Fairly early on in the second season of Gilmore Girls, Jess Mariano is introduced to the viewers as the delinquent nephew of Luke Danes, and kickstarting a borderline obsessive fan base of teenage girls who have stronger opinions on Rory Gilmore’s best boyfriend than foreign policy. But what exactly makes Jess Mariano so intriguing to the mind of an adolescent girl? Is it the leather jackets? Is it the sassy comebacks? It can’t purely be his sex appeal, because he doesn’t only appeal to the heterosexual Gilmore Girls fans. In fact, it’s arguable that Jess Mariano’s popularity transcends gender and sexuality, to the point where he’s become more of a figurehead for masculinity that carefully toes the line of toxicity. Why is his emotional unavailability more intriguing than Logan “you went to my mother” Huntzberger or Dean “you built me a car” Forester’s relentless dedication? Does the fixation lie within a masochistic urge to live vicariously through Rory’s emotional turmoil at the hands of one Italian-coded Walmart employee? Or is the appreciation for Jess purely an aesthetic intrigue and less of a romantic attraction typically held for male love interests of teen dramas?
When Jess first comes to town in Season 2, Rory is still unfortunate enough to be actively romantically involved with Dean. Oh Dean! While a considerable amount of Dean’s unpopularity within the fanbase lies within his emotional manipulation and excessive jealousy, I personally have hated Dean since Season 1, for the sole reason that he is the plainest male love interest to ever prowl the streets of Stars Hollow. Dean’s sole defining factor of intrigue is that he’s tall and supposedly handsome (side note: throughout both of my rewatches of Gilmore Girls, I never understood the frequent comments describing Dean as “gorgeous” or “attractive”).
When Jess and Rory get together in Season 3, her relationship with Dean quickly deteriorates beforehand. Dean’s jealousy and clinginess are painfully unattractive. Maybe Logan was able to pull off not wanting to see Rory with another guy at a party, but Dean just doesn’t do it with the grace that Logan possesses. The comparison between Dean’s oafish ways and possessive overtones and Jess’ nonchalant attitude and effortless coolness is so striking that it paints Jess in a better light purely by comparison of Dean’s innate inferiority.
Yet another advantage Jess has over Dean lies in the fact that he has a genuine personality. I’m not one to throw away terms such as “written by a woman” but it’s truly the only way to describe him. Perhaps this is a tangent that should be better explored within another article, but lately I’ve come to an interesting conclusion about fictional male characters. I’m guilty of this very thing myself, but female writers have a sickening tendency to characterize their male characters with an image of their mind of an ideal man. However, this ideal is really just a caricature of the perfect male who possesses emotional depth and the capacity for witty banter and critical thought that is so rarely expressed by real men.
Jess is one of the best examples of such men – he shares similar interests with Rory in regards to music and books, granting him personality, but he has a unique “bad boy” edge that awards him sex appeal and calls to the innate desire for protection and special treatment that’s so common among teenage girls, allowing them to continue this self-insert fantasy that leads to them living vicariously through Rory. Jess possesses a sense of personality and emotional depth not even rivaled by Logan, despite his natural charisma and willingness to go to extreme lengths to please Rory.
Of course, Logan wins some points simply because of how sad the ending of their relationship was. The unfinished business trope gets the people (me) every time. But naturally, Jess has something going for him on that front as well. The wild ride that the viewers of Gilmore Girls were put through in Season 3 was absolutely unparalleled to any other season (except for possibly the Yale drop-out arc) starting out so well with the beginning of their relationship and taking a horrifyingly fast down-turn. One minute Jess and Rory were sharing their thoughts on Dave Rygalski, the next he and Dean were fighting at the house party.
And then, because Amy Sherman-Palladino has a few sadistic tendencies (as all TV writers should, honestly) Rory and Jess never really talked about their relationship. Next thing we knew, he was in California and she was calling him at graduation telling him she wasn’t going to pine over him. Thanks for letting us know girl! But Jess’ return in the later seasons only really results in him reprimanding her for dropping out of Yale and criticizing Logan for owning a Porsche (legitimate critique that was later reiterated by Paris in the infamous doorway scene.) The fact that Jess and Rory’s relationship never had any sense of closure left the audience itching for more. More of Jess, more of Jess and Rory, more of everything.
Jess Mariano is a highly complicated man, and while I personally identify with Team Logan, I can’t make any claim to imply that the sheer fascination with him as a person, and thus their relationship, has zero legitimacy. He is by far the most intriguing love interest, and possibly even the most intriguing male on the show, or maybe even the planet.
That being said, I find it hard to ignore his poor treatment of Rory through Season 3, his borderline obsessive competition with Dean, and the scene in Kyle’s bedroom (you know what I’m referring to). Even if he made some points during his return in the scene with Rory and Logan, he still falls short in many other ways. After all, as Lane Kim once wisely said in Season 4, Episode 22, “It’s part of why he’s so cute. He’s unpredictable.” Thank you for the input, Lane.