Every year, I start my fall with a “Gilmore Girls” rewatch. Like clockwork, September hits and I have to reenter my chunky sweater, Team Jess, “oy with the poodles” era. But the weirdest and most irrational part of “Gilmore Girls fall” has got to be the sudden itch to get out every textbook you own and study like Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel, “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”).
From being the number-one member of the Alex Dunphy (Ariel Winter, “Sofia the First”) fan club to specifically watching the SAT episode of “Gossip Girl” before taking my standardized tests (for Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester, “The Roommate”)-related reasons), the “smart girl” trope has become a key aspect of my TV viewing experience, and of my personal life. But the existence of this trope and the frequency with which it shows up on our screens begs the question: is it an opportunity to inspire an audience and show them all that they have the potential to achieve? Or is it an overused stereotype that gives viewers unrealistic expectations for their future academic success?
Let’s start simple: What even is the “smart girl” trope? According to The Take, the “smart girl” trope refers to a young female character who is typically an “overachiever” and a “career woman in the making,” citing Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini, “Dead to Me”) of “Freaks and Geeks” and Lisa Simpson (Yeardley Smith, “Herman’s Head”) of “The Simpsons” as prime examples. From the more alternative “smart girls” to the queens of teen TV, the trope has become a staple of modern television. But as they become more and more normalized, it’s easy for audiences to treat these characters more like people than the over-the-top portrayals they are specifically designed to be. In other words, it’s easy to wonder whether the “smart girl” trope is doing its viewers more harm than good.
I considered removing Lisa Simpson’s name from this article because of one specific reason: “The Simpsons” is satire. Lisa is written to be blown out of proportion and to make viewers laugh. But just as I was about to delete her name, I had a second thought: so is Rory Gilmore. And so is Blair Waldorf. In fact, so is almost every “smart girl” portrayed in the media. These characters are larger-than-life and specifically designed to get a laugh out of an audience or to add drama to a plot line — not necessarily to be accurate. But after scrolling through TikTok after TikTok based on the “Rory Gilmore aesthetic” or “studying like Spencer Hastings,” it’s become clear to me that “smart girls” don’t just fulfill their onscreen roles and leave people’s minds for good: they inspire people. Young girls want to be their “smart girl” idols, despite their completely unrealistic depictions.
I think that this is a great thing — in moderation. I grew up on Hermione Granger, and I doubt my personality would be what it is today without Annabeth Chase. “Smart girl” characters are important, and they can change lives and act as inspiration for viewers of all ages and gender identities. I’m honestly grateful for the “smart girl” trope, and I really hope it sticks around. But I can’t pretend that it’s not without flaws.
Like I said, as this trope becomes more and more common in the media, it’s becoming easier to treat these characters like real people. When Rory Gilmore pulls an all-nighter studying for a Chilton exam, we find ourselves impressed and thinking we can do the same, with no regard for the fact that Alexis Bledel probably shot that scene, left the set and went home to sleep for a healthy seven to nine hours. When we see everything Alex Dunphy put herself through to get into CalTech, we find ourselves feeling as though we aren’t doing enough, with no acknowledgment of the fact that Ariel Winter wasn’t involved in biochemistry or robotics during her late teens (that I know of). Either way, it’s easy to feel like you’re not living up to your full academic potential when someone onscreen seems to be working 10 times harder than you, and being 10 times more successful, even though these people have unlimited time to devote to achieving. Because they aren’t real. As fun as it can be to scroll through the aesthetic videos filled with academic montages of typed-up essays and cups of coffee, feeling as though we should be working harder to live out our full potential in our “Rory Gilmore eras,” let’s be real for a minute. TV has
accidentally tricked us into academically competing with young women who don’t even exist.
I don’t say this to be a downer. I say this because I’ve seen the negative effects of going too fast, too soon when it comes to academics. In fact, one of my favorite episodes of “Modern Family” explored this exact idea with its very own “smart girl.” After a mental breakdown during her own birthday party, Alex checks herself into therapy and begins to unpack the mental load that being her family’s designated academic achiever has placed on her psyche. And honestly, this is the most accurate depiction I’ve seen of a “smart girl” in the media. Although being academically successful from a young age sounds great in theory, burnout experienced in high school and/or college is bound to follow if a person dives headfirst into their schoolwork with no regard for the mental repercussions; inaccurate characters that give young viewers unrealistic academic expectations aren’t likely to help with any of this.
Once again, it’s not that I don’t like the “smart girl” trope. It inspires young women to live up to their best and brightest potential and to stand their ground when they know it’s right. But I think it’s time we acknowledge the shortcomings of the trope, in that it has a tendency to build up academia in a way that viewers romanticize and misunderstand, leading to mental health issues in the long term.
So, even though my yearly “Gilmore Girls” rewatch may make me yearn for academic success à la Rory Gilmore, sometimes I have to take a step back and wonder how much of my mental health I’m willing to sacrifice to make that happen. After all, I’m not Rory Gilmore. I’m real.
Daily Arts Writer Olivia Tarling can be reached at email@example.com.