Introducing Gilmore Girls
Not since Archie Bunker first introduced Seventh-day Adventists to American television viewers in the mid-seventies with his memorable line “Raise him a Luferan if you want, raise him a Norman with seven wives, a holy roller, a Seventh-day Adventurer” has there been such an extensive treatment of Adventists and their community on prime time television as in Gilmore Girls, a popular Tuesday night dramedy on the CW (formerly WB) channel that concluded its run in spring 2007 after seven successful seasons.
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and produced by her best friend, Helen Pai, who was raised in an Adventist household, the show features very prominently an Adventist mother-daughter duo as key supporting characters to another mother-daughter duo, Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, the title characters. Mrs. Young-Ja Kim and her daughter, Lane, are Korean Seventh-day Adventists who live in a fictional town called Stars Hollow in Connecticut, surrounded by largely secular, White townsfolk. (Lane’s character, by the way, is modeled loosely after Helen Pai, herself a Korean-American.)
The story revolves around, of course, the Gilmores and their relationship with their family, friends, and townspeople of Stars Hollow. The show gained a huge following especially among younger women in the fifteen to thirty-five-year demographic due to its hip and honest portrayal of female relationship dynamics and fast-paced dialogues filled with contemporary cultural references. Also contributing to the success of the show was the presence of a variety of quirkybut not quite annoyingcharacters around the Gilmore girls.
Mrs. Kim and Lane, the two Adventist characters, are part of that quirky mix that makes up the cast of this dramedy. Played by Emily Kuroda, Mrs. Kim is a first-generation immigrant antique store owner whose über-fundamentalist Adventist religiosity provides fodder for comic relief but social and emotional pain for her daughter. Lane, played by Keiko Agena, is the best friend of Rory Gilmore, one of the two main characters, and an aspiring drummer who, as the episodes progress, forms her own rock band. She loves boys, junk food, and moviesall banned by her mom. She finds herself torn between the rigid religious world ruled by her mother and the fun, “normal” world inhabited by Rory and the townsfolk.
In this essay, I examine the depictions of Seventh-day Adventism that Gilmore Girls makes and analyze what these depictions show regarding (1) the American public’s view of Adventism, (2) faith transmission in a fundamentalist household, (3) the role of women, particularly Korean women, as faith transmitters, and (4) the role of religion vis-à-vis civic life.
Fairly Odd People
From the first episode that premiered in fall 2000, the Kims are portrayed as being different and isolated from the rest of the people of Stars Hollow stranger than other odd characters that populate the town. Contributing also to the sense of otherness are their immigrant characteristics. But when compared with another recent immigrant in the show Gypsy the apparently irreligious, Latin American immigrant it is clear that it is the religious oddity that sets the Kims apart from the rest of the town.
The peculiarity of the Kims’ religiosity is highlighted in the comically rigid observance of the lifestyle regulations of Adventism, enforced unapologetically by Mrs. Kim. Complementing her strict lifestyle standards is her no-nonsense, outright rude demeanor, which inspires fear among Lane’s friends and the visitors to her antique store.
Meet Mrs. Kim the Adventist health fanatic as she’s introduced in the first episode. She greets Lane after school with a command: “Go upstairs. Tea is ready. I have muffins no dairy, no sugar, no wheat. You have to soak them in tea to make them soft enough to bite but they're very healthy. So, how was school? None of the girls get pregnant, drop out?” (season 1, episode 1). When she sees Lane eating a Snickers bar, she snatches it away and pronounces solemn judgment upon the half-eaten snack: “That is chocolate covered death” (season 1, episode 4). In another episode, Mrs. Kim is credited as denouncing French fries as “the devil’s starchy fingers,” “a gateway food” that leads to worse things such as “pizza, movie popcorn, [and] deep fried Snickers bar” (season 5, episode 8).
Not only is Mrs. Kim a zealous enforcer of Adventist health standards, but she is also a promoter of other traditional standards on entertainment and adornment. When she catches Lane watching V.I.P., an action/adventure TV comedy, she throws the television away (season 1, episode 9). When Lane gets her a perfume as a present, she calls it “smelly sex juice to lure boys with” and sends Lane to Bible camp all summer (season 1, episode 10).
Mrs. Kim is not alone in her strict lifestyle standards motivated by religion, though. Though only a high school freshman, Lane is set up by her parents to meet an Adventist college student lest she fall for a secular, non-Korean boy at her local public school. As she describes her incredibly boring date to Rory, Lane exclaims: “You get kissed on the mouth by a cute, cool, sexy guy you really like. And I get kissed on the forehead by a theology major in a Members-Only jacket who truly believes that rock music leads to hard drugs” (season 1, episode 7).
When it is time for Lane to apply to colleges, she can only apply to conservative Christian colleges, including a host of Adventist colleges where boys and girls cannot sit together; and where dancing, gum chewing, and bowling are banned (season 3, episode 4); and astronomy is not taught, since “that would imply that the universe is old” (season 4, episode 11). One of the college applications that she receives from her mother includes the following question: “If you meet Jesus walking on the street, what are the three questions you would like to ask?” (season 3, episode 4). In the end, Lane enrolls at an Adventist college in Hartford, Connecticut (season 3, episode 20), where there are two huge beautifully manicured parks one for boys and the other for girls; curfew is at 9:30; and every student featured in the college brochure looks “awkward and panicked” (season 3, episode 21).
The religion of the Kims is unrealistically strict, fanatically antipopular culture, and out-of-touch with the mores and practices of contemporary society. The peculiarities of their lifestyle standards, among other things, set them apart from society so much that they lead isolated lives of self-righteousness. At the same time, the show’s portrayal of Adventism is not unlike those that can be observed in the treatment of fundamentalist Christianity in such shows such as The Simpsons and The Family Guy. This is a trend that has already been identified by Thomas Skill and James Robinson in 1994 (“The Portrayal of Religion and Spirituality on Fictional Network Television,” Review of Religious Research) and observed by Peter Kerr in his 2003 study of network television newscast (“The Framing of Fundamentalist Christians: Network Television News, 1980-2000,” Journal of Media and Religion). Though it is not as pejorative as in some of these other shows, the depiction of Adventism in Gilmore Girls shows that Adventism, like other Christian groups that the creators deem “fundamentalist,” is in need of some serious redemption.
Although Mrs. Kim seems quite content with living in a self-contained world with minimal meaningful interactions with the larger world, Lane lives in high tension between the two worlds. From the first season, the viewers discover that Lane is essentially living two lives with the evidence of the outside world her huge CD collectiontucked carefully beneath the floor and in hidden compartments of her closet (season 1, episode 14). To realize her dream of becoming a drummer, she practices at first with the Gilmores’ pots and pans, away from the ears of her mother (season 2, episode 21). Even after she finally forms a band and is able to practice with a real drum set, her band is forced to practice in the Gilmores’ garage but only softly and tenderly, fearing Mrs. Kim’s wrath (season 3, episode 4).
The frustration felt by Lane mounts to a breaking point where she decides to take a stand against her mother. “I’ve spent my whole life compromising and being the good little girl and not doing what I want,” she announces to Rory. “Or doing what I want and hiding it and feeling guilty for doing it, and I’m sick of it. I’m sick of it.” So she declares independence from her mother and decides to make an outward sign of it by bleaching her hair. “The smell of bleach is the smell of freedom,” she exclaims. But when her mom returns home, she gets cold feet and hurriedly changes her hair back to black (season 3, episode 4). Finally, as she is about graduate from high school, Lane gets drunk at a party where her band performed and calls her mother to tell her everything, ending her call with: “The charade is over” (season 3, episode 19).
This plotline that traces Lane’s maturation toward self-determination shows clearly the show’s bias against strong sectarianism that is seen as restrictive and exclusionary. As the story continues, each of Lane’s decisions to move away from her Adventist roots is celebrated. That move is a path toward a more normal, desirable existence. And Mrs. Kim has no choice but to go along and accept her daughter’s decisions though not without great pain.
The difficulty that Mrs. Kim faces vis-à-vis Lane’s increasing independence evinces the high premium that the show places on the younger generation’s “evolution” toward greater autonomy from the older. The more rigidly the beliefs and practices of the older generation are held, the higher the likelihood of rejection. Gilmore Girls posits that Adventist and other fundamentalist Christian parents who hold unrealistic, old-world values will experience rejection and trauma. Replication of values and religious beliefs across generations is not only impossible, but also undesirable.
This thesis is reinforced in the show with the surprise visit by Lane’s maternal grandmother. Grandma Kim is a Buddhist and does not know that her daughter is a Christian. When Mrs. Kim discovers that her mother is to arrive soon, fear grips her and all the Christian artifacts are removed and placed under floorboards, while a statue of Buddha is brought out. This leads Lane to observe, “I am simply the latest link in a chain of Kim women who hide their real lives under floorboards, away from their mothers!” (season 6, episode 19). Just as meaningful transmission of religion from Grandma Kim to Mama Kim failed only to leave an empty façade of a relationship and a meaningless charade of the former’s religion, the relationship between Mrs. Kim and Lane is threatened in the same manner by the mother’s insistence on faith transmission.
Where’s Your Daddy?
Before moving on to discuss how the show’s resolves the tension in the Kim household over religion, a note about the conspicuous absence of or specific reference to the father is in order. Although Lane frequently refers to her “parents,” the father neither appears nor is referred to specifically, except for few times in passing in early seasons. He is supposedly there, but never seen or involved not even at (spoiler alert!) Lane’s wedding. What are viewers to make of this?
Whatever the show’s creators reason might have been, the absence of a Mr. Kim underscores what has generally been true of Korean (and probably most immigrant) Christian households. It is the mother who tends to drive the day-to-day management of family life, including the religious dimensions. With about two-thirds of the Korean church congregants being female and religious devotion (with its traditional emphasis on dependence, humility, and emotional expression) being stereotypically identified as a feminine virtue, it is typically the mother who serves as the spiritual and emotional backbone of the family even if the father occupies the seat of the “priest” of the family.
Traditional Christianity demands wives to assume a subservient and serving role, but the evangelistic spirit and “family values” fostered in traditional Christianity help transform them into spiritual leaders once they become mothers. The more traditionalist/fundamentalist she is, the greater the transformation from the place of subservience to the place of religious championship. Ironically, fundamentalist triumphalism, which once subjugated women in their premotherhood, becomes the vehicle for empowerment as they assume the responsibility of primary rearing and belief and values transmission in the family.
When viewers encounter Mrs. Kim in season 1, she has already become that empowered woman. She is a completely self-sufficient woman who lives on the second floor of her antique store. She lives frugally within apparent comfort. The focus of her life is the raising of her daughter as an upright, dutiful, conservative Christian woman who will go on to marry a successful and equally conservative Korean Christian man. Mrs. Kim’s Adventism and the values she brought from Korea are the key principles that help organize her life. She expects that Lane follow her proven formula for leading an orderly, meaningful life-with or without a man. But now that she is a teenager, Lane begins to seek meaning elsewhere.
The Education of Mrs. Kim
The solution to the challenge of faith and values transmission on this show is for Mrs. Kim to soften her insistence on rigid observance of religious duties and learn to become more tolerant and accepting of Lane’s decisions. But that process is not easy.
Still, Mrs. Kim does “grow” through the seven seasons of Gilmore Girls. And that growth from the intolerant, hyper-sectarian attitude to a more tolerant, charitable one is an important plotline for Gilmore Girls. It provides a key foil for the equally conflicted mother-daughter relationships between Lorelai and her mother and Lorelai and Rory. It also is a key relationship principle that the show rests on.
When Mrs. Kim discovers that Lane, who had dropped out of college and living with her bandmates, is dating her fellow band member, Zach, she assumes that they are sleeping together and lashes out at Zach: “You! You dirty, filthy devil boy! You will pay for this. You will burn in hellfire for this! You will swim in the sludge with Satan's hell-dogs, and feed them your innards for eternity! You put your hands on Lane! My Lane! And before God, I swear that you will be punished. Because that is what happens to all swine that walk up tall!” (season 5, episode 8). If Mrs. Kim had things her way, Lane would be dating someone like Young Chui, who “works for his father who builds Adventist hospitals,” “will go to college at Loma Linda University,” and “will return to work for his father building Adventist hospitals” (season 3, episode 12). But gradually the relationship between the mother and the daughter improves, as Mrs. Kim comes to grudgingly accept, at least tolerate, Zach, and allows Lane to bring him to family gatherings.
What aids the process of Mrs. Kim’s growth toward greater tolerance of others, in the meantime, is the tour that Lane’s band, Hep Alien (an anagram of “Helen Pai”), takes among Adventist churches along the East Coast. Though she does not approve of the style of music that the band plays, she appreciates the fact that Zach and Lane are performing at churches (season 6, episode 3).
Mrs. Kim’s growth toward tolerance is accompanied by the introduction of minor characters who are religious but not as fanatical as she is. Stars Hollow’s Adventist pastor and the rabbi make occasional appearances from season 3, and they both are tolerant, intelligent, and cultured characters who share the same building for services at different times. In one episode, the rabbi and his congregation rush as the Adventist service is getting over, and the Adventist pastor takes the cross from the wall behind the pulpit to make room for the Star of David (season 3, episode 20). In another episode, viewers are treated to the two clergymen cracking self-deprecating jokes while ridiculing Taylor, the supermarket owner, who declares God to be on his side on a town issue (season 3, episode 6):
Rabbi: “Thirty years I’m working for God, I haven’t received so much as a card.”
Pastor: “Is it by phone that you speak with him, Taylor?”
Rabbi: “Do you have a God phone, Taylor?”
Pastor: “What’s he like? For us common folk who’ve never met him?”
Rabbi: “Is he short, is he tall?”
Pastor: “Does he like to laugh?”
Rabbi: “Is the whole shellfish thing really serious? Because, I gotta tell you, some of these Red Lobster commercials. ”
The Adventist pastor also enjoy good movies. When Taylor asks if Farewell My Concubine isn’t too “adult fare” for a pastor, he replies, “Well, do you picture me watching Sound of Music every night, Taylor? Gag me!” (season 5, episode 11).
Another Adventist pastor character makes an appearance in the show during Hep Alien’s tour of East Coast Adventist churches. At the end of one such concert in Massachusetts, Zach thanks the pastor for “letting us rock the gym here at Whitfield Seventh-day Adventist church.” Then, Gil the lead singer says, “Got into some very heavy talk with the pastor about my soul and Ecclesiastes and stuff after sound check, and I gotta say, if Christ comes back in fulfillment of prophecy, he’s going to be hooking up with you first, dude, ‘cause you are awesome!” (season 6, episode 3). If one is to be religious, it is far preferable to be like the clergy who are tolerant and sufficiently worldly rather than like Mrs. Kim.
Though she never fully sheds the rigid fundamentalism of early seasons, Mrs. Kim does grow softer, gentler, and more accepting as the seasons pass. The education of Mrs. Kim reaches its climax in the last two seasons as she comes around to accept Lane for she is and what she chooses to do. After Lane has broken up with Zach and spent six weeks back at home grieving the loss of the relationship, Mrs. Kim sits Lane down, closes all the blinds and curtains, and brings out alcohol and two shot glasses. She pours a shot into each glass and says, “It's been six weeks since you come home. You have grieved, and now we move on.” All Lane can say at this sudden revelation of a new, “cool” side of her mother is: “Whoa!” (season 6, episode 11).
Few episodes later, Zach and Lane patch things up and, in fact, decide to get married (season 6, episode 16). In the next episode, Zach nervously approaches Mrs. Kim alone to break the news; Lane is too nervous and scared to face her mom. As he announces his intentions, he produces a recommendation letter from his employer and a bank statement. But all Mrs. Kim wants to see is a demo of Zach’s music, since his stated goal is life is to be a musician. Few scenes later, Zach is seen singing one of his compositions to Mrs. Kim. It is rock music, but she seems unperturbed and even gives him some tips for alternate endings. “Try going out on a minor chord,” she suggests. When the song comes out just right, they both get excited, which leads to Mrs. Kim giving Zach and Lane her blessing (season 6, episode 17). Everyone is happy and approving of the cooler and more tolerant Mrs. Kim.
On the wedding day, Mrs. Kim is surprised to learn that her mother, a devout Buddhist, is coming from Korea for the ceremony. This forces the family to hide all things Christian under the floorboards (which leads Lane to say, as noted earlier, “I am simply the latest link in a chain of Kim women who hide their real lives under floorboards, away from their mothers!”) and replace them with a large statue of Buddha and other Buddhist icons. Grandmother does not know that her daughter is a Seventh-day Adventist. A Buddhist wedding must suddenly be planned. In the midst of the wedding, Grandmother, who has been judgmental and disapproving of everything since her arrival, notices a crack on the Buddha statue and storms out of the wedding, into a taxicab, and back to Korea. The wedding is stoppedthe charade no longer being necessary and everyone rushes to over to the church for the real wedding.
At church, Mrs. Kim is ever the out-of-touch fundamentalist, who warns Lane just before the ceremony that there are “sacrifices” that she will have to make in marriage such as kissing and having to “do it” with Zach that night. Then, she adds, “Hopefully, if you're lucky like me, you'll only have to do it once.”
After the uneventful Christian wedding and all the Adventist guests have quickly left, Mrs. Kim thanks Lane for putting up with two ceremonies. She begins to head home, knowing that the wedding reception in the park in the middle of the town is about to start replete with alcohol (that had been kept hidden from her and her guests’ view) and dancing. “I'm going to wear earplugs tonight,” she says. “The good ones that expand in your ear so I won't be able to hear anything that might be going on out in the street at all hours of the night” (season 6, episode 19). She has come a long way from the first season!
Mrs. Kim’s last appearance in Gilmore Girls is in the sixteenth episode of the last season. She’s in the midst of another conflict with now-pregnant Lanethis time over what the expectant mother should eat and how the grandchildren are to be reared. Mrs. Kim is unwilling to go to the baby shower over these issues. When Lorelai visits her to mediate, the grandmother-to-be expresses what she expects of her daughter and grandchildren: “attendance at weekly church services, Bible study twice a week, Adventist summer camp, no unclean meats or hydrogenated oils, Christmas will be celebrated with no gifts. ” “It is not reasonable,” she continues, “for Lane to think that she will raise my grandchildren as heathens while I stand by and do nothing.” But Lorelai reasons with her, “But Lane is not rejecting you. You guys are just different. There are times when you have to put those differences aside.” Then, the irreligious and at-time profane Lorelai goes biblical: “Like, you know Joseph, from the Bible, and how his brothers got all mad at him about that dreamcoat. Yes, and so they sold him into slavery. The point is there are fights you can recover from and fights you can’t, and not going to your daughter’s baby shower I mean, I know it’s hard, but I don’t want you to draw a line in the sand now that you can’t cross later.” Thanks to Lorelai, Mrs. Kim and Lane reconcile yet again, and that is the last time viewers see Mrs. Kim on the show (season 7, episode 16).
From the show’s perspective, the education of Mrs. Kim is not yet complete. She is still isolated within the double walls of the Adventist and Korean immigrant subcultures. After seven years, the strength of her convictions and the degree of her social isolation have not changed much. But she has come a long way toward showing tolerance toward others and learning social graces even on matters that are religiously important to her. Interestingly, her own internal inconsistencies such as her keeping of alcohol and a Buddha statue show her to be more human and endearing. In the end, there is a certain amount of respect that the show gives to Mrs. Kim as long as she does not treat others badly or force her beliefs on others. Only when Mrs. Kim is finally able to hold her beliefs and practices without being rash or judgmental toward others would her education be complete.
In closing, some broad, observations. Gilmore Girls clearly nudges Adventists to be more tolerant toward those they disagree with, be more engaged in civic life, have a sense of humor about themselves, and hold their beliefs a little loosely. Adventist and fundamentalist Christians who exhibit early Mrs. Kim characteristics risk being out of touch with reality and losing their important relationships. Religion that does not enhance human relationships is not worth keeping; it becomes a charade. In short, the show argues that relationship is the absolute value that rules over all.
In the world of Gilmore Girls, Adventism has value only as it contributes to the overall relationship architecture. Its exclusivist truth claims are tolerated only to the extent that they are held and expressed in less-than-absolutist terms. Religious subcommunities hold a positive value to the larger society only as they serve to enhance the relationships of its members with the larger society. And the implication seems to be that the more fundamentalist or exclusivist the religion, the less use society has for it. Such a religion is a quirk that may be harmful for society thus must be tempered.
In the end, one could say that Gilmore Girls props up the entire town of Stars Hollow as an alternative to religious community. Examined individually, no one character is a hero; everyone is deeply flawedeven Lorelai and Rory. Very few practice religion, and not many adhere to traditional religious values. One could even say that the show is iconoclastic and antagonistic to traditional authority figures, including religious ones. However, the townsfolk of Stars Hollow all serve a common god that of human relationships. The Gilmores’ daily morning and evening visit to Luke’s Diner for coffee has an utmost religious significance in that sense. The monthly town hall meeting accomplishes very little business (to the frustration of the town’s nominal leaders), but it is an occasion when everyone gets to feel the pulse of the town. The annual reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle is openly mocked and its historicity questioned by most, but no one thinks of discontinuing the event. It is a major bonding activity for the men of the town. Relationship is indeed the absolute value that rules over all.
The show also makes a potent statement about the transmission of values whether religious or cultural. Parents can ensure the quality of their relationship with their children by respecting their decisions and relating with them as autonomous beings. However, they probably will fail at transferring of the content of their beliefs or the form of their cultures, but that’s OK as long as the relationships are intact.
Furthermore, the show provides a probably realistic picture of women in the Korean Christian subculture as primary agents of religious values transmission and that the de facto champions of fundamentalist impulses (once one moves away from the televangelists and Bible-thumping preachers) might be women.
In the end, the education of Mrs. Kim seems to be a healthy one for her overall. But what about Lane’s move away from Adventism in pursuit of her dreams and her man? And what about the supreme value that is given to human relationships? Also, in a postmodern world, what role should Adventism with its traditional claim to universal propositional truths have? Beneath the imperfect caricature of the Adventist community that Gilmore Girls presents lies a profound challenge for Adventism today.
This article was initially composed as two separate papers. One, titled “Adventism according to Gilmore Girls: A Prime Time Commentary on Community,” was read at the Annual Meeting of the Adventist Society for Religious Studies on November 16, 2007. The other, titled “Faith, Family, and Fundamentalism: Gilmore Girls and the Korean Christian Woman,” was read in Women and Religion Section of the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion on November 19, 2007. Both were held in San Diego, California. The author fused the two papers together for Spectrum readers.
Julius Nam is assistant professor of religion at Loma Linda University School of Religion.