Dads and Dyads: Oedipal Arrangements in Gilmore Girls

By Ashley Leitner

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s hit show Gilmore Girls ran for seven impressive seasons. In this paper, I will analyse the unusually (and at times uncomfortably) close relationship between Rory Gilmore and her mother Lorelai from the show’s first season. My purpose is psychoanalytic. According to Freud, the Oedipus complex is resolved when the child, who originally seeks to possess the mother, disavows her and turns toward the father for a love-object. For girls, this disavowal of the mother is accompanied by a drive to identify with her. However, Gilmore Girls presents a fictional scenario in which the characters Lorelai and Rory lack a third component with which to complete the Oedipal triad – Rory’s father is essentially absent, and Lorelai raises Rory as a single mother. As a result, the relationship between them is too strong and too close. The irresolution of the Oedipus complex leaves Rory emotionally dependent on her mother. Rory’s ultimate objective is to keep the Oedipal dyad intact. Her unconscious hatred for the men who threaten to disrupt her relationship with her mother can be seen manifested oftentimes as a reaction formation displaying sweetness, as when her father goes to their hometown to visit. Lorelai likewise seeks to protect the dyad, which enables her to model Rory after herself and then to use her daughter to fulfil her unrealized dreams of attending Harvard. In the show, Lorelai and Rory’s intense desire to protect their Oedipal dyad prevents Lorelai from attaining any meaningful romantic connection.

A central tenet of psychoanalysis, the ‘Oedipus complex’ refers to the conflict a child faces in early development which produces his sense of morality and gender identity. Its namesake, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, portrays the mythological figure of Oedipus, whose biological parents cast him off after hearing an oracle’s prediction that he will kill his father and marry his mother. After hearing of his fate, Oedipus runs away from his adoptive parents to avoid murdering them. Ironically, he murders his real father, rescues his birthplace from a Sphinx, and in doing so is rewarded with the hand of the queen, his mother, by whom he begets four children. “His fate moves us,” Freud believes, “for the reason that it might have been ours, for the oracle has put the same curse upon us before our birth as upon him.”[1] The author goes on to explain that the impulse to eliminate the father and completely possess the mother is a struggle that all children undergo. The process generally takes place between the “ages [of] three to five.”[2] Unlike Oedipus, however, typical healthy adults have “succeeded […] in withdrawing [their] sexual impulses from [their] mothers and in forgetting [their] jealousy of [their] fathers.”[3] The complex is resolved when the child looking to possess his mother notices that she does not have a penis. “By observation of the female genitals,” psychoanalyst A. Lampl-de Groot explains, “the possibility of castration is forced on him.”[4] Horrified and confused, the child fears that he in turn will be castrated if he continues to favour his mother. In response, he turns toward his father, notes his father’s possession of a penis, and subsequently identifies with him.

When Freud applies this Oedipal framework to girls, he maintains that girls experience a sense of “penis envy” later replaced by the wish to bear a child. Like the boy, the girl “takes the mother who feeds and fondles her for her first love object.”[5] When she enters the phallic stage of development, she notices her comparative deficiency – she lacks the penis her male counterpart possesses. The girl senses that her “organ seems inferior” and concludes that “it had been taken away from her because of her love for her mother.”[6] Eventually, the girl settles on her father as her chosen “love object.”[7] Instead of wishing for a penis (“penis envy”), the girl now desires a child since “a woman can have a child, a man can never.”[8] Nancy Chodorow outlines two different explanations for the reason behind the girl’s initial penis envy. First, that the “girl wants [the phallus] for the powers which it symbolizes and the freedom it promises from her previous sense of dependence.”[9] The mother treats son and daughter differently, othering the son but recognizing the daughter “as part of a narcissistically defined self.”[10] As a result, the daughter feels constricted and yearns to break free from her mother in order to feel whole and independent. Second, the “girl comes to realize […] that her common genital arrangement with her mother does not work to her advantage in forming a bond with her mother,” as “she finds out her mother prefers people like her father (and brother), who have penises.”[11] Thus, according to Chodorow, penis envy originates either from resenting the mother’s constrictiveness or from responding to the mother’s preference for penises. Regardless, boys and girls going through the Oedipal phase “learn their gender identity” and “heterosexual stance” and “then identify and are encouraged to identify with the appropriate parent.”[12] Thus, when the complex is resolved, the typical child should emerge with a feeling of complete independence and a grasp on their gender and sexual identity.

However, these accounts tend to take a standard family unit – married mother and father with a child conforming to more-or-less traditional gender roles – for granted. By contrast, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls provides an example of a complicated Oedipal triad between teenage daughter Rory, absent father Christopher, and single mother Lorelai. In the first episode of the show, we learn that Lorelai was sixteen years old when her daughter Rory was conceived and that she ran away from her upper-class home in Hartford, Connecticut to raise her daughter on her own. In the process, she foiled her parents’ plans for her to marry the father of the baby, Christopher, and alienated them almost entirely from her life. The father, Christopher, is mentioned only in passing until just after midway through the season when he shows up in their town, Stars Hollow, and asks to stay with the mother and daughter. At the beginning of the episode “Christopher Returns,” Rory excitedly packs armfuls of pillows and blankets onto the couch in preparation for her father. A warm firelight flickers over the scene as Lorelai enters the living room to join Rory. “Maybe we can get him to stay for a few weeks,” says Rory, hopeful that her father’s visit will last longer than usual.[13] “Absolutely,” Lorelai replies, “by weighing him down with blankets.”[14] Rory, still piling more blankets onto the sofa cheerily answers that she “just want[s] him to be comfortable.”[15] Lorelai, concerned but loving, replies, “He’s just gonna come and go as he pleases, babe, you know that.”[16] The director then cuts to another angle behind Lorelai’s shoulder of Rory in medium shot.

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After the teenage girl earnestly replies, “I still think something’s different, though,” the protagonists’ heads turn toward the sound of Christopher’s voice as he comes down the stairs. The camera cuts to Christopher, tilts, pans, and tracks to follow him as he hurries down the steps past Lorelai. The director then cuts back and forth between Lorelai and Rory and then Lorelai and Christopher. “Here,” Lorelai says as she offers Christopher a drink, stepping out of the frame and leaving Rory alone on screen.[17] “Hey, how is Diane,” Rory asks quickly as Lorelai steps out of frame.[18] The show then cuts to Lorelai handing Christopher a drink, looking at him cautiously but curiously as he clumsily admits that his relationship with Diane, presumably a former girlfriend, has ended. We then return to the one-shot of Rory, who pokes at her father by mentioning, “When I met her at Easter, you said she could be the one.”[19] After the show cuts back to Christopher and Lorelai looking uncomfortable, it returns to Rory sharply observing, “You’re worse than mom.”[20] Christopher and Lorelai engage in thinly veiled sexual banter, soliciting an “Okay now, don’t get gross” from Rory.[21] The daughter then excuses herself to go study.

While this scene supposedly depicts a young girl eager to keep her father around, examination through a psychoanalytic lens reveals Rory’s anxiety at the threat of the breakdown of the Oedipal dyad. Later in the scene, when Christopher tells Lorelai he would like to take a more active role in Rory’s life, Lorelai responds, “I’ve always had the door to Rory open for you. You’ve hardly ever used it.”[22] Here, the show explicitly establishes that Christopher has been an absent father by choice. What ought to be an Oedipal triad between Lorelai, Christopher, and Rory had developed as an Oedipal dyad between Lorelai and Rory. Thus, Rory is never able to realize her lack of penis, detach from her mother, and then identify with her and love her father. In the essay “Assessing the Impact of Father-Absence from a Psychoanalytic Perspective,” Kim A. Jones cites study results by Eva Seligman that found “not having a father present disrupted the normative separation-individuation process and left [children without fathers] fixated at a pre-Oedipal level of development.”[23] This pre-Oedipal stage is the period during which the child zeroes in on the mother as the chosen love object. By never establishing any distance from the mother, these children experience “both abandonment and engulfment anxiety, which [leaves] them overly dependent upon their mothers.”[24] Rory clearly exhibits over-attachment to Lorelai in this scene as she expresses unconscious hostility towards Christopher. He is the only element in the scene that threatens to disrupt the balance of her dyad with Lorelai. Because Christopher is her father, of course, Rory’s unconscious desire for his elimination is socially unacceptable; therefore, her expressed wish for his continued stay is really a reaction formation designed to mask her wish for his permanent departure.

For instance, as Rory sets up Christopher’s bed she plays the part of the thoughtful daughter, but her behaviour betrays her wish for her father’s destruction. Lorelai jokes about Rory attempting to keep Christopher around by “weighing him down” with all the linen, as if Rory wanted to trap and imprison him there. The suggestion already betrays an undercurrent of violence in their attitude toward Christopher, but really the blankets may suggest more of a smothering function, as if Rory wanted Christopher to be suffocated in his sleep. The sheer number of blankets coupled with the fact that Rory ceases to pile them onto the couch only when Lorelai repeatedly assures her that Christopher will not be staying long suggest this suffocation reading. If Christopher is neutralized as an Oedipal threat, the dyad can continue without interruption. Psychoanalyst Hendrika C. Halberstadt-Freud proposes that in these cases of unresolved Oedipal conflict between mother and daughter, a “pathological fantasy” called “symbiotic illusion” may develop in which “the mother and daughter are united in an exclusive idealised bond of mutual love, banning all negative feelings and splitting them off to a different section of consciousness or projecting them on to a third party in the outside world, e.g., the father as an outsider.”[25] The mother-daughter bond of the Gilmores is extremely close. In a later episode in Season One, Lorelai refers to their relationship as a “particular special thing,” and the two frequently dub one another “best friends.” To achieve this closeness, Rory and Lorelai have necessarily projected all of their negative feelings they would naturally have had toward one another onto Christopher, the outsider who attempts to insert himself back into their lives.

As soon as Christopher arrives in the scene, he visually breaks up the dyad formed by Lorelai and Rory. After the initial shot of the sequence featuring Rory making up the couch, Lorelai wanders into the living room, and the camera captures mother and daughter in a two-shot. The subsequent shot is also a two-shot featuring the mother and daughter again. When Christopher descends the steps, the camera cuts to him at the top of the staircase, a dramatic archetype often deployed in domestic narratives to illustrate power dynamics. Christopher’s entrance above Rory and Lorelai signifies his power over them and the potential his arrival has of disrupting their dyad. This potential is confirmed visually as the camera follows him and captures him in a two-shot with Lorelai. The subsequent volley between two-shots of Lorelai and Rory and of Lorelai and Christopher illustrate Rory’s anxieties that the outsider will steal her mother from her. When Lorelai finally leaves Rory in a one-shot in order to join Christopher in a two-shot, Rory immediately makes the damning enquiry after Christopher’s ex-girlfriend, demonstrating at once that he is an absent father (Rory had not received an update on his ex-girlfriend since Easter) and that he is an inconstant and therefore unsuitable romantic interest for Lorelai (he cannot keep a woman around even after determining that “she could be the one”). By also insisting, “You’re worse than mom,” Rory ensures that Lorelai also appears to Christopher to be an inconstant, unsuitable potential partner. However, when her comments fail to disarm the romantic tension between her mother and father, Rory chimes in with the warning not to be “gross,” taking advantage of her status as their young daughter to shut down any threatening flirtatious banter. She also begins to toy with the blanket at this point, as if unconsciously recalling the desire to smother her father, the outsider.

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Indeed, the relationship between Lorelai and Rory leaves little room for Christopher or for anyone else, but Rory is not solely responsible for the maintenance of the dyad. As Chodorow points out, “An omnipotent [pre-Oedipal] mother perpetuates primary love and a primary sense of oneness in relation to her daughter.”[26] The mother recognizes her daughter as a similar feminine figure and in turn looks to bond with her in a way that she does not bond with a son. This need to feel ‘oneness’ with the daughter is exactly what produces the feeling of suffocation that compels girls working through the Oedipal complex to turn to their fathers. Rory lacks a present father, however, and in turn embraces dependence on her mother. Lorelai accepts this dependence because, as Halbertstadt-Freud puts it, “It is woman’s fate to re-create herself, especially in her daughter.”[27] Certainly much of the drama in Gilmore Girls revolves around the fear or desire to become like one’s mother and the need to sculpt one’s daughter in one’s own image. As Eugenie Brikema points out, the television show revolves around an “overclose friendship between mother and daughter” that is at times parodied as “the saturated overcloseness of lesbian incest.”[28] These parodies have picked up on the dyadic Oedipal undertones of the dynamic between Lorelai and Rory, whose desire to be one with her daughter and whose desire to possess her mother, respectively, have proceeded unimpeded. While Rory contributes to the continuation of the dyad, Lorelai certainly is “in collusion with her daughter […] to deny the Oedipal triangle,” which will result in the daughter lacking the “mental space in which to develop her independence.” If Rory never achieves independence, then “rivalry is repressed and the mother remains the “prima donna” while the daughter has to know her place.”[30] With an unresolved Oedipal complex, Rory will constantly live in Lorelai’s shadow, and any of Rory’s achievements are encouraged by but also perceived as being a result of her mother. Lorelai thus has a vested interested in maintaining the dependent nature of Rory’s relation to her.

Throughout the first season, Sherman-Palladino writes Lorelai as a mother who relishes in her similarity to her daughter. In fact, the name Rory is just a nickname for Lorelai, meaning the mother and daughter hold the same name. The shared signifiers indicate that Rory is just another iteration of her mother Lorelai. “The nom de la mère,” Brinkema writes, “asserts a connection in language that points to the pre-Oedipal closeness of mother and child.”[31] Lorelai and Rory, the names and the characters, are semiotically one. When Rory recounts the story behind her name to her love interest Dean, she says of her mother’s choice to name her daughter after herself, “Her feminism just kind of took over,” citing the social acceptability of men naming children after themselves but the taboo surrounding women naming their children in a similar fashion.[32] Yet, this “feminist” impulse may be reinterpreted more cynically as Lorelai attempting literally to reproduce herself. When Oedipal dyads, instead of triads, are formed, “the mother can use her daughter to realise or hide her own wishes and the daughter colludes by trying to be the perfect baby.”[33] Lorelai attempts to mould Rory in her own likeness. In the pilot episode, by the time the mother and daughter sit down for dinner at their favourite coffee spot, Lorelai’s obsession with coffee and junk food has already been firmly established. The diner owner, Luke, sets down the coffees and the chilli fries Rory had ordered and says, “Rory, please put down that cup of coffee. You do not wanna grow up to be like your mom.”[34] Rory smirks in response, turns to her mom, and says “Sorry, too late.”[35] Lorelai smiles brightly in response to the proud similarity the mother and daughter bear. This exchange indicates Rory’s complicity in (or “collusion in” to borrow Halberstadt-Freud’s term) the conspiracy for Lorelai to reproduce herself through Rory, who in turn allows herself to be “the extension, the vehicle” of her mother.[36] Lorelai thereby derives pleasure from Rory’s dependence on her.

Yet, Lorelai does not simply want to reproduce herself through Rory. She wants Rory to pursue the dreams that she never could and then live vicariously through her. We can see Lorelai deploying Rory as a “narcissistic extension” of herself throughout the storyline involving Rory’s education.[37] When Lorelai was Rory’s age, she was “the brightest in her class,” but when she became pregnant, she had to leave school, and any hope of her attending college evaporated.[38] The teenage mother derailed her life plans, disappointed her parents, and struggled to earn a living for her and her child. As a result, Lorelai does everything in her power to ensure that Rory attends Chilton, an elite Connecticut prep school, and then Harvard University for an undergraduate degree. When Rory arrives for school ten minutes tardy in the episode “The Deer Hunters,” Lorelai considers the Headmaster’s refusal to allow Rory to sit for an important exam a personal affront. After spending the week helping Rory study, Lorelai asks the Head Master, “Do you have any idea what we have gone through this week? We have been up all night every night studying. We haven’t slept. We haven’t talked about anything else except this school and this test for seven days. We have stretched ourselves as thin as possible without going completely postal. My God – we’re just one person.”[39] The mother conflates her person with her daughter’s person and here recalls Chodorow’s assertion that the mother years to feel “oneness” with her child. In becoming “just one person,” Rory’s achievements become Lorelai’s achievements, and Lorelai’s failures slip away. Because of her closeness with Lorelai and willingness to follow her mother’s educational plan with minimal resistance, Rory “offer[s] her whole body and person as an extension of the maternal object.”[40] Lorelai in turn accepts this offer, and the two work together to defend their dyad.

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If Lorelai and Rory act in order to maintain their Oedipal arrangement, then it follows that Lorelai can never have a healthy relationship while Rory lives at home. If a suitable father-figure is introduced into the household, then the whole structure of the dyad could potentially be threatened, and Lorelai would potentially lose her surrogate. Perhaps recognition of these benefits Lorelai derives from the Oedipal dyad with Rory can lend us insight into why she “never loved anyone until Luke,” the diner owner to whom Lorelai gets engaged after Rory leaves home.[41] Indeed, Lorelai’s major love interests before Luke are all questionable in some obvious way: Christopher was an absent father who lives off his trust fund after running several business ventures into the ground, Max Medina was Rory’s English teacher at her small, gossipy private school, Jason Stiles was her father’s business partner whom her mother despised and with whom Lorelai conspired to keep the relationship secret. All these relationships, clearly doomed to fail, reflect Lorelai’s unconscious desire to self-sabotage any chance of a successful romance. Only after Rory leaves for university in Season Four and has an almost unbridgeable feud with her mother at the end of Season Five is Lorelai able to enter into a stable, loving, and mutual engagement with Luke. By consistently dating “the wrong men,” Lorelai is able to preserve the Oedipal dyad with Rory and thereby live through her daughter, who is entirely dependent on her.

In conclusion, because the characters of Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls are written such that they lack a third member of the Oedipal triangle, Rory and Lorelai behave as if there were an unresolved Oedipus complex between them. In the first season, Christopher poses a threat to Rory and Lorelai’s dyad when he returns, and as a result, Rory exhibits hostility toward him through her very lack of hostility. She behaves as though she hopes that her mother will remain single to maintain the dyad. Likewise, Lorelai’s poor decisions in her romantic life betray her unconscious desire to avoid a successful relationship. In Season One, both Lorelai and Rory conspire unconsciously to ward off any potential father figures who threaten to disrupt the dyad. With the unresolved Oedipal complex, Lorelai is able to reproduce herself semiotically and behaviourally through Rory, while living vicariously through her daughter, ensuring that Lorelai attends Chilton and Harvard by proxy. Rory is written so as to be complicit in these schemes, as she has completely surrendered all of her independence by embracing this closeness with her mother.

[1] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, trans. by A.A. Brill (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2015), ProQuest Ebrary, p. 376.

[2] The Editors of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, ‘Oedipus complex’, <https://www.britannica.com/science/Oedipus-complex> [Accessed 21 April 2018].

[3] Freud, Interpretation, p. 376.

[4] A. Lampl-de Groot, ‘Abstract: On the History of the Development of the Oedipus Complex in Women’, The Psychoanalytic Review (1913-1957), 19 (1 January 1932), 219-222 (p. 220) <https://search.proquest.com/docview/1309892130?accountid=11862>.

[5] Lampl-de Groot, 221.

[6] Lampl-de Groot, 221.

[7] Lampl-de Groot, 221.

[8] Lampl-de Groot, 221.

[9] Nancy Chodorow, ‘Mothering, Object-Relations, and the Female Oedipal Configurations’, Feminist Studies, 4.1 (February 1978), 137-158 (p. 148) <doi: 10.2307/3177630>.

[10] Chodorow, 147.

[11] Chodorow, 149-150.

[12] Chodorow, 139.

[13] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls, The WB, 1 March 2001. Transcriptions mine.

[14] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[15] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[16] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[17] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[18] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[19] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[20] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[21] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[22] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[23] Kim A. Jones, ‘Assessing the Impact of Father-Absence from a Psychoanalytic Perspective’, Psychoanalytic Social Work, 14.1 (2007), 43-58 (p. 46) <doi: 10.1300/J032v14n01_03>.

[24] Jones, 46.

[25] Hendrika C. Halberstadt-Freud, ‘Electra versus Oedipus: femininity reconsidered’, The International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 79.1 (1 January 1998): 41-56 (p. 50).

[26] Chodorow, 146.

[27] Halberstadt-Freud, 42.

[28] Eugenie Brinkema, ‘A Mother Is a Form of Time: Gilmore Girls and the Elasticity of In-Finitude’, Discourse 34.1 (Winter 2012): 3-31 (p. 4).

[29] Halbertstadt-Freud, 50.

[30] Halberstadt-Freud, 50.

[31] Brinkema, 9.

[32] ‘Pilot’, Gilmore Girls, The WB, 5 October 2000. Transcriptions mine.

[33] Halberstadt-Freud, 50.

[34] ‘Pilot’, Gilmore Girls.

[35] ‘Pilot’, Gilmore Girls.

[36] Halberstadt-Freud, 47.

[37] Halberstadt-Freud, 49.

[38] ‘Christopher Returns’, Gilmore Girls.

[39] ‘The Deer Hunters’, Gilmore Girls, The WB, 26 October 2000. Transcriptions mine.

[40] Halberstadt-Freud, 50.

[41] ‘Partings’, Gilmore Girls, The WB, 9 May 2006. Transcriptions mine.

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