The Stars Are Hollow: On Gilmore Girls as “Normporn”
Karen Tongson Ventures to the WB Backlot for a “Gilmore Girls Holiday”
On May 15, 2007, I bid what I thought was my final farewell to Gilmore Girls (2000–2007), showrunner Amy Sherman-Palladino’s beloved network dramedy featuring a clever, fast-talking mother/daughter pair who also happen to be the very best of friends. The two mainlined coffee and junk food, wore each other’s clothes, and bantered at all hours about pop culture while living in a small Connecticut town populated by a supporting cast of delightful oddballs. As Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), the mom of the duo, jokes about Stars Hollow, the show’s fictional setting: it’s as if “the entire town was actually constructed in a giant snow globe.”
The oddball every day is what Gilmore Girls served up in generous greasy helpings throughout its seven seasons, especially at Luke’s Diner, the locus for many of Lorelai and Rory’s (Alexis Bledel) most significant moments in the make-believe burg. As Sherman-Palladino confessed during the cast’s ATX television festival reunion in 2015, the fictitious Connecticut town within striking distance of Hartford and Yale University (Rory’s eventual college) was built on a lark. The show runner was on a leaf-peeping vacation, having already sold the core concept of the mother-daughter relationship dramedy, when she decided, “I’ll put them here [in Connecticut]. This seems nice. What did I know, I came from the Valley?!?”
Because of its rabid fan base, its screwball feminism, and its unabashed representation of a family dynamic derided as “harmful” by moral majorities of the past (a single teen mother raises a child on her own, though it takes a village—the ville that is Stars Hollow—to make it okay), Gilmore Girls has always been treated as a show that isn’t quite normal, but special. Its quick repartee and proliferate references to Gen X pop culture have rendered it extraordinary in many critics’ eyes, distinguishing it from more conventional family fare on the WB and on network TV in general.
Gilmore Girls has always been treated as a show that isn’t quite normal, but special.
Over the 15-plus years since it originally aired, the show has also increasingly become a staple of normporn, to which its lead actress, Lauren Graham, is no stranger. (Graham later starred in NBC’s Parenthood as a kind of bizarro Lorelai without old-money parents, and thus, with a slightly steeper redemption arc.) Beyond Graham’s own celebrity, Stars Hollow also became a lodestar in a constellation of other bright lights in the normporn firmament, including Milo Ventimiglia, who was Jess in Gilmore Girls, and who went on to play the vaunted patriarch Jack Pearson on This Is Us, the show to end all normporn shows. Todd Lowe, who plays Lane Kim’s (Keiko Agena) bandmate-turned-husband, Zack, also turns up as Terry Bellefleur in True Blood, bringing all the skills from his stint at Luke’s Diner to Merlotte’s Bar and Grill in Bon Temps, Louisiana.
The limited series reboot on Netflix, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016), manufactured a kind of normporn metaverse in which Graham’s costars from Parenthood also appeared in cameos, including her “other daughter” Mae Whitman (who played Amber Holt), Jason Ritter (who played Mark Cyr, one of Sarah Braverman’s love interests), and her “brother,” Peter Krause (who played Adam Braverman; Krause was Graham’s real-life partner for nearly a decade before they quietly split in 2022). Alexis Bledel’s subsequent prestige TV roles, from Mad Men to her Emmy-winning turn in The Handmaid’s Tale, provide a decidedly less normy trajectory for the woman who grew up in front of us as “Rory.” But we’ll get back to that later.
I tuned into Gilmore Girls in the early aughts when I started working on my first book about queer suburbia, Relocations (2011). I was inspired to imagine then how a small-town ethos like Stars Hollow’s was taken up by suburban artists and planners as an analogue for their own eccentric encounters with nonurban types in peripheral places. In my mind, the “quirkiness” of Gilmore Girls and Stars Hollow modeled how some nonurbanites created an aura of specialness to banal daily experiences otherwise bereft of the “contact” and aesthetic frisson of random run-ins in urban settings. Lorelai and Rory’s flânerie in Stars Hollow created its own cosmopolitan effect befitting the girls’ more expansive worldviews, providing a kind of foil for their encyclopedic knowledge of “the culture” at large.
Despite Gilmore Girls’ shrewd resistance to certain hallmarks of normalcy—Lorelai is famously averse to marriage, while the series overall provides an outsider perspective on small-town Americana—the show has also come to function as televisual “comfort food” for the postmillennial precariat. From its original network run to its syndication on ABC Family to its streaming afterlife on Netflix, which has made the show a touchstone for Gen Z, watching all of Gilmore Girls has become a ritual that some viewers undertake on an annual (or more frequent) basis. As Dominic Pettman writes: “We feel bad for knowing how reactionary this visceral warmth is, and how artificially it is produced in us, and how many real people suffer in order to sustain such a vision on our screens. And yet this only adds to the micro-jouissance which comes with a glass of wine and clicking “play next episode.”Taylor’s craven marketing efforts make apparent just how much Gilmore Girls’ small-town Americana is nothing but a fantasy.
Indeed, we might read the Gilmore Girls, as well as its popularity, as a particularly visible symptom of the terrorist attacks on American soil: a withdrawal into a fantasyland of hermetic companionship, familiar travails, and contained consequences, all inside a cozy public sphere.
If True Blood provided a delirious, if somewhat cynical goth take on small-town politics in post-9/11 America, Gilmore Girls, which began its original run in 2000, a year that ended with the disputed Bush vs. Gore election and apocalyptic Y2K anxiety, kept intact whatever fleeting sense of “civility” emerged in the political mainstream after these historical cataclysms. The cozy public sphere to which Pettman alludes, then, is one that still believes in the polite assembly of town meetings with relatively low-stakes drama. This civility and tolerance come in spite of the best efforts of Stars Hollow’s ambitious town selectman, and aspiring “brander” of its Americana, Taylor Doose (Michael Winters).
Was the molto expressive, nasal-toned Taylor gay? Asexual? A conservative closet-case like the many featured in True Blood, as well as the US House and Senate? We’re never really told, though a winky bit about his sexuality at a town hall meeting about Stars Hollow’s “first gay pride parade” features in the second episode of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. Perhaps the biggest tell to his sexuality is Taylor’s efforts to monetize Stars Hollow by pandering to tourists with cockamamie development schemes like “Taylor’s Olde Fashioned Soda Shoppe.” (Is he Stars Hollow’s first gay gentrifier?) Taylor’s craven marketing efforts make apparent just how much Gilmore Girls’ small-town Americana is nothing but a fantasy, a backlot construction stoking nostalgia for a simpler time and place. I’m loath to admit that Taylor was always on to something in his efforts to make Stars Hollow a destination for world-weary travelers.
Viewers of all persuasions who are in search of comfort cruise Gilmore Girls’ idyllic utopia in the hopes that we might have an experience like his or Michel’s (Yanic Truesdale), another of the ambiguously queer figures throughout the series’ original run. Unlike Taylor, Michel is Black, Francophone (presumably French Canadian), and a hotelier colleague and eventual business partner of Lorelai’s who counts calories, loves Celine Dion, and raises two chow puppies. (For what it’s worth, Michel’s gay sexuality is eventually confirmed in A Year in the Life when he refers in the first episode to his husband Frederic’s wish to have gaybies.) Like Michel, we too may first find ourselves out of place.
At the Gilmore Girls ATX reunion panel, Truesdale admitted he had “no clue how Michel got to Stars Hollow.” Nevertheless, some of us eventually find ourselves at home in the warmth of Stars Hollow’s embrace. The town took in an unhoused, 16-year-old mother named Lorelai Gilmore back in the 1980s after all.
The illusions of seamless assimilation and big-tent conviviality Gilmore Girls constructed throughout the first decade of this millennium are completely in the wheelhouse of normporn. Like so many of the other hermetically enclosed “snow globe” moments I’ve alluded to thus far, any sense of stability offered by these fantasylands and their absorptive, one might even call it contagious normativity (qua Michel’s offscreen husband), were shattered in the divisive aftermath of Trump’s ascendancy.
Sure, it was always lurking just beneath the surface, but in short order hate was emboldened to express itself freely, loudly, and often, as confirmed by attacks targeting immigrants, people of color, queer and trans people, and anyone else who seems out of place (but who’ve been there all along) in “little corners of the world” like Stars Hollow. In these places “American values,” the same values Taylor shills to hustle a few extra tourist dollars, remain frozen. Nevertheless we—and by “we” I mean queer/of color spectators—eternally return to places like this, to places like Stars Hollow.
While Michel may have had no clue about how he got there, I know exactly how I ended up in Stars Hollow: with a ticket to the WB backlot in Burbank for a “Gilmore Girls Holiday.” I begged my wife to buy the “experience” for me for Christmas in 2019, just a couple of months before a global pandemic and another national electoral cycle put the world on full tilt.
After the studio’s successful “Lunch at Lorelai’s” the previous year, Warner Brothers promised: this holiday season Studio Tour guests will be transported back to the whimsical town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut, with the return of the “Gilmore Girls Holiday.” From December 21, 2019, through January 5, 2020, fans of the beloved series can walk in the footsteps of Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham), Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), Luke Danes (Scott Paterson), Sookie St. James (Melissa McCarthy) and the whole gang as the Warner Bros. backlot will be transformed into Stars Hollow.
The enchanting version of the fictional town will feature original sets and authentic props with photo opportunities available in front of the iconic Gazebo and official Stars Hollow town sign, Luke’s Diner, Lorelai’s house, Stars Hollow High School and more. As guests explore the town square, sipping on hot coffee while enjoying Pop-Tarts and other fan-favorite treats, they can snap a picture in front of the iconic Gazebo to capture the perfect Gilmore moment.
I wish I could say I hated it. That I rejected the flimsy efforts to resurrect the town’s landmarks, which were just façades with quaint little signs, bales of hay, and decorative plastic gourds. If only I scoffed and walked away from all the basics lining up to take couple’s photos in the gazebo, instead of queuing up behind them with my wife, who was slightly abashed by my generic enthusiasm. Oh, that I could boast I refrained from spending 50 dollars at the makeshift cafeteria they set up to sling limp burgers and fries purportedly from “Luke’s Diner,” which happened to be all the way over on the opposite side of the town square, where I also took half a dozen selfies while lightly cosplaying Luke in a plaid shirt and capacious straight-leg jeans. (The only thing missing was a backward baseball cap.)
I didn’t even bother with the ruse that this excursion was for “book research.” I lapped it all up, smiling so broadly and wordlessly that my wife probably wondered if I’d suffered a small stroke. The hairs on my arm and the back of my neck, considerably sparser than Luke Danes’s, stood on end like I imagine Lorelai’s when she senses the arrival of winter’s first snow. Stars Hollow in January 2020 was like my own private Willoughby: the last stop on a Twilight Zone train to a “peaceful, restful place, where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.” It was a portal to the past lodged somewhere between my dreams, replete with residual content, and my anxious waking life. I surrendered unconditionally to its old-fashioned, make-believe charms well before I had the excuse of living in isolation for the better part of 18 months in an effort to avoid a deadly novel virus.
And well before the summer of 2022, when the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson effectively ended Roe v. Wade and federal abortion rights in the United States. All of these real-life outcomes made Amy Sherman-Palladino’s final four words “hit different” (as the youth, or at least people younger than me say). Revealed to us in the closing seconds of A Year in the Life in 2016, the Gilmore girls’ final four words rang true as a prophecy, as a warning about where this train was actually headed.
Excerpted from Normporn: Queer Viewers and the TV That Soothes Us. Copyright © 2023 by Karen Tongson. Used with permission of the publisher, NYU Press.