From a certain perspective, Gilmore Girls is a story about how Rory ruined Paris Geller’s life. Paris, a snobby, judgmental, and often cruel student at Chilton, the preppy high school Rory joins at the beginning of the show, enters the show as her antagonist. Paris thinks she’s going to get the best PSAT scores; Rory scores higher. Paris wants to be the valedictorian; Rory gets that. Paris wants to go to Harvard; only Rory gets in.
After she hears back about her application, Paris self-destructs while giving a speech alongside Rory at the school. It’s a classic Paris meltdown, of the kind Liza Weil would master during her seven seasons on the show. The scene starts with outrage. “Who in the world deserves to go to Harvard more than me?” Paris demands. Next, it swivels into humor. “I had sex, but I’m not going to Harvard,” she complains. After the speech, it collapses into pathos. “They must really not like me for me not to get in,” Paris tells Rory as she tries to recover from the shock. “It’s like they know me or something.”
In the grand scope of things, this is a minor loss for Paris. She was born into a wealthy family. She has a trust fund. And thanks to the narrative safety net of the Gilmore universe, she eventually gets into Yale right alongside Rory (the timeline’s a bit blurred, this is a WB show after all). But if Paris’s frustrations are small, they’re all the more poignant, because she cares so much. And because of that, she’s always disappointed — in you, the universe, and herself.
In most of her appearances, Paris injects some sorely needed conflict into the Gilmore universe, which would otherwise float along on pop-culture references and “la la las.” Rory’s and Lorelai’s lives are whimsical. Paris’s is epic: She becomes the editor-in-chief of the Yale Daily News and runs it into the ground, she hooks up with a professor, she even has sex before Rory (while talking about Marxism, of course). Rory and Lorelai are homebodies who spend their time figuring out what they really want in life. Paris knows exactly what she wants.
Despite the fact that Paris’s ambition frequently puts her at odds with Rory, Gilmore Girls deserves credit for not villainizing her or that ambition. Paris, the show realizes, can be both Rory’s rival and her friend. In the college seasons, Paris becomes Rory’s champion in the face of drama with her boyfriends, especially Logan. And where Rory can come off as complacent and entitled, Paris provides discipline and cutting honesty.
Paris softens over the course of the show, as tends to happen with pretty much any TV character, but her essential drive never disappears. Yes, her best moments are her disappointments — the rant about not getting into Harvard, her rise and fall as editor of the YDN — but not, as might seem like the case, because it feels good to see her humbled. It’s because when she plays Paris, Liza Weil can’t help but be funny. She emphasizes the end of sentences like she’s deploying weaponry. Any Paris breakdown is, in essence, hilarious to watch. But it can also be sad, drawing out your sympathy unexpectedly. Weil, like Lauren Graham, figured out that the best way to add pathos to a Gilmore scene is to let more than a millisecond slip between line deliveries.
Ultimately, Paris tends to emerge from her challenges even stronger. She is rarely humbled, or humble. Given her many talents and accomplishments, she has no real reason to be. Humility, after all, is an awfully gendered trait. In the run-up to the election, a few sites compared Paris’s beleaguered run* for class president to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. So many ambitious women in popular culture feel based on Clinton herself (see Reese Witherspoon’s devious character in Election, or Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope). So many of those characters have to learn to temper their ambition in some way, lest they feel like villains. With Paris, the emphasis is different — it’s not on her defeats, but on her rage in the face of those defeats. With Paris, Gilmore Girls insisted that ambitious women are compelling in their very ambition.
The emotion Paris tends to express most often — disappointment — might seem like humility, but it’s actually a side effect of her ambition, something than stems from a real desire for the world to be better than it is. Or, in Paris’s case, for yourself to be better than you are. Her primary goal in life, after all, is to be able to read an in-depth biography about herself and not be disappointed. To Paris, composure is overrated. Graciousness will just keep her down. In the face of the disappointments of the world, it takes real power, and even idealism, to get angry and stay angry, and to feel disappointment constantly and not give in to defeat. If you don’t agree with that, then you can just go tie your tubes, idiot!
*A previous version of this article said that Paris lost her election bid. She won, but, of course, remained angry.