Nobody was more excited than me by the news of a Gilmore Girls revival. When I heard that Warner Bros. and Netflix were planning four fresh 90-minute episodes of the mother-daughter dramedy, I immediately started a mental shopping list of all the things I would need to buy – pizza, Pop Tarts, Twizzlers – in order to binge-watch the new episodes in true Stars Hollow style.
For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s an altogether darling series that brims with wit and charm without anything ever really happening, which is exactly why I love to re-watch it. But you can’t watch a TV show over and over again without picking up on a couple of its flaws, much as you might prefer not to see them. In the case of Gilmore Girls, the hamartia I didn’t want to find was a troubling and weirdly homophobic one, layered over with pithy dialogue, pop culture nods, and the small town charm that made the show’s seven seasons such a success.
Luke calls Kirk’s pink dog carrier a ‘gay bag’. Max says he’d cross the street to avoid being seen with cross-dressers. Even Lorelai quips that same sex couples look funny when they kiss. The jokes, though jarring, are made more sinister still by their total lack of rebuttal or refutation: as more and more fans have pointed out recently, not a single gay character appears in the 153-episode Gilmore Girls canon.
The omission seems out of sync for a show often praised for being socially progressive. Themes regularly and smartly observed in the series include notions of family, class, age, sex, and religion. For each discourse, there is a character who challenges it, who tests its limits and who pushes for change. Lorelai and class, Lane and religion, Logan and familial obligation. And so on. Frank discussions about sexuality would have been congruous within the show’s largely progressive social dialogue.
We’ve come a long way, and perhaps no show is better suited to demonstrate that progress than Gilmore Girls.
When asked about this omission at the ATX Television Festival in Austin in June this year, Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino told the Huffington Post: ‘Things were different back then… It changed so quickly. By the time [Gilmore Girls] had been on a year or two, that shit was starting to drop right and left… You know, today everyone would be gay…’
Sherman-Palladino went on to reveal that Melissa McCarthy’s character Sookie was originally written as a lesbian, but the network wouldn’t go for it, and the character was rewritten as heterosexual. We have to remember that this was back in 2000, when gay television characters were not yet common. Willow and Tara weren’t allowed to kiss on Buffy yet, and shows like Glee and Modern Family were still almost a decade away from airing. But as Sherman-Palladino says, ‘By the time [Gilmore Girls] had been on a year or two, that shit was starting to drop right and left.’ So what about the later seasons of Gilmore Girls? Why did the show’s exclusion of non-heteronormative sexuality outlast broader social progress?
In response, Sherman-Palladino insists the gay characters were there, it was just never talked about. ‘We had characters [on the show] that we thought of as gay,’ she told the Huffington Post. ‘And we just thought of them as characters.’
She raises a sensitive topic. In order for LGBTIQ characters to be identified on screen, their sexual orientation often needs to be made explicit. On the other hand, it’s no use writing a character into a narrative if their sexual orientation is their only defining characteristic. When this happens, gay characters tend to be portrayed in film and television like Greek comedy and tragedy masks; either their sexuality is a device that gets used as comic relief or they become tragic figures to be sympathised and saved. Gay characters shouldn’t be gay characters. They should be characters who happen to be gay.
I’m a middle-class, able-bodied white man who was raised in a majority religion. It’s not very often that I feel marginalised or under-represented, but when it comes to LGBTIQ characters in film and television, I guess I do. There’s still a gap when it comes to diversity on screen, and gay people are just one part of what’s missing.
It’s getting better, though. Slowly. We’ve come a long way, and perhaps no show is better suited to demonstrate that progress than Gilmore Girls. When they air, the new episodes will be set in the present day, in an America where same-sex marriage has been legalised under constitutional law. They’ll screen to an audience of fans who are more progressive and more hyper-aware of homophobia than they were eight years ago. Something in the Gilmore Girls formula will need to change.
Personally, I live in hope that the revival episodes will include at least one character who just so happens to be openly gay. They don’t need to march in a pride parade or get tested for HIV or have a coming out party. They’ll just be there, in the background, eating at Luke’s with their partner or checking into a room at the Dragonfly Inn, like anyone else. Like you. Like me.