Gilmore Girls and It’s Portrayal of Emotional Abuse

Two women on couch eating popcorn
Photo courtesy of Netflix.

By Madison Baker

Gilmore Girls follows the lives of Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, the mother-daughter duo who are unusually close, talk freakishly fast, and drink coffee like there’s no tomorrow. From the show’s premiere in the fall of 2000 on the WB to its Netflix revival in 2016, millions of viewers found comfort in and connected with these characters, their lives, and their journeys.

Despite its reputation as a feel-good show, Gilmore Girls is full of problematic moments including, but not limited to, racism, fatphobia, and slut-shaming. One of the most upsetting aspects of the show, however, is the way it portrays emotional abuse.

Through the romance of Rory and Dean, Gilmore Girls glorifies abusive behavior in relationships. From the moment their relationship begins, Dean controls and manipulates Rory and many characters on the show praise him for it. While many shows portray unhealthy romantic relationships, this positive portrait of abuse on the show works to perpetuate dangerous behaviors in real life instead of challenging them.

What Is Emotional Abuse?

Emotional abuse is an attempt to control or manipulate another person using words and emotions. The abuser may not physically hurt the victim, but this form of abuse can still take a huge toll on the victim’s self-confidence, independence, and mental health.

Because there is no physical evidence of abuse, many people do not realize just how serious emotional abuse can be. This, combined with the insidious nature of emotional abuse, means that it often goes unnoticed and unrecognized.

Many unhealthy relationships show aspects of emotional abuse, and both perpetrators and victims alike may not even realize there is emotional abuse in their relationship. Some common examples of emotional abuse are:

  • Acting jealous or possessive over a partner
  • Insulting and criticizing a partner, both alone and in front of others
  • Forcing a partner to disclose where they are going, what they are doing, who they are spending time with, and for how long
  • Demanding to know personal passwords to a partner’s phone, email address, or social media profiles
  • Isolating a partner from friends and family members
  • Lack of respect for a partner’s privacy, boundaries, and other obligations
  • Over-the-top or unexpected anger or outbursts, especially in a way that frightens their partner

These are just a few of the many signs that a partner may be emotionally abusive. It can also often lead to physical abuse as time goes on. But even if a partner is never violent, emotionally abusive relationships are dangerous for the victim to stay in and can affect them well after the relationship is over.

The Beginnings of Abuse

When the show begins, Rory is 16, quiet and studious, with dreams of attending Harvard University and majoring in journalism. Soon after, she starts dating Dean Forester, who just moved to their small town from Chicago. Initially, their relationship is normal, but it quickly becomes clear there is a lack of mutual respect and trust on Dean’s end, which are necessities for teenagers to have healthy relationships. The early stages of Rory and Dean’s relationship is littered with incidents that should have caused concern, such as when:

  • Dean kisses her for the first time without warning or permission (“Kiss and Tell”).
  • Dean gets jealous about Rory’s schoolmate Tristan, is possessive over Rory, has an angry outburst, and attempts to physically fight said boy (“Rory’s Dance”).
  • Dean tells Rory that he loves her after three months of dating then yells at and dumps her when she doesn’t reciprocate (“Star-Crossed Lovers and Other Strangers”).

These are not isolated incidents. They are simply the first of many times he displays his toxic behavior on screen. As their romantic relationship continues, Dean becomes increasingly possessive, manipulative, and controlling:

  • Dean is jealous of other boys in Rory’s life and her dream of attending Harvard (“Hammers and Veils,” “Run Away, Little Boy,” and “A-Tisket, A-Tasket”).
  • Dean calls her incessantly even when he knows she’s busy (“Back in the Saddle Again”).
  • Dean even unleashes his anger on Rory on more than one occasion, to the point where she begins to lie to him to placate him or to avoid an argument (“Lost and Found” and “There’s the Rub”).

While Rory does not always treat Dean with kindness, she does not cross the same line he does. She doesn’t explode at him, get jealous of his life outside of their relationship, or attempt to contact him obsessively. She can be rude and careless, but Dean emotionally abuses Rory for most of their relationship. Why on earth would she stay with him?

The (Abusive) All-American Boyfriend

Dean is portrayed as a wholesome, all-American boy. He works at the local grocery store, participates in town events, and helps his neighbors when they need a hand. He calls Rory when he promises to, gets her home on time, and is kind and respectful to her mother.

In other words, he does seem to be the perfect first boyfriend. All of those positive qualities overshadow his unhealthy treatment of Rory. Because of his outward appearance and the role he plays in Rory’s life, she faces external pressures from the people around her to maintain this relationship — even after he treats her poorly. He is a classic “nice guy” who really isn’t all that nice.

For example, in “Help Wanted,” Rory has to deliver some unpleasant news to Dean. She is so nervous about his reaction that she writes a letter explaining the situation. After he becomes visibly angry and furiously kicks a duffel bag, he manages to calm down and has dinner with her. He is later complemented by Lorelai and Rory alike for being understanding of the news.

It would be much easier to make sense of the way Gilmore Girls portrays emotional abuse if Dean and Rory’s relationship was presented as an example of an abusive relationship. But almost all of the characters on the show continually hold Dean in high esteem and praise him for his jealous, controlling tendencies.

Lorelai often claims that Dean behaves the way he does simply because he is so in love with Rory, interpreting his abuse as love. His supposed love for Rory leads to him later cheating on his wife with her, then becoming emotionally abusive to her as well.

It would also be easy to simply claim that Gilmore Girls is a product of its time. In the early 2000s, when the show had its original run, more people may not have been aware of what emotional abuse looks like or how damaging it can really be.

However, in the 2016 Netflix revival, Rory still praises Dean for the way he treated her. After bumping into him at the local market, she tells him “…you were the greatest boyfriend alive.” Reboots are inherently nostalgic, but this particular moment feels far more tone-deaf than sentimental.

This moment shows that, in the nine years between the end of the original run and the reboot, neither Dean nor Rory has matured in their view of relationships. Rory still idolizes Dean, and he still gets a free pass to be abusive because of his image as a nice guy. Just as in real life, Dean is allowed to mistreat Rory because he does not seem like the traditional abuser.

Rory and Dean are fictional characters on a television show, but the media people consume can still affect their lives, subconsciously, or otherwise. By continually applauding Dean’s behavior, young viewers who idolized or looked up to Rory may get the wrong impression of what a healthy relationship actually looks like and come to expect—or even welcome—emotional abuse.

Ideally, media should work to improve the lives of its viewers. While Gilmore Girls has touched the lives of many, when it comes to the portrayal of emotional abuse, the show fails its viewers. And if anyone wants to be like Rory, hopefully they look to her studiousness or ambition for inspiration instead of her romantic relationships.