The (Not So) Subtle Racism of The Gilmore Girls
Ok, don’t freak out. I like the Gilmore Girls as much as the next 30-something White woman. Promise. I like Lorelai and Rory and life in Stars Hollow. I kinda want to live there myself. I’d eat at Luke’s diner and attend the loveably wacky town meetings; gossip about the will-they/won’t-they of Luke and Lorelai, shop at Doose’s, maybe even have Paris yell at me.
I started watching the show a couple months ago and I queue it whenever I’m at the Y (you know, ’cause I work out now). I had never seen the show so when the entire series was released on Netflix, I thought it would make the perfect companion for me and the rowing machine. And I fell hard for those Gilmore Girls right from the start. Small town life, quirky characters, romance, innocence and entirely surmountable conflict. It practically made me wish I had gotten knocked up at 16 if it meant I’d have the life and verbal skills of Lorelai Gilmore.
Admittedly I’m only 2 seasons deep at this point but the portrayals of people of color on the show, scanty though they may be, are getting harder and harder for me to overlook as I get swept away in the small town politics and social life of Stars Hollow. I wouldn’t have noticed it 15 years ago and I’m guessing a lot of you are scratching your heads and racking your brains, trying to remember if there was some sort of lynching or cross-burning on the WB that you missed.
But that’s not what racism looks like these days. Well, not often, anyway. Racism nowadays is different. In some ways I think it might be even more insidious now than it was 60 years ago because it’s gone even further underground. It’s practically invisible to the dominant culture, enabling us to sit back with our excellent healthcare, our smart kids, and countless other benefits of Whiteness, all the while patting ourselves on the back for allowing a Black man into the oval office.
I think most of us mean well. I really do. But if you don’t see racism in our country today it’s because you aren’t paying attention. Circling back to the Gilmore Girls, I’d like to gently point out some of the things that I find problematic with the show’s cast of characters as I’m guessing that they, too, might be invisible to the casual White observer.
A quick review of the characters in question…
This is the show’s only Black character, as of Season 2. He is the concierge at the Inn where Lorelei works and his character is an uptight, high maintenance, rude, feminine but hetero, irritable snob. He speaks with an exaggerated French accent and his short scenes presumably provide a comic counterpoint to the other characters’ main plot lines.
Mrs. Kim & Lane
Korean-American mother and daughter. Lane, 16, is best friend to Rory Gilmore. She is the stereotypical 2nd generation kid who just wants to “be normal,” like Rory. Her mother, Mrs. Kim, is an uber conservative Christian (Adventist?) who forbids Lane to listen to music, talk to boys, or eat anything but her hyper-healthy offerings. She is insanely strict. She speaks with a heavy accent and comes across as harsh and clueless at the same time.
Oh wait, that’s it. There aren’t any others. Well, there was the mechanic who checked out the car Dean built for Rory. She was what you might call racially ambiguous (Latina, maybe?) but she, too, spoke with a heavy accent. Her english made her sound dumb although she was obviously intelligent enough to be the one checking out a car built from scratch. But that was a 60-second scene, tops, so we’ll keep our focus on Michel and Mrs. Kim/Lane.
They aren’t characters
The problem with those characters is that they aren’t characters. They’re caricatures.
A caricature is “an imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect.”
Mrs. Kim is so over-the-top, so insane, so intense. Her character is indeed a grotesque exaggeration of a stereotypical Asian immigrant parent. Michel, while not what one would call “stereotypical Black” is likewise entirely outlandish. He is so petty, so snobbish, so rude. Both characters are at once unbelievable and entirely one-dimensional.
There are, of course, other characters on the show that are largely one-dimensional as well. Ms. Patty, the flamboyant dance teacher, for example. Or Babette the cat lady who lives in that weird house with her strange husband. But see, the difference is that those characters are portrayed as charming. A little out there, maybe, but overall lovable and endearing. Not so with Michel and Mrs. Kim. They aren’t remotely like-able, either one. But we aren’t meant to like them. We’re meant to loathe them. They are portrayed as less real and therefore less relatable. Less human.
Lane is like-able but only because she wants to be like Rory and any other “normal American teenager.” We root for her and pray she can pull a fast one on her mom because she wants to be like us! She wants to ditch the Korean doctor set ups and listen to rock & roll and kiss boys. Her Korean-ness isn’t to be celebrated or even explored. It’s to be escaped.
The Repetition Principle
In the case of the Gilmore Girls it could be argued that this was all mere coincidence. And that may well be. But the reason it’s problematic is because it’s something that has been repeated regularly on TV and in the movies for decades. Screenwriters and marketers are our modern day story-tellers and the story of Michel & Mrs. Kim is one that is repeated again and again and again.
Repetition Principle tells us that if something happens often enough, we will eventually be persuaded. If we are shown a particular depiction of something often enough, we will eventually be persuaded to believe what we see. No one is immune to this. So if we allow these grotesque exaggerations to go unchecked, if we continue to puff up these portrayals of characters we love to hate, if we continue to tell these un-true stories about certain people, we will eventually be persuaded to believe them — when maybe all we really wanted was something entertaining to distract us on the treadmill.
UPDATE – May 11, 2015
I have now finished all 7 seasons (TeamLukeFTW), at the behest of several blog readers. I didn’t detest Michel quite as much by the end of the series but otherwise my thoughts still stand.
Other posts on Race
Can I Get An Amen… from the Awkward White Lady?
Feeling Your Skin
Fury in Ferguson