Mirror, Mirror: The Gilmore Girls, Knocked Up, and Criticism in the Internet Age
I was sick yesterday, and brother I mean sick. As in, lie-in-bed-all-day-without-a-shower, consuming-nothing-but-tea, seeing-previous-meals-show-up-for-surprise-cameos-like-killed-off-characters-in-a-Joss-Whedon-vehicle kind of sick. And thus it was thus I found myself inexplicably deciding to watch — and enjoying — the first two episodes of Gilmore Girls so that I might join in the fun with Sam’s newest offering.
I’ll keep future GG thoughts in Sam’s threads where they belong, but I felt like I had too much to say not to write a post when I came across the discussion threads that were started and fanned largely by these two comments:
Lee: “it seems very implausible that a sixteen-year old white would woman from a wealthy family would take a pregnancy to term absent some very special circumstances.”
Saul: “I think@LeeEsqis largely correct about the social class Lorelai Gillmore comes from and the implausibility of her not getting an abortion.”
I feel like there are two things to be explored here, neither of which deals with my favorite set of twins’ never-ending capacity to make me wonder at their ability to deconstruct and compartmentalize the real universe into a Vanity Fair universe so effortlessly, and each has to do with where internet-era film and television criticism leaves me cold.
For those not participating in Sam’s book club, some quick background: In the GG threads, the decision (made long before the show occurs) of the show’s main character to have brought an unwanted pregnancy to term is compared to a similar decision in the film Knocked Up. That neither pregnancy was aborted seems to be a knock (ha!) against each work’s premise, and therefore against the work as a whole. The primary objection in the instances of both GG and Knocked Up, as best I can tell, stems from one of two specific criticisms:
Criticism #1: Most middle or upper-middle class white people would have abortions if they were faced with an unwanted pregnancy; therefore, it is incumbent upon an author to to have his or her characters make a similar decision should there be an unwanted pregnancy in his or her story.
Criticism #2: When starting with a fixed set of circumstances from which to build a story, the author chose to focus on X as the central theme of the story. But Y is more important to me than X. Therefore, the work itself is largely or fully invalid.
Almost all movie and TV criticism I read on the intertubes today is essentially one (or both) of the above criticisms. And when you pull back from an individual criticism to look at pattern as a whole, it’s frankly bizarre.
Consider Criticism #1.
Sidestepping the question of whether or non-poor white people actually go ahead and have accidentally conceived babies — they do — for the sake of argument let’s assume that the characters in both GG and Knocked Up make choices surrounding abortion that are not status quo, and that for any given 100 actual people with similar circumstances in the real world, 90 or more might have chosen a different route. In what way does this make the story either GG or Knocked Up are trying to tell any less valid? Indeed, what is it about certain types of TV shows and movies that make people demand constant Vanilla and adherence to what happens most of the time in order for a stamp of approval?
Take a look at all of literature’s most compelling characters, and very few make choices or follow paths that one would expect the average person to follow. Indeed, that’s part of what makes them compelling. Humber Humbert drawn as either an everyday professor or a prototypical pedophile make Lotlia a big yawn. Have Satan make common-sense decisions and suddenly Milton neither loses nor finds Paradise. Paint Stephan Daedalus as the guy who became a priest like everyone else in seminary, and no portrait of an artist is ever realized. Make literature follow the “But What Would Most People Do?” rules of internet criticism, and very book every written by Jane Austin becomes a standard Victorian peerage, every book by James Baldwin an argument for segregation, every book by Earnest Hemingway a tale of sitting home and listening to the radio.
Like I say, it’s a really weird criticism.
Criticism #2 is similar, though dressed up in different clothing.
In the case of GG or Knocked Up, the #2 criticism is essentially, “The issue of abortion is important to me, and the author made a whole movie/TV show and didn’t make it about abortion at all — therefore, the author’s work is inherently flawed.” (Because, you know, movies and television would be so much more compelling if directors kept just remaking Juno and If These Walls Could Talk over and over again.)
The truth is that while Criticism #1 feels new to me ( I certainly didn’t encounter it before I started hanging out on the internet), Criticism #2 is at least as old as I am. One of the big campus culture war skirmishes in my college years was the battle between Team Only Read Books By Dead White Men vs Team Only Read Books By Women of Color. Though one side championed an overly-represented group and the other a criminally neglected one, the arguments of each group were essentially the same: The Canon should reflect people that believe exactly what I do and have experiences as similar as possible to my own, and no one else. Criticism #2 is also what made so many people condemn Nikos Kazantzakis without ever bothering to read him, and what made others do the same with John Adams.
Still, I do believe that there’s something about the intertubes that breeds a kind of narcissism that amplifies Criticism #2. I suspect it’s because we can so easily find ourselves and our beliefs reflected positively online that when we find ourselves faced with something that doesn’t fully cater to our desires we feel somehow slighted, or even offended. One of my favorite bloggers is Alyssa Rosenberg. And though I both lover her writing and appreciate her giving me a very different point of view than I might otherwise have as a male of the species, she has a self-cernteredness that I find so total as to be almost genius. A lot of her criticism for movies and TV shows (and occasionally books) is based on little more than what Alyssa would have made the story about if Alyssa was the author. In fact, I think there is more than a little irony attached to the reason for my liking her so much: I love that she gives me a very different point of view than I naturally come by, and yet if I were to become more like Alyssa I would stop finding her compelling because she comes from a totally different viewpoint than I naturally come by.
Obviously there are exceptions to those who simply spout Criticisms 1& 2 on the internet. (If you want to see criticism written for the internet done very well, read this guy.) But for the most part, most on-line criticism I see these days in blogs and electronic magazines are demands that art be little more a flattering mirror that assures us we are beautiful and important.
 I confess the enjoyment came as something of a surprise. At the outset, if seemed to be trying a little too hard to be a quirky, indie-esque attempt by TV producers to get the white college-age gals to cuddle up together with popcorn. You could almost see the thirty-year old white male producer pitching to the forty-year old white male producer: “It’s Sandra Bullock meets Lilith Fair meets Bridget Jones Diary, but we’ll set it in a darling New England Inn in an effort to capture the Martha Stuart craze. Women love that stuff!” And the show’s opening credits are like something you’d see in a Wayne’s World movie parodying overly saccharine chick-show opening credits. But by the end of the first episode, I was really enjoying the snappy dialogue and the lead actresses. By the end of the second, I’d decided I’m with Sam for the long haul.
Along with my deep love of Buffy, my liking of Gilmore Girls kind of makes me wonder if I don’t have a late-Clinton/early-Bush era teenage girl living somewhere deep inside of me.
 Or at least she was. I confess that when she left her gig at Think Progress for the Washington Post, it was a really busy time for me and I consequently never got around to changing my bookmark for her. So it’s possible that today she is a totally different kind of blogger than she used to be, and everything I write about her here should be change from what Alyssa does to what she used to do.
[Picture: Knocked Up poster, via Wikipedia]
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