When Gilmore Girls came out in 2000, young women were in desperate need of positive female role models. In an era when society designated the explicitly post-feminist Ally McBeal as the show that best articulated the internal conflicts of women (it didn’t), Lorelai and Rory Gilmore were godsends. Intelligent, funny, quick-witted, independent, well-read, and wholly original, they fulfilled a hunger for well-rounded female characters who had their own dreams, goals, and opinions separate from the men in their lives.
The groundbreaking nature of the main characters and the focus on female relationships made one uncomfortable fact much easier to miss: Gilmore Girls is not particularly feminist. It might be considered feminist for the time period, when stacked against actively misogynistic shows like Ally, but on the whole, it doesn’t even achieve the “flawed but as feminist as we could expect for the time” status, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It had a disquieting penchant for gay panic, slut-shaming, and casual racism (which I will explore in depth in another post), and when it wasn’t being politically incorrect, it was often pointedly apolitical. Case in point: Gilmore Girls is a show about teen motherhood that literally never utters the word “abortion.”
The entire show is based on a simple premise: Lorelai’s parents are deeply disappointed in her because she got pregnant at sixteen years old and destroyed their dreams of Vassar, marriage to an Ultimate Frisbee player, and a lucrative but unsatisfying career in finance (until she had children at the proper time and became a housewife, of course). Lorelai fights with her parents almost every week about her decision not to marry Christopher, but the notion that she could have chosen to have an abortion is not on anyone’s radar.
And this makes sense for Emily and Richard, who are implied to be somewhat religious (another issue related to underage pregnancy that is barely mentioned, let alone tackled, in the series). But from what we see in flashbacks, Lorelai herself doesn’t seem to consider the possibility either, which is not a particularly authentic depiction of teen motherhood. While many would ultimately choose to have a child in Lorelai’s circumstances, the decision to have or not to have an abortion is an important one, and one that should have been shown on screen.
Gilmore Girls is rife with accidental pregnancy; aside from its inciting incident, Sookie has an unwanted pregnancy after her husband lies to her about getting a vasectomy, Liz has a near-meltdown when she finds out she’s pregnant with TJ’s child, Lorelai has a scare (that actually scares her) after unprotected sex with Luke, Lane gets pregnant with twins when she’s barely out of her teens. Yes, all of these women were in long-term relationships with varying degrees of stability when they became pregnant, which arguably makes it more likely that they would have the financial and emotional means to have a child. But all of these pregnancies or almost-pregnancies were explicitly unwelcome, and abortion was still never presented as an option for any of them.
Tellingly, the only exception to this rule was Sherry Tinsdale, who had the misfortune of being a blonde romantic rival to Lorelai or Rory. (Aside from people of color, these are by far the most dehumanized characters on the show.) Sherry was mostly played for laughs as a caricature of the neurotic “wants to have it all” career woman, who openly says she’s “not a baby person” and has the audacity to plan her C-section after a big presentation at work (I’m sorry, how the hell else would you do it?? [Nerdy Spice: I mean. Didn’t she also schedule it after a mani-pedi? And green ISN’T the new pink.] [Janes: That was just a joke from Lorelai! But I think she did schedule it after a dinner at “Sushi Sushi.” 😕 ]). She briefly considered having an abortion while she and Christopher were on the rocks (although she still doesn’t actually say the word). In spite of Sherry’s unlikability, this would still qualify as an encouraging anomaly, except that she eventually leaves her child to take a job in Paris (those “career women,” amirite?), never to be seen again. Whether intentional or not, this sends a clear message that the only women who consider abortion are the ones who are somehow defective, missing the “maternal gene.”
Even more tellingly, the only other character to seriously consider the idea of an abortion is a straight-up villain. In the wonderful and heartbreaking third-season episode, “Dear Emily and Richard,” we get to see the immediate reactions to Lorelai and Chris’ pregnancy, and Straub Hayden–Chris’ cold, withholding, Bush-loving father who once mocked Rory for being a shy child–suggested that Lorelai “just get rid of it.” Most people, regardless of political leanings, would find his attitude to be cavalier to the point of being callous, and Emily is meant to be the (somewhat reactionary) hero of the piece when she says that’s “not an option.”
And to be fair, the show makes it clear that none of the parents have the moral high ground. They’re all trying to make decisions about Lorelai’s body when she is a perfectly conscious being, and while Emily seems more sympathetic in this scene, she’s taking away Lorelai’s agency just as much as the man who says that the pregnancy is entirely Lorelai’s responsibility (seriously, villain). But still, the feminism behind this acknowledgment that Lorelai should have control over her reproductive decisions is somewhat undercut by the fact that Lorelai herself doesn’t ever consider having an abortion. She only says she wants to make decisions about her life, hers and “its.” Rory was always a part of the equation for Lorelai, and we’re supposed to romanticize that pre-birth mother-daughter bond in a way that is distinctly non-progressive.
There is an argument to be made that there were institutional impediments rather than creative ones, but there’s also plenty of evidence to the contrary. Gilmore Girls‘ pilot was originally funded by the Family Friendly Programming Forum, which certainly sounds like a religious organization. But they also funded Friday Night Lights, which boasts one of the most explicit and sensitive depictions of abortion ever on television. And abortion was certainly still censored on many networks around that time; Degrassi‘s abortion episode was famously banned from airing in the U.S. in 2003. But then again, Degrassi was on a different network, and a “family drama” on the same network–Everwood–aired a thoughtful and liberal-minded abortion episode in 2002.
Although we can’t know for certain whether Gilmore Girls experienced any behind-the-scenes interference on this issue, it seems much more likely that the writers avoided any explicit abortion talk because they thought it would be off-brand, that it would belie the show’s lighthearted, whimsical tone. But the notion that abortion, but not teen motherhood (and teen homelessness, for that matter), is incompatible with a “family-friendly,” generally lighthearted dramedy is conservative in itself.
I have my own complicated feelings about abortion, just as every thinking person does. I’m certainly not saying that Lorelai “should” have had an abortion, or even that she should have seriously considered it. (I can easily accept an argument that she wouldn’t have, based on her overall character development.) But if there’s one thing “Dear Emily and Richard” did devastatingly well, it was to remind us that when Lorelai found out she was pregnant, she was a child. A scared and confused child, who realized early on that she would be going through the traumatic process of childbirth and teen motherhood without any real emotional support. Regardless of the ultimate decision, abortion would have been a part of the conversation, if only the conversation in Lorelai’s own head.
This shot of Lorelai alone in the hospital listening to her Walkman is one of the saddest in the series
Shows that depict abortions in a frank and unapologetic way, like Friday Night Lights, Degrassi, Girls, Jessica Jones, and even Scandal, aren’t hailed as feminist because they glorify the act, or take any sort of stance on it at all. These shows are progressive because they reflect the real-life experiences of women who are in similar situations to the flawed, complex protagonists. For a series that was so groundbreaking, so concerned with diverse female experiences, it was pretty retrogressive to relegate thoughts of abortion to absent stage moms and misogynist villains. And for a series that prided itself on its honesty about teenage motherhood, avoiding the word “abortion” for seven seasons was downright Victorian.