thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Downside of Being Good: Paris, Rory and “Gilmore Girls”

In feminism, gender, girl culture, teen soaps, TV, YA on September 25, 2014 at 11:24 am

Sarah Todd

Paris Geller scares people. It’s a beautiful thing. As a teen prep-school Napoleon taking the quirky citizens of Gilmore Girls by storm, she intimidates parents, students and teachers alike. At a debate meet, she engages in psychological warfare to freak out the competition. Her silent scowl is enough to persuade her opponent to change his call in a coin toss before the silver lands. She throws a literary bad boy off his game by dismissing the Beats as self-indulgent jerks. She makes her guidance counselor cry. When a suitor goes Casper on her after he heads off to Princeton, do you suppose that Paris weeps? Does she create a complex flowchart to determine whether some stray remark or unflattering hairstyle has driven him away? She most certainly does not. She simply jots his name down in her revenge notebook.

As a girl too focused on achieving world domination to stop and worry about what other people think of her, Paris is an honors graduate of the Amy Poehler “I don’t care if you like it” school of thought. It is this quality that makes her the perfect foil for her classmate Rory Gilmore, who appears–at least outwardly–to be the ultimate good girl.

While Rory is undeniably charming, I’ve long been annoyed by the way Gilmore Girls insists on having other characters go out of their way to tell her so. Teenage boys fall for her on sight, from a high school Don Juan (Tristan) to the aforementioned literary bad boy (Jess) to a sweet-and-steady jock (Dean). Rory almost always has at least two boyfriends, one current and one would-be, and it’s a safe bet that they’ll resort to fisticuffs over her at one dance-a-thon or another.

Not only does Rory invariably set hearts fluttering, she also wins steady praise for her intelligence. A teacher commends her for honing a school newspaper article about a repaved parking into “a bittersweet piece on how everybody and everything eventually becomes obsolete.” And the reading! Characters are constantly tripping over themselves to remark upon her book intake. (“Aren’t we hooked on Phonics,” a suitor observes upon entering her room for the first time—a hilarious line, since the only books visible in that particular shot are on two small, perfectly standard shelves above her desk.)

Rory’s mother Lorelai is particularly invested in the Rory-is-magic narrative, as Anne K. Burke Erickson notes in her essay on the show. Having gotten pregnant with Rory at age 16, Lorelai desperately needs to believe that Rory is a younger version of herself who can have the future she never did. As a result she’s constantly praising Rory for virtues large and small. “Rory’s never late,” she notes. “She’s almost annoyingly on-time.”

It’s a lot to handle.

All in all, Rory is commended for her perfection by just about everyone. Sure, she’s shy and a little bit of a spaz when she’s nervous, but she’s still poised enough for her wealthy grandmother to show her off to the Chanel-suit crowd. Her studious nature makes her the apple of her sweater-vest-donning grandfather’s eye. She’s also modest and witty–qualities that endear her to the lovable weirdos of small-town Stars Hollow, where everyone is more or less a Muppet come to life. Whatever their personal differences, the show’s characters can all pretty much agree on Rory’s infallibility.

Even the hard-nosed Paris comes to love Rory, despite initially regarding her as a major academic and occasional romantic threat. She sums up Rory’s seemingly effortless popularity as she begs her to be her student council running mate so they can pull in the necessary votes. “People think you’re nice,” Paris explains. “You’re quiet, you say excuse me, you look like little birds help you get dressed in the morning. People don’t fear you.”

“Hey,” Rory says. “I haven’t been dressed by a bird since I was two.”

Rory’s joking, but her reply is nonetheless revealing. Since she’s making cracks about the birds, she seems to otherwise acquiesce to the Snow White image that Paris describes. She has no idea that being saddled with it is a total trap.

Of course, being a good girl seems great on the surface. Rory excels in every category in which young women are told they should, and then some. But nobody resents her for it, since her bashfulness, innocence and fundamental niceness serve to make her accomplishments nonthreatening and her occasional missteps quickly forgotten.

By contrast, Paris’s ambition to become the first-ever combination surgeon-judge in the history of the United States has no tempering sweetener. She offends and frightens people almost as quickly as Rory attracts them, and often watches people choose Rory over her.

The Goofus and Gallant dynamic between the two girls begins in prep school. Paris has a crush on Chad Michael Murray in the days before the blond hunk headed for some hill with a tree on it. But of course he only has eyes for the brunette with the face straight out of a Victorian portrait. In another episode, Paris works hard to secure an invitation to join their high school’s secret sorority, the Puffs; Rory stumbles into the sorority’s good graces by accidentally sitting with them at lunch. “How nice it must be to be you,” Paris observes tartly during the Puffs debacle. “Maybe someday I’ll stumble into a Disney movie and suddenly be transported into your body, and after living there awhile I’ll finally realize the beauty of myself.”

The pattern continues as the girls grow older. In one of my favorite moments of the series, Paris demands that Rory hide in the closet when her date arrives to pick her up. “If he comes in here and sees you, he won’t want to date me anymore,” Paris reasons–actually a logical theory in the world of the show. Paris is rejected by her dream college, Harvard; Rory gets in. Then they both wind up at Yale, where Paris’s abrasive managerial style eventually gets her ousted as editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News. Naturally the newsroom picks Rory to take her place. The moral is clear: good girls always win.

But that’s not actually true, even within Gilmore Girls’ golden-filtered interpretation of reality. While the show largely seems to shy away from putting Rory in situations where she will face rejection or reprobation, there are a few major exceptions. She sleeps with an ex who also happens to be a married man at the end of her freshman year of college, much to the horror of her mom. Later, a respected newspaperman–her current boyfriend’s father–tells her she won’t be able to hack it as a reporter. With her confidence in her ability to succeed in her dream career duly shaken, Rory takes a leave of absence from Yale and flounders in her grandparents’ guesthouse.

In these plotlines, Rory makes choices that are not “good” in the way that she’s supposed to be. Her failure to live up to the sky-high expectations that everyone has for her has long-lasting repercussions for her own self-image and her relationship with her mother, Lorelai; the two stop speaking after Rory drops out.

These plotlines reveal the damaging effect of the good girl label. Rory generally operates in what Adelle Waldman calls a closed-feedback loop, in which her family, friends, teachers, fellow students and random townspeople affirm her goodness on a daily basis.  Nothing in Rory’s life has prepared her for recrimination, so of course it’s devastating when she has to face it.

And that’s exactly how the good girl trap works. Patriarchal, capitalist cultures reward girls for being sweet, self-deprecating and selfless because these qualities seem to make them less likely to challenge the status quo. Meanwhile, the rewards themselves teach girls to base their sense of self-worth on outside affirmation. When they fail maintain the impossible standards they’re supposed to live up to, good girls spiral into self-doubt. In The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons describes one such instance: “Her self-esteem perilously balanced on her excellence, she could only interpret failure as catastrophic … Her unreasonable expectations kept her shackled to failure, preventing her from shaking off a mistake and moving forward quickly.”

This is one way to limit the range of possibilities women can imagine for themselves. It’s how Rory, operating within a white, well-off milieu, winds up emulating her grandmother when she loses sight of her own goals, wearing tiny suits and joining the Daughters of the American Revolution.

Paris leads a life that’s just as privileged as Rory’s, if not more so. Women of a different race or class would likely face far more retaliation for the brand of blunt bitterness she serves. That said, Paris is certainly accustomed to being rebuffed, and this has made her tougher. Paris would never drop out of school just because some guy told her she wasn’t cut out for her chosen field. She knows that just because someone tells you a mean thing about yourself doesn’t make it true. She does as she pleases, whether that means dating a much-older college professor or experiencing a sudden conversion to Marxism.

The point here isn’t that Paris is better than Rory, or that we should all follow Paris’s lead and start snapping at people for such offenses as chewing gum or asking if it’s raining outside. (Though I would love to dismiss a sleazy guy with the sentence “You offer nothing to women or the world in general” just once before I die.) Having read Melissa’s essay on the dangers of pushing people into narrowly-defined identities and Phoebe’s piece on the political benefits of considering different characters’ perspectives, I think it’s important to emphasize that both Paris and Rory are only human. The difference is that the Gilmore Girls narrative often leaves Rory with little space for flaws. That’s why she has to excommunicate herself from her own life–cutting ties with Lorelai, dropping out of school–whenever she finds that she has them.

Paris’s character, on the other hand, creates space within Gilmore Girls for viewers to imagine a world in which they might be found off-putting more often than not and value themselves anyway. Given that our culture teaches women to consider others’ opinions above their own while they’re still in the cradle, that’s pretty revolutionary stuff.

“I want to live my life so that I’ll be able to read an in-depth biography about myself in later years and not want to puke,” Paris tells Rory at one point. It’s the kind of declaration that Rory would never make: presuming her own importance, placing her esteem for herself (and her gag reflexes) ahead of other people’s. Which is exactly why Rory needs Paris in her life so badly–and why I have to admit that I need her too.

Related links:

Being Brunette: PLL and the Dangers of Policing Identity

Feminist Fabulists: Telling Stories, Changing Perspectives and Pretty Little Liars

Beyond Dumb Blondes and Smart Brunettes

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  1. YES!!!!!

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