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On Wealth and Women on TV

Art for On Wealth and Women on TV.


The conflict that kicks off the plot of Gilmore Girls—the early ‘00s teen drama that has had, over the course of the last year, a full-blown, Netflix-driven renaissance—centers around money.

Rory Gilmore, the gifted and angelically beautiful teen who comprises one half of the pair at the center of the show, has been accepted into the prestigious Chilton Academy. Lorelai Gilmore, her hard-working and also angelically beautiful single mother, cannot afford Rory’s registration fee. Lorelai must beg her estranged, super-wealthy parents for the money—but in return for that money, she must allow them into her daughter’s life.

Underneath all of its soft-focus, soft-rock CW frippery, Gilmore Girls is a class drama that tries to look like a family drama—and, furthermore, it tries to get around all of the messy questions posed by class dramas, by essentially having it both ways. It’s like most “women’s television,” stories made for women like to trade in “empowerment.” But somehow, we seem to have given all the interesting stories of money and power to the men.

Money is just as central to every American story as we are terrible at talking about it. The “American dream” is the promise that anyone who works hard can succeed; the American project is uncovering all of the many ways that promise is broken. Everyone wants to become rich, but no one actually likes real-life rich people. (We instinctively prefer them as villains.)

From this tension, great TV is routinely born. For Walter White on Breaking Bad, money is the root of all evil. Americans talk a good game about hard work and success, but watching Walter devolve from meek, downtrodden public school teacher to snarling, murderous meth lord—the Demon Entrepreneur enthroned, as the last season’s posters showed him, atop a mountain of profits—tells you all you need to know about how Americans really view class mobility. We don’t just talk about “cutthroat businessmen.” In our best-loved stories, businessmen cut employees’ throats.

You can chart the same money melodramas in virtually all critically hailed, from Hannibal (probably the best show on television now), which elevates the demon-aristocrat to metaphysical villain status, to Mad Men, which exposes its upwardly mobile antihero Don Draper to achingly forensic levels of humiliation each new season.

Such are the travails of the moneyed TV male. But when we transition over to the women’s end of things, though, things start to look…well, different.

The time-honored tradition, for a “woman’s show,” is to strand the characters in a sort of class-free limbo, in which they make vague noises about having jobs and income, but most of the action is confined to their personal lives. Around the beginning of the ‘00s, with shows like Sex and the City or Desperate Housewives—and now, with shows like A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce—the solution was to make the leading ladies staggeringly, cartoonishly wealthy, so that money was never an issue. Half of the backlash against HBO’s Girls was due to the fact that Lena Dunham, though aspiring to a higher social consciousness than her predecessors, had seemingly fallen back into this same narrative cop-out.

The empowerment the working classes need is presumed to be financial; the empowerment that women need is presumed to be sexual. We don’t see the connection, and therefore, “women’s shows” focus almost exclusively on the latter. The connection exists, but it’s fraught: throughout most of history, women’s financial freedom and their sexual freedom were directly opposed. You could be single, sexually autonomous, and financially ill-at-ease due to discrimination on the job market; or, you could be hitched to a money-earning man, which would mean compromising your sexual freedom. (Or, as in the case of many GLBT women, working-class women, and women of color, you could be none of the above, in which case, God help you.)

This history is still with us: the “success” of making a comfortable amount of money, and that of forging a lasting partnership, are more connected (and more complicated) for women than they are for men. Which brings us back to Gilmore Girls, and its enshrinement in the pantheon of pro-woman pop culture. The many, many (many) tributes to Gilmore Girls published in the past year seem to indicate that the people who remember it most fondly were probably close to Rory’s age when they first watched it. Which is why this show’s solution must have been so pleasing: Rory Gilmore is neither rich nor poor. She is both.

Rory’s super-wealthy grandparents are uptight, yes, but they also give her anything she wants. Rory’s single working mother’s lack of income never holds Rory back. Over the course of Gilmore Girls, we watch Rory rocket up the class ladder: there’s a private school scholarship, a well-connected relative who gets her into Yale, and a wealthy (terrible) boyfriend. We can’t hold anything against Rory because her lower-middle-class roots are pure.. It’s a classic Cinderella story. The signifiers of class are there, but the actual problems are absent; the poor girl becomes a princess, overnight, and with no effort.

We can do better than fairy tales. Television should not shy away from depicting women’s complicated relationships with money; they can be the inspiration for rich, complex narratives—as we’ve seen on Mad Men, for instance. Gilmore Girls is a fun nostalgia trip. But the great shows about women and class are waiting to be made. Until then, there’s always one more re-watch of Breaking Bad.