Content warning: Spoilers ahead!
If the teenage Rory Gilmore who said “Who cares if I’m pretty if I fail my finals!” could meet herself two seasons later at 20 years old, when she drops out of Yale after stealing a yacht, she would be stunned. I was, too, when I first watched Gilmore Girls.
Every fall, my roommates and I begin our Gilmore Girls marathon and hope that Rory’s high school study habits will inspire us. Gilmore Girls is a decidedly autumnal show that follows Rory and her mother Lorelai from fall through spring every year, from Rory’s sophomore year of high school to her university graduation. The show opens with Rory’s acceptance into an elite private school, Chilton, where Rory progresses from getting her first D grade to being named valedictorian.
In season four, when Rory starts at Yale University, she is much like her younger self: moral, ambitious, and precocious. However, Rory then begins her moral descent, which Gilmore Girls fans criticize. Over the course of next two seasons, she commits adultery with her married high school sweetheart, mocks and body-shames a ballerina in the Yale Daily News, steals a yacht, and finally drops out of Yale and estranges herself from her mother and best friend, Lorelai.
Rory’s mistakes are extensive, but Gilmore Girls viewers also project unrealistic expectations onto Rory. We watch her grow up and, consequently, are disappointed that as an adult Rory becomes more flawed than her innocent teenage self. Throughout the show’s earlier seasons, Lorelai and the whole community of Stars Hollow perpetuate the illusion that Rory is perfect, using unrealistic metrics. In season three, Lorelai overhears Rory tell her friend Paris that she didn’t have sex with either of her high school boyfriends. Lorelai whispers, “I’ve got the good kid” to herself, as if Rory is morally superior to Paris, who just confessed to Rory that she had sex for the first time.
With limited exposure to people who question her innocence and precociousness, Rory believes that she is uniquely moral, more intelligent and gifted than her peers. Rory’s self image is threatened when she begins university and is forced to confront her privilege amongst less forgiving people and their criticism.
Rory’s editor and boss at the Yale Daily News, Doyle, challenges Rory’s journalistic aspirations when he calls her first submission mediocre. Rory then offers him a scathing review of a ballet that she and Lorelai agreed was third-rate, and Doyle loves the article. Rory embellishes her opinion by describing the ballerina’s “back fat,” and yet is surprised that the ballerina confronts her and calls her a “jerk.”
Rory’s criticisms are harsh and unprofessional, yet I understand what compels Rory to be so uncharacteristically brutal. She makes a mistake that young people are susceptible to when breaking into the arena that is today’s job market: she compromises her integrity.
In the following season, Rory receives a more crushing blow to her professional aspirations. Her boss — and boyfriend’s father — Mitchum Huntzberger is the biggest name in the journalism industry. He tells Rory that she doesn’t have it to succeed in the industry, but that she “would make a great assistant.” Rory’s confidence in her future as an international correspondent is shaken. She copes by committing ‘grand theft-yacht,’ spending a night in jail, dropping out of Yale, and forgoing contact with her mom for months. It’s at this point in the series that many viewers can no longer forgive Rory’s actions.
I can’t explain Rory’s resolve to steal a yacht, but I do understand why she drops out of Yale. She spends her formative years believing everything is within her reach, in part because she is smart, but also because the people in her orbit never told her otherwise. When media tycoon Mitchum implies Rory might not have what it takes to succeed as a journalist, Rory’s future plans come crashing down. After dedicating her adolescence to one goal, her time at Yale suddenly seems pointless.
Rather than empathize with Rory’s decision to reassess her professional plans, Lorelai ostracizes her daughter. Lorelai fails Rory — yet I find that viewers are more critical of Rory than of Lorelai. Gilmore Girls sets out in the first few seasons to convince us that Rory is ‘perfect.’ On the other hand, when we meet Lorelai we learn she has a complicated past as a teenage mother with an imperfect relationship with her parents. Viewers forgive her mistakes because they don’t expect her to be perfect.
Gilmore Girls is the perfect back-to-school show, not just because of the fabulous fall wardrobe and spotlight on Thanksgiving, but because the show also highlights how easily academic achievement and high self-expectations can become intertwined with self-image.
The new academic year welcomes renewed resolve to spend hours at the library, go to campus activities, become acquainted with professors, and make more friends, but sometimes we fall short of our personal goals. When students expect too much from themselves, failure becomes inevitable. If for once in Rory’s youth she had accepted criticism without making it her mission to prove that critique wrong, she would have avoided her months-long spiral — and Gilmore Girls viewers wouldn’t have been so disappointed in Rory.