Originally written as a graduate seminar paper on gender and screen cultures.
This article aims to study in great depth the character of Michel Gerard as he is presented on both the original Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) and the more recent revival Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016). Interest in the character stems from popular, queer readings of Michel despite a seven-year run as a heteronormative, black, French man living in the quaint, small town of Stars Hollow. Although many argue that Michel has always been coded as gay, show creator, Amy Sherman-Palladino, has shifted her opinions on the subject from the time to time, leaving fans and critics to write their own backstory for the character. This article includes both a textual analysis and virtual ethnography as it explores the development of the underrated character from his first on-screen appearances in 2000 to his re-emergence in 2016.
Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls aired for the first time on The WB on October 5, 2000. The premise of the soon-to-be wildly popular show with a cult-like following was the charming and witty mother-daughter relationship between literary genius Rory Gilmore and her inn-managing mom, Lorelai Gilmore. For seven years, the show’s audience, which is comprised predominantly of viewers, ages 18 to 34 (Dee)—although some fans suggest a younger group, ages 12 to 25 (Big_Heavy_Thing)—developed intimate relationships with the dynamic and quirky cast of characters in the fictional Connecticut small town of Stars Hollow. And although the show’s main storyline follows the Gilmore girls—Rory, Lorelai and grandmother Emily—as they navigate their complicated familial relationships, every subplot is about relationships of some kind. Several years after the show’s series finale, online fans still debate whether they are #TeamDean, #TeamJess or #TeamLogan when it comes to Rory’s romantic relationships, and they do the same for Lorelai. But less overt are the platonic relationships that each Gilmore girl engages in, in her own “corner of the world” (Pongetti).
I will focus specifically on one of Lorelai’s work colleagues, Michel Gerard, played by French Canadian actor Yanic Truesdale. Michel is a thickly accented black man—the only black character with a central role in the show—whose persnickety attitude and devotion to pilates and Cher earned him the reputation of a closeted gay man among most fans during the show’s TV run (2000-2007) and in the following years up until the show’s recent revival in 2016. Many others cared—or claimed to care—very little about his sexual orientation, while some read the character as either bisexual or asexual. When asked about it while promoting the Netflix release of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life (2016), Truesdale explained, “Whether he was going home to a wife or a husband, it didn’t change anything of my vision of Michel. The character has been defined in so many other ways that, at this stage, it wouldn’t have an impact to know one way or the other” (Delbyck). In fact, in speaking with Cole Delbyck of The Huffington Post, the actor suggested that new episodes of the show, although likely to reveal a more three-dimensional character, would not address Michel’s sexuality. According to Truesdale, Michel’s sexual orientation is such a non-issue that in his almost-decade-long run on the show, he has never thought to ask Sherman-Palladino.
Still, the implications are there only five minutes into the show’s pilot episode. The very first time the audience encounters Michel is, of course, during one of his often-sarcastic conversations with the clients at The Independence Inn. As front-desk manager and concierge, he is explaining to someone over the phone that there are no available rooms at the inn, despite how desperately he would love to accommodate them. He adds mockingly, “I’d have to build a room for you myself and I’m not a man who works with his hands” (Season 1, Episode 1). The quote comes moments before another famously repeated Michel line, “People are particularly stupid today. I can’t talk to any more of them.” Perhaps, the clearest depiction of Michel is in the director’s notes of the pilot script, where he is described as “a very attractive, extremely intolerant black man in his late thirties,” but even here his sexual orientation is debatably at the forefront (Sherman-Palladino). The script continues, “Michel has a beautiful French accent which helps with his pursuit of the ladies” (Sherman-Palladino). It is worth noting that although this is mentioned in the director’s notes, Michel is not identified as being openly interested in women until several episodes later, and even then, it is only mentioned in passing.
Despite his central role in Lorelai’s life, Michel remains an outsider to the small town of Stars Hollow for the entirety of the series. He works there but it is never entirely clear if he lives there; on the few occasions that he does appear locally outside of work, he holds the odd town and its members in contempt and does not hesitate to express his unhappiness. This observation is striking yet often overlooked as in Delbyck’s character review of Michel, where he identifies Michel as “Stars Hollow’s unhappiest resident.” Of course, his disdain and distance may just be reflective of his personality; he prefers to go to New York City in his down time to see his idol, Celine Dion, in concert. And in Season 4, he even finds a temporary job in what appears to be a similarly modern city while he, Lorelai and chef Sookie St. James transition from The Independence Inn to The Dragonfly Inn. Regardless of where they land on debates about his home address, fans agree that Michel’s life outside of the inn is largely a mystery. Equally perplexing is the obvious question of Michel’s discovery of and arrival in Stars Hollow—an all-American small town with a population of less than 10 thousand people. He is one of only two characters in Stars Hollow identified as immigrants, although his case is the only one that is confirmed. The other is Mrs. Kim, Korean mother to Rory Gilmore’s best childhood friend, Lane Kim.
More indicative of Michel’s status as “other” is the fact that he is the sole black character with a central role on the show. An oft-discussed concern for fans and dissenters alike, the show’s history of black, non-speaking background characters is documented on a Tumblr page titled Gilmore Blacks. The page assumes an archival design that allows users to view close-ups of every black character ever featured on the show (except for Michel); it identifies whether or not they had a speaking role and what the page creators believe to be their actual purpose within the diegetic world, which is usually “to endure living in Stars Hollow” (Lockett). Michel’s role as black friend and business sidekick (Sookie and Lorelai are business partners and co-owners of the second inn, but Michel remains just the concierge) is almost referential to another character—Anthony Bouvier, played by Meshach Taylor, who appeared in Designing Women (1986-1993). Anthony worked alongside, although mostly as a lackey, four white women who owned and operated an interior design firm. Like Michel, Anthony’s sexual orientation was undetermined and left many fans to their own interpretations (Kellum). But Anthony differed from Michel in one significant way. Likely owing to the show’s era and southern-America setting (in Atlanta, Georgia) as well as his identity as an African-American man, Anthony’s character was often at the center of the show’s discussions about race relations and civil rights. Alternatively, Michel’s identity as a black man is never addressed on the show, not even implicitly, which suggests a more universalist approach—an attempt to “whitewash[ing] any difference, portraying these characters’ stories as universal rather than particular” (Belcher, p. 494). Whether the intent here is universality or an accurate representation of what Sherman-Palladino says is a fictional recreation of a real Connecticut town that she visited prior to pitching the show, the show’s lack of racial diversity presents an interesting point of contention in the analysis of Michel Gerard.
This intersection of race and sexuality as it relates specifically to the character of Michel Gerard serves as the primary focus of my screen cultures analysis. More explicitly, I am interested in finding out, to what extent do online fan communities recognize Yanic Truesdale’s character of Michel Gerard as representative of an all-encompassing token of Stars Hollow’s antitheses as a black, non-American, non-heteronormative outsider-insider?
As I aim to determine, primarily, the extent to which online fan communities recognize Yanic Truesdale’s character of Michel Gerard as representative of an all-encompassing token of Stars Hollow’s antitheses as a black, non-American, non-heteronormative outsider-insider, I will begin by identifying him as a character of interest throughout the show’s seven-year run and well after the series finale. Next, I will engage simultaneously in textual analysis, wherein I dissect relevant episodes, scenes and characters, and virtual ethnography. By virtual ethnography, also understood as netnography, I am referring specifically to a close analysis of online fan participation surrounding the text that works to convey fans’ varied processes of meaning-making. My data sampling methods can best be described as snowball sampling, wherein “one data source leads to another” (Scodari & Felder, pp. 239). To launch my discussion of participant observation among the online fan community, I will discuss at length one online thread that appeared on the user-created, user-operated and user-moderated forum, Reddit.com. This post is significant because it has launched several other online discussions about Michel’s character. Immediately, it introduces theories of queer and racial identity that lie at the center of this underdeveloped character who exists in a diegetic world otherwise populated by some of the most narratively vivid and dynamic characters. For additional fan discussion, I will return to Reddit as a primary source, owing to the site’s fairly large and active Gilmore Girls fan community of more than 16 thousand users, as well as to television and film fan-review forum, IMDb.com. Also relevant to my virtual ethnography are fan blogs (reviews, opinions, listicles etc.) and fan-fiction narratives (FanFiction.net) that revolve around Michel. Specifically, I am interested in how fans understand, explain and react to Sherman-Palladino’s ambivalent depictions of Michel. Before concluding, I will acknowledge that some fan concerns regarding Michel are addressed in the recent revival, exploring lastly fans’ responses to his so-called “new” and negotiated identity.
THEORIES AND CONCEPTS
1. Gender and Identity
Multiple masculinities: From hegemony to the dandy
Inspired by Connell’s work (1995; 2005) on hegemonic masculinity, Click et al. discern that, via media representations of men in television and in other popular culture, viewing audiences are subject to multiple and mediated masculinities that no longer correspond to the previously preferred depiction of the “culturally authoritative form of masculinity that supports the dominance of (mostly white) men and the subordination of women” (p. 3). Hegemonic masculinity, as defined by Connell, refers primarily to this authoritative form, placing an emphasis on power, control, and physical strength. Trujillo goes a step further, identifying very explicitly five distinguishing characteristics of hegemonic masculinity: “(1) physical force and control, (2) occupational achievement, (3) familial patriarchy, (4) frontiersmanship, and (5) heterosexuality” (p. 1). Connell argues that, “although hegemonic masculinity is the dominant form of masculinity…few men actually meet its standards, which necessitates multiple masculinities, including subordinated and complicit masculinities” (Click et al., p. 3). For Click et al., this is most recognizably accurate in the television series Entourage (2004-2011), in which they identify each leading male character as embodying a different type of masculinity. At the very top of their hierarchal models of masculinity are the following characteristics: “controlling,” “powerful,” “driven,” “insanely offensive,” “disrespectful of women,” and “aggressive business behavior.” At the bottom are: “flamboyant,” “feminine,” “girly,” and “sassy.”
Recognizably, the characteristics at the bottom of the hierarchy appear very closely aligned with those of the dandy. Karli Cerankowski writes that dandyism, although almost impossible to define, is best understood as “an aesthetic and life philosophy” (pp. 226). The model of the dandy is of “the ‘superior’ man who is constantly asserting himself against a larger world whose values are alien to him” (Godfrey, pp. 27). Despite his queer interests, which include fashion and beauty, his “queer expressions of gender do not necessarily correlate with homosexual desire” (Cerankowski, pp. 226); he can, in fact, be heterosexual. According to Cerankowski, the dandy consistently resists definition, blurring the lines between labels of heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality and even asexuality. The intent is to deconstruct all “limiting binaries in the service of transforming how one conceives of identity formation” (pp. 227). Although he is most often read as gay today (since the case of Oscar Wilde), the dandy’s effeminacy was initially indicative of a complete disinterest in sex, rather than any same-sex interests (Meyer). Meyer explains that Wilde’s identity as the bourgeois male conflated with his conviction of sodomy in 1895 “transformed dandyism into a vehicle for a homoerotic presence and a sexualized symbol” (Meyer, pp. 77). The result is a negative connotation of the term as reflective of someone who fails to satisfy ideals of modern masculinity and is, therefore, gay—a problematic conclusion nonetheless.
Clark’s Model of Minority Representation
Cedric C. Clark’s 1969 model of minority representation identifies what he argues are the four recognizable stages of the portrayal of minorities in the media and, specifically, on television (Fitzgerald). They are non-recognition, ridicule, regulation and respect. The first stage, non-recognition, refers to a blatant disregard of the minority group that fails to acknowledge even their existence. The result is what Gerbner and Gross refer to as symbolic annihilation—the premise of which is that, if “‘representation in the fictional world [of mass media] signifies social existence’…absence denotes non-existence” (Fitzgerald, pp. 6). When they are finally recognized, they are, at first, only depicted as the subjects of uninspired, derogatory stereotypes—often for comedic value but also as a way of reinforcing their insignificance and otherness. Beyond the stage of ridicule, they appear as “enforcers or administrators of the dominant group’s norms” (pp. 3). At the fourth and final stage, the minority group is depicted respectfully, in ways that de-emphasize difference between the dominant and minority groups.
Almost in response to Clark’s fourth stage of representation, intersectionality works to recognize, rather than subdue or conflate, differences across groups as significant to the construction of their identity and the ways in which they encounter the world. For example, Crenshaw explains, “because of their intersectional identity as both women and of color within discourses that are shaped to respond to one or the other, women of color are marginalized within both” (pp. 1244). More generally, she theorizes that intersections of race and gender “highlight the need to account for multiple grounds of identity when considering how the social world is constructed” (pp. 1245).
2. Screen Cultures
Convergence culture and participatory culture
Henry Jenkins defines convergence as “the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation between multiple media industries, and the migratory behavior of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want,” (Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, pp. 2). Media convergence, he explains, represents a cultural shift toward a more participatory culture as opposed to the previously observed culture of passive media spectatorship. Embedded in this new culture are the unpredictable interactions between media producers and media consumers; the intersection of grassroots and corporate media; the democratization of media platforms; audience-generated content and user moderation; collective consumption, intelligence and meaning-making; and, transmedia storytelling. He argues that, “in the world of media convergence, every important story gets told, every brand gets sold, and every consumer gets courted across multiple media platforms” (3).
To say that fans promote their own meanings over those of producers is not to suggest that the meanings fans produce are always oppositional ones or that those meanings are made in isolation from other social factors. Fans have chosen these media products from the total range of available texts precisely because they seem to hold special potential as vehicles for expressing the fans’ pre-existing social commitments and cultural interests; there is already some degree of compatibility between the ideological construction of the text and the ideological commitments of the fans and therefore, some degree of affinity will exist between the meanings fans produce and those which might be located through a critical analysis of the original story (Textual Poaching, pp. 34).
Lisa Richards notes that, although not always the goal, fan participation (particularly, fan fiction) does have the power to supplement or even alter the narrative of a primary text.
Following contract disputes, Amy Sherman-Palladino, along with husband and co-creator Daniel Palladino severed ties with The WB (now The CW) before production began on the seventh and final season of Gilmore Girls (Tucker). Sherman-Palladino admitted that she and Palladino “had a very specific idea of how [they] wanted the series to ultimately end, and there’s a myriad of ways to get there, which could have accommodated another few seasons” (Tucker); but, much to her disapproval, the show ended after the next season and the legend of Sherman-Palladino’s final four words was put to rest for the next nine years. For this reason, devoted fans felt cheated by a series finale that left much to be desired; storylines were notably less dramatic and, worse, incomplete. When the show ended in 2007, fans expressed great displeasure with the way things had gone in what Sherman-Palladino called “an alternate universe that we [she, Palladino and the fans] loved living in” (Tucker). One reviewer on IMDb.com writes about the show’s final episode, “It was rushed and not well thought out… It seems as though the writers changed towards the end and it was not the same show. I only kept watching for closure which sadly I do not feel that I got by watching” (Jen-e-bean). Another echoes these sentiments,
After years of watching Lorelai, Rory and the rest of Stars Hollow grow up, it was finally time to say: ‘Bon Voyage!’ But, I think that this was not quite the goodbye Gilmore girls dissevered [sic]. After seven years, it may have been time to say goodbye, but not in the way they did. And considering that there were some very important characters missing, it was a disappointment. Where were some of the most controversial and important characters like Christopher and Mrs. Kim. Also, we were missing some regulars… All in all, I feel like this wasn’t quite the right ending… Hopefully, this won’t be the true ending to this spectacular show, which has delighted many for seven years (bexwert).
And, it wasn’t.
Months before Netflix confirmed that all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls would be available for worldwide streaming on July 1, 2016, fans (old and new) received even more exciting news. In January of 2016, the Palladinos announced that a straight-to-Netflix Gilmore Girls revival (not a reboot) was in the works. The mini-series, which would be given an entirely new name, was set to include four 90-minute episodes, each depicting a different season of the year. And so, seemingly overnight, the Gilmore Girls fandom was reignited, inspiring lengthy online articles that ranged from reflections (Mlotek), to hopes (Nick & Nereyda), and even to concerns (Lenton) fans wanted addressed in the revival. One such concern was “The Curious Case of Michel Gerard” (Delbyck):
[The] question fans want answered about Michel concerns his sexuality. His romantic life remained strangely unaddressed in a series so deeply involved with its characters’ personal relationships. Although Michel’s interest in women was mentioned a few times throughout the seven seasons, much of the character’s humor—zingy one-liners that might as well have ended with a snap—is derived from mannerisms and responses that could be easily read as stereotypically queer. Add some tight sweaters and a Celine Dion obsession into the mix and you’re bound to stoke some fans’ curiosities.
As Delbyck suggests, much like Entourage, Gilmore Girls depicts representations of multiple or, at the very least, oppositional masculinities. Michel’s character appears in stark contrast to another central male character, Luke Danes. Lorelai’s leading man throughout much of the series, Luke can actually be described as depicting every single one of Trujillo’s distinguishing characteristics of hegemonic masculinity. He is often looked to as the town handyman, if not only Lorelai’s personal handyman, as in the series finale when he single-handedly (and in one night) makes a giant tarp to shelter the crowds at Rory’s going away party. He is a successful entrepreneur, converting his father’s hardware store into a profitable diner and local hotspot, which allows him to willingly loan Lorelai $30 thousand dollars when she runs into financial difficulty. He adheres to familial patriarchy as he assumes the role of caretaker and perpetual guidance counselor to his younger sister, Liz, well into her adult life. An avid fisherman, he is the ideal frontiersman; he even spends several years restoring his father’s boat by himself. Lastly, he is unmistakably heterosexual; he constantly and aggressively defends his manhood and makes the occasional anti-gay joke or comment. Positioned almost directly in opposition of Luke’s hegemonic masculinity is Michel Gerard’s more effeminate identity—a transgressive masculinity—that is more closely aligned with dandyism. There are several reasons to read Michel as the dandy: his impeccable fashion sense and etiquette; his strict diet and emphasis on his figure; his sexual ambivalence; and, last but not least, his disdain for the general population of Stars Hollow. In Season 2 Episode 8, he is actually explicitly identified as the dandy by Mia, owner of The Independence Inn. She compliments his appearance, “Look at that suit. You are quite the dandy, aren’t you?” And Michel, who frequently demands that Lorelai reimburse him for his dry-cleaning bills whenever he does anything remotely physical at the inn, is flattered by her comments, spinning around so she can get a better look.
In his article, Delbyck mentions a Gilmore Girls fan thread that appeared on Reddit.com in October of 2015. The initial post—titled “Is Michel Gay or is he just French?”—received an 87% upvote within the Reddit GilmoreGirls discussion community and has been the subject of online discussions found elsewhere. The first and most popular response reads: “Gay or European? So many shades of gray. Depending on the time of day, the French go either way.” The fan goes on to quote another pre-revival online article (Duca) in which Sherman-Palladino and Truesdale may have alluded to an answer.
ASP says: ‘We all know men who seem creative, who have wives and children,’ she said, giggling. ‘So we never actually pursue it one way or the other and sort of let it lie.’ ‘We sort of went on record saying he was into women, because we put it in the script once,” she said, “but things can change or shift.’
Yanic says: ‘We left it ambiguous and I think that was a choice,’ said Yanic Truesdale, who played Michel. ‘I actually never asked Amy! … I’ve never asked, swear on my mother’s head.’
Also from that article: Sherman-Palladino actually intended Sookie (Melissa McCarthy) to be gay, but executives wouldn’t approve.
‘Things were different back then,’ Sherman-Palladino said. ‘The networks were very different in how permissive they would allow you to be. So, Sookie was originally supposed to be gay, but that was a non-starter at that time’ (uhlizahbeth).
Fan responses to this discussion were varied; one commenter writes, “The weird thing is I never cared about Michele’s [sic] sexual orientation because he was so professional (minus the guest interactions) and seemed so charismatic that it was the last thing to cross my mind about him” (GilmoreBoy), while another proclaims, “I always imagined him as bi!” (Ummerruhhno). A nod to the song lyrics quoted at the beginning of the post, one commenter explains, “I’m pretty sure he’s not gay he’s just a dandy” (SylvaCrow). One plausible explanation for his ways, Michel’s identity as a dandy is bolstered by his thick French accent and love of all things high culture; but, although recognizably true to the trope, Michel’s characterization as such, for many fans, is just another way for Sherman-Palladino to dismiss any opportunity for more obvious LGBTQ+ representation on the show. Far more indicative of this is Michel’s desire to disassociate himself with the French. According to Sima Godfrey, the dandy identity is often strongly rooted in either English or French culture; he credits his European city background for his superiority in grace, style and elegance. Conversely, in the episode, “Cinnamon’s Wake” (Season 1, Episode 5), Michel is annoyed to have to interact with a group of French businessmen staying at the inn. When a member of the group approaches him because they recognize his French accent, he says, “Sir, I’m just a simple country boy from Texas. I do not understand this ‘français’ business you’re babbling about.” He then explains to Lorelai, very candidly, that he finds all French people “insufferable.” It is difficult to discern whether these feelings are sincere or an attempt to distract from a genuine dandy identity, but some fans argue that the answer has little to do with the question at hand: “What does Europe have to do with sexual orientation and if someone is more feminine or not? My opinion is that this is an urban legend” (GilmoreBoy). Assuming Sherman-Palladino’s most earnest intention is to portray him as a dandy, the show still falters since, as she and many fans note, Michel’s sexual interest in women is made explicit on a handful of occasions—a direct opposition of the asexuality, homosexuality or bisexuality that is more typically associated with the dandy (particularly since the 19th century). Moreover, although more inclusive than a complete dismissal of his sexual fluidity, the dandy trope is still problematic; in his truest form, the dandy perpetuates male privilege by “refuting women…while at the same time embracing his own effeminacy and feminine characteristics” (Cerankowski).
Michel is never obviously misogynistic; in fact, he appears in stark contrast to other male characters who depict traits of hypermasculinity, and who often get the girl. One Reddit fan explains, “there’s a disturbing trend among the male population of [the] Gilmore Girls world: insane jealousy” (AncientSummoner). The fan theorizes, in their fifth re-watching of the series, that the women on the show are only attracted to men who exhibit these primal traits, identified by Trujillo as the first distinguishing feature of hegemonic masculinity. The post includes a detailed explanation about each of the following characters who, at one time or another, is engaged in a romantic relationship with one of the women on the show: “Luke and Chris…so jealous to the point they started fighting after seeing one another”; “Jess and Dean…full-blown control freak”; and, “Logan and Marty…bullied him mercilessly” (AncientSummoner). In contrast, they identify that the women only engage in friendships with men who are otherwise characterized as “married, weird, or obviously gay.” Interestingly, what makes Michel objectionable, according to this post, is that he is foreign, not that he is gay.
If indeed closeted, Michel lives a heartbreaking existence in the small town of Stars Hollow. More recently criticized for its anti-gay rhetoric, Gilmore Girls frequently includes jokes that favor ideals of hegemonic masculinity, dismissing anything other than the “norm” as not only gay but undesirable and unacceptable. In doing so, the show seems to place Michel (and other queer characters) at Clark’s second stage of representation: ridicule. Delbyck notes,
Nothing said or done on ‘Gilmore Girls’ was ever explicitly offensive, but every now and then a joke would use being gay as a punchline. Luke Danes, one half of the show’s most popular couple, would often be at the center of these unfortunate moments. Any queer viewer watching at home might remember Luke asking the town weirdo, Kirk, ‘What’s with the gay bag?’ or Zack, another character, saying the word bulwark ‘sounds totally gay.’ However, none of these confrontations with queerness ever centered around Michel, whose stereotypically gay characteristics seemed to exist in a vacuum.
This fan tendency to recognize these references to gayness as mildly uncomfortable rather than excessively offensive is not uncommon. Longtime fan Steven Wilson corroborates, saying,
None of [the jokes] are particularly offensive, in fact all of them are basically the same joke: guys without girlfriends are obviously closeted gays. Joke that Luke has a date after years of not, well good for him, people were starting to talk, HAHAHAHA. Town dysfunctional Kurt [sic] manages to get a girlfriend, nice, because you know what people were starting to think, HAHAHAHA.
They never consider what it might be like for Michel to be openly gay in this version of Stars Hollow because even Michel joins in the ridicule. In Season 2 Episode 3, Michel tags along with an all-female group for a night out to celebrate Lorelai’s bachelorette party. The group goes to a drag club, which surprises Michel, although Sookie teases that the name alone, “The Queen Victoria,” should have been a giveaway. After reclaiming his dignity (he asks the server dressed in drag for his dignity back), Michel’s biggest concern is this: “So, is there no dancing here? I was hoping there would be dancing. It is the weekend and, on the weekends, I like to move. And the ladies, they like it too.” Before night’s end, he makes his way to the stage where he is enjoying himself until he is joined by two drag queens. He becomes visibly uncomfortable, his smile quickly turning into a grimace.
In her interview with Lauren Duca, Sherman Palladino says that Michel was not the only sexually ambiguous character on the show: “We had characters in the town that we thought of as gay, and we just thought of them as characters.” Here, she is referring to Taylor Doose (a white man), the town selectman, who like Michel is never given a subplot about his personal or home life. Unlike Michel, Taylor never mentions or does anything to unequivocally indicate any sexual interest in women. Fans were quick to notice this, discussing in the same Reddit post mentioned above that they had always read Taylor as gay and that they might even be interested in seeing a Michel-Taylor couple: “If we come back and they’re a bickering married couple I won’t even blink” (windkirby). Another writes,
I like to imagine the reason why Taylor is the way he is, is because of unrequited love. Years ago, he fell in love with a man from a neighboring town. They spent many happy afternoons together; visiting shops, galleries, museums. They were truly in love, until one day, Taylor’s beau was shamed into ending his relationship with Taylor by his family, and of course, the time period. That man? Hank from Woodbridge [frequently mentioned but never seen]… I just find that his demeanor, passionate interests in preservation/manipulation, and lack of a wife all add up to him being confined in the closet, frustrated as hell. So, he uses these other ways to exert some form of control in his life. I feel that that was the intention (AncientSummoner).
It is interesting to note that Sherman-Palladino acknowledges Taylor Doose might be intentionally written as gay but consistently refutes that Michel’s identity is even determinable, perhaps indicative of a larger problem this would have introduced (with the network, she may argue)—that of portraying a gay, black man living openly and comfortably in Stars Hollow on mainstream television. Wesley Morris describes this as “the national terror of black sexuality” (n.p.). Although, like many fans have argued, Gilmore Girls existed in the time of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (VioletDander) and Will & Grace (crap_humans_say), the thought of exploring Michel’s sexuality was simply too much: “The white dick means nothing, while, whether out of revulsion or lust, the black dick means too much” (Morris). Morris acknowledges that although television has become more comfortable with male sexuality, “what’s been playing out in our culture all along [is] a curiosity about black [male] sexuality, tempered by both guilt over its demonization and a conscious wish to see it degraded.” It is more conceivable for Sherman-Palladino to depict Taylor Doose as a gay man than Michel Gerard.
But as dandyism (and AncientSummoner) reminds us, it is also important to account for the possibility that Michel, though effeminate, might not be gay. One fan (Oy-with-the-poodles) does this in a fan-fiction narrative, titled “Michel the Magnificent,” wherein Michel is an aspiring ballet dancer. Lorelai unearths his secret interest when her mother, Emily, replaces their usual Friday-night dinner with plans for the family to attend a ballet. Lorelai is surprised to find out that “the talented French ballet dancer” her mother enjoys throwing roses at is her concierge and friend. After the show, Lorelai goes backstage to do what she does best, tease Michel, and although Michel begs her not to tell anyone, she can’t control herself the next day. Michel is so annoyed and embarrassed that he is forced to leave work early. Most interesting about this work of fan fiction is that the writer inherits Sherman-Palladino’s perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity and anti-gay humor. Lorelai justifies her actions to Rory by saying, “He’s so mean sometimes that if you actually find out something bad about him then you have to tease him,” implying that the fact that he is interested in ballet is “bad” and laughable. By the last chapter of his own story, Michel is no longer the focus. Instead, the climax is a catfight between Lorelai and Luke’s former girlfriend, Nicole. Luke, consistently positioned as the burly, manly hero, chooses Lorelai and sends a physically battered (by Lorelai) Nicole on her way while Lorelai exclaims that this is the nicest thing anyone has ever done for her. Thus, we observe that, although the author starts off with the intention of depicting a more three-dimensional Michel who leads an interesting life outside of the inn, he is ridiculed to the point of departure, reflective of the same unwillingness to acknowledge his complicated existence. Another fan who identifies as queer also accounts for the possibility that Michel might not be gay, but still manages to relate this to the show’s lack of representation. On his list of “Six Things The ‘Gilmore Girls’ Revival Can Do To Fix The Show’s Horrible Mistakes,” Patrick Lenton begs show creators to “let Michel discover his true self.” He writes,
Now, a person’s sexuality is their own business. I hate that kind of nosey evangelical prying into people’s lives where, for one reason or another, a person is decided to be closeted and the mob decrees they should come out. I also particularly detest the lazy stereotyping that leads to this kind of claim—just because Michel is a confirmed bachelor, loves dancing, and is an insane Celine Dion fan, does not mean he is a secret queer. I am queer, and I like none of those things… That said, can we pleeeeeaaaaaaase have one queer person in Stars Hollow? Pretty please?
Despite his earlier complaint about “lazy stereotyping,” Lenton acknowledges that Michel would be the ideal character to fit this role. He even writes his own mini fan-fiction that involves “Michel turning up to the inn with a fabulous, dapper older man who dotes on him.” Both narratives, whether they depict him as gay or not, exhibit fans’ interest in knowing more about the character who potentially represents so much but is so infrequently credited. In one way or another, they recognize his plight as a black, non-American, non-heterosexual outcasted resident of Stars Hollow even if they are not always sure of how to redeem his character.
Inundated by fan complaints like these and presumably allowed more creative freedom on Netflix in 2016 than would have been possible with a major TV network of the early 2000s, Sherman-Palladino addresses two of the primary concerns involving Michel Gerard in the revival, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. The first is Michel’s sexual identity. Misled up until the international release on 25 November, 2016 to believe that the topic was a non-issue that would not be specifically addressed in the revival, fans learned very early on in the mini-series that Michel is now, as anticipated, an openly gay man; he is married to a man named Frederic and they are exploring parenting options. He announces this—all of it—very matter-of-factly to Lorelai and to the audience who has been waiting almost a decade for this revelation. The first time the audience sees Michel in the revival is approximately 25 minutes into the first episode. He enters the lobby of the Dragonfly Inn, Lorelai traipsing behind, as he complains about his husband.
Michel: I just don’t understand it. Before we got married, Frederic was more indifferent to children than I am.
Lorelai: That’s not possible.
Michel: Oh, yes. We could be walking by the well that Timmy fell down in, he’d throw a penny in.
Lorelai: Maybe he just kept his feelings to himself.
Michel: For five years? No. Something happened. Twenty minutes after “I do,” he lost his mind…He keeps shoving children in my arms. “Hold this. What do you feel?” Well, now there’s spittle on my Brioni suit so, rage?
The scene exists to reveal that Michel has evolved as a character but he has also remained the same; he is still sarcastic and perpetually annoyed. It also indicates that Michel and his husband met at least five years prior, which is probably why Lorelai doesn’t react to this conversation like the old Lorelai might have. What the scene and the rest of the mini-series neglect to reveal is when Michel came out as gay and how Lorelai and others reacted at the time. Some fans find this casualness refreshing. Responding to a post-revival thread on Reddit, one fan writes, “I loved him in the revival for a lot of reasons [but, firstly, because] they confirmed that he was gay without making it a huge deal. I loved that it was just normal and accepted and just…Michel” (stella_eh). Although in a seemingly miniscule way, the introduction of more queer-friendly narratives suggests a recognition of the fans’ investment in the show and reflects “the democratic potentials” of convergence culture and its contemporary cultural trends (Jenkins, pp. 247). One queer fan sees this as a win. In a personal reflection titled “As A Queer Mom, I Think Michel Is The Best Part of ‘Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life,’” longtime fan Katherine Clover writes,
To many other viewers, this may seem like a small detail. Because many Gilmore Girls fans had suspected in the past that Michel was written as a gay man, seeing it confirmed in the reboot might not be seen as a big deal. But my feelings about Michel are different, because to me he represents far more than just a sarcastic sidekick for Lorelai. As a gay woman who recently became a mother to a beautiful child, seeing Michel Gerard openly married to a man and contemplating fatherhood makes my little queer heart happy.
Because Michel’s gayness is dealt with so minimally (the audience never meets his husband or learns much else about their lives than is revealed in the above scene), fans turn their attention to other attempts to include the LGBTQ+ community. Also read as gay, Taylor Doose does not receive the same recognition that Michel does. Instead of being openly gay, he is still the mysterious town busybody who is now unsuccessfully planning Stars Hollow’s first gay pride parade. He explains at a town meeting that, unfortunately, the parade will be canceled because “there just aren’t enough gays in Stars Hollow” (Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life—Season 1, Episode 2). The town members are in disbelief because they have “such cute houses” and “antique shops,” not to mention Donald—a new character described as a gay “pro.” Donald volunteers to join the parade, but only two other people agree to walk with him, a lesbian couple—Adele and Lois—never seen on-screen (Michel is not present at this meeting). The town’s lack of gays is so appalling that Taylor even says he has asked neighboring towns to “lend” them some of their gays. To which Andrew (a familiar town resident) quips, “We lent them our riding mowers one year. Why can’t they lend us their gays?” The crowd begins suggesting possible participants (unknown characters with only first names) whom they believe are gay, like Clark, but Donald informs them that Clark is actually straight and so, he is unable to join. Before they agree to cancel the parade, Gypsy (another familiar resident) asks if Taylor is certain he isn’t leaving anyone out, implying that he might be able to join on account of his own sexual identity. Everyone leans forward in anxious anticipation of his response, but he responds with a simple “Nope.” Fan interpretations of this scene are varied. On the one hand, fans recognize the scene as a meta-commentary on the original show’s critiques of being anti-gay, finding it simultaneously humorous and reflective of any real-world equivalent of Stars Hollow. PatitoIncognito writes on Reddit, “Taylor contacting the people in the town he thinks are gay for the parade is such a Taylor thing because he wants a great Stars Hollow parade.” They add as substantiation for the bit, “A small town in central Pennsylvania [presumably a lot like Stars Hollow] recently had their first gay pride parade and I think 40 people showed up. The news article said the organizers had ten signs and they were happy that only 7 were stolen.” Less optimistically, some fans argue, “the writers acknowledge the problem without actually doing anything about it” (Upadhyaya).
The second fan concern Sherman-Palladino addresses is the town’s lack of racial diversity. Fans also notice that, now that the town is gay-friendly (a wildly generous description), it is also more racially diverse (another wildly generous description). Replying to an article about the aforementioned scene, one fan writes, “I think Amy Sherman-Palladino is on record for actively not liking diversity stuff. She wasn’t going to hire other writers; this is totally her baby and I assume she shuffed [sic] off the middle to Daniel. Sometimes I wonder if the person who casts extras is rebelling… There were a LOT more PoC in the background” (Cameron). In Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life, there are so many unnamed black characters in the background that fans have begun consistently contributing to the “Gilmore Blacks” page on Tumblr. Sherman-Palladino has been attacked in the past for a lack of diversity on Gilmore Girls and even on other shows (Gonzalez), and she has always managed to rationalize this in some of the most bizarre ways. Cameron’s comments suggest that fans recognize her excuses, including finite budgets and network restrictions, as mainly false. Even if the upsurge of people of color in the background is in response to such fan critiques, Sherman-Palladino does less to appease fans than she does to anger them in the revival. Fans go so far as to suggest alternative ways in which this problem might have been better resolved, hypothesizing an interracial relationship for Rory. “Maybe she met him when she was working on Obama’s campaign? Or, you know, literally anywhere else. Some free ideas: a street, a coffee shop, an aquarium. Perhaps he is a nice person. Perhaps he is not. Oh, the many options” (Lenton). Instead, the only non-white character with a significant speaking role, other than the few known regulars, is Emily’s maid (her family is featured in the background) who bears the brunt of an extremely offensive running joke throughout the four-episode mini-series. Many fans note that, while attempting to be more queer-friendly, the revival depicts the town and its characters as more racist than before—“the racialized jokes were the worst”—with several off-handed subplots about the apparently pained existence of minorities in Stars Hollow (Kati). Michel remains the only black character with a central role (and many fans identify him as their favorite character altogether). In light of this, it would be interesting to know if Michel’s marriage is an interracial one; although his husband’s name (Frederic) suggests that he is French, the audience knows nothing about his racial identity. While such a realization might work to further marginalize Michel, marrying his character to a white man may serve as an attempt to “normalize” his oppositional existence in Stars Hollow.
The question posed at the beginning of this analysis asked, to what extent do online fan communities recognize Yanic Truesdale’s character of Michel Gerard as representative of an all-encompassing token of Stars Hollow’s antitheses as a black, non-American, non-heteronormative outsider-insider? Overwhelmingly so, a great majority of fans are able to recognize Michel as embodying each of these descriptions; although, they find some more problematic than others. They are critical of the show’s restrictive ideals of hegemonic masculinity, which they believe lead to an under-representation of queerness. Instead, what they observe are frustrating, non-committal suggestions that certain characters, Michel included, might be read as non-heteronormative. Dissatisfied with explanations that blame his effeminacy on his French background, they lobby relentlessly (for nearly two decades) for Michel’s coming out. Most notable is the number of fans who identify as non-heteronormative and who relate most closely with Michel. Personally affected by similar societal prejudice, they recognize Michel’s mere existence on the show as a step in the direction, even though he (and others) is sometimes written into stereotypically anti-gay narratives.
Could the representations of queer people have been better? Yes. I think this series lacked a good editor—especially in the parts written by Amy’s husband (Backfat Pat should never have been a thing). I’m happy queer people were at least included, but this seems to be our lot at the moment in the media. The world is changing…slowly. Even though they’re not the most well-rounded representations of us, at least they still exist (Derek Le Beau).
Able to relate this and the shows’ lack of racial diversity to a larger structural problem, they question why and how the original show has maintained such a successful run—some rationalizing it all as a misguided attempt to portray a realistically conceivable small town. But, the connection seems to stop there. Few fans recognize the intersectionality of Michel’s gayness and blackness as an aversion to black male sexuality, even though they are able to discern Taylor’s gayness more firmly than Michel’s in the original show. Arguably, Sherman-Palladino attempts to reverse this juxtaposition in A Year in the Life; but her decision to use non-white characters as props in the background of every scene in the revival overshadows this adjustment, inciting widespread backlash.
The sheer volume of online fan discussion surrounding both the original show and the revival indicates some cultural fascination with Stars Hollow and its odd ecosystem. Even the harshest of critics reflect a familiarity with, if not also a self-indulgent adoration of, the Gilmore girls. Although many fans quickly and easily recognize the shows’ depictions (even the adjusted ones) of marginalized groups and, more specifically, of Michel as occasionally uncomfortable and at other times downright offensive, they still maintain some level of reverence. Another meta-commentary, the Stars Hollow musical (equally as fantasmic and ridiculous as the town’s actuality) alludes to this paradox. The musical closes with the song, “What’s There Not to Love about Stars Hollow?”
Most notably, this analysis does not account for one highly specific sub-group of the Gilmore Girls fan community: fans who follow the podcast, “Gilmore Guys.” Launched in 2014, the premise of the weekly podcast is the journey of two men—one white, Kevin T. Porter, and one black, Demi Adejuyigbe—who watch the show (and other paratextual material) one episode at a time, taking detailed notes to later discuss their interpretations and opinions. While Porter identifies himself as a longtime Gilmore Girls fan, Adejuyigbe admits that, until the launch of the podcast, he had never seen an episode. They sometimes welcome special guests to help them “analyze, praise, mock, and gab about all things Stars Hollow” (Gilmore Guys). On Soundcloud, the online platform used to host their episodes, they have more than five thousand followers and approximate episode length ranges anywhere from one to five hours. The podcast, which is also available on iTunes and Google Play, boasts a monthly download rate of approximately four million downloads (Contrera). Although neither of the two men has ever publicly confirmed their sexual identities, at least one of them is frequently read as gay in online communities. In the interest of further dissecting fan receptions of Michel’s character, close analyses of the podcast episodes in which he is mentioned might reveal new and interesting interpretations. A screen cultures analysis would not be difficult to incorporate here since Soundcloud includes an embedded comment feature that allows listeners to link their responses to the exact minute mark of the episode to which they are referring. The site also includes options to like, share and repost each episode. Consequently, both Porter and Adejuyigbe frequently engage in detailed, written conversations with fans in the comments, following each episode. This unique hub of the Gilmore Girls fandom likely offers special insight into themes of multiple and mediated masculinities.
Secondly, less specific to Michel’s dilemma is the intersectionality of womanhood and gay identity as it is represented on the show. Much of the research for this analysis revealed another fan concern: female characters who are read as gay and are given far less liberties than Michel. These include, most notably, Rory’s frenemy, Paris Gellar. Many fans expressed a desire to see her explore her same-sex interests, especially in light of her ongoing divorce in Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life; some (Charlotte; Smyth) even suggest that Rory and Paris are destined to be together. Others include the town mechanic, Gypsy (who, like Michel, is also thickly accented but is believed to be Hispanic); Miss Patty (played by Puerto Rican actress, Liz Torres) and, interestingly, the family matriarch, Emily Gilmore. This fan theory is not at all inconceivable, especially since Sherman-Palladino has said in the past that Sookie St. James was initially written as an out lesbian. Additionally, Lorelai’s best friend and diner owner was intended to be female, prompting fans to fantasize about a possible lesbian relationship for the show’s protagonist. Summarizing this concern quite legitimately, one fan writes, “I still don’t understand how a show that is all about the relationships between women doesn’t have any openly queer women” (Gem).
Lastly, fans seem to recall more quickly Sherman-Palladino’s Gilmore Girls follow-up show, Bunheads (Gonzalez), in their attacks against the writer’s policies of inclusion (of both non-white and LGBTQ+ communities); similarly set in a small Connecticut suburb, the show featured no people of color and failed to garner nearly as much popularity as did Gilmore Girls. Conversely, it is interesting to note that Sherman-Palladino began her career as a writer for Roseanne (1988-1997) long before the dawn of Gilmore Girls. Nico Lang recalls,
In 1995, Roseanne became the first sitcom to portray a same-sex wedding on television, a year before Ross’ ex-wife Carol (Jane Sibbett) and Susan (Jessica Hecht) tied the knot on Friends. While the Friends episode is notable for its lack of same-sex intimacy, Roseanne even allowed Leon (Martin Mull) and Scott (Fred Willard) a post-nuptial smooch. The show also had a lesbian recurring character, Nancy, played by Sandra Bernhard.
This oft-forgotten bit of television history, coupled with the strange and uncomfortable depiction of people of color in the Gilmore revival, suggests that Sherman-Palladino, although still seemingly uncomfortable with diversity of most kinds (especially in her own shows), is less averse to depicting gays than she is to non-whites. Further research on the show might explore how different marginalized racial groups are depicted, especially in the revival that purports itself as more inclusive, and how fans respond to these controversial depictions. Lang notes that, much of the show’s appeal is its design as “a love letter to outsiders—from the Korean audiophile who hides her music collection from her religious mother or the teenage outcast who leaves home to build her own community of misfits and weirdos.” Questions one might ask include: How do fans who identify as members of marginalized racial groups negotiate their adoration for the show? In what ways do they encounter similar discriminatory abuses by Sherman-Palladino and how do they respond to these?
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