so she can be with Logan. And since Rory is an unemployed freelancer, it’s not clear where she’s getting the money to do this (perhaps from Logan), which could only increase her mother’s silent frustration over the issue.

But Lorelai is also shocked to learn that shortly before her father’s death, he was trying to help her long-term boyfriend, Luke, franchise his coffee shop to other towns in the area. We don’t really see any evidence that Luke has somehow been corrupted by money — he seems the same irascible guy as always — but the warning signs are there for Lorelai anyway.

Gilmore Girls doesn’t believe any of the above is necessarily evil. The show can acknowledge that living like Emily and Richard would have a certain appeal for someone like Rory, and if Luke’s Diner is as good as everybody in Stars Hollow seems to think it is, then bringing that joy to other small towns would be a public good.

But Gilmore Girls’ point-of-view character has always been Lorelai, and she’s always been skeptical of the power and influence her parents’ money can wield, both in her community and in her own life.

Richard and Emily live closed-off, isolated lives, where they seem to spend most of their time playfully bickering with each other or sniping at their maids. (One of the series’ most overt nods toward class consciousness comes in the miniseries, in which Emily’s hired help mocks her cluelessness about how the world really works in a foreign language the subtitles dub "Berta’s language.")

But Lorelai’s life in Stars Hollow has always exemplified a kind of weirdo wonderland where community is everything, and people take care of each other. Notably, while Stars Hollow has some residents who are well-off, nobody is Richard and Emily Gilmore rich, not even Lorelai. When everybody has less, in Gilmore Girls’ world, everybody helps each other out more. When a few people have a lot, they end up living in airless mausoleums of mansions, and their families have a tendency to fall apart.

Again, much of this is likely cribbed from the old Hollywood films creator Amy Sherman-Palladino used as inspiration. And there are many times when Gilmore Girls itself becomes enamored of the trappings of wealth. But for the most part — and in its best episodes and seasons — the series understands both the seductiveness of money and the many ways in which it can cause dissension. After all, most fans of Gilmore Girls want to live in Stars Hollow, but nobody wants to live in Richard and Emily’s mansion.

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