This month, the Gilmore girls return after almost decade off the air, and fans have a lot of questions: Are Luke and Lorelai married yet? Who did Rory end up with? Are either of the Gilmores diabetic now? Do they suffer from heart palpitations caused by something other than broody, small-town men and rich, blonde Yalies? Okay, so those last two aren’t questions that a lot of people are asking out loud, but maybe we should. Because as healthy as Lorelai and Rory’s mother-daughter bond is, their eating habits sit firmly at the other end of the healthiness spectrum. Lorelai and Rory love to eat (which is great), and when it comes to food, they prefer its nutritional content to be low and its quantity to be large. If you’re one of the hundreds of adult humans with adult human metabolisms who rewatched the series leading up to Netflix’s highly anticipated Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, you couldn’t have missed it: The Gilmores never exercise (and they will mock you if you choose to do it yourself) and they eat more junk food than even a 6-foot-4 teenage boy can handle (we’re looking at you, Dean). It’s easy to feel uncomfortable watching the Gilmores, with their model-thin bodies and borderline dangerous dietary choices, but they’re not alone. The ‘90s and ‘00s saw the emergence of an archetype, a gorgeous glutton who took over television. You’ve seen her all around — she’s rail-thin, conventionally attractive, and she eats every meal like the world is literally ending. She’s had a lot of names, not just Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, but Grace Adler, Sam Puckett, and Liz Lemon. But how did we get here? According to Gloria Shin, a visiting assistant professor of film and television at Loyola Marymount University, we have to trace the origins of this character type back to Mary Tyler Moore.
“I think that these characters are not made possible without the arrival of Mary Tyler Moore as an icon of the smart, funny, attractive, very thin woman,” Shin says. “But what’s notable is that Mary Tyler Moore, a very thin, attractive, successful woman, is actually not an eater at all.” So who was allowed to eat during that era of television? Mary’s quirky best friend and sidekick, Rhoda. “She actually eats a lot, but it’s eating as a coping mechanism,” Shin explains. “She’s the really funny, ethnic best friend who is supposed to code as fatter and dumpier and less successful. Within the ‘70s, there is no [representation] of a thin, successful woman who also eats very, very badly in the sitcom landscape.” In fact, as Elizabeth Yuko, an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University, points out, if you saw a woman eating on screen in the early days of television, it was probably as a punch line — think Lucy Ricardo, stuffing her face with chocolates from a conveyer belt. “They were expected to cook food, but eating wasn’t really part of their story line. If anything, they had to be slim and ‘reduce’ — you know, the nicer, old-fashioned word for dieting,” she says. “I think originally the joke was, 'Oh women are supposed to be dainty and demure and eating too much is seen as a masculine thing, so this is hilarious.'” Flash-forward to the ‘90s and early ‘00s, however, and the landscape of television changed drastically. On TV, we watch Grace Adler eat a doughnut off a pencil, Liz Lemon lie, be-Snuggied, on her couch and proclaim that she’s working on her night cheese, and, of course, the Gilmore women consume enough food to feed a small nation and ask for coffee in an IV.
This move away from food being just for the “dumpy” best friend to drown her sorrows in is a positive one (yes, television, please normalize women eating — we do eat, often in large quantities and with a shimmer of glee in our eyes). But the sad downside is that the female characters who were shown to have healthy appetites, for a span of almost two decades, still looked just like the ones who could only eat on screen for a laugh, and the implications of that on body image are real. “There are so many expectations put on us as women, and this is just one more adding to the unattainable standard that we’re held to,” Yuko says. “I like that these shows are destigmatizing eating for women, because that should never have occurred in the first place. But in some cases, they are holding us up to a standard that most of us will never be able to reach.” So what led us to the gorgeous glutton? Was she created to taunt women or to purposefully tear down our collective self-esteem? Probably not. At the end of the day, a lot of what we see on television is unattainable, whether it’s the impossibly spacious and amazing NYC apartments of Carrie Bradshaw and the cast of Friends, or the sappy-but-we-still-kind-of-want-them family moments on shows like Full House, or the outright fantasy of Khaleesi surviving fire and “birthing” dragons on Game of Thrones. And, in part, we want to watch the unattainable because it provides some vicarious wish fulfillment. “A lot of shows, especially those that are geared toward women, are aspirational in some way,” Yuko says. “This particular archetype is aspirational in that it’s a best-case scenario for some of us. I don’t like exercise; I love to eat and sit around and do nothing. That would be my best-case scenario, but that’s not how things work.” And the wish fulfillment of watching someone who fits into narrow, conventional beauty standards eat and eat and never gain weight isn’t just limited to fiction now. As Shin points out, the gorgeous glutton archetype has crossed over into the real world, thanks to the muk-bang trend. As CNN explains, “muk-bang” is Korean for “eating broadcasts” and the trend involves beautiful thin women (and some men) eating copious amounts of food for a live internet audience.
“The muk-bang trend was spearheaded by South Korean women who are very, very thin in a culture that has the narrowest standard of beauty — who are as freaked out about gaining weight as Americans are — who are actually very, very successful at driving their income by being professional eaters and fulfilling the specific requests of their subscribers,” she explains. “This is no longer a fictional character, but somehow a real character in the world.” Both Yuko and Shin note that the trend is changing, however. Thanks, in part, to women like Mindy Kaling and Amy Schumer, we’re seeing a shift in representation of both women’s bodies in general, and the bodies of female characters who enjoy food. But Yuko points out that the trend is also tied to women stepping into more prominent roles as creators of television. “In my mind, Amy Schumer and Mindy Kaling are conventionally attractive women, but even their body types are slightly out of the conventional norm of celebrity body types, and it’s interesting because they both have their own shows,” she says. “It’s interesting that two of the more prominent women on TV who are known for having ‘real bodies,’ they wrote those roles for themselves.” Of course, Tina Fey created 30 Rock and Gilmore Girls is the brainchild of Amy Sherman-Palladino, so quite a few of these gorgeous gluttons were created by women. But even though the food-loving women on these shows may not have represented the most attainable body types, they still went a long way toward normalizing the idea of women eating. Women, even those who don’t look like Liz Lemon physically, could see themselves in her and her relationship with food, which brought us one big step closer to women on television reflecting the way women in the real world think and feel and live their lives. And we can all eat a doughnut off a pencil to that.