How Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life Is Just Like Little Women

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L-R: Winona Ryder in Little Women; Alexis Bledel in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Photo: Columbia Pictures, Netflix

Spoilers ahead for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life.

The Gilmore Girls revival episodes open with a black screen and echoey, nostalgia-pinging audio clips from the original series, jumping between the show’s many voices. Lorelai begs Luke for coffee, Rory announces she’s been kissed, Emily scolds Lorelai, Sookie tells Norman Mailer she’s pregnant. There are joke lines; there are serious ones. It’s an explicit appeal to the fans who remember each of these moments. It’s a shout-out to the people who will tear up when they hear Richard Gilmore explain the insurance business. It’s an effort to bind these new episodes together with the legacy of the original series. 

If you’re an avid consumer of media with female leads, that audio montage might also sound familiar to you. In its style and effect, the opening of the Gilmore Girls revival is remarkably reminiscent of a montage from the 1994 Winona Ryder–led Little Women adaptation. In the movie, Professor Bhaer urges Jo March to write about her own life rather than derivative penny-dreadful stories about vampires and castles. She should write what she knows, he tells her. She should write from truth.

Taking those words to heart, and spurred by the grief of her sister’s death, Jo heads up to the garret (because if you’re a writer in the 19th century, you always call your attic a garret) and gets to work. She opens trunks of artifacts from their childhood. She fingers ancient fabric. She reads the stories she and her sisters made up together. And then she starts scribbling frantically, accompanied by whispered, echoey audio snippets from memorable moments in her youth (that are also scenes from earlier in the film).

If you’ve seen all four of the new Gilmore episodes, you’ll recognize why that parallel is particularly striking. Jo, accompanied by the audio montage of memories, writes the story of her family and calls it Little Women. Rory, who’s spent the whole season struggling with her career as a writer, finally sits down to do the same thing, wandering through her grandmother’s house in much the same reflective mood that Jo does. She looks into the dining room and remembers a scene from an old episode superimposed on the familiar setting. She hears audio of herself telling her grandparents how to reheat food in the kitchen. Like Jo March, Rory’s partially responding to grief. She opens the doors to her grandfather’s study and remembers him sitting there, working. And then, she sits down to write the story of her family, and calls it The Gilmore Girls.

Having Rory write a memoir narrative functions as a convenient way for Gilmore to build nostalgia into its structure. And the parallel to Little Women is notable mostly because the style is so exactly the same. The whispered reminiscences from the past form a gauzy understanding of what a writer experiences when she sits down to work. They are meant to be windows into the protagonist’s memories, while also functioning like classier versions of a sitcom clip-show episode. It’s the young woman who writes her own story, while the bigger narrative around her makes a gesture toward metafictional self-awareness. This is also one of the more aspirational endings that Gilmore Girls proposes for Rory, who’s always loved feminism and literature. (For much of the revival in particular, I wish Rory were much more like Jo March, but it’s nice of the series to create that implication.)

Of course, when you dig into that parallel a little further, it also gives Rory all of the underwhelming connotations that Jo March was hampered with in the 19th century. Both of them originally aim for different, less personal, more traditionally “masculine” types of writing. Jo wants to write about dastardly villains and Gothic plots; Rory seems to have no idea at all what she wants to be writing about, but she spends a lot of time flying to London and interviewing people who stand in lines. And in both cases, it’s a male character who suggests to them (more than a little patronizingly) that maybe they should avoid those other projects and just stick to personal writing. “You should be writing from life,” Professor Bhaer tells Jo, “from the depths of your soul … there is more to you than this.” “I know what you should write,” Jess tells Rory. “You should write about you and your mom … and it’s something only you could write.”

In both cases, it’s unfortunately mansplain-y, which feels more excusable for 19th-century Jo than it does for 21st-century Rory. From a sunnier point of view, though, it’s a redeeming arc for both of them, and it’s nice to see both characters given ownership of their lives through the act of telling their own stories. Whatever else happens in the currently imaginary Gilmore future, I’d like to hope Rory will be able to couple her inevitable romantic arc with the same career success that Winona Ryder’s Jo manages to find.