The first thing I said to fellow WWAC writer, Kate Tanski, when I saw the trailer for Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life was: “Emily’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt!” Emily Gilmore is a corporate wife of high society, she does not wear jeans! Hippies wear jeans, at least according to Rush Limbaugh. But, that is neither here nor there. Let’s talk about Emily Gilmore, the corporate wife, who has taught me to appreciate what she represents.
Wives do a lot of labor in service to the success of their families. More often than not this labor is unpaid. For some women, it is a luxury that results from a partner who makes enough to support the entire family. For others, childcare costs so much, it ultimately costs less for one parent to stay home, usually the woman who statistically makes less money. This may or may not be a luxury, depending on the woman in question. Consequently, because this labor is not paid, it is also invisible.
Emily Gilmore certainly belongs in the luxury category. She runs a household in a historic home that has an ever-revolving staff. She supports her husband’s corporate life via social and cultural events. Additionally, she works to preserve the traditions of her culture via her participation in the Daughters of the American Revolution. While her work is unpaid, it pays off in the social and cultural capital she maintains and creates for her family.
But that doesn’t mean her efforts as a corporate wife are appreciated. In fact, despite her wealth, she is often deeply undervalued by the people in her life: Richard, Lorelei, Digger. And like many of these characters, I know I have also devalued the type of work Emily and women like Emily do, in fiction and in real life.
Often set up as the antagonist to the show’s leads, Lorelei and Rory, Emily is shown to be a judgmental, meddling, snobby woman who is slavishly devoted to tradition. She is a woman of leisure set against Lorelei’s rejection of her privileged upbringing to go out on her own. For these reasons, at the beginning of the series, we are encouraged to feel sympathetic to Lorelei’s characterization of Emily as the enemy. Who would want Emily Gilmore giving you that smug smile every time you screw up?
But there’s something we often miss when we think of the Gilmore girls: Emily Gilmore is also a Gilmore girl, and like her daughter and granddaughter, she gets to screw up, be flawed, and find redemption. This is also why the men on the show will always be second string, even Richard. He may be a Gilmore, but he is not a Gilmore girl. Consequently, Emily’s position as antagonist is not so clear cut.
Emily never stops performing the emotional labor of keeping her family together. Compare this to Richard who has no inclination to be involved in his daughter’s life when Lorelei comes to them for money for Rory’s tuition in the first episode. It’s Emily who insists on the dinners, and it is only through Rory that Richard becomes humanized. Emily is humanized from the get-go as her yearning to be a part of Lorelei’s life results in manipulating Lorelei’s situation because she’s Emily and she’s rich, and that’s how she knows how to get what she wants. This desperation stands in stark contrast to Richard’s nonchalance. (The societal consequences of a bad father are never as severe as that of a bad mother.)
In fact, throughout the show Emily and Richard are pitted against each other for the prize of more tolerable parent/grandparent (a point Emily frequently brings up). Perhaps, this is why I get angrier and angrier each time I witness the progression of their separation in Season 4. Too often, the narrative encourages us to read Emily as irrational without considering how often Richard’s actions upend her life–because Richard has the luxury of having an identity outside of his role as a husband. He defines himself by his labor in the insurance agency, as evident when he freaks out over going into a retirement, acts like an asshole towards Lorelei, and then makes her feel bad for it, because he feels “obsolete.” However, Emily does not have this luxury because her labor is her role as a corporate wife. Consequently, Richard’s actions have far more of an effect on her personhood than he realizes–because he doesn’t have to realize it.
This is what makes it so refreshing when Emily throws all responsibility out the window and stops trying to clean up after the death of her despised mother-in-law. Yes, Emily feels betrayed, but finally she’s not doing all this work to run her family and household, to control her offspring, to maintain her family’s social image, to defend her own personal vulnerabilities. She stops laboring, and she indulges in her own feelings–it’s a rarity afforded Emily.
In another instance in Season 4 when Richard goes into business with Jason Stiles, AKA Digger–I hate that guy–Emily’s role as corporate wife is yet again upended when Jason decides, and Richard agrees, to take the clients to Atlantic City rather than hosting a traditional cocktail party that Emily puts together. Emily, poignantly and painfully, notes that those kinds of parties are irrelevant now–meaning she’s irrelevant. The corporate wife of old money no longer has a role in this forward looking world, and the only person to notice the significance of this is Lorelei, who like her mother coordinates events, but unlike her mother is paid for it as a part of her job at the Inn.
Considering this, how laughably perfect it is that Emily is KonMari-ing her house after Richard’s death, bedecked in jeans and a shirt with a faded Candies logo:
More than any other plot point in the upcoming revival, I look most forward to seeing who Emily Gilmore is and will be after the death of her beloved husband. Those jeans and that t-shirt symbolize that Emily is experiencing an identity crisis after the center of her world and identity has fallen away from her. How can she be a corporate wife as a widow? Unlike the conversation surrounding Lorelei and Rory, Emily’s is about who she is after Richard’s death. There’s no one to ship with her or team to pick, frankly her story is more interesting than that.