Gilmore Girls and the Bechdel Test

So let me get this off my chest: I love Gilmore Girls. I know that not everyone does; There are two basic objections. One is the “No one really talks like that” objection, which I confess is true. The fast-talking, 10-jokes-a-line style of comedy is not for everyone.

But the other objection, from my man-friends is that Gilmore Girls, with its two female leads, flowery title card, pink and purple DVD boxes, Carole King theme song, etc, etc. It is a girlie show and somehow unfit for male consumption. This is the objection I want to talk about.

See, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Bechdel Test. For those who don’t know, this is a simple test designed for movies. The test is merely that (1) the movie have two named female characters, (2) that they talk to each other, and (3) that they talk about something other than men or babies.

Passing the Bechdel test does not make a movie magically feminist, nor does failing the test make it misogynistic or anything like that. Rather, the point is if you start taking movies randomly off the shelf at Blockbuster (are there still Blockbusters?) you will be surprised how many of them fail it. And taken in aggregate that sends a clear message about how our mainstream culture marginalizes women.

Likewise, I can think of only a handful of T.V. shows that pass the test every episode. But I would put money on not only every single episode of Gilmore Girls passing, but I would further suggest that many episodes actually fail a reverse Bechdel test – they never have two male characters talking about anything other than a woman. Obviously at points in the show, especially when Jess is in the picture or when the plot revolves around the band, Gilmore Girls will pass both tests, but for most of the show there is only about one male character per sphere in which the action takes place. The inn staff is basically two women and one man. Friday night dinners have three women and one man. Rory’s friend group is all female prior to Yale and mostly female at Yale (with the exception of the ill-fated Marty). She dates boys, but she hangs out with girls.

The men in these spheres are also not in control of them. Many of them appear to be: For instance, Richard Gilmore is the alleged head of the Gilmore household, but certainly Emily calls the shots. Taylor leads the town council, but the meetings are very often taken over by Babette or Ms. Patty. Lorelai rules at the Inn, Paris rules at school. Everywhere in the Gilmore Girls’ world is a domain dominated, often surreptitiously, by women, with the one notable exception of Luke’s Diner. But Luke’s is a lonely antisocial place, a town meet-up spot ironically run by a misanthrope. And whenever Lorelai walks in the doors of Luke’s, she is a challenge to his authority – inserting herself behind the counter when he’s too slow to fetch her order, barging upstairs on more than one occasion.

The reason this is an interesting way to look at Gilmore Girls is that it illustrates what the Bechdel test is all about. The reason it’s a problem that movies marginalize their female characters is that we deprive ourselves of a huge number of interesting female stories that exist to be told.

There are other shows that pass the test: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, almost certainly, but it is a very masculine show, an action adventure that happens to star a heroine rather than a hero. Sex in the City, maybe. But only in so much as the women in the show talk about something other than sex and men! Gilmore Girls is about a network of mothers and daughters relating to one another as women. It’s a show of womens’ stories, and no matter how great the men are that Rory and Lorelai find (and some are better than others) their relationship to each other is always most important.

The male-to-male conflicts on the show are either played for laughs (like Luke and Taylor) or have a woman at the center of them (Luke and Christopher). Its the female-to-female conflicts, conflicts between Rory and Lorelai, Lorelai and Emily, Lane and Mrs. Kim, Rory and Paris that drive the plot and the action of the show. It’s not that these women don’t have or want men in their lives. It’s that they don’t need men in order to be interesting or worth watching. It proves that audiences are just as happy to watch drama about women as about men and that show creators can be successful and still pass the Bechdel test (and perhaps more stringent tests that follow).

The question of whether Gilmore Girls is a feminist show is still an open one as far as I’m concerned – perhaps one to be tackled in a future article. But what I do know is that it’s the kind of show feminists should want to see on television – one written and produced by a women, telling women’s stories about more than sex and babies, and followed by a loyal audience of women AND men.

2 thoughts on “Gilmore Girls and the Bechdel Test

  1. I like this essay a lot–but I think it's unfair to say that Buffy is a 'masculine' show simply because it's an action adventure! It has a predominantly female cast (certainly in the later series) and all of the women in it invariably weild more power than the male characters. It's also a show with women as the majority of its audience. I don't know how you could call any of that 'masculine'? If a show can even have a gender… are women not supposed to enjoy action?

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