If They Can Do It, So Can We: The Joy of Watching Gilmore Girls With My Daughter

Photo: The CW

It’s hard to be the mother of a daughter, and just as hard to be the daughter of a mother — as every woman on the planet can attest. You want your daughter to be like you but not like you, and when she does (or doesn’t) meet your expectations of what an exactly-like-you-but-somehow-much-different-and-better version might be, it’s enraging. As a daughter, you want to be just like your mother and at the same time nothing like her at all, and you push fiercely against her example even as you struggle to follow it.

What has made watching Gilmore Girls the single most comforting, soothing, bonding activity I’ve undertaken with my daughter over the last year is that this mother-daughter pair, a study in contrasts – foxy, impetuous Lorelai, who accidentally got pregnant at 16, and Rory, her straight-A, straitlaced child — seem to have effortlessly worked out all the psychotherapy crap ahead of time, possibly at the moment of Rory’s conception, leaving them free to revel in each other’s company and delight in one another’s quirks (Lorelai serially ditching perfectly nice boyfriends, Rory stressing over which extracurriculars will get her into Harvard) without tension or eye-rolling. It’s a fantasy of how mothers and daughters might coexist if love always trumped expectations and disappointments and hurt. I can’t stop watching it with my own daughter, because even though we do not resemble Lorelai and Rory in either our personalities or our circumstances (starting with, as Josephine points out, the fact that her own dad lives happily with us), their love for each other is implicating. In their presence, we feel giddy and silly and free.

All I ever want to do anymore is curl up on the couch with Josephine, who is 10, and Lorelai and Rory. Wherever I am, whatever I’m doing, there’s a ticker running in my brain: In two days, in three hours, in 20 minutes, I can go home and watch Gilmores. (We’ve shortened it in my house to “Gils.”) If we go away for the weekend, we take the Gilmore Girls with us in our suitcase; Josephine recently figured out how to play Gilmores on our friends’ Xbox set. I can’t remember how or when I acquired a boxed DVD set of seasons one through three, but I hauled them out sometime last spring in an effort to find something we might watch together. Josephine put up a smidge of resistance at first, suspicious as she is of any me-initiated activity, but she caved instantly because … well, who wouldn’t?

We watch on weekends, but also on special occasions ± birthdays, anniversaries, the last day of school, the night before camp — as well as when we are feeling particularly frayed or burnt or to celebrate one of life’s little triumphs like an aced spelling quiz. Like all true addicts, we use any excuse to turn on the TV and pretend we aren’t going to binge – “Just one episode,” I say to Jo in my strict-mom voice, “Okay, Mama,” she says in her good-girl voice. Then, snuggled down and swathed in throw blankets, we watch two, often three shows at a stretch, singing “Where You Lead, I Will Follow,” the Carole King theme song, poorly on purpose and out of tune, sometimes ordering takeout in honor of the show’s two gluttonous heroines and getting sauce all over ourselves, always missing bedtime and rationalizing it because we don’t want to depart from the wacky, rebellious, and almost totally wholesome universe that is Gilmore Girls and the population of oddballs that inhabits Star’s Hollow. Somehow, while my daughter and I bask in the Gilmores’ glow, it can seem that allowing my fifth-grader to watch television at 10:30 on a school night makes me an extra-good mom.

Because, well, if Lorelai and Rory can live happily and successfully by breaking the rules that everyone takes for granted, then why can’t we? This is a mother who wakes her daughter up in the middle of the night because she can’t sleep, who thinks a couple of doughnuts makes a fine breakfast, who seems to have raised her only child on black coffee. This is a daughter who yearns for no gift more than a copy of the OED, who wears a plaid and pleated school uniform skirt without irony or rebellion, who aspires to be just like Christiane Amanpour. Together they insist that marshmallows are a food group; they share one other’s makeup and jewelry, and they live for small-time pleasures like movie nights and town-hall meetings (always accompanied with snacks). Their delightful, quippy rapport is made substantive and resonant by the underlying sense that these two love and respect each other without reservation and in spite of their great differences. “It’s a mother-daughter team taking on the world,” is how Josephine puts it. The relationship between Rory and Lorelai is best-friend-ish, like a hilarious, lifelong sleepover party, but still parental enough that Rory can count on her mother for a sage advice and a shoulder to cry on, no matter what. When, at the end of season four, Rory has sex for the first time, she does so under less than optimal circumstances — the guy is cute and he loves her, but he’s married — and Lorelai, who has had her own painful experience with youthful sex, isn’t thrilled about Rory’s choice. There’s a confrontation and a fight, and finally, a conversation, after which things between them aren’t copacetic, but they’re basically okay. I love the Gilmores because they tap into my own deepest hope for my relationship with my daughter, who is fierce, stubborn, gorgeous, confident, capable, insightful, kind, smart, and entirely herself — that even when she knows I’ll disapprove of what she’s done, she’ll talk to me and we’ll both be okay. Under the influence of the Gilmores, that seems possible, I think, to both of us.

And this is all the more remarkable — even, well, inspiring, if I can use that word — because Lorelai is, as my daughter says, “a hot mess,” which is to say not anyone’s idea of a role model or über-mommy. She loves a good martini, and even in her 30s, her taste in clothes is better suited to a Texas roadhouse than the precious Connecticut 'burb in which she lives. (On Rory’s first day at her new, elite, gargoyle-festooned prep school, Lorelai shows up wearing Daisy Dukes.) Lorelai is impulsive and ditzy, a dreamer and a flake (but, it’s clear, with a loving, generous, practical, and business-minded core). She walks her own path, having shunned not just marriage, but also any real romantic commitment as well as her high-toned family with their bottomless wealth and connections to the country club and the DAR. Lorelei has never been on a diet, never taken a yoga class or gone to a gym. Even in a PG show, she has a filthy mouth and, it’s implied, a filthier mind.  Early bedtime, math tutors, quinoa salad, soccer practice, test prep — these aspects of modern parenting have eluded Lorelai, and yet her only child is any Tiger Mom’s dream: focused, organized, ambitious, responsible, studious, and bound for the Ivy League. Lorelai might get silly-drunk at a party, but Rory (who mostly drinks soda, even when she’s old enough for the stronger stuff) will always drive her home. Lorelai gives mothers everywhere permission to stop worrying so much about their daughters. This mother, who seemingly did everything wrong, had a daughter who turned just right.

Josephine is just 10, young enough to be shocked and disappointed when oh-so-perfect Rory makes a bad choice (viz. Jess, viz. Dean Part Two, viz. a disastrous dominoes sequence of events related to Logan), but old enough to understand that people sometimes do things that aren’t good for them. Teenagers do get pregnant. Studious girls do drop out of school. Mothers and daughters fight — sometimes, as Rory and Lorelai did, for all of season six, for a long time, dug in and determined, each grieving silently over the loss of the other. For Josephine (and for me), what’s lovable about the show is its essential sunniness, its easy confidence that everything will be resolved in the end — “like real life,” she says, “but funnier.” Sure, people make mistakes, even fight, but at the end of every day, there’s always TV and takeout and a big comfy couch and the company of your mom, who’s like you but different and loves you far beyond reason. We are on season six now, and Josephine is a little worried that Lorelai might still screw things up with Luke. “It’ll be okay, honey,” I assure her, but Jo is right. In matters of the heart, Lorelai can be unreliable. But a far bigger worry looms for both of us. We have one more season left: What will we do when it’s over? Probably start with season one.