I’ve been re-watching the box set of The Gilmore Girls in preparation for the return of the show and I’m troubled by Rory’s early days at Chilton Preparatory School.
The storylines are strong, the characters are captivating, the witty dialogue whips along at breakneck speed — and yet our enjoyment of The Gilmore Girls’ experiences at Chilton Preparatory School in Hartford, New England comes with a hefty dose of unease.
We’re asked to accept as a given that Chilton School is utterly top-notch and that Rory is privileged that it deigns to accept a girl whose education began at (shock! horror!) an ordinary high school.
But what the school offers is, whisper it quietly, tell it not in Gath (Biblical reference), an educational experience which is, in many ways, truly shocking and horrifying.
We see an ethos which stifles individuality, which refuses to acknowledge that failure is a part of learning, and which regards the purpose of education to drill young people in the art of getting a place at an Ivy League university.
It’s a point of view. It’s an attitude which the entire Chilton corpus subscribes to uncritically. Well, they would, wouldn’t they.
The pupils who succeed at Chilton (with, no doubt, a few exceptions, first among whom must be Rory) are mean-spirited, snobby, arrogant kids whose competitive drive is honed at the expense of qualities such as acceptance, empathy, humanity.
Now we know that the whole business of cliques and cabals, particularly among girls, is the stuff of books, TV and movies. We know that social snobbery provides a rich vein of satire and comedy.
But the Chilton mean girls never get their comeuppance, and their values remain unchallenged.
In their world, it’s OK to mock and disparage their unprivileged sisters. ‘Smart girls are mean,’ quips Lorelai. She’s having a playful pop at Rory, but her words ring true.
Yes, we get to understand the neurotic, socially inept, academically gifted Paris, and, as their complex friendship develops, we see the many ways in which she and Rory are alike. But the taste of those first encounters lingers.
The head of Chilton claims the school provides ‘one of the finest educations one can get’. The glimpses we receive of lessons at the school suggest this claim is something of an exaggeration, unless you think that education is all about learning facts.
Ooh look, we’ve jumped into Gradgrind territory. But from what we see, the required responses to Hard Times would be restricted to an ability to state its author and date of publication (Charles Dickens, 1864).
Rory’s swotting for the Shakespeare test consists of learning his birthplace, his mother’s name and the number of sonnets he wrote. Not so much an education, more a preparation for the pub quiz.
When Rory is studying, Paris taunts her by reciting from memory sonnet 116, ‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds…’ She follows up her recitation by hissing ‘You’re going down.’
Talk about knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing. This shower would join the Dead Poets Society only if it would support their college applications.
When you see their parents in action, you know where these kids are coming from. The parents grill teacher Max Medina about the college entry tests, and they don’t want their children exposed to any writer who isn’t guaranteed to come up in the paper.
And did you see how excited they get when Max suggests that they bribe the test committee for information about the questions? He has to explain that he was joking.
To be fair, Max is something of an antidote to the prevailing ethos. He champions Rory. He teaches creative writing. He shares his love of literature, and for one assignment he tells his class to read Emily Dickinson, and to think about what they read.
He tries to soften the blow of Rory’s D grade on an essay covered in red by saying the marks are friendly reminders that to err is human. His follow-up quip that at Chilton, they try to beat that humanity out of you may or may not be a joke. To survive in this school, Max has to tolerate a high level of personal ambivalence.
Lorelai dukes it out
And so does Lorelai. In a meltdown moment, she rants about the ‘snotty little school’ and the ‘horrible kids who treat each other like mortal enemies’ and how they have taken a great kid like Rory and torn her apart.
Lorelai’s ambitions for Rory are riddled with conflicting ideas and emotions — which is the only plausible explanation for her disastrous contribution to Rory’s first day at Chilton.
Lorelai is smart. She runs a successful inn. She, Emily Gilmore’s daughter, understands social convention. So why, in heaven’s name, does she put herself in the position of accompanying Rory on this all-important day dressed in tiny shorts and cowboy boots, looking like Daisy out of The Dukes Of Hazzard?
We’re expected to swallow the explanation that ALL her nice clothes are in the dry cleaners and she forgot to pick them up.
Nice try, Lorelai. You wouldn’t turn up at the inn for an important function dressed like that. And try telling us you don’t have back-up at home, by which we mean an outfit that might be second-tier but that doesn’t make you look as if you are heading for your job as pole dancer in the local rodeo-themed lap dancing club.
The wardrobe malfunction is partly a result of an alarm clock malfunction, which gets Lorelai and Rory off to a frazzled start.
Once more, it’s down to back-up. Lorelai must know that when it matters, don’t leave anything to chance. And she must be aware that unlike an old raincoat, which will never let you down (reference to the early Rod Stewart album), a furry alarm clock chosen for cuteness as opposed to reliability is likely to do just that.
So we might conclude that sub-consciously, Lorelai is self-sabotaging.
Since Rory was tiny, it has been Lorelai’s dream that her daughter should go to Harvard, and Chilton School is the stepping stone. At the same time, in the depths of her psyche, she knows that Rory and Chilton will not be a good fit.
Back to that first day. The unsmiling, unwelcoming admin staff at Chilton are amusing figures, stereotypes from a cartoon strip.
But just as you think it’s safe to laugh when Rory is told she has to be ready to recite the school song on demand, preferably in Latin, she is informed where she should seek advice if she has any questions.
What a relief for parents to know there is a guidance counsellor who handles everything except for bulimia or pregnancy. For those issues, students should see the nurse — or Coach Rubens.
I think I’d take my chances at swimming with the sharks at Stars Hollow High.
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