Idiot Box: Shall we compare thee to a summer’s day?

November 5, 2014

I can’t stop watching Gilmore Girls.

Its specific breed of escapism has sucked me in. It seems to mimic real life while always feeling just out of reach. The dialogue is just a little too brilliant, the boyfriends just a little too good-looking, the life trajectories just a little too perfect. Of course, there’s always some sort of trouble in paradise, but there’s a persistent air of untouched purity lingering throughout the series. I keep watching because it’s both an amazingly well written show (Amy Sherman-Palladino deserves knighthood) and because, well, I want Rory Gilmore’s life.

The easy answer to this life envy is, “that’s just TV.” It’s the nature of television to distort the less likable realities of everyday life, add a few gorgeous actors, and record the entire concoction in the back lot of a Hollywood studio (TV Connecticut is always a little suspiciously sunny). There’s a suspension of disbelief involved in the unwritten contract of being an audience. Of course I want whatever fantasy is played out on screen. Of course the ratio of perfect skin to junk food consumption is a little too unbelievable. This is show biz, baby. You’re being sold an ideal lifestyle.

It’s not that simple, though. I can look at ads in fashion magazines and remind myself that models are airbrushed to perfection, and that they represent an unattainable standard of beauty. I can watch Gossip Girl or Sex and the City and recognize that these shows depict an unrealistic status of wealth and society. I may want the clothes, the fancy apartments, and the invitations to glamorous parties, but I don’t actually see myself in these characters. They seem so distant that it’s easy to hold them at arm’s length.

Rory Gilmore is different because I see aspects of myself in her. She’s quiet, bookish, and a little socially awkward. She sometimes spends her weekends staying at home and watching old movies. She’s quirky. At the same time, she also has a string of gorgeous bad boy admirers and handily gets into the Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, and conveniently gets elected editor of the Yale Daily News. Did I mention that her skin is perfect?

As my Gilmore Girls superfan friend has reminded me, her damaging influence is insidious because we’re made to believe that she’s just like us. Her quiet quirkiness is written as a flaw that makes her relatable, when in fact, it’s only a thinly veiled disguise for the unattainable standard she represents. Her life is a bubble of ivy-covered privilege and perfection. I may get a kick out of experiencing it vicariously, but it takes some navel-gazing effort for me to recognize the danger of comparing my own achievements and dating success to those of the fictional Rory Gilmore. Thank the TV gods that Lorelai is there to bring us down to earth.

I say all this not to demean Gilmore Girls, but to identify within an otherwise brilliant and life-affirming show a symptom of a pervasive problem of pop culture and society in general. Women are conditioned to live up to a standard of perfection that requires us to be everything at once, building an identity synthesized from the images and examples we’re continually consuming.

Gillian Flynn captures this concept perfectly in her novel, Gone Girl, when she recognizes the persona of the cool girl that women often try so hard to inhabit for the sake of likability. There’s a juggling act of being everything to everyone. It’s hard to catch ourselves performing a certain identity to please other people until we look back at a particular moment and recognize the concessions we have made to fit a certain mold. The challenge is not breaking out of it so much as acknowledging its presence and confidently sidestepping it. Life’s far too short for that kind of compromise.

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