Gilmore Girls: The Irigarayan “Mother-Daughter” Relation in 21st Century Television

by Kitty Lloyd

“I like these women.”

“I love these women.”[i]

The 2000s television show Gilmore Girls emerged as a dominant and defining fixture of the postfeminist mediascape of the era. Created by Amy Sherman Palladino, the show revolved around a mother-daughter duo, Lorelai and Rory, in small town contemporary America and presented a unique representation of familial female relationships, which privileged maternal connection over all else. The show provoked various cultural critiques rooted in two common attacks, which have been identified in particular by media scholar Eugenie Brinkema. These attacks claim that the mother-daughter relationship was “too close,” and that the duo talks “too fast,” with the script often being an inaccessible and frenzied transference of cultural references and quick quips.  Despite this, however, the television show has also ascended to cult status, allowing this mother-daughter dynamic to become a source of relationship inspiration for generations. In light of the oeuvre of adulated French philosopher, Luce Irigaray, such reactionary critiques can be considered as a consequence of Gilmore Girls’ positive construction of the power of maternity rather than an emphasis upon the patriarchy or fraternity. The following essay will argue that Gilmore Girls offers an insight as to how Irigaray’s theoretical work on the mother-daughter relation can actualise and be woven into the social fabric within the parameters of 21stcentury mainstream culture.  

Luce Irigaray’s work has sought to problematise and challenge the psychoanalytical conceptions of gender produced by minds such as Sigmund Freud. Irigaray noted in her 1985 work, This Sex Which Is Not One, that Freud, in his construction of the Oedipal theory, offers “very little attention,” to the mother-daughter relationship.[ii] Freud does “not see two sexes” and instead, roots his work on feminine sexuality in the idea of woman’s “deficiency” rather than its own “specificity.”[iii] The male sex, therefore, gains a “monopoly on value,” as such the idea of women’s deficiency informs the function of society and culture. Whilst the mother is the daughter’s only love-object pre-Oedipal, once she discovers her mother’s castration and subsequent lack of social power, the daughter then departs from her mother and turns to her father, beginning the Oedipal stage. Irigaray posits that “this rejection of the mother” fosters the “rejection of all women, herself included…”[iv] Later, in The Bodily Encounter with the Mother, Irigaray disrupts the postulations made by Freud regarding the founding narrative of the Oedipus complex and acknowledges the matricidal roots of Western civilisation. Making reference to the murder of Clytemnestra in the Oresteia, which is “necessitated by the establishment of a certain order in the polis…”[v] Irigaray deduces that the political, cultural and public realms have thus, been “cast against the maternal.”[vi] With Greek mythology sourcing the “collective myth” and functioning on a “psychic level,” it informs the phallic symbolic-imaginary order and provides the rhizome of patriarchy.[vii] Matricide, omitted from the Freudian theory, imbues “women’s banishment from Western culture,” denying “genealogical relations between women.”[viii]

In Irigaray’s works, Freud is characterised as a “prince of darkness,”, as he leads women away from “their mothers and from themselves,” establishing a culture of “men-amongst-themselves.”[ix] Irigaray’s lyrical essays, “And The One Doesn’t Stir Without The Other” and “When Our Lips Speak Together,” offer insight into how mother-daughter relations consequently manifest and how they may be reclaimed. The former work is a three-part direct discourse monologue, utilising the pronoun “you” to refer to the mother, which stresses the overzealous approach that the mother takes to nurturing from the perspective of the daughter. Subverting the Freudian idea that women signify deficiency, Irigaray instead injects this mother-daughter relationship with gluttony, recounting the mother’s suffocating feeding which isolates the daughter (“I”) to immobility and passivity: “you flowed into me, and that hot liquid became poison, paralysing me.”[x] By the mother’s femininity being reduced to the mere role of the “nourisher,” becoming the embodied “phallic mother,” she has consequently reduced both her and her daughter “to oblivion.” The daughter is yearning for subjectivity, yet her mother remains an empty case of a shell. In turn, “the daughter-woman tries to re-wrap herself in the desiring flesh of the other…,” incorporating the mother and suppressing her sense of self as this intimacy of suffocation engenders “confusion of identity.”[xi] The essay concludes with the plea: “And what I wanted from you, Mother, was this: that in giving me life, you still remain alive.”[xii] Irigaray depicts the mother’s personhood, sexuality and subjectivity as reduced to a “single function – mothering,” which will go on to be reproduced within the daughter as the pair are “captives of [their] confinement.”[xiii] This creation of a combined identity, which perhaps engulfs all women, diminishes the hope of a real relationship between two separate subjects as “each of us lacks her own image; her own face, the animation of her own body is missing.”[xiv]

The second essay, “When Our Lips Speak Together”, is arguably a response to “And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other”, which reconsiders the same characters of the daughter and the mother. This work reimagines the mother as maternal rather than phallic, constructing a legitimate relationship between the mother and daughter: “identity is experienced as a fusion of self with other, rather than a confusion or eclipse.”[xv] Irigaray depicts this relationship as one of synergy and respect, rather than toxicity and suffocation: “When you say I love you-right here, close to me, to you-you also say I love myself…I owe you nothing, you owe me nothing. This ‘I love you’ is neither a gift nor a debt.”[xvi] The work, moreover, emphasises a sensuous transference of speech, where: “Between our lips, yours and mine, several voices, several ways of speaking resound endlessly, back and forth… One cannot be distinguished from the other; which does not mean that they are indistinct.”[xvii] The language being spoken here is singular but it is simultaneously in dialogue, thus inferring Irigaray’s advocacy within this work of a female language: “…if we speak to each other as men have been doing for centuries, as we have been taught to speak, we’ll miss each other, fail ourselves…”[xviii] The final word, “all” (nous/toute) alludes to the extension of this relationship to all women beyond strictly the maternal bond, to foster the emergence of female solidarity.[xix]

Amidst these two differing perspectives of mother-daughter relations, Irigaray stresses the egregious deficiency of mother-daughter representations within cultural, mythological, semiotic, religious and social institutions beyond.[xx]  This important mother-daughter connection, therefore, continues to remain unsymbolised, with a maternal genealogy remaining absent whilst mother-son, father-son and father-daughter dynamics continuously dominate the cultural imagination. Adrienne Rich has echoed these sentiments within the American context, asserting that “the cathexis between mother and daughter: essential, distorted, misused-is the great unwritten story…”[xxi] To this end, Irigaray concludes: “The relationship between mother/daughter, daughter/mother constitutes an extremely explosive kernel in our societies. To think it, to change it, amounts to undermining [ebranler] the patriarchal order…[xxii]” Ultimately, disrupting the symbolic order through the representation of the mother-daughter relationship makes it possible for women “to have an identity” beyond solely “the maternal function,” and thus, poses a peril to Western metaphysics.[xxiii] For “masculine systems of representation” serve to isolate a woman’s relationship with both herself and other women, which denies access to a “personal path for exchange” between women.[xxiv]

In the Western contemporary context, television exists as a pervasive tool—moulding, reinforcing and redefining systems of representation—which informs consumers’ perceptions of social reality.[xxv] The studies undertaken by O’Guinn and Shrum throughout the late 90s on cultivation theory, affirm the monopoly that television possesses within the production of cultural systems and values.[xxvi] Cultivation theory concludes that whilst the worlds of television differ greatly from reality, such as its depiction of affluence or crime, “this distortion influences the beliefs of viewers… influenc[ing] personal values as well as societal perceptions, as dominant program content becomes assimilated into personal value structures over time.”[xxvii] Before the dawn of the 21st century, when mothers and daughters were present within cultural works, they were often embedded within nuclear family narratives, which were occasionally permitted story arcs. Instances of exchanges between mothers and daughters were commonly characterised by hostility; consider, for instance, The Golden Girls, which reinforces the “hate” Freud wove into the fabric of mother-daughter relationships.[xxviii] Or alternatively, consider The Donna Reed Show, which reduces the character of the mother, and revokes her agency and personhood to establish her as a mere nourisher. Gilmore Girls, on the contrary, reimagines how a mother-daughter relationship operates, by resisting these accepted norms of a phallocentric figure. It then reproduced this characterisation continuously week in and week out for seven years, dismantling “the normative familial foundations of television.”[xxix]

Media theorist, Eugenie Brinkema, has studied the cultural reactions to Gilmore Girls in her 2012 retrospective essay and found a two-fold argumentation typifies much of the show’s resistance, including that “Mothers and daughters should not be that close,” and that “They talk too fast” (the latter now being a notable trademark of Palladino’s oeuvre).[xxx] The central maternal figure within Gilmore Girls, Lorelai, became a mother at sixteen; left her family home soon after; and single-handedly raised her sixteen-year-old daughter, Rory, formally also Lorelai (inspired by the fact that “men name boys after themselves all the time”).[xxxi] Rory and Lorelai’s bond existed as the core of the television show, often regarding each other as one another’s best friends, possessing striking similarities and yet very distinct characterisations. Lorelai maintained a fun and quirky persona, whilst Rory was often presented as studious and serious. They were a complimentary dichotomy. Lorelai and Rory’s relationship is reflective of Irigaray’s representations of relations between women in “When Our Lips Speak Together,” and is explicitly juxtaposed against Lorelai’s relationship with her own mother, Emily, and the relationship Rory’s best friend, Lane Kim, shares with her mother, Mrs Kim. Emily and Mrs Kim both embody the phallocentrism Irigaray warned against, which is epitomised by Mrs Kim not even possessing a name beyond her married title. Both also failed to preserve positive and productive relationships with their respective daughters, as they became engulfed by mothering; and in the case of Emily, restricted to the role of a dutiful wife. Palladino’s representation of Lorelai as sexual, educated, entrepreneurial, and enduring a life beyond simply her daughter, allowed her character to be—to draw from Irigaray—“both a mother and a woman.”[xxxii] In Rory’s graduation speech, for instance, she referred positively to her mother: “I don’t know if she ever realized that the person I most wanted to be, was her,” and thus, asserted her respect for her mother’s personhood and hence, her respect for her as a subject. Note that this occurs as Rory is about to commence her independent path in college.[xxxiii] The cultural impulse to problematise this relationship reveals the “abject over-closeness of mother and daughter” relationships, whereby the glorification of such a relationship based upon mutual love rather than hostility is perceived as “wrong” and dangerous. [xxxiv] This resistance illuminates the patriarchal reliance on matricide instead of maternal celebration.

As the television show presented realistic storylines, speech and dialogue existed as a central aspect of the show, with most scenes relying entirely upon the duo merely conversing. In an early episode, Lorelai’s work colleague, Michele, commented that when Lorelai talks, he hears “the teacher from Charlie Brown.”[xxxv] This is further alluded to by the character of Luke, friend and later-boyfriend of Lorelai, who often admitted he doesn’t “understand” or “follow” what the pair are talking about. Lorelai and Rory’s communicative exchanges were rapid transferences of intertextuality, voices often overlapping or replying in such intense immediacy that it alluded to continuity. It was constantly referential, naming obscure, and somewhat irrelevant moments of pop culture: ranging from Chinatown; a Russian proverb made famous by Ronald Reagan; and the character, Paris Geller, claiming her newfound obsession with the Marxist manifesto. A 2002 Wall Street Journal article found that the show retained: “20-to-25 seconds a page of dialogue, more than twice as fast as the standard screenwriters’ page-a-minute formula.”[xxxvi] The joyous, rhythmic and steadfast scenes of dialogue can be considered as an attempt to attain the female language Irigaray elucidated, yet still operating within the mainstream mediascape. While Palladino’s arterial writing of dialogue does not directly emulate Irigaray’s desires, it nonetheless arguably offers a uniquely feminine speech, diverging from the “walk-and-talks” series which usually proceeded Gilmore Girls.[xxxvii] The cultural opposition to the Gilmore Girls communicative exchanges—often a source of parody—infers an opposition to women possessing an almost omniscient grasp on masculine systems of culture.[xxxviii] Ultimately, Lorelai and Rory’s exchanges reflected their shared experiences, growing and weathering culture and the world alongside one another, and it also reinforces their intimacy as mother and daughter. Moreover, Gilmore Girls served to engage in the establishment of a maternal genealogy through its cultural references. Palladino represents Lorelai and Rory as unabashed patrons of women’s art, histories and stories. Through the omission of overt explanations about who these often niche cultural figures are, from Emma Goldman to Björk, the show assumes a utopian audience, who have similarly celebrated and engaged with such a maternal culture. 

In a cold open of season three, Lorelai and Rory watched Albert Maysles’ Grey Gardens; a documentary following the lives of the distant cousin of Jackie Kennedy Onassis and her daughter, both named Edith. Palladino constructs a striking meta scene, as Lorelai and Rory discuss the mother-daughter dyad before them, in a shot/reverse-shot style. Rory declares, “I like these women,” before Lorelai interjects, “I love these women.”[xxxix] Both Rory and Lorelai desire the fictional avatars that somewhat reproduce their own characters. Interestingly, however, Lorelai jokes: “Add a few years and that’s us.” They both frown, showing fear and concern.[xl] In the documentary, Edith and Edie live together in a decaying mansion, repeating each other’s words, finishing each other’s sentences and singing to one another, as their relationship remains stuck in a state of nonseparation.[xli] In this scene of Gilmore Girls, Palladino explicitly acknowledges the dangers associated with mother-daughter closeness, opening to an episode which follows Lorelai and Rory gluttonously, although comedically, eating four separate Thanksgiving dinners.[xlii] It is apparent that these two characters can, however, establish the necessary boundaries to evade the Irigarayan notion of engulfment through reinforcing their respective subjectivities. 

This scene somewhat echoes the audience’s viewing of Gilmore Girls, whereby its cult following often considered the relationship between Rory and Lorelai as a fantasy of the potential for mother-daughter relations. Rebecca Feasey’s work includes various anonymously submitted reflections from viewers, explicating their adoration of this dynamic: “I want to be Lorelai Gilmore, and I fantasise about me and my young daughter one day having the relationship that she has with Rory.”[xliii] Whilst many admitted their relationship with their mothers was instead, paralleled with the relationship Lorelai shares with Emily.[xliv]Through the privileging of the mother-daughter bond in this cultural text, Gilmore Girls instilled viewers with a vision of how this dyad could be synergetic, intimate and productive. Due to its pioneering nature, moreover, it alters the family television genre, decentralising the father-son domination, and reimagining the mother-daughter relation to be romanticised rather than toxic, whilst still functioning within mainstream culture. Neither character presents as perfect feminists, particularly to the critical gaze of the current wave, yet the centrality of this relationship within a primetime television network, forged the space for representations of womanhood and motherhood to be reconceptualised and reconstructed. Ultimately, within the television era that succeeded Gilmore Girls, women claimed the role as—to draw from Hélène Wenzel—“subjects, and protagonists of their own reality rather than objects and antagonists in the Father’s drama.”[xlv]

In conclusion, Amy Sherman Palladino’s television show reveals the effects of privileging the Irigarayan mother-daughter bond within our culture. Gilmore Girls symbolised the “unsymbolised mother-daughter” relationship through the characters of Lorelai and Rory. By carving out a space within the contemporary mediascape to consider the complexities and possibilities of the bond, Palladino provided a generation with a touchstone depiction of the power of maternity. 

Kitty has recently completed her Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland, majoring in History and Gender Studies. She is interested in feminist historiography of the modern era and feminist pop culture works. She intends to continue to pursue these passions through her post-graduate studies.


[i]    Gilmore Girls, season 3, episode 8, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving,” directed by Kenny Ortega, aired 26 November 2002, on Netflix, 0:02.

[ii]   Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One (New York: Cornell University Press, 1985), 32.

[iii]   Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 33.

[iv]   Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 33.

[v]   Luce Irigaray, “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother” in The Irigaray Reader, ed. Margaret Whitford (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 36.

[vi]   Margaret Whitford, Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine (London; New York: Routledge, 1991), 85.

[vii] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 85.

[viii] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 80, 87.

[ix]   Luce lrigaray, and Karin Montin, Thinking the Difference (London: The Athlone Press, 1994), 110.

[x]   Luce Irigaray and Hélène Vivienne Wenzel, “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other,” Signs 7, no. 1 (1981): 60.

[xi]   Michelle Boulous Walker, Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence (London and New York: Taylor and Francis, 2002), 171. 

[xii] Irigaray and Wenzel, “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other,” 67.

[xiii] Irigaray and Wenzel, “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other,” 67.

[xiv] Irigaray and Wenzel, “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other,” 66.

[xv] Walker, Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence, 173.

[xvi] Luce Irigaray and Carolyn Burke, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” Signs 6, no. 1 (1980): 70.

[xvii] Irigaray and Burke, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” 72.

[xviii] Irigaray and Burke, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” 69.

[xix] Irigaray and Burke, “When Our Lips Speak Together,” 79.

[xx] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 76.

[xxi] Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976), 225.

[xxii] Cited in Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 77.

[xxiii] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 77.

[xxiv] Luce lrigaray and Sylvere Lotringer, Why Different: A Culture of Two Subjects. Interviews with Luce Irigaray, trans. Camille Collins (New York: Semiotext(e), 2000), 32.

[xxv] L.J. Shrum, James E. Burroughs and Aric Rindfleisch, “Television’s Cultivation of Material Values,” Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 3 (2005): 473.

[xxvi] Cited in Shrum, Burroughs and Rindfleisch, “Television’s Cultivation of Material Values,” 473-474.

[xxvii]  Shrum, Burroughs and Rindfleisch, “Television’s Cultivation of Material Values,” 474.

[xxviii] Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, 48.

[xxix] Eugenie Brinkema, “A Mother Is a Form of Time: ‘Gilmore Girls’ and the Elasticity of In-Finitude,” Discourse 34, no. 1 (2012): 5.

[xxx] Brinkema, “A Mother Is a Form of Time,” 4.

[xxxi] Gilmore Girls, season 1, episode 1, “Pilot,” directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, aired 5 October 2000, Netflix video, 24:03.

[xxxii] Whitford, Luce Irigaray, 88-89.

[xxxiii]  Gilmore Girls, season 3, episode 22, “Those Are Strings, Pinocchio,” directed by Jamie Babbit, aired 20 May 2003, Netflix video, 33:21.

[xxxiv] Brinkema, “A Mother Is a Form of Time,” 27.

[xxxv] Gilmore Girls, season 1, episode 3, “Kill Me Now,” directed by Adam Nimoy, aired 19 October 2000, Netflix video, 9:35.

[xxxvi] Cited in Brinkema, “A Mother Is a Form of Time,” 11.

[xxxvii] Brinkema, “A Mother Is a Form of Time,” 11.

[xxxviii] See: Family Guy, “The Perfect Castaway.” 

[xxxix] Gilmore Girls, season 3, episode 8, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving,” directed by Kenny Ortega, aired 26 November 2002, on Netflix, 0:02.

[xl]   Ibid., 0:43.

[xli] Albert Maysles, Grey GardensKanopy video, 19 February 1976.

[xlii] Gilmore Girls, “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving.”

[xliii] Rebecca Feasey, Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television (New York: Peter Lang, 2016), 134.

[xliv] Feasey, Mothers on Mothers, 133.

[xlv] Irigaray and Wenzel, “And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other,” 59.


Brinkema, Eugenie. “A Mother Is a Form of Time: ‘Gilmore Girls’ and the Elasticity of In-Finitude.” Discourse 34, no. 1 (2012): 3-31.

Feasey, Rebecca. Mothers on Mothers: Maternal Readings of Popular Television. New York: Peter Lang, 2016.

Palladino, Amy Sherman. Gilmore GirlsNetflix video. 2000- 2007.

Irigaray, Luce, and Carolyn Burke. “When Our Lips Speak Together.” Signs 6, no. 1 (1980): 69-79.

Irigaray, Luce, and Hélène Vivienne Wenzel. “And the One Doesn’t Stir Without the Other.” Signs 7, no. 1 (1981): 60-67. 10.1086/493859.

Irigaray, Luce and Karin Montin. Thinking the Difference. London: The Athlone Press, 1994.

Irigaray, Luce and Sylvere Lotringer. Why Different: A Culture of Two Subjects. Interviews with Luce Irigaray. Translated by Camille Collins. New York: Semiotext(e), 2000.

Irigaray, Luce. “The Bodily Encounter with the Mother,” in The Irigaray Reader, edited by Margaret Whitford, 34-46. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Irigaray, Luce. This Sex Which Is Not One. New York: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Hartley, John. Television Truths. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Höpfl, Heather. “Luce Irigaray (1930b).” In The Oxford Handbook of Process Philosophy and Organization Studies, edited by Helin, Jenny, Tor Hernes, Daniel Hjorth, and Robin HoltOxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Maysles, Albert. Grey GardensKanopy video.19 February 1976.

Rich, Adrienne. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1976.

Shrum, L.J., Burroughs, James E., and Rindfleisch, Aric. “Television’s Cultivation of Material Values (Re-Inquiries).” Journal of Consumer Research 32, no. 3 (2005): 473-479.

Walker, Michelle Boulous. Philosophy and the Maternal Body: Reading Silence. London: Taylor and Francis, 2002.

Wenzel, Hélène Vivienne. “Introduction to Luce Irigaray’s ‘And the One Doesn’t Stir without the Other’.” Signs 7, no. 1 (1981): 56-59.

Whitford, Margaret. Luce Irigaray: Philosophy in the Feminine. London: Routledge, 1991.

Featured image by Warner Bros, Everett Collection via billboard


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