Gilmore Girls, in its original run, had moments of enlightenment with regards to sex, race, class, and religion, but it was never focused on any of those issues. That did not rankle fans originally, but times and television have changed since Lorelai and Rory last graced our screens in 2007. Fans were unequivocally expecting more of a presence of LGBT and nonwhite people in its return engagement, Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, but Amy Sherman-Palladino’s series did not exactly rise to the occasion.
First, the good: One of the only nonwhite characters that populate the Gilmore universe is Michel Gerard (played by African-Canadian actor Yanic Truesdale), the impeccably dressed, Celine Dion-loving concierge at Lorelai’s hotel, The Dragonfly Inn. While he had his share of storylines in the past, his sexuality was never addressed, although fans ostensibly knew that he was the token gay character. Fortunately, the show makes up for burying his sexuality, right off the bat, with the character’s first lines in the revival.
“I just don’t understand it,” he says. “Before we got married, Frederick was more indifferent to children than I am.”
Sure, we don’t meet Frederick or figure out the conclusion to the kid-or-no-kid saga, but Michel is provided with an otherwise satisfying storyline. Call it fan service if you want, but it’s satisfying for long-suffering viewers to hear Michel speak about the trials and tribulations of his personal life as freely as Lorelai and Rory often do.
The Gilmores have also gotten woke by leaps and bounds about being sensitive to hate language since the first series, where it wouldn’t be unusual to hear casually dropped jokes about characters being or “acting” gay (townie Kirk is accused of having a “gay bag” by Luke), early Lorelai flame Max Medina declaring that he didn’t want to walk on the same side of the street as cross-dressers, and on and on. This arguably still flew on TV, in the era during which the show aired, but this hate speech, and Lorelai’s not-unusual slut-shaming of the women around her in the original series, is largely absent from the new series. (Although there is that pretty glaring body-shaming scene at the beginning of the revival’s third episode.)
The lack of LGBT representation in the original series is addressed in a significant way in one other scene in the second episode of the new series, at one of the iconic Stars Hollow town meetings. In it, long-suffering town representative Taylor Doose (who its implied may be gay himself) reports that there are not enough gay people living there to march in the planned First Annual Stars Hollow Gay Pride Parade. The townies cheekily play along, pointing out new character Donald (Sam Pancake) as an openly gay character that lives there.
“How is that possible?” Lorelai asks, followed by Babette (Sally Struthers) piping in with, “We have such nice houses!”
Needless to say, no parade takes place, but the very acknowledgement and addition of a gay character to the Stars Hollow universe is, amazingly, pretty significant progress for an almost exclusively straight show. This allows Sherman-Palladino to acknowledge that yes, this has been an issue the show has struggled with through the years, but no, they’re not going too out of their way to resolve it.
Then there’s the not-so-good: The persisting issue of racial representation in Gilmore Girls that marked the series and carried over to the revival. Besides Michel, the other nonwhite characters that are prominently featured are Rory’s childhood best friend Lane Kim (Keiko Agena), and her mother. Issues of Lane’s Korean-American heritage and immigrant parents brushing up against her passion for punk music and junk food was dealt with sensitively throughout the series, giving both Kim women consideration, and presenting their points of view on religion and marriage with equal respect. Unfortunately, this is the only other culture we see on the show in all eight of its seasons, with Lorelai and Rory pretty reliably sticking to their white bread roots in work, friendships, and personal lives.
There’s a loophole that Sherman-Palladino can claim: The town on which Stars Hollow is based, Washington Depot, Connecticut, is over 94 percent white according to the most recent census results. This, however, doesn’t hold much water when we consider that this is television, folks, and there’s nothing that would stop, or even majorly alter, any storyline in Stars Hollow by being more culturally inclusive. They acknowledge the lack of diversity in the Netflix revival with the Taylor Doose-helmed global food festival that leaves most white characters (with the exception of the Kims) having to learn how to cook Peruvian, Moroccan, or Japanese cuisine on pretty short notice, but it would have been better to resolve it by including new characters, which is a completely reasonable thing to do since the show’s been off the air for nine years.
Even if they didn’t want to change the demographics of Stars Hollow, this doesn’t let the Gilmores off the hook for the Netflix revival, or any of the seven seasons that preceded it, since the girls frequently leave their hometown. Emily and Richard Gilmore, the stoic, wealthy grandparents to Rory, live in Hartford, Connecticut, a city that is over 40 percent Hispanic, and Yale University, where Rory goes to college, consists of a nearly half nonwhite student body. We see little of this reflected in the series itself; the nonwhite characters we see outside of Lane and Michel are usually the frequently Hispanic maids and wait staff employed by Emily Gilmore.
In Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, the series takes this disconnect to a new extreme when the newly widowed Emily grows close with her maid Berta and Berta’s entire extended family — despite refusing to learn what language they speak, or where they’re from. This is presented as a running gag throughout the season, and we never learn anything about Berta’s culture or how interested Emily actually is in it, although its the first time we see her character expressing affection, and even love, for someone who is not the same race as herself. Ultimately, though, its still a problematic representation — sure, Berta appears to be good at her job, and genuinely cares about Emily, but using the hacky tropes of a large, Hispanic family without a home taking advantage of a rich, old, white lady, and the whole “what language is this crazy gal speaking anyway?” bit would perform better in the early 2000s… or 1980s.
We don’t know if there’s another season of Gilmore Girls coming down the pike, but it’s safe to say that they have a long way to go to match today’s standards for what a lot of viewers are looking for in their TV: inclusivity, representation, and not being called a slut so much, for the love of God.
Photos via Warner Brothers, Netflix