When I watched Gilmore Girls for the first time, my relationship with my mother was crumbling. The show charts the lives of Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Rory (also a Lorelai), an enviably close duo living in the town of Stars Hollow. They were best friends and in the few years I watched it all the way through, I barely spoke to my mother at all. I watched Lorelai and Rory’s fights and resolutions, miscommunications and joys and though I loved it, I felt wholly disconnected from it. I identified with Lorelai and Rory separately, but their closeness always felt fictional. As I’ve grown older, my understanding of the dynamics has changed, and I have learnt to empathise with the other ‘Gilmore Girl’, Lorelai’s mother Emily.
I was the same age as Rory at the start of the show, 16 years old. We were both bookish, shy and searching for approval. Her mother encouraged her and sacrificed her pride to send Rory to a school that would let her follow their dream of Harvard. But where Rory threw herself into schoolwork to achieve that dream, I was studying to escape a small town and isolated home-life.
My sister’s mental illness had triggered severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in my mother, which left her absent through my late teen years. I was essentially independent from when I was 17, and I left home immediately after I finished school. Our relationship was non-existent for many months, and it took years before I let her back into my life. At this time, I began to identify with Lorelai, who had escaped her childhood home and her cold mother, to make it on her own.
A long time has passed since I first watched the show. Thankfully, my relationship with my mum has improved in the last ten years and though we aren’t Gilmore Girls close, we’re not Emily and Lorelai anymore. But re-watching the whole seven seasons over the last year, I have started empathising with Emily and seeing Lorelai and Rory’s relationship as being co-dependent.
When I was younger, like Lorelai, I was fairly dismissive of Emily (Kelly Bishop). She was manipulative and controlling, bound by a set of conventions that were foreign to me. Watching it as an adult, I was repeatedly floored by the character’s complexity, and Bishop’s acting. Yes, she is manipulative and cold, but her coldness is a result of etiquette training and a coping mechanism against Lorelai’s persistent distancing. She uses money as leverage, but to be close to her daughter and granddaughter, who she has been denied a relationship for years, or because she sincerely believes she’s doing what is best for the girls. Each time Emily sees what she has missed out on, her grief is palpable. In the final episode, she badgers Lorelai about making ‘improvements’ to the inn, trying to loan Lorelai money just so she could be guaranteed of a continued relationship with her daughter.
Seeing Emily grieving for the 16 years she lost helped me appreciate how hard it must have been for my mother when I shut her out. Unlikely Emily, she was never deliberately cold to me, but I felt abandoned and used distance to protect myself. I reasoned that being self-sufficient was better than being left wanting. Looking back, I can see how much she was hurting through this period of separation but at the time I felt abandoned, and my self-preservation made me cruel.
Watching the show again, I also felt disquieted by the closeness of Lorelai and Rory. Lorelai became a mother at sixteen, and though she raised Rory safely and competently, their relationship fluctuates between ‘best friends’ and ’mother/daughter’. It’s a tension that is explored at times in the show (such as when Rory decides she doesn’t want to go to Chilton, a fancy private school, because she starts fancying Dean), but their closeness is always championed over their co-dependency. Rory has a best friend, not a parent, and she struggles because of it.
Rory is coddled and never criticised. Lorelai has compensated for her parents’ reserve by being so encouraging that Rory’s expectations of herself become inflated. Anything less than glowing praise causes her to melt down. Even though this characterisation is deliberate (Rory’s growth is evident as she leaves her mother and home to pursue a job reporting on Barack Obama’s campaign), their closeness is always the emotional centre of the show.
My independence around the age of 18 fostered an independence that Rory lacks from being so closely guarded by Lorelai. I learnt fairly on that I needed to stand on my own two feet, and not rely too heavily on the approval of others. This staunch independence is something I’m now trying to un-learn, as my mother and I work towards a healthy relationship.
Watching the show now, rather than as a surly teenager, I realise that Gilmore Girls isn’t about the perfect mother-daughter bond. It’s about the work that goes into the bond, and the balance between love and autonomy that nurtures healthy relationships.
Amy Nicholls-Diver is a writer and editor based in Melbourne. She enjoys queer stories, feminism and cat videos. You can find her on Twitter @diver_amy