Gilmore Girls, comfort TV, and the joy of women eating lots

Everyone has a comfort TV show. Whether for reasons of nostalgia or romantic escapism, we all have that one series that instantly makes life seem a little more manageable. For me, that’s Gilmore Girls. The seven-season show about the everyday lives of the three generations of the Gilmore family has been a comforting companion during some of the most stressful periods of my life.

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When I had a day off school (due to sickness, real or feigned) my biggest excitement would come from being able to watch the daytime show. My family would mock me for being entertained by such a dull programme: scene after scene of normal women leading normal lives. But it was precisely that mundanity that I adored – the familiar routines that replayed across the screen on each episode, the same sets and locations, the same band of familiar characters. Everything was recognisable, predictable, and safe.

But while Gilmore Girls was true to the unremarkable day-to-day of real life, its world remained a vastly romanticised one, free of any real challenges. Take protagonist Rory Gilmore, the studious daughter who dreams of going to Harvard and becoming a journalist. Afflicted by a relentless perfectionism, Rory was a character that spoke to the experiences of many teenage girls, burdened by the need to please. Yet there was one crucial difference. Rory experienced none of the usual side-effects of her perfectionism; she was entirely devoid of anxiety or insecurities.

I nonetheless enjoyed this romanticisation; the fairy-tale nature of the show. It was life with the sharp edges blunted. There were difficult scenarios – toxic relationships, bad decisions, financial difficulties – but their toll on the characters was never overwhelming.

A few weeks ago, I decided to start re-watching the series. It was just the kind of feel-good entertainment I needed. As before, I ignored the inner voice that screamed ‘it ain’t so easy!!!’ every time the characters magically overcame a challenge thrown their way. As before, I relished in the escapist fantasy of it all.

One apparent inconsistency, however, I found hard to ignore. As I watched mother and daughter eat mountains of pancakes at Luke’s diner, or devour pizzas during their regular movie marathons, I couldn’t help but feel appalled by the absurdity of it. Despite knowing this was a sugarcoated version of reality (quite literally), I was irritated by their unrealistic eating habits. Rather than lusting after the pancakes and doughnuts and burgers, I considered their health impacts.

It was then that I realised for the first time just how much the show’s portrayal of indulgent eating had been part of its appeal for me. Having started the series at a time when my own relationship with food was a difficult one, watching two women consume copious amounts unselfconsciously –without mention of calories, diet or weight – had been refreshing.

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Why was it then that the Gilmores’ junk food habits bothered me this time round, when I ostensibly cared far less about these things? The answer was simple.Yes, I had dropped the calorie counting, become less concerned about numbers on a scale. But I had also become more used to a moralising narrative around food—the narrative of ‘wellness’. Celebrity fad diets had gone out of fashion, but in their place were thousands of fitness instagram accounts and ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos, most often targeted at young women like myself.

While supposedly well-meaning, the ‘wellness’ movement is often framed around feelings of guilt, shame, and fear– feelings that women have long struggled to shed when it comes to food. Like a diet, it is a lifestyle based on restriction and elimination; but unlike a diet, it has no end date. You must embody ‘wellness’, you must yourself feel genuine repulsion at the thought of sugar or processed carbs. Under the guise of a revolutionary cultural shift,then, wellness merely continues a centuries-old tradition: that of problematising food for women.

And it is precisely that tradition which made watching Rory and Lorelai eat so enjoyable. In the escapist feel-good bubble of Stars Hollow, that historical shame and guilt cease to exist. At least for an hour, we can pretend that average women have an entirely carefree attitude to food.  

The depiction of food in Gilmore Girls is far from perfect. Exaggerated to the point of ridiculousness, the protagonists’ ravenous appetites would potentially cause numerous heart problems in reality. It would also be misguided to deem it revolutionary. Young, white and thin, both characters strictly adhere to conventional western beauty standards. As a society, we have greater patience for thin, pretty gluttons like these two.

But it was enough for me, growing up, to see female characters I admired have a purely joyous relationship with food. No real human being can eat that much pizza or sugar. But in a time where food is consistently problematised, I think we could all learn a little from Rory and Lorelai Gilmore.

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-Branca Lessa de Sa

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