gilmore

I’ve been binge watching Gilmore Girls in a controlled environment and I am surprised in how much I enjoy the show. At first I thought, “What the hell is the big deal about a show that follows a mother and a daughter?” That question is what has been holding me back for 14 years (it’s surprising, with the exception of some of the fashion choices, how much the show holds up after a decade and change). Turns out, it is a big deal. The writing is snappy, there’s a magical heightened reality in this small fictional town of Stars Hollow (that is obviously the Universal Studios backlot) and the pop culture references are funny as much as they are rampant. However, there is one component of the show that makes me cringe with snarl: Mrs. Kim.

mrs_kim

For those of you who are not Gilmore Heads, Mrs. Kim is Lane Kim’s mom. Both are Korean American characters. Lane is Rory’s BFF. And Rory is Lorelai’s daughter. And Lorelai and Rory are the titular Gilmore Girls. Get it? Good.

Back to Mrs. Kim.

Now, I try to leave my militant, idealistic, “Asian Power” in 2002, but when I see a character like Mrs. Kim, I can’t help but let my blood boil just a little bit. Questions start to pop up in my head. Did a white person write this character? Does she HAVE to have this ridiculous accent? (Emily Kuroda, the actress who plays Mrs. Kim, was born in Fresno. Last time I checked, Koreans who were born in Fresno don’t have heavy accents.) Does she HAVE to be an over-the-top, dare I say, Tiger Mom?

Seeing that this show debuted in 2000, I may be late to this discussion. In fact, I know I am. But I feel the need to bring it up again, because we can always use a revisit to the portrayal of Asian American actors. Also, the discussion involves my opinion so that’s important, right? RIGHT?!

I am all for Asian Americans working in Hollywood. I want more of it, but the problem is the roles written for them. This made me think of the chat I had with Steve Byrne a while back. I understand why Asian Americans take roles that are stereotypical — especially in the case of Kuroda as Mrs. Kim. They probably weren’t many non-stereotypical Asian American roles in 2000 so they just took what they can get because, well, it’s good to get paid for what you love doing. And a paycheck gets you food and shelter. And food and shelter allow you to live a life. And that is all good.

There are real-life Mrs. Kims out there, but I find it hard to believe that they are as over-the-top and two-dimensional as portrayed in Gilmore Girls. I am only two seasons into the show, but it bothers me that all we know about Mrs. Kim is that she is mean, strict and religious. They tell us nothing else to inform her actions. It wouldn’t bother me as much if she didn’t have a heavy accent. But in the end, it’s an irritating character we all hate. She treats her daughter like a prisoner and she treats other people like shit. There is no redeeming quality to this character and it adds no value to the show. And to top it all off, she owns a messy antiques store that is crowded with crap. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, this Tiger Mom is a hoarder as well.

The show was created by Amy Sherman-Palladino so my guess is that she created the character of Mrs. Kim. She probably based it on someone she knew or created her out of thin air. Either way, there is something unsettling about a white woman creating an Asian character that is a caricature. Perhaps I am jumping the gun and Mrs. Kim gets fleshed out into a more three dimensional character in the later seasons, but for now, I am not diggin’ it.

That all said, watching Gilmore Girls and the character of Mrs. Kim makes me examine what has changed in terms of Asian American characters. We no longer see that many stereotypical Asian characters in TV. Race is becoming less and less of a factor for Asian Americans in dramas and comedies. Take a look at Mindy Kaling in The Mindy Project, Aziz Ansari in Parks and Recreation, and John Cho in Selfie. Their characters’ ethnicities are on the back burner which allows them to deliver great, non-stereotypical performances as actors.

I appreciate Kuroda’s performance. It seems that she took one for the team with this role. I’m just bothered by the unnecessary Asian qualities that were pinned on to her character. Mrs. Kim would be just as effective if she had no accent and wasn’t a stern domestic Tiger Mom tyrant. That’s all that I am saying. I still love all my pals at Stars Hollow.

8 thoughts on “‘Gilmore Girls’ Has a Major Asian Problem

  1. Dino – I had the same reaction as you did when watching this show for the first time recently on Netflix. But then I realized that stereotypical characters are the main part of the show, intentionally plugged in by the creator/director throughout the story. Think Sooki, the French concierge, the headmaster, Paris, Lorelei’s father and mother, etc. They tried to make these characters as one-dimensional and predictable as possible for two reasons, I think. One, to make the show funny. Second, to highlight the characters of the Gilmore girls and their complex relationship. Yes, Mrs. Kim’s character is probably the worst stereotypical one, but she is not the only one. What do you think?

  2. I think that Mrs Kim was meant to be a total contrast to Lorelai. Lorelai is hyper positive; Mrs Kim is hyper negative. Lorelai and Rory have a mother-daughter relationship that most people dream of, while Mrs Kim and Lane have the mother-daughter relationship from hell. Lorelai’s Jekyll to Mrs Kim’s hide.

    I agree that Mrs Kim’s character is a bit OTT, but then consider characters like Babette, Miss Patty, Michel, Taylor Doose and Kirk. They are all hyper unrealistic, larger than life caricatures but they work against the town backdrop. I sort of see it like this – Lorelai, Rory, Luke and Lane are the nucleus of the town, while all the colourful crazies swarm around them!

    Also, Mrs Kim’s character does get fleshed out a bit more further into the seasons. You start to see another side.

  3. I do have a problem with a few instances in the show when being
    Korean gets played for laughs — notably at Lane’s wedding, where the
    punch line of more than one scene was “52 seats, 62 Koreans!” … which
    is funny because apparently just being Korean is funny??? Especially
    since Keiko Agena at least (no idea about Emily Kuroda) is NOT Korean,
    she’s Japanese (although I do love her character and her acting!) I just
    don’t think “Koreanness” should be inherently a joke (like it wouldn’t
    have been funny to say “52 seats, 62 Englishmen!”), especially written
    by white actors and played by non-Korean actors. I live in Korea now,
    though I’m not Korean myself, and in a re-watching of the series a lot
    of things about those scenes not only seem more tasteless to me now than
    they did when it was airing, but they also do not ring true to me at
    all as I see real Korean life around me, but I’m the first to admit I
    have limited perspective on this.

    HOWEVER all these rightful
    complaints aside, I found certain elements of the Lane-Mrs. Kim
    relationship incredibly touching, although as I’ve said they often do
    not feel very “Korean” in particular. But I’ve always read Lane-Mrs.
    Kim’s relationship as an immigrant mother-first-generation child
    relationship (though I’m not sure if it’s ever stated specifically if
    Mrs. Kim was born and raised in Korea or in the States). Yes, Mrs. Kim
    can be drawn very stereotypically, but she’s acted with grace and
    dignity, so that even though you initially think you’re supposed to just
    laugh at her and cheaply mock her foreignness/religiousness/the “tiger
    mom” or what have you, rewatching the whole chapter in Lane’s life when
    she first moves out and starts letting her mom see her for her real
    self, there’s some very poignant moments there. It’s easy to empathize
    with Lane for example, when she sneaks out at night to go play at CBGBs
    because Mrs. Kim wouldn’t let her. But when Mrs. Kim finally finds
    Lane’s hidden life under the floorboards and confronts Lane with it,
    you’re definitely feel for both characters. Lane is easy to understand,
    because she wants all the “normal” American things, and to live the way
    that Rory and Lorelai do, and you feel for her trapped between two
    cultures/ideologies/having a strict mother/etc. But you can also feel in
    that scene in particular how much Mrs. Kim loves her, and how she truly
    tried to raise Lane the way she felt was best out of love, and how lost
    and wounded she feels to learn her daughter isn’t someone she fully
    recognizes, and not fully of herself the same way Rory and Lorelai so
    clearly (unrealistically?) are. You absolutely feel the tension that
    many immigrant families live – and it is cool that those themes are at
    least somewhat explored on a mainstream television show, because it’s
    definitely rare!

    To me this is a show about mother and daughter
    hood more than anything else. Emily-Lorelai-Rory form the main
    relationship of the show to me, but Mrs. Kim-Lane are another portrait
    of a strained mother-daughter relationship, more realistic to some than
    Rory and Lorelai’s enviable, unreal closeness and Emily and Lorelai’s
    incredible meanness to each other at times. In the later seasons Mrs.
    Kim and Lane are learning to know each other as something more akin to
    equals, which is tense and sad at times but never without of incredible
    love and respect, which is what makes it hard. It’s never as fleshed out
    as I wish it was, but it’s a cool exploration to have and much better
    than earlier seasons where the “tiger mom” joke of Mrs. Kim was just
    tossed around without much depth.

  4. Keep watching….

    SPOILER ALERT:
    There’s this amazing episode later on where Mrs. Kim is amazingly supportive of Lane while Lorelai is not as supportive of Rory. No one seems to like to mention it, but I loved that part.

  5. On one side, I can completely understand where you’re coming..but then if you look at all the characters in Stars Hallow…there are no subtleties with any of the characters.

    Being an Asian American on the east coast I feel like there were some points that were relatable. Although Mrs. Kim is most definitely exaggerated, there were moments with Lane that kind of made me nod my head and think “yeah hon…I’ve been there”. Also, I saw Mrs. Kim as a personality that was meant to challenge Lorelai’s. The whole idea of the show is to explore different examples of mother-daughter relationships.

    Now the argument…why did it have to be the Asian American stereotype – surprisingly I found it to make sense. Stars Hallow is a very small town and clearly lacking in diversity. The neighborhood I grew up in used to be less diverse when I was younger, and my parents felt a need to be stricter when it came to upholding more conservative/traditional values as a way to not lose our “cultural heritage”. Of course we shouldn’t forget to note Mrs. Kim’s development and acceptance of what truly makes Lane happy over time.

  6. So I’m tardy to the party (not unlike those times I skipped first period and went to Jim’s and made it to CHIOR just after the tardy bell) and I just NOW started binge watching Gilmore Girls, and of course, I want to know more about the hottest character on the show hands-down–Mrs. Kim–and google leads me to Dino Ray! Anywayz, I second your irritation with these over-the-top caricatures of Asian characters…it’s like ABC’s TGIF and the likes is making sure minorities never live down those pesky stereotypes! And what’s up with the Gilmore galz not casting real KOREAN actresses?? Is Margaret Cho the only Korean actress in all the land (not gonna lie…I would have watched Gilmore Girls when it actually aired if Margie Cho was cast as Mrs. Kim…or better yet, a 15-year old Lane)? Mrs. Kim is not half as punch-in-the-face irritating and offensive as the “Dong” character from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt….and not NEARLY as irritating as Sooki’s lispy husband Jackson! Ugh! They live up to their own stereotype of people who get exponentially more annoying after they procreate!

  7. I agree with what you’re saying but another important fact to consider is that the actresses who play the Korean Mrs. Kim and Lane Kim are both Japanese Americans. You say they are Korean American but they are not. Just more to add to the problem of lack of self representation.

  8. As a woman married to a Korean man, his mother is EXACTLY like this, and many of them are. Culturally they are very controlling and overbearing. My husband quite enjoys this show BECAUSE they accurately depicted the struggles of being a Korean American child with immigrant parents.

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