Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Single Mothers Are People Not Statistics (Gilmore Girls)

Gilmore Girls has been off the air for a couple years now, and this seems like the perfect juncture to go back and look at it. And you know what? It totally holds up.

The oft hilarious, occasionally heart-wrenching story of Lorelai Gilmore and her daughter Lorelai Gilmore was a great look into an area most shows don’t dare tread even now. Single motherhood. While Lorelai was involved in several long-term relationships through the years, including one with Rory’s biological father, fundamentally, she raised her daughter on her own. And for some reason, we don’t tend to talk about how cool that is.

Let me put this in perspective. I’m not saying that single motherhood is unabashedly awesome, that Lorelai is a saint for doing this, or any of those things. What I’m saying is that given her situation and temperament, she made some really impressive decisions and then followed through on them. And that takes guts.

Here’s the sitch: when she was sixteen, Lorelai was stupid and did what stupid teenagers often do. She had unprotected sex with her then-boyfriend Chris. She got pregnant. Her parents, New England blue bloods who had her future planned out, immediately freaked and insisted she give the child up for adoption. Lorelai refused. So her parents changed their tune and decided that she should marry Chris and they would raise the child together. Lorelai refused that too.

So her parents were left with the last option. Let Lorelai raise her child, but have her do it under their roof and supervision. I have to say, this doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. The Gilmores had the money to pay for another kid, and they do care about Rory. They weren’t sure that having Lorelai, at seventeen, up and take care of a kid was a great idea. Which is fair.

But Lorelai disagreed. She didn’t want her daughter growing up in the same stifling, expectation-filled mansion that she’d known. She knew it would keep her daughter physically safe, but emotionally vulnerable. So she left. She got on the first buss she could find and ended up in a town called Stars Hollow.

Now, again, you have to remember that Lorelai was a teenager when she did all of this. No, these probably aren’t great choices. But she made them, and instead of backing down when things got hard, Lorelai thrived.

She got a job—her first—and convinced her boss to give her a home too. She worked her way up the ladder from housekeeper to manager at a gorgeous inn. She bought a house. She raised her daughter. And she did it all on her own terms.

I hesitate to say that she did it alone, because the friends that she made had a huge impact on her life and Rory’s upbringing. But Lorelai was a single mother, there’s no question of that. She raised her daughter as the primary authority, the breadwinner, and the caregiver.

That’s a lot. Especially when you start at seventeen.

But why should we care? I mean, lots of shows have single mothers on them these days. This isn’t Murphy Brown; you’ve practically got MTV shoving teen motherhood shows down your throat now.

We care because of the way the show handled Lorelai’s motherhood. You see, contrary to a lot of other shows that feature or include single mothers, Lorelai is never judged or censured by the story. Her choices were held up as her choices. Not bad, not good, just hers. And that’s pretty awesome.

Instead of being treated to a show that tells us that single motherhood is unanimously awful, or one where it’s fine and dandy and no one should ever worry, we got a show where single motherhood was hard, but doable. Sometimes it was the best choice. Sometimes it wasn’t.

And far from Murphy Brown’s idyllic world of planned pregnancy and economic freedom, we know that Lorelai and Rory lived for the first few years of Rory’s life in a potting shed. That Lorelai scrimped and saved to get her kid the best of everything, and in return created mildly unreasonably expectations in her child. She put a lot of pressure on Rory, and Rory sometimes responded and sometimes cracked under it. Lorelai’s not a saint. But she is a mother.

More than all of this, though, is the fact that the show never insisted that Lorelai had to get married. There wasn’t a covert agenda on the show where Lorelai needed a happy ending with a guy. In a way, Lorelai already had her happy ending in season four. She bought her dream inn, ran it the way she wanted to, and in season five it was going really well. Her kid was in Yale, making top marks, and she got everything she wanted in life. Anything else, like a romance, was icing.

Personally, I think that’s a great message for a show like this.

Most shows that deal with single motherhood coo over how nice it is that the mother is working to support her child, but then turn the instant an eligible male shows up and insist that their heroine marry. “The child needs a father,” is their rallying cry. It’s alarming how many of these storylines there are, even on shows as progressive as Ugly Betty, for crying out loud.

So imagine how refreshing it is to see a show where, no, nothing’s perfect, but the mother isn’t being pressured into a relationship. She doesn’t need a co-parent. If she wants one, that’s great. But the kid is mostly raised and raised well. She doesn’t have to have a knight saving her.

Single motherhood is a tricky subject in shows, because every situation is different. In Lorelai’s it’s actually hard to say definitively that she made the right choice. She made the choices that she thought were right, and her kid still went off the rails eventually. But her kid did then get back up and make it better. So who knows?

What I do know is that Gilmore Girls gave us something more important than a vision of perfect motherhood. It gave us a single mother who fully owned her choices. Who made commitments and stuck to them even when life was really hard, and who never balked from the intense task of raising a child on her own. The show gave us a real person and never told us if she was good or bad. It let us decide on our own.

And I think most of us decided she was pretty awesome.

Raise your hand if you didn't wish she was your best friend. Liar.


  1. Great post, and very interesting topic! But since you mention Ugly Betty, I would almost argue that Zelda's "happy ending" is similar to Lorelai's in that it comes before the big romance. Yes, she is always looking for a man, but that's because she's a charming, social, passionate lady who wants to be with someone. She always puts her son/family first and has done just fine with him, but she wants - not needs - a partner as well. Just another solid depiction of a single mother who has support (though not to the tune of millions of dollars, like the Gilmores) but isn't dependent.

    1. I like Ugly Betty for the way that it portrayed a lower income family in a loving and funny way. Their income level never defined them, it just added color to the relationships. As for Hilda, though, I appreciated the way that she was able to raise Justin, and her insistence that anyone she be with accept him. That was great. I just felt that she show put too much emphasis on the idea of her finding a co-parent, when she seemed to be doing fine on her own. I don't begrudge her desire to find someone, or her eventual happiness, I just wish the show had toned it down a little.

  2. Lorelei is definitely one of my favorite fictional mothers. I even use her as a barometer for cinematic mothers. On a scale of that woman from The Crimson Horror (DW S7) to Lorelei Gilmore....

    You said that Lor put pressure/expectations on Rory though. What moments from the show were you talking about with that?

    1. Just in general. I mean, it's not always a bad thing, but Lorelai always made it clear that she expected great things of Rory. Rory was bright and charming and lovely, and Lorelai always made it clear that she expected Rory to go to an Ivy League college and do something amazing with her life. Not that this is a bad thing or unreasonable or that Lorelai wouldn't have loved her if she didn't, just that as we see in seasons five and six, Rory felt the weight of this expectation and pressure.

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