Netflix's Gilmore Girls revival’s attempt to be LGBTQ-friendly failed.

Why the Gilmore Girls Revival’s Attempt to Be LGBTQ-Friendly Was So Disingenuous

Why the Gilmore Girls Revival’s Attempt to Be LGBTQ-Friendly Was So Disingenuous

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Slate's Culture Blog
Dec. 16 2016 8:13 AM

Why the Gilmore Girls Revival’s Attempt to Be LGBTQ-Friendly Was So Disingenuous

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A cautionary tale for buzzy revivals waiting in the wings.

Patrick Ecclesine/Getty Images

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life presented the opportunity that creator Amy Sherman-Palladino had long been waiting for: to end the saga of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore (Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel) on her own terms. Having been pushed out of her original series a season before it concluded, she could finally unveil those final four words, and replace Gilmore Girls perfectly fine ending with the one that she had planned but never got to use. For any diehard fan, this was what Netflix’s revival series was all about—it was what we’d all been waiting for.

Over the course of A Year in the Life’s four 90-minute episodes, however, a different (attempted) fix revealed itself.

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In its initial incarnation, Gilmore Girls wasn’t exactly gay-friendly. The demands of broadcast TV at least helped to explain why: Sherman-Palladino had originally conceived cast regular Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) as a lesbian, for instance, but the idea was rejected by executives at the (now-defunct) WB network as too radical. That said, commercial concerns weren’t solely to blame. Like many shows of just a decade ago, Gilmore Girls was less anti-gay than culturally complacent: the casually homophobic joking, the total absence of explicitly queer characters from beginning to end. Nonetheless, Sherman-Palladino began speaking out on the issue in the years preceding the revival. It was all but a given that A Year in the Life would confront it.

A Year in the Life does so by revealing Michel (Yanic Truesdale), long Gilmore Girls most sexually ambiguous character, as gay, married, and preparing for the possibility of parenthood. He’s effectively—and pointedly—outed, with Sherman-Palladino indicating a new queer reading of the character before we’re given a chance to refamiliarize ourselves with him. For better or worse, not much happens after that. Michel’s husband is never introduced, nor is any glimpse of his domestic life; reminders of his romantic struggles are consistent, but they never extend beyond background noise. Instead, the more extensive treatment of Gilmore Girls’ relationship to gayness comes in the form of a long, awkward, go-nowhere Stars Hollow town meeting in “Spring,” or Episode 2. The gist of it: There’s not a single LGBTQ person in the town to march in its first-ever pride parade aside from Donald (Sam Pancake), a new character who never appeared in the series’ original run. (Michel, for his part, is not attendance, as he’s not one to show community spirit of any kind.)

The way A Year in the Life handles Michel suggests a desire to naturally integrate gay characters and life into its milieu, while the clunky town meeting furthers the Gilmore Girls tradition of awkwardly skirting the issue—the only difference being that it does so knowingly. The problem here is that the plot points exist in isolation. Michel’s domestic troubles are secondary to his more poignant arc involving a job change, and the Stars Hollow pride parade is never referenced again beyond that one very meta conversation. Accordingly, the gay elements of A Year in a Life exist in a vacuum.

Gilmore Girls obviously did not need to return with a multifaceted exploration of single-sex domestic living or an extended storyline about the town trying to put together a pride parade. Indeed, its previous blindness in terms of fatphobia, privilege, and overwhelming whiteness continue into the revival without correction or qualification. The difference in this case is the way Sherman-Palladino pointedly winks to her audience about the show’s initial dismissal of LGBTQ life. Her intention of addressing the issue and making improvements couldn’t be clearer—and on that score, she implicitly asks to be given a chance. But there’s a fatal flaw to the strategy, and it’s common among progressive-thinking writers who can’t help but view queer people and ideas as more of a separate element—a story component, really—than a natural part of life.

A Year in the Life operates on the assumption that a character reveal or an elongated, self-deprecating inside joke is a sufficient concession. Although they continue to exist in a dreamlike bubble of small-town shenanigans, the residents of Stars Hollow prove to be at least coyly familiar with recent cultural shifts. Someone can be openly gay; a pride parade can be overdue—yet in this fantasy, everything but the seasons should still be able to stay the same. It’s intrinsic to the Gilmore Girls charm. But it’s also open-mindedness at its most disingenuous, placing the burden of expectations back on the non- or barely represented viewers who receive recognition via a few lines of dialogue, written with an air of regret but without the commitment or sincerity to match it. Embedded in this tactic is an innocent but damning sentiment, one that’s quite familiar to the gay fan: At least it’s something—just be happy you’re getting something.

It’s never justified, but this phenomenon of suggestive tokenism rarely takes place so explicitly. It’s reasonable to argue that A Year in the Life was, in the context of its approach to LGBTQ issues, doomed by expectations. Sherman-Palladino’s cryptic hinting that multiple characters had always been “thought of as gay,” for example, inevitably fed into fan theories about the Netflix-produced revival. The prospect of LGBTQ integration was reduced to trivial speculation: Which characters could be gay? Michel? Taylor? A Year in the Life engaged with that speculation, and in neglecting to engage with gayness on a relatively serious level to compensate, its efforts at improved representation ended up feeling deeply dismissive. The stilted evolution of Gilmore Girls might be best viewed as a cautionary tale, in that sense, for buzzy revivals waiting in the wings: You can’t convincingly fix a problem without convincingly admitting that there was a problem to begin with.