When Gilmore Girls ended its seven-season run in 2007, it wasn’t exactly clear that a modest broadcast hit about a mother-daughter duo navigating life in small-town Connecticut would leave a lasting mark on the television landscape. But its groundbreaking portrayal of single motherhood and generational friction, rooted in the now-iconic relationship of Lorelai (Lauren Graham) and Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel), cultivated a fan base whose devotion outlived the show, allowing it to continue reaching new audiences long after it went off the air. Now its most dedicated viewers may no longer be the millennials who grew up alongside Rory, but teens and young adults who were toddlers when the show originally aired, if they were alive at all.
i need gilmore girls in an IV— carmen ☆ (@cxtsncxffee) August 31, 2021
As the pandemic progressed — shuttering schools, universities, and workplaces — Gilmore Girls became a touchpoint for countless new viewers under the age of 25, as evidenced by the 2 billion views amassed by TikTok’s #gilmoregirls hashtag. Accounts like @cozycornerhollow and @rc_gilmore have garnered upward of 2 million likes with clips of critical scenes — a funny moment between Lorelai and Rory, the first meeting between Rory and a future boyfriend — compilations set to various songs, and meme-like commentaries. Other platforms, like Tumblr and Instagram, offer more of the same: hundreds of fan edits set to tracks from The Weeknd, Taylor Swift, and Olivia Rodrigo, reaction memes, viewer theories, favorite ships, and posts tracking goofs or continuity errors.
For young fans like Jorgah, the 16-year-old behind the TikTok fan account @starshollowhigh (25.1k followers, 2.2 million likes), where she posts fan edits, clips, and reaction videos, Gilmore Girls is a “home away from home and somewhere where I long to be for days on end.” This longing for the seemingly less-complicated time and place is a nearly ubiquitous thread for younger Gilmore Girls fans (including myself), so it would be easy to chalk up its pandemic-boosted popularity as simply yet another example of cooped-up Gen Z’s intensely scrutinized attachment to the cultural products of the early 2000s — along with Juicy Couture tracksuits, crop tops, and My Chemical Romance — and leave it at that.
But the Gilmore Girls resurgence stands out for its reflection of the fluctuating dynamics between fandom, identity, and cultural (re)production for the Very Online contingent of young people flooding the internet. Their engagement with the show goes beyond the fan commentary or mere signalling of the prior generation of mainstream fans; in many cases, like more niche fic-writing fans have been doing for decades, they’re actively rewriting the show’s reality to match the world they want to see — and to have it more accurately reflect who they are. At the same time, everything else that draws young viewers to the show — its strong female cast, keen awareness of generational dynamics, low-stakes drama, and rapid-fire, reference-laden dialogue — shows exactly why teens will likely keep finding their way to Stars Hollow.
The path for Gilmore Girls into the hearts of Gen Z was not entirely obvious. As has been endlessly remarked, it was neither a ratings smash nor an awards winner during its run on the WB and CW, reaching roughly 5 million viewers a week. But it was consistently ranked first in its time-slot for women ages 18 to 25, and after it ended, it followed a well-trod path for erstwhile TV shows-turned-cult hits, finding a second life in syndication.
It became, as TV reporter Josef Adalian noted, “a steady, solid performer for Freeform/ABC Family ... almost always ranking as a top-five basic-cable show among women under 35 in whatever time slot the network scheduled it.” By the end of 2016, Adalian estimated, at least 11 million people had watched it on cable — to say nothing of its viewership on Netflix, where the entire 153-episode run debuted in 2014, making it available to an even wider swath of new viewers.
Also key to the endurance of Gilmore Girls: It was part of a cohort of shows that aired in the early 2000s around which new kinds of internet fandoms formed. Tumblr, which was founded the same year Gilmore Girls initially ended, provided a platform whose distinctive reblogging features made it the center of countless fandoms, as it allowed them to endlessly create, comment on, and share the work of other fans. The constant and evolving stream of GIFs featuring beloved scenes, debates over Rory’s beaux Logan (Matt Czuchry) and Jess (Milo Ventimiglia), unending analysis, and running quirks, not only let the original fandom’s fervor continue to smolder long after the show ended, but provided the material and frameworks for future fans on Tumblr and, more recently, TikTok. “I feel like it’s like one of those shows where even if you didn’t watch it, you still know everything about it because it was just kind of part of the culture and it was something that people talked about constantly and still talk about constantly,” says New York Times culture reporter Taylor Lorenz.
Just how pervasive the Gilmore Girls fandom had become was clear in 2016 when Netflix announced A Year in the Life, a four-episode revival and series conclusion helmed by creator Amy Sherman-Palladino — who had walked away before the show’s last season — as its first original miniseries. Heralded by, among other promotional gambits, more than 200 coffee shops across the country dressing up as Luke’s Diner, the breathless anticipation led TV writers to declare that it “is probably going to break the internet.” (And the ending kind of did.) The show’s place in the pop culture zeitgeist fully cemented, and when the pandemic arrived and trapped everyone in their homes for months, a new audience was ready for it.
“Comfort television” has ruled TV for the past year and a half, the highest-profile example being the relentlessly positive, seemingly inescapable Apple TV+ series Ted Lasso. As burned-out viewers gravitated toward series with good-natured characters and heart-warming dialogue at their center, Gilmore Girls was waiting. “COVID-19 meant that so many people were locked inside and turned to watch Gilmore Girls for comfort,” says Jorgah. “I think Gen-Z liked the coziness, warmth and happiness that the show brought while the world was crumbling to pieces.”
“It is a comfort show — nothing real is gonna happen and I think that’s something that we saw a lot with the pandemic,” says 23-year-old Samantha Priego, who runs @outofcontextgg on Twitter. “You’re not gonna see anyone dying or like an apocalypse or something that makes you anxious.”
There is drama in Gilmore Girls — its through line sees Lorelai, a class traitor of sorts, attempting to reconcile with her wealthy parents (played by Kelly Bishop and the late Edward Herrmann) for Rory’s sake — but no real-world catastrophe or existential threats ever loom. Even as the show offered an antidote to the dominant political conservatism of the time by centering on a single mother of small means trying to provide the best life for her daughter, by the end of each episode’s 40-minute run-time, every issue is either resolved or glossed over, whether it’s a neighbor’s cat dying or the Gilmore patriarch’s health. Instead, Gilmore Girls unhurriedly chronicles their misadventures in the fictional Connecticut town of Stars Hollow, which is filled with characters like the gruff yet neighborly Luke (Scott Patterson), hilariously posh inn concierge Michel (Yanic Truesdale), and Rory’s rock-loving rebellious bestie Lane (Keiko Agena).
“Claudine Longet” #gilmoregirls #comedy #funny #joke #tv #singer♬ original sound - Scott Westwood
The show’s chronological setting, at the dawn of the Bush era, is also no small part of its appeal. It offers an escape from the current moment — before a world-altering pandemic, increasingly unhinged levels of inequality, the radioactive aftermath of a(n openly) fascist president, a deeply toxic social media environment, and a looming climate apocalypse, all resulting in a profound disillusionment with capitalism and an overwhelming sense of cynicism. Like prior generations, the result is a need to revisit a time and a place that predates everything wrong right now: Hence the appeal of Y2k, Friends, and even more recent aesthetics, like Tumblr circa 2013.
Gilmore Girls’ brand of nostalgia is particularly potent because of creator Sherman-Palladino’s frenetic, ping-pong dialogue that drips with references both obscure and mainstream, historical and contemporary (for 2005). A viewer would be hard-pressed to find a single scene with Lorelai or Rory that doesn’t mention a Russian literary figure, a ’90s boy band, Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, or a historical uprising — often all in the same conversation — squarely dating the show. “Gilmore Girls’ strongest point is, perhaps, its pop culture references,” says Lorenz. “It takes you right back to that specific time period, in a way that other shows that were sort of more time-agnostic, don’t.”
Josh Joseph, who is now 21 but started watching Gilmore Girls in high school, thinks of these references as an “introduction” to the time period: “Sometimes I’d be like, ‘I wonder what that’s referring to?’ and I’d look it up. And I think that was a fun part for me because I feel like even having watched it now as many times as I have, I still don’t understand all of the references.” Unsurprisingly, there’s a small genre of TikTok videos — along with Spotify playlists and reading lists — now dedicated to explaining those references.
But with the pandemic, a different kind of nostalgia is also at work as teenagers look to experience pivotal moments they’ve missed out on over the past 18 months. On Twitter, a quick search for the show pulls up accounts eager to enter “Gilmore Girls binge watching season” in the fall. Jorgah, of the @starshollowhigh account, revisits Gilmore Girls annually, coming back to it every autumn for back-to-school episodes that coincide with an IRL return to high school hallways — like the prom episode, the first kiss, or the begrudging after-school group project — which didn’t happen for most teens last year, and many still this year, adding to its poignancy.
don’t worry i watch random episodes throughout the rest of the year #gilmoregirls #gilmoregirlstiktok #starshollow #abba♬ la la la gilmore girls - mia
Gilmore Girls is also explicitly generational: It begins when Lorelai is 32 and Rory is 16 — the same age at which Lorelai became pregnant and ran away, and ultimately ends when Rory reaches Lorelai’s age at the start of the show. While the concept of a “generation” as a group of people born in a specific time period who all share the exact same experiences, thoughts, and feelings is extremely fraught — consumerism is largely responsible for the current version of the idea — people born between 1997 and 2010 who have been branded “Gen Z” are self-consciously and acutely aware of their status as a constructed “generation,” largely to have things sold to them. So explicit generational conflict, while a universal theme, resonates especially strongly, with Rory serving as a stand-in for the viewer and growing up alongside them (until they become adults and inevitably identify with Lorelai, like millennials did). Jorgah says she feels Gen-Z “relates” to Rory and “aspires to be like her,” especially with regard to their studies.
The Gilmore Girls revival among Gen Z might nonetheless be surprising because it’s a show about white people in a small town, and it doesn’t often touch on the political or socioeconomic dynamics of this reality. Reflecting the demographics of its fictional Connecticut setting, the show has just three main characters of color, all of whom tend to conform to archetypes frequently seen in media: the rebellious Lane, her strict mother Mrs. Kim (Emily Kuroda), and Michel, a Black Frenchman whose personal life is explored in just a single episode when his mother comes to visit.
Gilmore Girls’ message around wealth and privilege is also, at times, muddled. Lorelai is highlighted as a self-made woman, but the series plays down her access to her family’s generational wealth. “When you think about it nowadays, she’s also this privileged white woman who always grew up with money,” Priego said, “and even though she does not want to take it, she always has that option.” Many fans have pointed out that while Lorelai is supposed to be living paycheck-to-paycheck, she is somehow able to afford a large two-bedroom home and daily takeout.
The current Gen-Z vibe of eating the rich is also comically misaligned with the popularity of Emily Gilmore, Lorelai’s mother — a blue-blood viewers are supposed to eventually empathize with, despite her inordinate wealth and horrible treatment of working-class people. “We cannot love them always because of the qualities that they have and I think that works, because of their whiteness,” Priego said.
November 24, 2021
None of these critiques are new — and they’re ones that Sherman-Palladino is clearly uninterested in. In one instance in 2012, TV super-producer Shonda Rhimes critiqued the diversity of Sherman-Palladino’s shows; in response, Sherman-Palladino said that she doesn’t “do message shows.” Instead, for Sherman-Palladino, the core of the series was always “family and connection.” “If you happened to be born into a family that doesn’t really understand you, go out and make your own,” she told Collider in a 2016 interview. “That’s what Lorelai did. She went out and she made her own family. The ironic twist in her life is that then this daughter that she created this whole family for, likes the family that she left.”
Instead of accepting some of the show’s less-favored plot points and character decisions, Gen Z fans have taken it upon themselves to recreate the show in their image, inserting their own ideological frameworks and points of view on the series. On Twitter, @rwgilmoregirls photoshops abolitionist and anti-capitalist talking points on stills of Gilmore Girls in a play on words referencing known prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore, while Paris (Liza Weil), a rich Chilton Preparatory School attendee who will stop at nothing to get what she wants, represents someone who “is just disillusioned with wealth,” Joseph said. “A lot of Marx’s points are about the dull life that capitalism has created and a lot of meaninglessness, and while she’s obviously thriving in this capitalist environment, I feel like she doesn’t seem very happy or fulfilled.”
Other fans have wholly rewritten the backstory for some characters, clinging to them as headcanon. For example, while Paris has only been paired with male characters on the show, many believe she falls into the “mean lesbian” media trope — an archetype that was popularized by Glee’s Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera), with a more recent equivalent in the Gossip Girl reboot’s Monet de Haan (Savannah Lee Smith). “I think that, now with the internet, people have been reading Paris as a queer-coded character and they’re like, ‘Oh, yes lesbian queen,’ even though she never has a girlfriend,” Priego said. “I think we are sort of ignoring, nowadays, canonized things and we’re making them our own — it’s like what happens with fan fiction … I do like these new lenses and readings that we can have upon something that it’s already finished.”
November 10, 2020
Many fans also ship Rory with Paris, saying that the titular character is bisexual and overwriting the fact that the latter has a long-standing relationship with (and eventual marriage to and divorce from) a male Yale peer. “I think it’s important that we retake those things and make them ours because they’re cultural products — they are there for the taking,” Priego said.
“[Shows from the 2000s] were just very not inclusive and they were very generic and they really were not very representative of the human condition, on a broad scale,” Lorenz said. “But now that people are more comfortable in their own identities, I think that people project these niche things onto characters, but that’s been a thing in fan fiction forever.”
This aligns with what might be one of the broader characteristics of Gen Z: Its defining cultural trait (so far), according to writer Safy-Hallan Farah, is that it has resisted definition, instead identifying “infinite, disparate, and chaotic combinations of tastes,” producing a sense of what she calls hyperreal individualism, meaning that they “define themselves and create an identity around their own disparate tastes and styles” even when the original references are “illegible or incoherent.” Their identities are constantly recreating the media they’re consuming; Gilmore Girls shapes them, and they reshape Gilmore Girls.
As much as Gilmore Girls’ renewed success among young people is a symptom of a larger obsession with all phenomena Y2K, what it really comes down to is the care and concern bestowed on the show by its writers, actors and Sherman-Palladino — and for Gen Z, it’s a necessary thread of empathy in an increasingly hostile world. It portrays its strong female leads with poise in the face of adversity, especially when the adversity is between the characters. Even when the Gilmores fight, no judgment is rendered, only the space to express why they’re hurt, angry, or scared — perhaps with a dash of magic realism.
“There is a relationship in the show that everyone relates to,” Jorgah said, “whether it’s the hostile relationship Lorelai has with Emily to the teasing best friends that are Michel and Sookie. In every episode, there is something new and exciting to explore and the characters never stop growing.”
And the relationship that transcends all others is Lorelai and Rory’s. It’s a “unique relationship that only a small percentage of mothers and daughters can have,” says Jorgah. According to Sheila Lawrence, a veteran Gilmore Girls writer, viewers generally either have a Lorelai-and-Rory relationship or they “desperately wish” they had one. “I feel like a lot of people must either really have a relationship that it reminds them of in their own life or they just really admire it and they want one like that,” Joseph says.
In Season 2’s penultimate episode, Rory runs away to New York City as she struggles to reconcile her budding feelings for Jess — who leaves Stars Hollow without saying goodbye — inadvertently skipping out on her mother’s graduation ceremony. When Rory returns home, she breaks down in tears and begs Lorelai to ground her for life. Instead, the latter gently offers some words of wisdom — maybe, just maybe, she’s falling for Jess — and brushes off the slight. Just one of the myriad instances that showcase the pair’s unconditional love and acceptance of each other — it’s ultimately why fans, old and new, keep coming back to hitting play on Season 1, Episode 1.
“It makes me feel like the decisions I make in life will always lead me in the right direction, even if at the time they never make sense,” Jorgah says. “I think Gilmore Girls will forever be relevant and resonant to all people and not just Gen Z.”
Natalie Oganesyan is an entertainment journalist based in Los Angeles.