Warning: there may actually be a hint of politics in this post.
I consider myself a fan of quite a number of TV shows. I’m a Game of Thrones hipster. Buffy taught me all I know about romance (hopefully less destructive than it sounds). I love reading Once Upon a Time fanfiction, even if I am not too sure about the show anymore. I could go on (and I probably will, because I have this blog now). But there is one show that deserves a special mention because it is the show I have seen most often by –well- a landslide.
My partner and I sort of just watch it continuously, often starting season one mere weeks after finishing season seven.
(This is less sad than it sounds, because we are not always together and never binge-watch.)
We have spent more cumulative hours discussing Rory and Lorelai’s love lives than our own.
(This is less sad than it sounds, because it is awesome.)
Of course, as any fan knows, repeat viewing is not the same as mindless adoration. There is plenty to be annoyed with in Gilmore Girls. For example, one of the episodes that never fails to irritate us (read: me) is Always a Godmother, Never a God, in which Colin – a rich-kid Yale undergraduate student – returns from his travels in Europe with a milkmaid he met in Amsterdam. “Katrinka” does not speak a word of English, is supposed to have cows and a pail, and in Holland is considered “practically a superhero” because “milkmaids are iconic”.
I don’t think I need to explain how this is a misrepresentation of Dutch people.
… OK – here goes.
1) Katrinka is not a Dutch name. In fact, it is not even listed with Social Insurances as a possible Dutch girl’s name. Names that are listed: Daenerys, Primrose but also Xseption and Adorabelle. Yes, this country is as full of fans and bad ideas as any other.
2) Milkmaids are not superheroes. Also, milkmaids are not an iconic Dutch thing just because Vermeer painted one and he happens to be famous overseas. Also, milkmaids do not exist anymore because the industrial revolution did actually hit continental Europe as well.
3) In no way is it possible to find a young woman in Amsterdam who does not speak a word of English. It is the city’s second official language. Also, even though it has a population of only 800,000, it is one the most culturally diverse places in the world, counting more than 150 different nationalities among its permanent residents. Millions of tourists visit the city every year. On any given day, there are 2.5 tourists to every local walking the streets, so a vast majority of shops and restaurants advertise in English rather than Dutch. Moreover, out of all languages in the world Dutch is arguably most closely related to English and it is not hard to pick up the basics. No, not every person in Amsterdam speaks English well or anywhere near fluently, but all of them can say yes, no and a few choppy sentences.
But I digress. Hugely and passionately (and almost a bit chauvinistically there. Scary).
Which is the point of this post.
As a white, middle-class, cisgender and young woman, I do not generally feel alienated by TV shows such as Gilmore Girls. Indeed, I am privileged, for TV is telling stories about people like me –at least in terms of those identities- all the time. It does not matter that Gilmore Girls is a show from overseas; a sign, perhaps, of the extent to which US culture has infiltrated my country. Regardless, I am content in my misidentification until someone like Katrinka appears on screen. Her presence is jarring; I feel frustrated because I am being misrepresented and not used to it; not used to having the category “nationality” of my identity represented at all – and usually happier to ignore it. After all, it is comfortable to identify with main characters; they are narratively designed for the viewer to identify with; they are the centre of the fictional universe. Having the show reflect such a distorted image of my “category” back at me in the form of a throwaway character is disconcerting. Especially because of Katrinka’s characterisation: she is literally silenced because she cannot communicate; not only does she not speak the language, but she fails to pick up the hints that Colin is no longer interested. And I am watching, hoping that this time Katrinka will speak up, hoping that Rory will reach out to her, but it never happens.
There is an important lesson here.
The Dutch, of course, were not the only ‘minority’ (and I am using that term loosely – that’s why it is in quotation marks) to be misrepresented on Gilmore Girls – nor the most problematic, because milkmaids aren’t regularly being paraded around primetime television while being held back and silenced in daily life. Yes, the larger cast of Gilmore Girls was more diverse than the average show of the early 2000s, but the script still relied on cultural and sexual stereotyping for a lot of its humour (not to mention Lorelai presenting her family as a struggling household while they always had stylish outfits and could afford to eat out for every single meal).
By now it probably sounds as if I have nothing good to say about Gilmore Girls, and that is far from true (♬ if you lead ♪ I will follow ♫ anywhere that you tell me to ♬). Nor is “being annoyed by the milkmaid and analysing my feelings” equal to the key to “understanding the violence of mis- and underrepresentation in popular culture”. But whenever I watch Katrinka sitting helplessly and silently on Rory’s sofa, I can just about begin to imagine what it must be like to belong to one of those identity categories that Hollywood seldom fails to distort.