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Hollywood won’t let female journalists be competent at their jobs

Rory Gilmore used to flout sexist journalism tropes. Now she embodies them.

Alexis Bleidel, Gilmore Girls
Rory gives a talk to students at her old high school. Notably, it wasn’t about how to be a successful journalist.
Netflix

In 2015, New York magazine wrote about the terrible sexist stereotypes that attend Hollywood portrayals of female journalists — particularly their tendencies to jettison professionalism and ethical standards at whim in order to sleep with sources. “Would it kill Hollywood to give us one grown-up Rory Gilmore?” asked writer Marin Cogan.

But as the recent Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life revival has shown us, it turns out that a grown-up Rory Gilmore doesn’t subvert these stereotypes — she embodies them, along with a host of additional professional incompetencies no one saw coming.

At least some of Rory’s journalistic problems are internal production issues. Showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino, who shepherded six seasons of the beloved CW series but left before its final year, has stated that she never even saw the final season. The series finale had Rory well on her way to professional success, and thus left room for considerable confusion about where that plucky girl journalist had gone in the revival.

Yet Rory’s hapless journalistic career is also part of a persistent problem with the rom-com genre to which she belongs, as well as a larger problem with the way Hollywood continually fails to allow female journalists nuanced and realistic plots.

Romantic comedy often paints female members of the media as professional misfits

The rom-com genre and its literary counterpart (the glossy “chick lit” of the late ’90s and aughts, now largely phased out in favor of steamier New Adult) both like to use semi-artsy professions for their heroines. Rom-com leading ladies rarely work in accounting and almost never in blue-collar jobs, unless it’s a rag-to-riches Cinderella story. They’re far more likely to work in journalism, publishing, television, architecture, and other artsy pursuits.

On the one hand, that makes sense, since these jobs often reflect the real experiences of the women who write the rom-coms; for example, Nora Ephron was a journalist (her career is depicted in the series Good Girls Revolt) before becoming a screenwriter. But in a larger cultural context, putting rom-com heroines in these kinds of jobs tends to create a strange disconnect from reality. Rom-coms like to exacerbate conflict by putting our heroine at direct odds with her working environment — either because she’s too quirky and odd to fit in or because she’s inexperienced and has no idea how things work.

What that means is that in the onscreen world of a rom-com, where portrayals of journalism and the media are prevalent, we usually get a bunch of “professional” women who seem to have no idea what they’re doing. In the rom-com that kicked off the chick-lit craze, Bridget Jones’s Diary, the title character (played by Renée Zellweger) quits her job at a publishing house (after having an affair with her boss) and lucks into a job as a reporter, where her producer humiliates her on national TV by showcasing her natural clumsiness.

In another movie based on a best-selling chick-lit novel, The Devil Wears Prada, Andy Sachs (Anne Hathaway) is a would-be hardboiled journalist, a Rory Gilmore–esque nerd from a small town. But she initially treats her first big opportunity, landing a dream job at the world’s premier fashion magazine, as a joke. She’s laughably clueless about the basics of the fashion industry and doesn’t seem to have researched anything about it — not even how to spell the names of the top designers she’ll be working with. She also both sleeps with a source and uses him to help her fill one of her professional goals.

Rory’s journalistic fumbles include everything from keeping a confusing number of phones to being utterly unprepared during her only job interview — quirks that seem to make no sense in the context of her life and history up to now. Rather, they position her within a larger pattern of the rom-com heroine struggling to find herself in a professional context, and often coming across as totally incompetent in the process.

Rom-com journalism is a giant mess of personal and professional conflict

Rory’s unprofessional behavior as a journalist also fits her within the genre’s ongoing tendency to fuse romantic and professional relationships. The rom-com thrives on depicting what it sees by default as a core conflict of a woman’s life: the balance between the personal and professional. Rom-coms blur these lines so frequently it’s hard to find a rom-com that doesn’t use this theme as a plot point.

And again, because so many rom-coms use the media as their professional settings, they have a tendency to depict journalists, particularly female journalists, as being prone to personal relationships that cross all kinds of ethical and professional lines. If female journalists in rom-coms aren’t getting romantically involved with their sources or male colleagues (Sleepless in Seattle, The Devil Wears Prada, Never Been Kissed, He’s Just Not That Into You, Trainwreck, Top Five, the list goes on), they’re being preposterously manipulated by people who want to make their love lives the center of the story.

These tropes tend to make “journalism” a stand-in for “romantic workplace shenanigans” (which is often code for “sexual harassment”). When the BBC made a modern version of Much Ado About Nothing in 2005, it recast bickering love-struck archetypes Beatrice and Benedick as squabbling newsroom anchors whose sexual tension gives the show a ratings boost. In The Ugly Truth, Katherine Heigl’s morning-show producer is undermined again and again by a swaggering Gerard Butler, who joins the show as a host and manipulates her into a relationship, despite her initial loathing and the obvious ethical conflict.

Then there’s How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, in which Kate Hudson is a lifestyle columnist for a women’s magazine who decides to base a story around a calculated attempt to date and break up with a random guy. Her own former colleagues — two women, because of course women can’t have non-catty, mutually supportive relationships in rom-coms — manipulate her into dating a guy who’s also trying to leverage a dating plot to use in his professional career. And Carrie Bradshaw’s entire career in Sex in the City is built around mining her sex life for columns.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is no exception to this mixing of the personal and professional. In fact, throughout the revival, Rory’s professional life is framed mainly in terms of how it complicates her romantic life. At one point, she sleeps with a geeky source (for an article she never files or even really starts), then apathetically tries to pitch an editor on the experience as a self-loathing take on geek girls. (The editor is justifiably unimpressed.) She gets her only other audience with an editor by begging her boyfriend’s dad to use his influence to set up the interview. When she finally turns toward the next phase of her life, she begins writing a memoir about herself and her mother. But she doesn’t get the idea on her own: Her old boyfriend Jess gives it to her, in a scene that isn’t really about Rory’s career at all, but about Jess’s compatibility with her, his understanding of her hopes and dreams.

None of these structural elements entirely explain Rory’s behavior — but they do contextualize Gilmore Girls’ rom-com elements.

Outside of the rom-com, Hollywood wants female journalists to be shamed and punished

If the rom-com is where female journalists go to be incompetent and sexually harassed, all the other genres are where female journalists go to be put in their place.

Hollywood’s fictional female journalists often tend to be ruthless, amoral cutthroats who’ll do anything for a story, and/or are sexually available to their sources. (It should go without saying that journalists don’t make a habit of sleeping with their subjects, but unfortunately, this isn’t a foregone conclusion; just ask the many real-life reporters who’ve been sexually harassed while trying to do their jobs.) Stories like House of Cards, Nightcrawler, and Network all portray brazen reporters or TV media producers whose yearning for success makes them abandon their ethics.

Again and again, these women are depicted as shallow, greedy, and unprofessional — and then the narrative shames them for it, often serving them a decisive moment of comeuppance. After having an affair with the main character, the plucky reporter in House of Cards is ultimately dispatched horribly. Rene Russo’s character in Nightcrawler ultimately gets served by the same unethical cutthroat behavior she’s engendered in her workplace. A similarly villainous character, Diana in Network is essentially portrayed as having lost her humanity in her quest for ratings; she’s described at one point as “television incarnate, indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy.” In Thank You For Smoking, Katie Holmes’s character sleeps with her subject for a story but then is publicly humiliated and fired after he goes public about their affair. The famously amoral Rita Skeeter of Harry Potter is not only punished for her manipulative attempts at getting stories — she’s turned into a beetle and kept in a jar for years. Years!

Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb), the shrewd Brown-alumni reporter in the Iron Man trilogy, is slut-shamed and condescended to from the moment she shows up; though she sleeps with her source (who only agrees to talk to her because she’s “cute”), she continues to critique him and pursue her investigation into his business dealings despite the obvious new conflict of interest. She’s portrayed as a fully intelligent and capable journalist, yet the Marvel universe shames her again and again. Iron Man 2 brings her back solely to re-slut-shame her for the scene she was already shamed for in Iron Man. The Avengers tie-in web series WHIH Newsfront gives Christine a job as an anchor, but it makes her a corporate shill and continually has her criticizing the Avengers in every debate, subtly positioning her in opposition to all right-thinking superhero fans. And then there’s the famous “take out the trash” joke.

Even female journalists we love get shafted. Scream’s cutthroat Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) is the stereotypical ratings-hungry female journalist during the first two films in the franchise; it’s not until she falls in love with one of her sources that she mellows out and remembers how to be a real human again, instead of an insatiable pest of a reporter. Popular comics reporters like Lois Lane and Vicki Vale may be good at their jobs, but they still fall into the trope of the hot reporter who forms romantic attachments with her superhero of choice.

Even when journalists do their jobs, they’re often inexplicably thwarted by the narrative. Female journalists often turn out to have been manipulated by their sources all along (House of Cards, The Life of David Gale). In fact, pretty much the only time female journalists in Hollywood are allowed to be competent, successful, and professional without violating any ethical standards is when the journalists are based on real people (Spotlight, Good Girls Revolt).

The fictional female journalist has only been allowed to be unequivocally excellent at her job on a few occasions. The vintage classic His Girl Friday gave us Hildy Johnson, an iconic role for Rosalind Russell that contained all the classic rom-com tropes of personal and professional conflicts, yet never once saw its character crossing ethical lines. In Woman of the Year, Katharine Hepburn was a hardboiled feminist reporter whose success upstages her husband’s. Mary Tyler Moore’s TV news producer on The Mary Tyler Moore Show notably chose to face jail time rather than give up her sources; then there was the long-running ’90s series Murphy Brown (and even Murphy’s hard-hitting competence was countered by ditzy Corky Sherwood).

Most of these examples of “good” female journalists aren’t without issue, but they at least show us that Hollywood is capable of delivering complex, professional women in the world of journalism who are committed to their jobs and capable of maintaining basic ethical standards.

Many Gilmore Girls fans had hoped that Rory would take her place among these fictional examples as a proud professional journalist, as one more much-needed reminder that female journalists can be both competent and capable of getting a story without crossing ethical lines.

Alas, it seems Hollywood just isn’t ready for the Rory Gilmore of our dreams.

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