The trouble with ‘girls’ stuff’ on TV
‘Gilmore Girls’ exemplifies taste-makers’ neglect of shows aimed at young women
Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel as mother and daughter Lorelai and Rory Gilmore: “swimming in white privilege”.
An important hunk of millennial culture is about to be reanimated online. It passed me by at the time. It passed a lot of people by at the time. These people tended to be grown-up men who felt their hours was better spent giving in to the glutinous patriotic bromides of The West Wing.
About a year after that political show debuted, another series emerged that – though popular and influential – occupied far less space in the egghead cultural pages. Was Gilmore Girls taken less seriously because, though not quite a comedy, it was consistently funny? Probably not.
TV critics were happy to rave over shows such as Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. The problem, surely, was that the show was seen as “girls’ stuff”. Tony Soprano’s rumbling psychoses “defined an era”. But the affairs of a mother and daughter in picturesque Connecticut were not worthy of inclusion in proposed contemporaneous canons.
The show was perceived as being aimed at younger women. In the eyes of too many cultural commissars it was, therefore, not permitted access to the grown-up corral.
I don’t mean to go on about The West Wing (a show readers of this newspaper tend to admire). But it was educative to trawl through both series a decade after their pomp. It transpired that, despite never having watched the thing, I knew almost everything about Aaron Sorkin’s White House fantasy – they walk and talk; the president jokes about being God – aside from the fact that it wasn’t very good.
In contrast, I hadn’t picked up even the rudimentary fact that Melissa McCarthy, among the most successful movie stars of her age, first came to prominence in Gilmore Girls.
In a spirit of openness, let us concede that there are issues with Gilmore Girls. Running between 2000 and 2007, the show is swimming in white privilege. Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel play, respectively, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, a mother and daughter in a corner of New England that does not know the meaning of poverty.
The opening crisis concerns Lorelei’s wretched realisation that, estranged from her wealthy parents since becoming pregnant at 16, she must mend the division and borrow money to pay for Rory’s fees at a private school that makes Eton look like an inner-city refrigerator repair college.
The only black person among regular cast members of the opening series is French. Rory’s Korean best friend is lumbered with too many stereotypes about Asian-Americans. The show will not easily be confused with Orange is the New Black.
Oh well. You rarely caught Jane Austen’s protagonists mucking out the stables. The creators of the series work wonders within the idyll they have made for their fleshed-out characters. Amy Sherman-Palladino, creator of the show, has mentioned the collaborations between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as an influence, and the series lives up to those lofty comparisons.
In mainstream American TV, characters too often trade in well-honed quips that neither follow from nor lead towards the surrounding conversation. Each episode of Gilmore Girls features a neat, beautifully integrated flow of humorous interplay that stays buzzing even during moments of trauma.
Quentin Tarantino gets celebrated for banter between violent hoods. It is Ms Sherman-Palladino’s show – a symphony on the theme of female friendship – that better deserves the designation “cult phenomenon”. (Something hugely admired by a cabal as it strains for widespread acceptance.)
There was a time when entertainment nominally aimed at women – though, in reality, enjoyed equally by men – had less difficulty securing recognition from the taste commissariat. The “women’s pictures” made by Hollywood (and Warner Brothers in particular) during the 1940s and 1950s won Oscars, secured ecstatic reviews and triggered endless academic analysis.
No sane person talks patronisingly about Now Voyager, Mildred Pierce or All That Heaven Allows. Compare that with the disregard put the way of contemporary TV whose demographic skews towards the female.
Attitudes do appear to appear to be shifting a little. Gilmore Girls, in particular, has gathered a fanatical and studious following in the wake of its cancellation. An increasingly popular podcast called Gilmore Guys finds fanatic Kevin Porter and newcomer Demi Adejuyigbe talking their way through every episode of the series. Reflecting the surge, Netflix has shot four feature-length episodes to stream from next month.
And yet. There still seems to be a critical suspicion of “girls’ stuff” on TV. Sure, we all like The Americans, Game of Thrones and Mr Robot. But where were the Emmy nominations for the best new show of last year? Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is nothing less than a masterpiece. But it’s about relationships. It’s about young women. Oh and, worst of all, it’s a blasted musical. We’ll save that last prejudice for a later column.