Intertextuality in the Gilmore Girls

One of my critical areas of specialization is intertextuality. Even outside of academics, it’s fascinating to me to see how song lyrics refer to existing books or poems, how novels incorporate music references or a particular artist as part of the story, how a painter will respond on canvas to a piece of music or a dance, or even just how elements of music or books provided necessary grounding, set dressing, or points of contemporary reference in something. (You would not believe the number of intertextual references in Robbie Williams’s song lyrics. I discovered this important factoid while procrastinating work one wintry evening.)

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No, darling, I said TEXTUAL.

I also enjoy recaps of TV shows and books, and several of my favorite authors/blogs focus on in-depth recaps, looking at a book chapter by chapter or tackling close-watchings of a childhood favorite TV show. I’ve done it before myself, and it’s an insane amount of work, something like six hours of writing for every one hour of a show. (It’s even more tedious when it’s something that you hate.) Since I need to actually, you know, work on my post-doc stuff, write articles, and write books, I don’t have that much extra time. However, I recently discovered during discussion with friends that I was inadvertently framing analysis of Gilmore Girls through an intertextual lens, and thought that might be an interesting element to recap formally here. It also relates to something I’m doing academically, so, legit!

Although I didn’t watch it in its original airing, I’ve come to love the Gilmore Girls through a fortitudinous Netflix binge-watching. No lie: my “vacation” after finishing a final draft of my PhD thesis was to spend 6 days in bed, bundled in a down comforter, watching all seven seasons without stopping. The revival episodes came at a much-needed time, too. But while I enjoyed the show, I’m aware that there are some things it does imperfectly, and some good points of interrogation. Digging into Gilmore Girls for me isn’t going to be the grinding hate-fuck that some bloggers deal with in their recaps (which is why when a friend suggested I recap the FSOG movies here, I said no way. I just could not deal with that. God, no).

One of the things I loved about the show was its thick-and-fast barrage of pop culture references. The sheer volume of references in one go was hard to keep up with at times, and one has a sense of smug superiority when catching the more obscure allusions. Not only that, but they feel genuine to the characters, something other shows (*points at The Big Bang Theory*) can’t quite manage. Amy Sherman-Palladino is quoted elsewhere saying:

“It wasn’t intentional in terms of ‘I wanna be really cool and hip.’ It was in terms of I think that’s what these women think about, talk about – that’s how they engage in life.”

Where similar references in other narratives feel unconvincing, or not cohesive, or aren’t engaged in any way, the intertextuality in Gilmore Girls is usually functional, even when it’s pretending to be cutesy. Not that I’m going to speculate about authorial- (or directorial-) intent. The deal about intertextuality is that it still functions, even it it’s unintentional.

And while I hate Rory Gilmore for so many, many reasons, one of the things she does better than most movies, books, and TV shows is portray a “smart girl” heroine who we actually see often doing smart things. She’s always reading, studying, working, writing. She repeatedly demonstrates her knowledge of what she’s read. Unlike (you KNOW I have to say it) the Bella-Anas of late, it’s not just a token mention of how super-smart in school she is and how she’s such a total literary bookworm romantic… but then we never see said character read a book or do anything that actual literary-minded people do. (And the few times said character does make a literary reference, she gets it wrong, or just uses it as a way to wangst about her own love life. *shoves first-edition copies of Tess of the d’Urbervilles up Anastasia Steele’s ass, which FSOG fans will think is totally hot sexy kink, and not abuse* It’s unrealistic, sure, but the Rory Gilmore Reading List is a much more interesting mode of character development than yet another makeover or shopping scene.

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The musical references, too, are sometimes over-the-top, but provide essential nuance. One can’t understate the importance of music in a show that featured a theme song (and a character) performed by Carole King. Two generations of music get particular representation, and female music gets particular representation. Gilmore Girls was totally your exciting but pretentious older cousin who knew all the new bands before they went mainstream… as well as your kooky aunt who refused to apologize for her continued love of the bands she followed in high school. (I may relate to that a bit too much. Fair warning, friends.) Stars Hollow has an actual Town Troubadour, sometimes more than one, and Grant-Lee Phillip endearingly embodied the whole “hipster” thing as we now know it before we had a name for it.

Quite a few critics and reviews elsewhere have already discussed the show’s “la la las” that pop up during important moments, and, especially, the theme song and its meaning. Since they repeat in every episode, I don’t need to belabor analysis on those elements. It’s enough that you know that all you have to do is call my name and I’ll be there on the next train-

My recaps will stick mostly to things like music and books, movies, and TV, although the show references other elements of pop culture, too, from commercial jingles to celebrity name-drops to elements of fashion, which could all be considered. Hell, I’ve done enough critical work on “Food in ___” to see the potential motherlode in Gilmore Girls from that angle, too. But without the caffeine-fueled insanity of a Lorelai Gilmore at 9am, I can only do so much. Also, I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the show and know it as a whole, but I’ll downplay (at least, I think I will!) A Year in the Life ‘til later. So don’t email me going “OMG, spoilers about Lorelai hooking up with Luke/Christopher having a kid/Rory and Dean breaking up/Richard dying between the series and AYITL!”

Let’s begin our episodic adventure through the Gilmore Girls with the pilot, and see how all these references to pop culture work to create meaning, draw connections, surprise, emphasize, or deflect. (I’m sure I’ll miss something, so if you have an observation, drop a note!)

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