Rory’s Birthday Parties (Original air date: November 9, 2000)
With a pile of my own Rory Gilmore-like studying and writing done, I can indulge in the recapping of more Gilmore episodes as if I were plundering and pillaging a grocery store on a date with Jason Stiles.
We pick up with Rory’s Birthday Parties, which is just what it says on the label. Rory Gilmore is turning sixteen, and the competition is on between the three generations of Gilmores about how to properly celebrate. But it’s not just about sheet cake or champagne: the whole episode is loaded with tension about who knows whom best, family obligation, and good manners v. real feelings.
This episode is also packed with 1) references to divas, highlighting tensions between female egos, as well as 2) a ton of 80s references and 1984 specifically, linking us to Lorelai’s own sixteenth year, when she fell pregnant with Rory and left home for good. The contrasts between the Lorelais at sixteen is obvious, but the added contrast is with the senior Gilmores and how they related to their sixteen-year-old progeny, sixteen years apart.
Opening with a Friday Night Dinner, Emily is attempting to tell the other girls about the lawyer who is coming over, but Lorelai, who remembers the lawyer’s daughter from school.
Lorelai keeps making jokes until Emily angrily busts out the oh-so-anachronistic reference “My daughter: Henny Youngman!” because “Everything’s a joke, everyone’s a punch line!” Not only is there the obvious disconnect between a Jewish comedian from a previous generation to a white girl from a rich Connecticut family, but it also establishes the three-generation span displayed in the episode’s overall pop culture references. While Rory’s and Lorelai’s are shared, to the point that it’s often hard to tell which of them is most into a band/movie/show/thing no matter what era it’s from, Emily’s reference to Henny Youngman emphasizes that she is not young. And her touchstones are not as accessible to Rory, especially.
Then the Gilmores eat pudding while the Senior Gilmores insist that Rory and Lorelai spend time after dinner marking items in the house that they want to be left in Richard’s and Emily’s wills, and then Emily insists on hosting Rory’s very formal birthday party the following week.
In the car, after, Lorelai complains about the party, even though Emily “did agree to make the string quartet to learn ‘Like A Virgin.’” The Madonna song is from 1984, the year Rory was born, when Lorelai was decidedly NOT like a virgin. Rory at sixteen, however, very much is, since all she’s done at this point is a fair amount of awkward flirting with Dean. The contrast between mother and daughter at the same age could not be more obvious. But again, the fact that this is a song both of them dig is another example of their closeness, in age and in personality. When Rory wants to know if this party is going to be a “big deal,” Lorelai responds “Not really. The government will close that day. Flags will fly at half-mast. Barbra Streisand will give her final concert, again. Now, the pope has previous plans, but he’s trying to get out of them. However, Elvis and Jim Morrison are coming, and they’re bringing chips.” The reference to Streisand is the first of the diva mentions, combined here with two dead male music superstars and one of the most powerful religious leaders on earth. Notice that in this fantasy scenario, Miss Barbra is the one with power and agency in orchestrating an event AND providing the entertainment, whereas the dudes’re just bringing munchies.
At the Inn, Lorelai complains to Sookie that Emily has her “Vulcan death grip” on Friday night, so Rory’s party in Stars Hollow will be on Saturday. Everyone with even a passing acquaintance of Star Trek is familiar with the move Spock and others have used to render someone unconscious with a particular pressure on the neck. However, since fandoms even then have been fairly rabid about “it’s not a death grip, it’s a nerve pinch,” this lets us know that Star Trek (unlike The Godfather, Casablanca, and ah, yes, The Brady Bunch Variety Hour) is not a pop culture thing that Lorelai is deeply invested in. Whether the intention is gender or genre, the scene’s other literary/movie mention is also a sci fi reference from the postwar generation, “The Fly” (first a short story, then a horror film with Vincent Price). When Jackson debuts his raspberry-kumquat hybrid, Lorelai exclaims: “You didn’t build one of those machines like in ‘The Fly’ did you? We’re not going to find you wandering the streets wearing a raspberry head crying, ‘eat me!’?” These (yes, I’ll say it) male-dominated references of alternate universes and horror and threat are used to exacerbate the female-dominated social pressures of Rory’s birthday parties. To what effect…?
When Lorelai comes home to Rory on the phone, she first yells the iconic Ricky Ricardo line, “Hey Lucy, I’m home!” The idea that Rory and Lorelai often function as a domestic unit is obvious, but positioning Rory, not Lorelai, as the wacky housewife is a nice twist. I also wonder what else will be going on about women’s/girls’ domestic roles in this episode, huh?
Anyway, Rory’s on the phone, and Lorelai pretends to join in the conversation, cooing, “And Justin is just so dreamy. He can’t marry Britney, I’ll just cry and cry and cry….” At this point, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were America’s supercouple, and yes, there were teen fans who were both thrilled and devastated that their heartthrob was in love with the Pop Princess, and not them, which sucked but on the other hand, you guys, they were SO CUTE and hopefully they’ll get married and have millions of pop babies and a second-generation teen vocal group and-
Not that I know anything about being deeply, emotionally invested in a particular band, a particular heartthrob, at age sixteen. Ha-hem. (Wait until we get to Lorelai’s room.)
Rory, of course, is not on the phone with a girlfriend talking about ‘NSync and Britney, she’s ordering pizza. And even if Rory WERE on the phone with a girlfriend, it would be Lane, and if they talked about TimberSpears at all, it would decidedly not sound like Lorelai’s joking conversation. Rory is not a typical teen (and is probably more like a wacky 1950s comic housewife than a typical contemporary teen), and her mom knows this. In this Rory-centered episode, it becomes increasingly clear who knows her best, who understands her.
But moms aren’t always the ones who know and understand daughters best, as Lorelai’s and Emily’s strained relationship and disagreements over Rory’s party and birthday gifts show.
The next day at Chilton, Rory discovers that Emily has planned a party and invited her entire class, and overhears people who don’t know her whispering about it, to her utter mortification. When she discovers this, the song playing is Altered Images “Happy Birthday.” It’s not only a song from a different time (namely, Lorelai’s teens) but it’s also a prominent tune in the John Hughes flick Sixteen Candles, another product, like Rory, of 1984. The Molly Ringwald movie also features clashes between grandmas, awkward flirting with a dreamy guy, and disappointment about how to celebrate a landmark birthday. But where Samantha Baker’s troubles stemmed from the fact that no one in her family remembered her birthday, Rory’s are because they remember it too much.
The retro vibe continues when Emily convinces Lorelai to help her shop for Rory’s birthday gift, and Emily has no clue what a girl Rory’s age, and Rory specifically, might want. In between Emily’s ideas of double-strand pearls, a feathered hat, a cashmere sweater set, and a super-expensive pen, Lorelai throws out suggestion after suggestion. Emily rejects them all, including a “t-shirt with the Farrah Fawcett face.” The contrast obviously shows who knows more about Rory… at least, Rory as a high school sophomore. (Lorelai accuses Emily of shopping for her “imaginary granddaughter, Barbara Hutton” in this scene, but to be fair, within a few years, Rory would be far more happy with the cashmere sweater or the Mont Blanc pen than the guitar-purse or light-up plastic bracelet.) But the Farrah Fawcett reference is a reminder of the roles of women in television and entertainment. Farrah Fawcett, whom Lorelai calls “A hero to many who aspire to the perfect feather flip,” went from iconic pin-up to “jiggle tv” breakout star to entertainment zeitgeist to acclaimed actress to embarrassing drugged-out low point to scrappy survivor in less than twenty years. (And then dead legend a few years later.) At the time this episode aired, Farrah was working her way back to respectability with guest spots on popular sit-coms, after a disastrous appearance in 1997 on David Letterman’s show. Note: FF also played Barbara Hutton in a TV movie, linking this whole scene together even more. But the Farrah Fawcett t-shirt is an example of things that come back in pop culture, that something that was relevant during one person’s youth will become a vintage/retro reference to the next generation. Finally, Emily picks out the aforementioned light-up plastic bracelet, and it seems like things might be on an upswing.
After one of my favorite Lorelai-and-Luke exchanges, btw…
… Rory joins her mother at the diner. Rory’s miserable about the pending Emily-party, but opts not to tell Lorelai about the other birthday party, since Lorelai is all excited and happy and showing Rory the new dresses that Emily insisted on buying. Lorelai “think[s she] can do something with them to make them better,” evoking yet another John Hughes/Molly Ringwald moment, this time Pretty in Pink. As Lorelai promises to do a “modern Cinderella” on the tulle poofy things, Rory forces a smile and says “Yep, lucky me.” Most sixteen-year-olds would be giddy at the idea of poofy tulle dresses and fancy parties, but Rory’s instead stuck with the weight of familial and social obligation, and balancing a network of mother-daughter-grandmother feelings.
That night, or the next morning, depending on how you look at it, we see the for the first time Rory’s traditional birthday wake-up, with Lorelai sneaking into Rory’s room to wake her at the exact time she was born, and reminisce about how being in labor was not the most beautiful, meaningful thing ever, but “something more akin to doing the splits on a crate of dynamite.” Rory sighs “I wonder if the Waltons ever did this?” as Lorelai describes cursing out the doctors, contrasting the wholesomeness and squeaky-clean Christian values of a TV family from her mother’s growing-up years with her own. But in the middle of this decidedly-not-completely-wholesome family tradish, the two Gilmore Girls have this exchange:
Lorelai: “I think you’re a great, cool kid, and the best friend a girl could have.”
Rory: “Back atcha”
I mention this because it’s best and worst thing about the Lorelais’ relationship, and it’s something that, IMO, becomes a major issue as Rory grows into womanhood and tries to figure out who she is. Her mother has always treated her like a friend, even an equal, from babyhood on. She’s always “my pal, Rory,” “always good, always sweet.” Lorelai knows her daughter well, as this episode demonstrates… but this is also going to be Rory’s major handicap (and it becomes abundantly clear in the Gilmore Girls revival episodes). No matter what Rory does, even when she begs for parental boundaries or consequences, Lorelai pooh poohs it because she knows her better than that. And she instead insists that Rory is “her best friend” and “would never do ___” (even when Rory has just done ___) because Lorelai “knows” Rory. It’s great that they’re connected, and can talk honestly, and that Rory is respected and valued for her maturity, intelligence, her unique qualities. But as she moves from teens to early twenties, the fact that she has a mother who lets her get away with everything because it will never be getting knocked up and leaving home at sixteen is a MASSIVE problem.
The next morning, at birthday breakfast at Luke’s, Lane also demonstrates that she knows Rory well by bringing her CDs. Try as I might, I can’t see titles, and can’t find references online to what albums they are.
And then Dean shows up to get a coffee.
When Lorelai and Rory show up at the Gilmore, Seniors’ residence for the big party, Emily is in a dither making sure the candles are six inches apart. Lorelai comments that “I think Edith Wharton would have been proud, and busy taking notes,” a snark that indicates that Emily is from a different time, a time of rigorous social obligations. It’s an old world to which Emily is plugged in, but the two younger Gilmore Girls feel no connections… unlike Lorelai and Rory, where, again Rory often seems more of her mother’s time and society than her own.
The out-of-sync party involves every possible awkward encounter for both Rory and her mom with people from school, strangers, intrusive questions, humiliations, and, in Rory’s case, Tristan being a giant ass. So sure, it just might fit into several John Hughes teen drama movie tropes, huh? Anyway, the Girls cope at first with drinks: Lorelai gives Rory a Shirley Temple, while she herself consumes a Shirley Temple Black. Note: Twenty-ish years ago, a friend and I invented the Shirley Temple Black. Or so we liked to think. Anyway, Lorelai announces, “I got your Good Ship Lollipop right here, mister” as she drinks. Believe it or not, I’ve actually done some serious scholarly work on Shirley Temple and performed girlhood, all that Judith Butler stuff. So the reference here to the child star and icon is a poignant reminder of not just lost or manipulated girlhood for others’ entertainment, but especially, of navigating forced male attentions, as Rory has to do at this party with everyone from Tristan the asshole to a bunch of her grandfather’s buddies.
So no one in TV-land is surprised when Rory finally snaps, and makes a bit of a scene about not wanting to give a speech and how this is Emily’s party, not hers, and peace out, bitches.
She flees upstairs, and hides out in Lorelai’s old room, which is still a relic of 1984 girlhood, with a big ol’ Echo & the Bunnymen poster, surrounded by several circa-1984 Duran Duran prints and posters. (Darlings, I had every single one of those posters and flats on my own bedroom at the same time. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.) The posters are at deliberate odds with the flowered wallpaper, the heavy Frenchy-French furniture, the dollhouse, the whole Barbara Hutton thing. Lorelai follows Rory up, and, snuggled on her old bed the way they were in Rory’s bed that morning, they talk about similar altercations with the Gilmores, Senior. Lorelai says, “That was a pretty Freaky Friday moment we had back there,” referencing the 1970s book and movie (which would be remade a few years after this episode, starring Lindsay Lohan) where mother and daughter switch places. Is it Emily and Lorelai switching, or Lorelai and Rory? Probably yes to all. Anyway, despite the few ‘70s references, most of the pop culture stuff is hard-and-fast 1980s, so let’s get back to that Duran Duran poster over the Girls’ as they talk.
The song title “The Wild Boys,” is visible by their heads. And sure, the song was out right around the time Rory was born, October of 1984. But the idea of teen girls and wild boys is omnipresent, from Lor’s relationship with Christopher, resulting in Rory, to Tristan, who could be Rory’s potential Christopher, since she’s the same age as her own mother, and he’s a similar spoiled prep schoolboy. With the Fab Five looking on, the Girls talk about Lorelai’s last birthday at home and her pregnancy, and, after their heart-to-heart and some more squabbling with Emily, Rory invites her grandparents to her Stars Hollow party the following night, an invitation that Lorelai backs up… forcefully. And then she drops the episode’s biggest truthbomb:
You don’t even know what she needs because you don’t know her. You’ve never tried to know her just like you never knew me.
If Birthday Party the First demonstrates who doesn’t know whom, Birthday Party the Second will do the opposite, and the whole Stars Hollow cast of characters is in attendance to loudly emphasize the point.
The music blaring at Rory’s home party is in direct contrast with the previous night, “This Old House” by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. While this recording of the song is contemporary to the Gilmore Girls, it’s also another 80s reference in a sneaky way, since Brian Setzer was one of the Stray Cats, and a huge part of the 80s rockabilly movement. So it’s likely Lorelai nabbed this album on the merits of Brian Setzer’s earlier work as much as its contemporary popularity. The song, sometimes “This Ole House,” is another one of those oft-recorded standards, most popularly by Shakin’ Stevens in the UK in 1981, but it was also a chart-topping version by Rosemary Clooney in 1954, the year it was written. So we’ve got several generations represented. And then there’re the lyrics:
This old house once knew its children
This old house once knew its wife
This old house was home and comfort
As they fought the storms of life
This old house once rang with laughter
This old house heard many shouts
Now it trembles in the darkness
When the lightning walks about
Ain’t gonna need this house no longer
Ain’t gonna need this house no more
Ain’t got time to fix the shingles
Ain’t got time to fix the floor
Ain’t got time to oil the hinges
Nor to mend the window pain
Ain’t gonna need this house no longer
He’s getting ready to meet the saints
So sure, it could be a bit about Lorelai’s house in Stars Hollow versus her parents’ swanky mansion in Hartford, but it also has a lot more to do with aging and generations and death and the passage of time. Heavy for a sixteen-year-old’s birthday in one way, and perfectly fitting in another.
But the music has changed to Travis’s “Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” with the arrival of Gilmores, Senior. And as the lyrics wonder, “Was it because I lied when I was seventeen?” it’s hard not to relate the song’s themes to Lorelai being punished now for actions in the past… and wonder how Rory will be punished in the future for what she did the night before. Then later, when Lorelai and Emily finally talk upstairs, it’s with Louis Armstrong and “What a Wonderful World” playing. It’s a bittersweet counterpoint with Emily teasing Lorelai about Luke, making jokes, the two of them finally connecting. Ultimately the happy-sad song that makes me cry like a baby whenever I hear it also frames Emily’s realization of how much she doesn’t know about her daughter. Or her granddaughter.
However, when the episode ends, it is with another mother-daughter missed connection: Lorelai sees Dean secretly meeting Rory, and giving her the bracelet he’s made. Despite an entire episode telling us that Rory’s not a typical sixteen-year-old girl, here, she’s… a typical sixteen-year-old girl. But there’s no music for this, just silence, as if to let us know that somehow, this is different than the other stuff….