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Over these past six seasons of "Gilmore Girls," viewers have gotten a glimpse of what Asian Americans on television can be. No token characters, no racial identity issues, just people who light up the crazy world we live in. Creator Amy Sherman-Palladino was just trying to find a funny story to tell, and as a byproduct, a door was creaked open. Helen Pai, Keiko Agena, and Emily Kuroda helped make it happen.
Sometimes things just creep up on you. The friendship that you suddenly realize is rare and more special than you had ever imagined. The black cat with the devil eyes you have to pretend doesn’t freak you out because you’re convinced it senses fear. Ivy. Old age. The sequelae of prolonged ecstasy usage. Often times, it’s the things we don’t notice and take for granted that have the greatest influence. And it’s not until we are able to step back and evaluate the bigger picture that we realize – in the end, it’s the subtleties that pack the most punch.
Even from the perspective of an avid watcher of the show, Gilmore Girls’ influence on society’s perceptions of Asian Americans as in-depth, three-dimensional characters was something that had, for the most part, flown under the radar.
Who knew that a charming family show about a mother-daughter duo in the small fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut; a show that overcame dismal ratings only to become the WB’s second highest-rated series; a show that, before Arrested Development, obliterated all competition when it came to fast-talking dialogue and densely-packed pop culture references – who knew that this show would also become one of the most notable milestones for Asian Americans in the media in the last few decades.
True, there have been more high-profile landmarks. Margaret Cho in All-American Girl is the first that comes to mind. The Joy Luck Club. Better Luck Tomorrow. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. All are great moments and important stepping stones. The irony of Gilmore Girls’ accomplishment, though, is that no one notices. That’s also what separates them from the pack. Isn’t that what Asian Americans have been fighting for all these years? To not be typecast? To be represented as normal people? It’s the very fact that these characters are so integrated into the storyline -- that their Asian-ness is not something that is seen as extraordinary or unusual -- which makes Gilmore Girls ground-breaking.
It’s not until you step back and think about the lack of precedents, that you start to realize what a big deal it really is. As a twenty-something, growing up in the ‘80s, the option of seeing Asians on television wasn’t even a luxury, it wasn’t expected at all. Six years of an Asian American family consistently on your screen, every Tuesday night, warming themselves into your hearts, saying and doing hysterical things? My poor eleven-year-old mind would have exploded.
Back in the day, you had your Full Houses, your Saved by the Bells, your Friends, your My So-Called Lives. Great shows; no complaints. But gradually, new and diverse faces started popping up. Lauren Tom in Friends. Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal. Ming-na Wen in The Single Guy. Kayla Blake on Sports Night. Parminder Nagra on ER. On the surface, it seems incidental. But in reality, behind the scenes, it’s an accumulation of years and years of fighting to break down barriers. For every small detail (even for something as recent as Justin Lin’s The Fast and the Furious 3), there has been immense struggle. But we’re starting to see the results.
Think about it: younger generations who have been following a show like Gilmore Girls will see stories about a Korean American character and her family on a mainstream television show and it’ll be completely natural to them.
So how does the Gilmore Girls crew make it look so easy? They seem so immersed in the day-to-day aspects of creating a show that the bigger picture of societal influence doesn’t seem to penetrate their consciousness. According to them, it really is just about telling a good story in the best way that they can.
For the past six years, Lane Kim has been an integral part of the Gilmore world. An official member of the cast from the start, Keiko Agena plays Rory Gilmore’s best friend, a rock-and-roll obsessed teenager who constantly downplays her true self, out of respect (and fear) of her intensely strict mother, Mrs. Kim. It’s been a fully developed story, all the way through. Over the years, we’ve seen Lane through three relationships, we’ve seen her struggle with what she wants to do with her future and discover her passion for drumming, we’ve seen her hidden life discovered by her mother, we’ve seen the heartbreak from both sides as Mrs. Kim kicks her out of the house, we’ve seen her repair her relationship with Mrs. Kim and develop one that is closer than ever before, and we’ve seen her get married to the man of her dreams in what might possibly have been the coolest wedding ever.
Most of the credit goes to Amy Sherman-Palladino, the creator of Gilmore Girls. The character of Lane was inspired by her best friend and Gilmore Girls co-producer, Helen Pai. Ever since they met ten years ago working together on the short-lived Fox show Love and Marriage, Pai has been entertaining Sherman-Palladino with stories about her family. Before Pai knew what she was in for, Amy called to tell her that she had finished her pilot for Gilmore Girls, and she had written into it a Korean American family based on Helen’s life.
“Initially, it was very weird,” says Pai. “I’m not a limelight kind of person. During the first season of Gilmore Girls, we had a panel, and there were a lot of questions about Mrs. Kim and Lane and the stereotypes. And, Amy would then explain, ‘Listen, these are real stories. They’re based on a real person.’ And people came up to me after the panel, and I was very uncomfortable.
“And, I was a little frightened to tell them any more stories!” she laughs. “When she’d ask me about my family gatherings, I’d think, ‘I can’t tell her.’ But then it’d eventually come out. I can’t stop Amy. No one can stop Amy.”
“She’s brilliant,” says Emily Kuroda, who plays Mrs. Kim. “Amy goes out on a limb. Because, look at all the other shows on TV -- with all the young pretty people. Amy hires older people, fat people, ethnic people… Nobody does that! That’s unheard of!”
“One nice thing that I found out,” says Agena, “was that there was a very intricate scene in the pilot where Mrs. Kim is first introduced. They go into Mrs. Kim’s antique shop; they’re walking around in a big maze of furniture. And Amy was actually getting a lot of pressure to cut something. And since the Mrs. Kim scene was a quirky little side story that didn’t really advance the storyline, it would have been a really easy scene to cut. But Amy just really wanted to do it. So I was grateful that she stuck to it.”
Part of what makes the story unique and funny is Lane’s relationship with her mother. It’s an interesting contrast to the mother-daughter relationship of Rory and Lorelei Gilmore, the main characters on the show.
The character of Mrs. Kim has always been a bit of a foreboding presence in Stars Hollow, frequently known to be doing ridiculous things, like following people holding a bat and spraying Rory with a hose to keep her away from her house. Mrs. Kim has been known to break down doors. Once she told Zach he should “swim in the sludge with Satan’s hell-dogs and feed them [his] innards for eternity” for dating her daughter. Mrs. Kim is always around even when you think she isn't. Just when you think you’re safe from her, she pops up from behind a corner and barks something at you. One of her first lines from the pilot was a grave warning to Rory: “Boys don’t like funny girls.”
“The character of Mrs. Kim started out as very no-nonsense and very stiff,” says Kuroda. “I’m not sure where that came from. I’ve never done anyone like her before. In my head, she’s had a really tough life, and she survived it by being very methodical. So that’s the basic feel for her. She’s ‘military’ to me. She’s very practical and she has her rules.”
As a reaction to Mrs. Kim’s uber-conservatism and paranoia, Lane develops a hyper-sensitive fear of getting caught doing something wrong and setting her mother off. She’s always running away, sneaking around, trying to avoid being shipped off to Korea without a return ticket, conceding to a life filled with hymns and Bible passages, and reluctantly going on blind dates with potential Korean doctor mates and their extended families. Most of it is exaggerated for comedic effect; some of it is completely made up; and even when there are elements of truth to some of the events, the stories are told through Helen’s perspective, which, she’ll openly admit, is a slanted one.
“My parents are religious Seventh Day Adventists, and they were very strict,” says Pai. “So, in addition to the Korean culture thing, which is a very protective atmosphere, I kind of felt that I got hit with this double whammy. And yet, I was this American girl that just wanted to go out.
“But even though I was a little bit of a rebellious kid, I really do love and respect my parents. I understood why they were so protective. So I think Amy saw that and thought that it was an interesting character.”
And it is interesting because Lane isn’t your typical rebel. And Mrs. Kim isn’t your typical parental oppressor. There’s love deeply woven in the relationship despite the clear barriers. There’s an added layer of complexity between them because there is not only a generational gap, but a cultural clash as well. Mrs. Kim truly believes that junk food, boys, music, and dancing are influences of the Devil. Unfortunately for the both of them, Lane, a teenager immersed in American pop culture, truly loves: (e) all of the above.
But any small indiscretion results in Lane being locked up in her room and restricted from making any phone calls or having contact with the outside world (Psalm-a-day hotlines excluded). Everything, from something as simple as getting her hands on the new Belle & Sebastian album, has to be done surreptitiously. So, Lane has been forced to lead a double life.
One of Lane’s trademark moves involves hiding her CDs, make-up, and other non-Christian items under the floorboards of her room. She has a walk-in closet filled with psychedelic lights and posters, her personal haven and the only outlet in her household for expressing her individuality. What’s amusing, and impressive, about Lane is how comprehensive and meticulous she becomes about her secrecy.
“There were definitely elements of that [in my life]. Absolutely,” says Pai. “I had the closet where I put up all my posters. My dad knew about it, but he kind of turned the blind eye, until he got really mad at me and took everything down.
“My parents were so strict that when I wanted to go out, I had to sneak out. I couldn’t just walk through the front door. So literally, after they went to sleep, I snuck the phone up to my room, and my friends would be like ’11:00, we’re going to call. Synchronize your watches!’” Pai laughs. “It was kind of ridiculous.”
Because Lane is based on Helen Pai, the character of Mrs. Kim is assumed to be based on Helen’s mother. However, Pai thinks that Mrs. Kim is actually more like her father. “My mom was always the sweet Korean mom, always entertaining the kids. My father is far more the strict one.”
If that’s the case, that both Pai's parents are melded into one character, it might partially explain the mysterious absence of Mr. Kim, who has been mentioned on the show but has yet to be seen. He didn't even bother to show up to his daughter's wedding.
“I know!” laughs Agena. “Where is my dad?”
“Lane has alluded to her 'parents’ [plural] before,” says Kuroda. “That was when I shipped her off to Korea. So, when they told me they were going to have a wedding, I thought, ‘Oh wow, this is exciting.’ But then, I don’t know where her husband was. I guess Mrs. Kim is going home alone.”
“My theory,” says Pai. “And it's really never been solved, is that he is in an import/export business, and he's in Korea all the time. That's what I'm going with. But that has nothing to do with the show. That's just my theory.”
Mrs. Kim has definitely softened and grown over time. The first few seasons focused on the differences between her and Lane, their clashes in character. However, after season five, there was a turning point in Mrs. Kim’s character where suddenly, layers were unraveled, and the viewers started seeing more of Lane in Mrs. Kim, as well as more of Mrs. Kim in Lane. We started to see how similar they really are.
Even though Pai’s parents don’t watch Gilmore Girls– “It’s the same night as some Korean program.” – Pai’s mother has been involved with the show on numerous occasions. “We give her parts of the script, and she says, ‘Now Helen, you have to be very careful, because you’re representing the Korean community,’" says Pai. “She really wanted me to be cautious.”
Pai's mother coached Kuroda on an episode called "The First Date,” which was based on the fact that Pai's mother wasn't happy about Helen dating her now husband, because he wasn't Korean, but how she learned to accept it because he made her daughter happy. “We talked about that for a long time."
"And then she had to teach me Korean.” Kuroda, who’s Japanese American, groans. “I had to speak a lot of Korean for the wedding episode. It was very stressful. My Korean is very bad. I warned them. But I tried my best.”
“She was really nervous about that,” laughs Pai. “I felt terrible. I was like, ‘Emily, I’m sorry, we’re trying to get you stuff as fast as we can.’ She’s so sweet and she just wants to do a good job.”
In terms of keeping it truthful to Korean-ness, Agena says “I think with the show, the intention is there to represent it well, but not necessarily ‘accurately,’ because, after all, it is a comedy. It’s going to take elements of something and blow it up to the extreme.”
Kuroda says the show has Korean consultants -- especially for Lane’s big wedding episode at the end of season six. The wedding had three parts: a Buddhist wedding to please Lane’s grandmother, a traditional Church wedding for Mrs. Kim, and a reception, when Lane and Zach were able to let loose and put on a rock show for all their friends.
It was during this episode when we realize that Lane’s relationship with her mother was exactly the same as Mrs. Kim’s relationship with her mother. It was a long line of Korean mothers wanting their children to be a certain way, and the daughters not fitting into the mold, and therefore feeling the need to hide their lives in order to please them. The Mrs. Kim/Lane storyline had come full circle.
After all the ups and downs that Lane and Mrs. Kim have had in their relationship, this season dealt with Lane having broken up with her boyfriend Zach, coming back to her mother, begging for forgiveness, and moving back home. Seeing her daughter stressed out and going through a tough time, Mrs. Kim lets down some of her guard and exhibits some sympathy and compassion for Lane. In a moment of unexpected brilliance, Mrs. Kim, takes out a bottle of liquor from the cabinet and pours them both a shot: “You have grieved, and now we move on.”
It was that scene, Kuroda says, that drew some criticism from some young bloggers. “Seventh Day Adventists wouldn’t actually do that, cause they’re not supposed to drink,” says Kuroda. “So it really bothered them.”
“That was the best though,” laughs Agena. “That was a total moment. Because you would never think, from the beginning of the series, that those two people would ever get to that point. So it was a nice contrast of how they started. It’s kind of a capper.”
Although the Lane storyline is only a subplot of Gilmore Girls, it has been a consistent one. It's given both Lane and Mrs. Kim a chance to blossom into authentic, complicated, well-developed characters that viewers really root for. Mrs. Kim – who Emily Kuroda makes sure to note doesn’t have a Korean accent, to the credit of the producers – is not limited to a caricature of a crazy, strict, backwards-thinking Asian parent.
Ultimately, nobody watches the Asian American characters on the show to see “what Asians are like.” They watch the show because it’s funny. It allows viewers to become emotionally invested in the eccentric characters. Ultimately, what Asian Americans have always wanted is to be recognized for their wide spectrum of qualities, to be appreciated for the quality of the work, and to not be pigeonholed or feel obligated to represent a specific image. Gilmore Girls is an example of mainstream media striking that balance successfully, and as it has shown through its longevity, that if it’s appealing and clever, people will watch.
“One of my favorite things right now is this Asian guy who’s been in a couple of TV commercials. A phone commercial and a Febreeze commercial. He’s just ‘the guy.’ And I don’t know why, but I like that," says Agena. "It’s a character you’ve seen a million times before, but it just happens to be him, and he just happens to be Asian American. And he’s funny.”
As long as we’re in on the joke, we’re in good shape. And besides, as far as positive representation goes -- Lane is a female drummer in a rock ‘n roll band. Who just married her lead singer.
It doesn’t get any cooler than that.
Season 7 of Gilmore Girls premieres on September 28th, 2006. 8pm on CW.
APA Interview with Keiko Agena (2003)
Date Posted: 8/23/2006