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The Lorelais’ First Day at Chilton

(original air date: October 12, 2000)

Rory begins her life at Chilton which, as the episode title indicates, means that Lorelai does, too. They both make faux pas, and, of course, hilarity and hijinx ensue. Lorelai also squares off with Emily, who is inserting herself into Rory’s Chilton life and, thus, Lorelai’s, with the purchase of school cardigans and parking spaces (and potentially a car for said parking space in a few months) and DSL lines and all that.

The episode opens with the Lorelais’ ironic-yet-chummy day-before-new-school pedicure being interrupted by Lane, who tears up the steps screaming that the new XTC album (Wasp Star, the band’s final album, with only two of the members left) is out. All three are appropriately excited, and everyone dashes into the living room for a dance-athon to the song “The Man Who Murdered Love,” which we-the-television-viewers see in silhouette through the curtains. This particular musical reference is odd in many ways. The song that Lane plays is Track 6, so (much like with last week’s Macy Gray) she doesn’t just drop the CD in and hit “play,” but would have had to choose this song specifically. It’s an upbeat song, but not exactly dancey, and the lyrics are pretty much as-described-in-the-title, all about how the “I” of the song has killed a weak “Love” who was actually “begging on his bended knee” to be murdered, and thus, humanity can celebrate that this “sugary” stupid thing won’t be fucking everything up. It could work as a break-up song, sure, but it’s not the typical girly-bonding-over-how-much-romance-sucks kind of song, nor is it the kind of song or band that that most shows might use to show multi-generational connection. XTC had been around for a while, and were huge in the late 80s. I always associate their songs and sound with a kind of upbeat, optimistic bitterness. But they certainly weren’t getting mainstream airplay with new material in 2000, and weren’t considered “classic” in the same way that a few other groups with the same history were. Evidently, they maintained a bit of a cult following through the ‘90s, and I’d guess that at least one Palladino is a fan.

Their early-80s singles, like “Making Plans for Nigel” and “Senses Working Overtime” would surely be amongst the music then-teenaged Lorelai would’ve listened to, and from this, we can infer that she’s probably exposed Rory and Lane to some of their stuff already. Without being an obvious band-from-the-80s reference (although we’ll see that in later eps), XTC is a way to show younger listeners appreciating the previous generation’s music, to make Lorelai look like the “hip, cool mom,” and to show Rory and Lane as atypical for teenage girls re: music. And since Lane, who name-dropped Eminem in the last ep, is rocking out here to an obscure-ish older-for-her indie band, we can now tell she’s got wide-ranging and probably-eclectic musical tastes.

When Lorelai drives Rory to Chilton, “I Don’t Know How to Say Goodbye to You” by show favorite Sam Phillips is playing, another upbeat-sounding tune with sorrowful and/or bitter lyrics. It becomes clear that this song is about Rory’s feelings as they drive around the Stars Hollow square and pass the high school, where Rory looks wistfully out the window at Lane on the front steps. Drop an anvil, because this sadness at leaving her comfortable old environment and best friend will be followed by a first day at school where she makes misstep after misstep, is overwhelmed by the academic rigour of the curriculum, and, ah, yes, tangles with the incomparable Paris Geller.

Lorelai, too, is out of her element at Chilton. She oversleeps, has no clean clothes and no time to go to the open-at-six-in-the-morning-for-reals dry cleaner to get her work outfits. She throws on cut-offs and a tight tie-dyed t-shirt that, as she describes it, makes her look like “that chick from the Dukes of Hazzard!” (Seriously, Mom, even the pajama bottoms or dirty jeans from the laundry would have been better than the Daisy Dukes.) Dukes of Hazzard was a ‘70s heavy-on-the-car-chases show about a couple Southern good-ol’-boys and their hot but dumb redneck cousin, Daisy; “that chick” was part of the whole “jiggle TV” portrayal of women that included Charlie’s Angels and even Wonder Women. Scantily-clad women did heroic/tough things, but the only way to mitigate a woman winning a fight or fighting crime was if her bra-less breasts were wobbling around for men to ogle as she did it. This is why we need feminism. So Lorelai’s point is not just that she’s inappropriately dressed because her outfit is too skimpy, it’s that it is the antithesis of everything class-and-culture-wise that Chilton and plaid-skirted Rory represent. Note: this class-based North-and-South snobbery will be revisited when one of Paris’s cronies, upon learning Rory is from a small town about 30 minutes away, snarks,“Ooh, a Dixie Chick!”

When they get to the Chilton campus and both Rory and Lorelai gaze in awe and fear up at its edifice, Lorelai makes a comment about looking for the “hunchback in belltower,” which reminds us that no matter how she’s dressed, she is not completely uncultured or uneducated. Her mention to Babette later that her conflict with Emily is “nothing Shakespeare couldn’t turn into a really good play” underscores that. Combined with the reference to the Dixie Chicks (this was before their post-Bush ostracisation, and they were the goddesses of Country music), all of this is a reminder that being from a small town or the South or from a culture/place/background stereotyped as “unsophisticated” or “redneck” doesn’t mean a woman can’t be knowledgeable, talented, feminist, intelligent, or a valuable contributor to a different community.

In other musical news, Drella’s angelic harp + her contrasting brusqueness continues to be a bit. I don’t recognize what she’s playing, specifically, though, but her audience is rapt.

The only other music that pops up in this episode is the Sousa march “Stars and Stripes Forever” when Lorelai walks past Miss Patty’s dance school. I’m not sure why there is a whole group of girls in baton-twirling class at 10 am on a school day, but you lead that parade anyway, Miss Patty! (It’s also a nice intertextual underscoring of American identity and class in the Battle of Chilton, what with the fact that it’s a patriotic military march and all.)  

Later, directing girls walking balancing books on their heads, Miss Patty also gives us the gem about “Walk smooth. That’s the new Harry Potter on your heads. If they should drop, Harry will die, and there won’t be any more books.”

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The new book in the series in 2000 was Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the first book in the series where one of the “good guys” from Hogwarts is killed, and death becomes an immediate reality, not just a far-off threat or something that happened long ago/to adults, as with the previous books, so “Harry will die” was actually something of which readers were petrified. I attended more than one academic conference panel where scholars speculated on how Harry being “the Chosen One” would mean that his death was inevitable, and how the series might conclude with Ron and Hermione, or Snape, or someone standing over the grave of Harry Potter and remembering how his sacrifice saved the world or somesuch. So Miss Patty’s joke is dark. But the mention of Harry Potter in the episode, a special student who went away to a scary new school, meshes nicely with what Rory’s going through. Sure, Rory = Hermione the bookworm know-it-all, but Rory’s status in Stars Hollow is a similar Potteresque “chosen one” role. Does she deserve it? Everyone in town loves her and looks to her, even when she becomes obnoxiously entitled, to the point that anyone else in town who hurts Rory must face the wrath of Stars Hollow itself.

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But right now, in the middle of things, we can feel the sometimes-frightening anticipation of an incomplete story of a teenaged protagonist that has yet to be finished.

At Chilton, Rory, reader of dense classic novels and feminist theory, is overwhelmed. At her old high school, the students were assigned reading a few chapters and writing an open-ended essay about Huckleberry Finn, but here, the teacher is launched on a complicated Comparative Lit-heavy analysis of cultural issues and international influences in several key Russian novels, and one student in particular keeps up without hesitation. Guess who?

Teacher: And while French culture was the dominant outside cultural influence, especially for Russia’s monied class, English culture also had its impact. Tolstoy’s favorite author, for instance, was….

Paris: (raises hand) Dickens.

Teacher : Yes, and last week we discovered Dostoevsky’s main authorial influences.

Paris: (raises hand again) George Sand and Balzac.

Teacher : Good. As Tolstoy commenced writing both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, Count Leo would turn to…

Paris: David Copperfield

Teacher : Correct. He would turn to David Copperfield for inspiration.

This exchange is interrupted when the hot asshole, Tristan, shambles into class late, spies Rory, and does the whole “Who’s the new girl?” routine with his friends, even as the teacher continues: “Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, all major influences on Leo Tolstoy.” In the midst of this rigmarole of Dickens titles, Tristan & Co decide that the new girl is “a Mary.” The teacher gives an assignment exploring “these two literary masters, Tolstoy and Dickens” and then calls Rory aside to present her with a giant binder of notes covering “last week’s study materials,” advising her to also get notes from another student, which will be “more detailed.” Rory may be the smartest, most literary-est girl in Stars Hollow, but at Chilton, she is officially in over her head.

Rory has just been baptized into Chilton…  not by water or fire, but by sophisticated assessment of French, Russian, and English social and economic commentary in literature. (Since the English Lit class at Chilton is taught by Mr. Medina, I’ve decided to think that this is probably a class on economic or political theory or cultural studies. The curriculum for such a course could include analysis of how such issues are portrayed in fiction of the era.) Sure, this scene shows that Rory’s new school is far more challenging academically, but it does something else, too: it emphasizes that Rory, the “Dixie Chick,” is negotiating a new world of economic, cultural, and social elements, and will likely have to analyze her own influences, literary and otherwise. Is she the celebrated working class girl and future author a la Copperfield, raised by wacky mother-figures (and eventually writing a thinly-veiled autobiography)? Or is she, a Gilmore and her grandparents’ granddaughter, a privileged member of the “monied class” and part of an epic aristocratic narrative? Does she challenge the status quo or will she capitulate to it? This world also includes men (from the headmaster to classmates) and how they see her, define her, classify her, name her, along with female rivals who challenge her and exclude her.

Lorelai’s experiences in this episode with the Chilton dad who asks her out, and her clash with her mother, parallels this same new world negotiation regarding men, female rivals, social standing, and power. After Emily attempts to have a DSL line installed at Lorelai’s house without permission, Lorelai goes steaming over to Emily’s genteel beauty parlor to confront her. She asserts that she is in charge of Rory’s schooling and all the accessories that go with it, not Emily, and that actually, they like their slow internet, because it gives them time to “walk around, dance, make a sandwich. With DSL, there’s no dancing, no walking, and we’d starve. It’d be all work and no play. Have you not seen The Shining, Mom?” The Shining is also a Stephen King novel, but in this case, Lorelai specifically mentions the movie version, instantly familiar with Jack Nicholson in the title role of the writer driven insane. With its allusions to “who’s really the insane one?” the seeming throwaway reference actually highlights power and control, and its iconic representation by a Hollywood powerhouse. Lorelai makes an inappropriate, “insane” scene in her mother’s salon, demonstrates her rightful place as the one in charge, but still reveals that there is the real threat of psychological breakdown because of this issue between the two of them.  

It’s the end of a terrible first day at Chilton for Rory, and her teacher is reading to the class: “The Romanists have, with great adroitness, drawn three walls around themselves, with which they have hitherto protected themselves so that no one could reform them, whereby Christians has fallen terribly. Who said this?” Rory, deliberately usurping Paris, quickly answers “Martin Luther.” “Very good, Miss Gilmore. And what year does Martin Luther address the Christian nobility?” Rory smart-blocks Paris again: “1520.” The address the teacher references is “The Three Walls of the Romanists” opening of Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Respecting the Reformation of the Christian Estate. In this address, a few years after the iconic “nailing shit to the chapel door, how’s that for symbolism?” thing, Luther famously cautioned both the religious and secular classes against excess, and caused controversy in part because he democratically lumped together church leaders and princes and lords with farmworkers and laymen. He indicated that the bible should be readable by all, not only accessed and interpreted by an educated few. (In fact, ML wrote this in vernacular German, not Latin. He would not get bonus points for being able to perform the Chilton school song in Latin.) As far as political theory goes, some interpret Luther’s Three Walls call for reformation as also a call for state-governed church. While this oversimplifies, it nevertheless links German state and government with religious leaders as all being responsible for reformation, going forward.

Chilton may have a religious history, since in the Pilot, when Rory gets in, Sookie offers to celebrate by baking cookies because “Protestants love oatmeal!” But even without it being an overtly religious school now, it’s symbolic of the same kind of unquestioned patriarchal (and probably corrupt) institutions, in need of scrutiny. These references to the Protestant Reformation, and Rory’s knowledge of Martin Luther specifically function to both undercut the dogma of the Chilton system… and simultaneously shows that Rory is also qualified to belong to it. When Lorelai picks her up and Rory mentions that Tristan keeps calling her “Mary,” Lorelai marvels that they’re still using that term to indicate that Rory is a goody-goody, aka Virgin Mary. Rory laughs. “Wow, biblical insults. This IS an advanced school!” But as she has demonstrated earlier, that, with her knowledge of Martin Luther’s address to the Christian nobility, and with a democratic, accessible approach to materials, “Mary” can navigate this environment.

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