Before last night, I’d never actually watched an entire episode of Gilmore Girls—despite the fact that it was squarely in the mix of other WB television shows I was addicted to at the end of elementary school, like Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Charmed. Somehow, the early adventures of Rory and Lorelai Gilmore eluded me, and once Buffy switched to UPN in the same time slot, there was basically no way I was ever going to fall in love with Stars Hollow the way some of my friends had.
And yet, every now and then, when I’d catch a moment of the show while channel-surfing, there was always something about it that left me feeling odd towards what seemed like a perfectly fine show about a town of white, over-caffeinated Connecticutians. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
This winter, after nine years of being off the air, Netflix brought Gilmore Girls out of retirement for a victory lap of four 90-minute long mini-movies exploring the Gilmores’ relationship as it had evolved since the show’s final episode in 2007. Maybe, I thought, things would be different this time. Maybe Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life would be the thing that’d get me hype to go back and watch a town obsess over a bed and breakfast.
As I dug into the first episode of the new Netflix show and watched Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel pretend to drink from coffee cups that were clearly empty, that same feeling of boredom and mild annoyance creeped up my spine and compelled me to pull out my phone to look at Twitter. As I swiped down my timeline, a random Gilmore Girls-related tweed slid onto the screen and stopped me dead in my tracks.
“Twitter, I made you something,” writer Rahawa Haile tweeted. “My theory is that the black people on Gilmore Girls are lost hosts from Westworld‘s unrevealed new narrative.
The thing she’d made was Gilmore Blacks, a Tumblr dedicated to documenting every single time a black actor appeared on the show, whether or not they spoke, and what they said—if anything. Each post features a screengrab or two of black actors walking in the background, doing yoga, staring at pumpkins—the sort of thing one does in Stars Hollow—and draws attention to the fact that these people rarely do anything else. Their purpose in the scenes, Haile insists, is to endure and little else.
When I spoke with Haile by e-mail, she described herself as a fan of the original series who, as a Miami native, was originally drawn in by the Northeastern fantasy of it all. But Haile explained that while she fell in love with the original Gilmore Girls, the way the new series handles its characters of color made it feel somewhat unwelcoming.
“We’re talking about a show that is as white as they come (which is fine!)” she wrote. “The whiteness isn’t the problem; the handling of minorities is. They drift through a show set in the present that asks us not to think too hard about what we know about being a minority in the present.”
Haile’s right. It isn’t at all unrealistic to imagine that a town like Stars Hollow might not have the most ethnically diverse population, but Gilmore Girls does have some black and brown folks on camera from time to time. The thing is, though, they’re just there. Like props. While there are characters like Michel (Yanic Truesdale) and Lane Kim (Keiko Agena) who are given distinct personalities and motivations, the vast majority of Gilmore Girls‘ non-white actors are there to be what Haile describes as “lampposts” with feet.
Gilmore Girls’ clumsy approach to people of color is that much more questionable when you consider scenes involving Emily Gilmore (Kelly Bishop), Lorelai’s old-money, upperclass mother and the family of nondescript Latinos that she lets move into her house to help clean, but seems utterly incapable of communicating with.
“What language is that?” Emily asks Rory after an exchange with her maid. “I thought it was Spanish but then I had the gardener try to tell her to come in early one day and he came back and told me she wasn’t speaking Spanish and it took me a while to understand what he was saying because I need the pool man to translate for the gardener.”
One imagines that the scene is meant to highlight just how culturally out of touch and sheltered Emily is due to her wealth, privilege, and whiteness. But for a show that isn’t exactly known for its sharp renderings of brown folks and critiques of stuffy old white women, it makes these sort of gags feel tone-deaf and insensitive.
The issue with the Gilmores’ maids and the largely silent black characters in the background, Haile told me, was ultimately one and the same and had little to do with Gilmore Girls’ inherent whiteness. They just weren’t really being given the same about of humanity.
“The point is creators should strive to humanize. Always. High Maintenance, while a different type of show completely, accomplishes this regularly,” Haile said. “If this isn’t a priority for Gilmore Girls, so be it. I’ll make a Tumblr asking for better and move on.”