Gilmore Girls and Small-Town Life

Thanks to Emily Lloyd-Jones, I have come into the fold of Gilmore Girls, admittedly late. (Tardy to the party, but always in style: That’s me.) The show, for those not familiar, revolves around the lives of a mother-daughter pair who enjoy a singular bond. It’s about familial relationships, small-town America, the way we relate to each other, and the world we live in — and it also has amazingly snappy, sharp dialogue, which is why it’s beloved to so many fans (and why Emily thought I might enjoy it, because she loves and knows I love dialogue that sings).

Stars Hollow, the small town mom Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) call home, is like a character in and of itself. While the town’s population is never explicitly stated, it’s obviously intended to be tiny. It has a little town square surrounded by quaint shops and stores — a tiny grocery, Luke’s diner (an important setting), a church where officiants of several denominations are forced to split time amongst each other. It’s a little Connecticut town and it’s meant to be a slice of small-town America, seeming at times like a parody of itself.

My relationship to Stars Hollow is complicated. At times I feel like it’s over-simplifying small town life and turning it into this cutesy, idealised version of what life is actually like in rural and small communities. Nothing truly bad ever seems to happen in Stars Hollow, the town hosts an endless series of bizarre festivals and events in a kind of running gag, and the characters themselves are also caricatures.

But the thing is, Stars Hollow also feels so much like home that it’s painful sometimes. I don’t want to name names for fear of being assaulted in Harvest Market by angry locals, but we definitely have our own Patty in Fort Bragg. We have a Taylor, and we have a Kirk, and we have a Luke. They’re complicated, real, actual people, not just caricatures, but they do exist — and while people just like them are found in cities, too, the close, interconnected nature of small-town life makes them more acutely real for us. Because everyone knows them, and everyone knows how to predict their behaviours, and everyone knows how to deal with them.

That might be why so many of us from small towns get kind of a kick out of Gilmore Girls, because we catch such solid glimpses of our communities in it that it’s honestly almost painful, like someone nailed it right on the head. And not just in the way Hollywood does of drawing upon mythology and folklore about small towns — people on the writing staff obviously and clearly knew how to write small-town life, and how to do it well. In a way that would make those of us with lived experience laugh and connect with the show, and in a way that wouldn’t alienate viewers from urban areas.

Stars Hollow isn’t a real place, and there’s no Stars Hollow equivalent out there for you to find. There’s no perfect small town with a manicured town green and a cutesy diner and a sweet mother-daughter couple who defy conventional narratives about parenting and familial relationships. But some of the things you see on Gilmore Girls are totally true. I’m used to seeing small towns and rural communities mocked or used as vague background settings for television, not made into respected characters in their own right, and I feel like Stars Hollow is actually accorded some seriousness as part of the story, much like Jericho the town becomes an important part of the narrative in Jericho. 

The world of Gilmore Girls is layered and complex and there’s much to analyse in the show, but it intrigues me that the creative team made the decision to actually, it seems, think about small-town life. This isn’t just a vision created by someone who’s bounced from New York to Hollywood and thinks she knows what it’s like, although of course Stars Hollow draws upon many, many familiar Mayberrian tropes. It’s a sweet little town filled with sweet little people and sweet little petty crimes, but at the same time, out there in real small towns, we have ridiculous town meetings where people argue about minutia that people outside the town would totally laugh at. We totally have pitched and heated fights not just for City Council seats, but for other positions in local government. We wring our hands over seasonal events and have silly festivals and crown various young women as queens for a day, forcing them to ride on floats bedecked with miles of tacky bunting.

Like, that’s small-town USA for you. That’s not the only stuff that goes on in small towns — the abuse, the silence, the furtiveness that goes on where you can’t see it, paired with the advice to turn your head if it’s forced into view — but it is there, and Gilmore Girls takes it on in a way that’s surprisingly both funny and respectful. Small-towns aren’t being mocked here so much as small people, as those puffed up on power, and the town is about the personalities that live in and how they interact with each other, not a parade of small-town buffoons and how ridiculous they are.

Living in a world where people think that those of us who come from small communities are small-minded, tooGilmore Girls is a refreshing encounter, because I’m tired of seeing Hollywood reinforce those tropes.

Image: The house from the Gilmore Girls, Janet Lindenmuth, Flickr