What Gilmore Girls Gets Right About Money and Love

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Photo: Scott Humbert/Getty Images

Gilmore Girls is back! Break out the coffee and get ready to binge on fries (a.k.a. the devil’s starchy fingers). One of the best shows about mothers and daughters to ever wallop the Bechdel test, Gilmore Girls is famous for its fast, witty dialogue, its manic references, its musical sophistication, and its skinny, charismatic protagonists’ love of junk food. It created a rich, vibrant world, full of joy and banter, but the show was also a pioneer when it came to sketching out a particularly complex emotional terrain: namely, how money intersects with love in a mostly female emotional economy.

The show — which starts streaming on Netflix this week, just in time to celebrate its 14th anniversary — follows Lorelai Gilmore, a charismatic rebel who ran away from her wealthy, status-conscious parents Richard and Emily after her teen pregnancy. Lorelai accepts no help from her parents, instead working her way up from maid to executive manager of the aptly named Independence Inn in Stars Hollow, a small-town civic and economic utopia that in principle opposes the high society Lorelai left behind. Stars Hollow is a place where commerce harmonizes perfectly with community: Everyone is some kind of small-time entrepreneur, everyone votes, and everyone earns a living wage. It makes fantasy easy. That’s important, since one of Gilmore Girls’ central fantasies is that protagonists Lorelai and Rory are mother and daughter second, best friends first. But over the course of the show, we watch as its idealistic illusions are challenged and complicated.

Money matters in Gilmore Girls. It matters deeply. In a show with spirited characters who don’t take direction well, it often functions as both a means of controlling others — emotionally as well as financially — and as an excuse to submit to that control. We meet Lorelai and Rory just as Rory is about to start her sophomore year at Chilton, an expensive private high school. Unable to afford the tuition, Lorelai finally goes to her parents for help — and tries to gracelessly absorb the loss of independence that represents. Money is rarely about money in Gilmore Girls; it’s about coercion, it’s about power, but it’s also about creating financial channels for love where other methods failed. Lorelai can only accept help from her parents on Rory’s behalf — otherwise she risks compromising the anti-Gilmore stance on which she’s built an identity and a life. But the contorted bargains the Gilmores strike frequently have unexpected effects: Broken relationships start to mend thanks to the pretext that the whole arrangement is unwelcome and unwanted.

One of the wonderful things about Amy Sherman-Palladino’s creation is that it indulges Lorelai’s version of things for long spells, even as it recognizes the limitations of her narrative and scripts its breaking point from the very first episode. When Lorelai has to ask her parents for tuition money, they agree, but her mother attaches a crucial condition. “Now that we’re financially involved in your life, we want to be actively involved in your life,” Emily says. The loan is contingent on Lorelai and Rory coming to dinner every Friday. It’s an elaborate game of emotional chess, and in this instance (as through most of the series) Emily easily outsmarts Lorelai. Yes, Emily essentially rents time with her daughter and granddaughter, but she also tricks Lorelai into allowing herself to be rented — despite her principles, and over her objections. 

The Gilmore girls negotiate this complicated, manipulative dance throughout the series, and it’s usually (though not always) transacted between women. The show notices their currents of obligation and bids for independence without condemning either; as much as we’re invited to sympathize with Lorelai, she’s far from perfect in ways that cost her. And Emily — despite her autocratic approach to things — is a smart, fiercely loyal woman whose complicated emotional life receives a level of attention and care rare for a woman of her age on the big or small screen. To put it another way, the show makes room for the characters’ hostile versions of each other, but also insists on the parallels between them. For all their differences, the Gilmore women all understand money as a way of securing the dynamic they want, whether that means refusal and distance or obligation and acceptance.

Those echoes are key to the show’s project of exploring what money means for women — particularly women seeking some form of emotional independence. The show explores heredity and habit — the faults and defaults of our programming — not just in the “you have my eyes” jokes, but in the ways the Gilmores unconsciously echo each other, often in exactly the ways they detest. That Lorelai and Emily share an instinct for manipulating Rory into submission through displays of abundance (food in Lorelai’s case, money in Emily’s) robs them of their self-righteousness.

The show brilliantly arranges for them to meet on this embarrassing common ground. Lorelai isn’t exempt from maternal anxiety or emotional neediness, and Emily knows her well enough to capitalize on their basic similarity. This is clearest in “The Third Lorelai,” an episode in the first season in which Emily’s power over Lorelai is threatened by her mother-in-law Trix. (Here again, women control the purse strings.) Trix is so scandalized to learn that the money for Rory’s tuition is a loan that she makes Lorelai an offer: She’ll give Rory access to her trust fund early so she can pay for Chilton herself. By offering to demolish the game of financial Jenga the Gilmore girls have been playing (a game that, among other things, allows them all to spend time together), Trix threatens Emily’s power over Lorelai and Lorelai’s power over Rory. Emily is quick to point this out once she and Lorelai are alone. “How can you not see the pitfalls in accepting that money?” she says. “I mean, you’re the one that brags about how special your relationship with Rory is. I’m stunned that you want to jeopardize it like this.” “What are you talking about?” Lorelai says. “Well,” says Emily, “you know as well as I do that money is freedom.” “And?” says Lorelai. “If Rory has that money she won’t need you anymore.”

It’s a moment as heartbreaking as it is manipulative — we see how badly Emily suffered when Lorelai left, and how badly Lorelai’s independence hurts. “It’s terrible not to be needed!” she shouts, as Lorelai walks away.  

Trix overhears them bickering and rescinds the offer. The episode ends with Lorelai and Emily sharing a moment of mortified relief at Rory’s lost fortune. It’s a small but unmistakable bond: They’re both pleased that the arrangement they supposedly resent remains in effect. That doesn’t mean Lorelai’s resistance to her mother’s wishes gets any less perverse: Some seasons later, when Rory brokers another loan from her grandparents in exchange for dinners together in order to afford Yale, Lorelai sputters her opposition.

Lorelai: Oh, those people, those master manipulators.

Rory: Mom, this was my idea. I'm manipulating you.

Lorelai: They are manipulating you to manipulate me.

Rory: How are they doing that?

Lorelai: Rory, don't you see? If you go to Friday-night dinners, Mom knows I'll go to just to be with you.

Rory: She wasn't thinking that.

Lorelai: They're getting exactly what they want.

Rory: Don't you see? We're all getting exactly what we want. It's a win-win-win situation.

Lorelai: It's not.

Rory: It is.

Lorelai: Okay, maybe, maybe it is. But just once, just once, I want you to get exactly what you want, and me to get exactly what I want, and them to get nothing.

The beauty of Lorelai’s character is that this speech is half sincere, but it’s also half bluster — a nod to her long tradition of railing against her parents. The show tracks the ways brittle relationships can rebuild through unlikely routes. Gilmore Girls is Great TV for many reasons, but one of the least celebrated is the intelligence with which it digs into the weird economics of affection: how mothers and daughters bargain, and how our cycles of obligation, resentment, and debt coexist with longer cycles of admiration and deep (if sometimes rented) love.