By Jem Wilcox
When I think of an unlikeable protagonist, my mind goes straight to someone like You’s Joe Goldberg or Bojack Horseman’s eponymous main character, both of whom have committed their fair share of unforgivable deeds, including murder, assault, and betraying loved ones for their own personal gain. So how is it that someone like Rory Gilmore, who in the first season of Gilmore Girls is just a 16-year-old student living in the close-knit, dreamy town of Stars Hollow, has also come to be considered a controversial character?
The evidence for Rory’s unpopularity is all over TikTok. When I search ‘Rory Gilmore’, the first video that comes up is by @fairyelena who explains that, at a young age, she idolised Rory because she saw herself in the character, only to be disappointed when she took “a year off college for the wrong reasons” and ended up as “a burnout gifted kid that sabotages every good relationship”. The next is a clip of the pilot episode, in which Rory jokingly tells future boyfriend Dean that she’s “unbelievably self-centred”, which user @gilmoregirlygirl suggests is a true statement foreshadowing her actions in later seasons. However, some users have defended Rory’s mistakes, claiming that her arc from perfect schoolgirl to a flawed human being is what actually makes her a more realistic and therefore more interesting character.
It’s hard to decide which camp I would put myself in. On the one hand, I sympathise with everyone that related to Rory and was disappointed by her character development: I first watched Gilmore Girls when I was sixteen and deeply obsessed with my academic career. Seeing Rory struggle through her school’s heavy workload before finally graduating as Valedictorian with offers from numerous Ivy League schools was extremely motivating at a time when all I cared about was getting top grades. I even related to aspects of her personal life, being in my first long-term relationship at the time and often getting into turbulent arguments with my family, as most teenagers do. She was the first character that I felt truly resembled me.
So, when she cheated on her boyfriend, started an affair with her married ex-boyfriend, dropped out of college because of one man’s negative opinion, and tried to claim that she was just a poor, small-town girl despite having a trust fund and grandparents wealthy enough to pay for whole buildings at her university, it was extremely hard to watch. And that’s all without even mentioning the revival show, which suggests even ten years later Rory hasn’t managed to achieve her dreams or settle down with the right person – she’s essentially unemployed and cheats on her partner (who she literally forgets exists sometimes) with her ex-boyfriend, who’s engaged to another woman.
Rory’s transformation from an innocent schoolgirl to a flawed woman was heartbreaking, because it wasn’t just a simple case of ‘everybody makes mistakes’: she is continuously selfish throughout the show, unable to take accountability for her actions. As well as this, her refusal to admit that her family’s money and connections helped enormously in her success at Yale is infuriating. Instead of owning up to her wealthy background, she attempts to distance herself from the very people she wants to imitate, all while exploiting her privilege at every convenient opportunity.
How can I defend Rory, who I once thought was just like me, when she’s become so unlikeable? The direction chosen for her character was uninspiring and simply sad.
To see her become a habitual cheater who never achieved her dreams was hurtful when I was younger. Was all of her effort for nothing? Would I suffer the same fate as her? I felt for some time that we had parallel lives, so it only stood to reason that I too might never settle down with the right person or become successful, especially since I didn’t have her secret weapon of money. If Rory Gilmore couldn’t do it, what chance did I have?
Of course, five years on, I know this isn’t true. But I think that’s why Rory has come to be such a controversial protagonist now: she very quickly alienated herself from the same audience that could relate to her. She became downright unlikeable, and not in a ‘problematic fave’ type of way. Perhaps if the revival show had shown that she had finally matured and done something with her academic success, Rory could have been redeemed, but instead, it conveyed the message that no matter how hard you try, you won’t get anywhere.
So, the verdict? Rory kind of sucks. Or rather, the show does for letting her life spiral in the worst way possible. Nevertheless, if I’m struggling to see the endpoint of a summative, I will never stop trying to channel that pre-college unstoppable Rory Gilmore energy.
Illustration: Verity Laycock