Social Issues

"Gilmore Girls" and child abuse

Two of the many things I missed out on during my we-didn’t-have-TV childhood were Friends and Gilmore Girls. I’m in the process of rectifying it– thank you very much Netflix– and so far it’s been pretty fun. I really enjoy the way the characters interact with each other, especially how much Lorelai really is almost exactly like her mother … if her mother had pink-furry-telephone taste. I’m also enjoying Rachel’s sudden introduction to paying taxes.

Every single time I see Mrs. Kim in an episode of Gilmore Girls, though, my stomach sinks. There’s the obvious negative stereotypes about Asian “tiger mothers,” and the way it’s obviously meant to play off as humorous reads as racist to me, mostly because her character is incredibly flat (at least so far, but after reading quite a bit of material about her, I don’t think they develop her into a truly nuanced, complex character).

However, that’s not my biggest problem with Mrs. Kim. My biggest problem is that she’s an abusive mother– and that her abuse is accepted as normal, as her “right” to behave as Lane’s parent. In an early episode, Lorelai approaches Mrs. Kim to give her some advice about not smothering Lane, but she premises it with the idea that Mrs. Kim has every right as Lane’s mother to parent her in whatever way she sees fit.

And it’s not just the characters in the show that think what Mrs. Kim does is ok:

It’s also important to note that Mrs. Kim’s choices as a parent were never shamed or undermined … Lane was largely respectful of her mother’s decisions and rules for her life—and so, too, was the narrative of the show.

I want to be very clear that I think it is entirely possible for parents to be very ambitious for their children, to set very high goals for their children, and to do and say many of the things that Mrs. Kim says and does to Lane, and not be abusive.

However, what Mrs. Kim does crosses the line from “ambitious” to controlling, manipulative, coercive, and abusive. Every single last second in her daughter’s life is under the iron fist of her mother, and Lane is given no space to be her own person. I look at the life that Lane is living and in it, I see reflections of the expectations I lived under in a fundamentalist cult. Somehow Lane goes to public school and manages to hide rock music and rouge under the floor boards of her bedroom, but she is terrified of her mother ever finding out about who she actually is.

This is one of the things that fundamentalist parenting techniques don’t explain: there is a whole-wide-world of difference between love and acceptance. Mrs. Kim might love Lane, but she does not accept Lane. If she knew anything about who Lane wanted to be or the things that Lane loves, she would flip out and ground her for weeks on end– and frequently does.

The thing that finally got me was the episode when Lane finally tells her mother about Henry Cho, the conservative-Christian-wants-to-be-a-doctor-Korean-boy. At the end of the episode, Lane calls Rory on a pay phone and tells her that her mother has convinced her teachers that she will be “homeschooled” for two weeks. In reality, she’s not being homeschooled, she’s being punished.

Mrs. Kim uses lax homeschooling regulations in order to isolate her daughter.

There are plenty of amazing reasons to homeschool; because you don’t think they’ll receive a good enough education, because they’re being bullied … however, “homeschooling” is not something you can take advantage of as a punitive measure in order to dominate and control your children. Homeschooling is not there to be used by parents who don’t like something their child has done and wants to take ‘grounding’ to terrifying levels.

That the show laughs at all of this is nauseating. I wish I could explain all the millions of tiny little things that make my hair stand on end; but any women who grew up in Christian fundamentalism, with marriage being the only end goal allowed and parents that scream at you every time you do something that shows how you are a person different from them … we know.

We see Lane and we see flickers of ourselves.

Photo belongs to Warner Bros.
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  • I started working my way through Gilmore Girls a couple months ago and took a hiatus somewhere in season 4, so I haven’t seen what happens in later seasons. But I found myself becoming very perturbed by Rory’s relationships, first with Dean and later with Jess. Dean was especially problematic because he would do or say things that to me screamed “abuser-in-training!” that everyone in the town just thought were cute or sweet. They could recognize bad behaviour in Jess because he was the “bad kid” but not in Dean because he was the “good kid.”

    • Bri

      I completely agree. Dean creeped me out so much.

    • Yes, Dean seemed very controlling at times, in an Edward-Cullen-y sort of way. Jess was just a jerk, but he didn’t exhibited abusive tendencies (or at least none that I remember).

    • Alyson

      I’ve been rewatching for months, and pretty much all the male leads bug me because they are so jealous. OMG you talked to him. OMG you ate with him. Aaaaaah! Over and over. Also, many times R or L don’t tell their boyfriend or lie about things like that because they are rightly afraid he will be upset. And then the boyfriend freaks out about the omission, never thinking “Does she really need to inform me every time she interacts with this guy” or “Does it say something about me that she’s afraid to tell me things that really aren’t a big deal.”

  • Bri

    This is interesting. I didn’t see it the same way; I thought the show took her harmful behavior seriously (though not as much as it should have). It was played for laughs sometimes, but it also did a good job of showing the deep pain Mrs. Kim’s parenting caused Lane. (It was also sympathetic to Mrs. Kim at times, which didn’t bother me because it didn’t seem to be condoning her actions or her views.)

    You make some good points that I hadn’t noticed before. While I still think the show did a lot of things right, it never labeled her behavior abusive, and it did portray a lot of things as acceptable that it should not have. The racism is another thing I hadn’t picked up on, but now that you’ve pointed it out, I definitely see it.

  • Angie

    (Spoilers!!!!!) Also mrs Kim mellows by the end of the show. She really connects with lane and accepts her choices. And though Mrs Kim is abusive in many respects she comes from a very different culture than her daughter was raised in. We eventually meet mrs Kim’s mother and you can tell mrs Kim came a long way from where her mother was. Particularly in her acceptance of lanes choice in career and spouse (last 2? Seasons)

  • Everything you’re saying I’ve realized in the past couple months. I hadn’t watched GG since I officially left fundamentalism a year ago, and I just recently I started watching the show again. I never picked up on the fact that Mrs. Kim is abusive until now (as well as the racism, though to me that didn’t stand out as much), and I can’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. Maybe it’s because I’ve picked up on the harm I endured in my own life and I am better able to recognize it in others.

    When I see a typical Mrs. Kim/Lane moment, I think, “Yes, this is ‘funny’ on TV, but in real life, this type of parenting is severely traumatic to a child.” In real life, kids like Lane don’t usually become well-adjusted adults without some help. They battle with mental illness, low self-esteem, and adapting to society. I endured maybe 1/5 of what Lane went through, and I go to therapy and cope with depression.

    I feel deeply for the children with parents like Mrs. Kim. Just one more way in which TV is unrealistic, I guess.

  • I am also rewatching GG on Netflix – and am finding it hard to rewatch. The underhanded homophobia – so many small homophobic jokes/quips that bother me now but I didn’t even notice then, (and the obvious absence of lgtb characters, even in just the background townfolk), the racism and lane/ relationship as you point out, and Rory’s lack of agency in her relationships…

    • Branwen

      I think that Netflix was aware of the lack of LGBTQ characters and attempted to rectify that with Michel in the reboot Netflix just came out with. Sorry for the spoiler. 🙂

  • And this is one more reason why I can’t watch anything that passes itself off as comedy. It’s not FUNNY when they’re using abuse and humiliation as the punch line of a joke.

    No parent has the *right* to abuse their child. Not in any way, shape, or form. Children are not property of their parents.

    Sometimes it’s *not* funny because it’s true.

  • Melody

    “This is one of the things that fundamentalist parenting techniques don’t explain: there is a whole-wide-world of difference between love and acceptance. Mrs. Kim might love Lane, but she does not accept Lane. If she knew anything about who Lane wanted to be or the things that Lane loves, she would flip out and ground her for weeks on end– and frequently does.”

    I haven’t seen GG in years so I’m afraid I don’t remember much of it. However this quote of yours really stood out for me: the difference between love and acceptance. I’ve often been a bit of a silent rebeller. Not saying much, but reading and writing things I shouldn’t, enjoying all my non-christian books/movies, being a bit of a feminist, etc. Not feeling entirely at home in the christian world (strict evangelical) so to speak. When I found out I’m gay, about a year ago now, I finally realized even more why it had been so hard to feel accepted by friends and family and even myself! And also why I had problems fully trusting them, even though I was a bit homophobic myself as well, at the time. I just couldn’t feel accepted, could never really let my guard down without knowing why.

    I guess for me the whole love the sinner, hate the sin thing also fits into this. How is it love if you cannot truly accept people? Your only accepting your image/dreams for them, not who they really are. I would love to be accepted for me, but am not so sure that will happen.

    I also think that many people, myself included, can be sometimes inclined to want to change people a litte, making things better or different for them, even when that is not what that person themselves may want.(My mother, for instance, is very isolated due to low self-esteem which has been caused by religious ideas. My brother and I have been trying to change that for her, but she does not want us to. We know she can be sociable and outgoing and would love to see her happier.) When is respecting someone’s choices a good thing and when isn’t it? I guess that’s a hard call to make sometimes as well.

    Do you think it is also very much a boundary issue? I know a lot of people who do think they can fix/change other people’s lives and/or problems (which can be really irritating) and maybe it is none of their business in the first place. It is part of evangelical christianity too, I think: an attitude of: we know what is best for everyone, in fact: for the whole world, because our message is the right one etc. So it may come from that place too. A sort of mix of arrogance and genuinely wanting good things (salvation) for other people but treading on people’s own opinions at the same time.

    Long story short: I hear you… yet I can also see why it can be hard sometimes. I want to be accepted for who I am but can have difficulty accepting others fully as well, so there you go… Sigh. I’m still in the process of shaking off so much of my old views and replacing them with new ones. But with spotting all sorts of issues in my environment I do also spot them a little more in myself / my past and that is not always a very nice experience…

    I always tried my very hardest to be the best possible good christian ‘girl,’ I could be and have seriously harmed myself in the process. It just makes me sad and angry, that in not accepting myself it has been hard to accept others as well, especially if they didn’t stick by the rules. Probably pure jealousy on my part. Anyway, I guess I just feel and recognize both sides a little.

  • Alyson

    I watched Gilmore Girls and some other TV shows secretly on the internet as a teenager. I liked Lane’s story a lot because I related to it a lot, and it made me feel less alone because I did not know any parents real or fictional who were anywhere near as strict as mine.

    However, the character has always seemed racist to me, along with the Korean exchange student in a later season. And Michel seems like a French stereotype and is flat. It all seems especially glaring since the show has so few non-Caucassian characters. Also, with other characters, sometimes it really seems like the show is making fun of mental and social disabilities.

  • Caroline M

    You’re totally right about Mrs.Kim’s abuse. However, she ends up being not so flat…. Stick with it, it gets interesting.

  • Sarah S

    Mrs. Kim does start to mellow and accept Lane later in the show (I haven’t finished the series yet). I hadn’t really noticed the racism, but I tend not to unless it’s more blatant (I’m working on that). It’s an interesting parallel in the show with both Emily and Mrs. Kim portrayed as so controlling for completely different surface reasons but with the same outcome.

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one who thinks Dean is a super-creepy “abuser in training”! It got to where I would get SO mad every time he was in an episode and everyone in the show is going on and on ad nauseam about how Wonderful Dean is and how Good he is to Rory, and he’s the Best first boyfriend ever. *blood pressure through the roof*

    I find it fascinating and disturbing that Lorelai doesn’t see that she tries to control and manipulate Rory in much the same way her mother does to her. I realize she’s much better than her mother, and I guess maybe that’s the point. We often do the same behaviors that were done to us, even if we despise them. I’m at a point in the show where I’m really hoping to see a big change in Lorelai rather than an “I told you so” for Rory.

  • Crystal

    Hello, it’s Crystal again. I have never seen this show, so I cannot say anything about it. But this – so MUCH THIS. I empathise with what you’re saying in regards to fundamentalist parenting – that there is a difference between love and acceptance – that’s what stuck out to me – and other things also captured my attention. Thank you so much for writing this.

  • Friends! For some reason, Friends is wildly popular here in China among students who are studying English. (Also the movie Titanic is somehow the most popular American movie ever in China. Seriously, every time I teach an ESL class on movies, it gets brought up and people say how much they love it. Why.)

    Anyway I started watching Friends because of said popularity and I love it. 🙂

  • Elaine

    I get what you are saying about Lane and Ms. Kim. I totally agree about the BFs Jess and Dean. Dean was way controlling. Jess a jerk. What about the other BF? What the heck was his name? In later seasons, he was a blonde and she met him at Yale. Rory really didn’t stand up for herself very well in relationships. Lorelai was sort of annoying in general. She was controlling with a different way of doing it than her mother, but she definitely did try to control and ever smother Rory. She acted more like her BFF than a mom but when it suited her she pulled out the controlling Mom card. L was also in horrible relationship. At first I too wanted her with Luke, but in later episodes Luke was a jerk like his nephew Jess was. Even Christopher – Rory’s father There was a rather unhealthy relationship on again off again with he and L. Really in retrospect most of the relationships in that show were not good. I often found L’s smothering of R and having to act like her friend rather than a mother to be almost as abusive as Ms. Kim was to Lane. All that said, for some reason I was totally obsessed with this show back in the day. I started watching when it was in the last season, but not on the regular channel. I would watch in reruns and record the shows to catch up to the current season. The last season was really bad. Didn’t care for it at all. But, I did love the first couple seasons despite al the stuff I just pointed out. Lol.

  • I am just about my done my Gilmore Girls binging and I’m having the same issue with Mrs. Kim.

    When I grew up it was 99% white so I didnt really see it as obviously as I do now that I live in a bigger city and have a partner who is of a different ethnicity.

    It is really sad that they round up almost every other character and leave her flat and one dimensional

  • I snagged a few episodes here and there as a teen, and gilmore girls has been my favorite show since then. I didn’t see them as shrugging off the seriousness of Lane’s life. Rather I saw them as displaying many different dysfunctional relationships in a humorous way along the lines of “you either learn to laugh or you just go crazy.” I kind of feel like the whole show was playing Lorelai’s refusal to parent abusively against others like her mother and Mrs. Kim. And I found Lane to be a glimmer of myself in a way that made me relieved to see someone portraying what it was like.

  • Tim

    It may be out of line to comment on your twitter feed here, but since it’s copied on your blog, I suppose it may be fair game, and maybe you would want to write a post to share further on those topics. If this isn’t kosher, please let me know.

    I saw your tweet a few days ago regarding hard-leftists making fun of Obama, and I’m just curious about your perspective on that. I think, ideologically speaking, Obama and Stewart have the same credentials and have pretty identical beliefs and values. (Although, obviously they’re different individuals with different talents, experiences, and personalities.) I think Obama has been constrained in what he’s done by the two-party system, by the role bundlers and corporate donors play in elections, and by the fact that he’s running a center-right country, just to cite three things. Obama never wanted the ACA in its current form, for example, but it seems to me that it was probably the biggest reform in the area of moving towards the legally mandated provision of universal health care that was politically achievable given the constraint conditions. Setting aside the whole issue that Stewart had a zero chance of winning, do you think he would have been a competent president, given his lack of experience in elected office? And do you think, as president, he could have effectively pushed through policies that you favor which Obama has not been able or willing to enact?

    Additionally, I’m curious about your estimation that any single man, open to marrying a fundie woman, who has a complementarian view of marriage is almost certainly an asshole. I’m guessing that means that all of the married women friends you have who are still fundamentalists are married to assholes? And all the guy friends you had at Liberty who had a complementarian view of marriage? In my experience there have been a number of people who were truly assholes in almost every group I’ve been in, whether that was in a fundie or non-fundie church, a military unit or organization, a dorm floor, a class, in the neighborhood, in a homeschool coop, etc. But in every one of those groups, the non-assholes were by far the larger number, and I’ve known quite a few married men (Xians and otherwise) with an unconcious or culturally default complementarian view of marriage who are quite decent human beings, although I have to admit I know the other sort as well. I’m just curious about your experience.

    • Nah, you’re fine. 🙂 This is probably a better venue for these questions, at any rate.

      Honestly: I don’t know that much about Stewart, and I voted for Obama in both elections. It was a hypothetical conversation that I found amusing, mostly because of the “Socialist” bit. That whole thing was a reaction to a post I saw on tumblr, where someone who I know is a Marxist had a Tea Party Republican reblog a post making fun of Obama with a “those DISGUSTING LIBERALS who SADDLED us with OBAMA”– and it took them a while to explain that they didn’t like Obama because he isn’t nearly liberal enough.

      I am willing to stand by “all fundamentalist complementarian men who demand that their wives be submissive and obedient are assholes.” There’s “soft” complementarianism, where people pay lip-service to the “traditional roles” nonsense but in reality have egalitarian marriages, and I find that amusing, but not particularly worthy of the asshole label. However, fundamentalist complementarianism is a completely different beast, and the guy who expects that? Yeah. Asshole. Maybe he’s a nice guy to a lot of different people and capable of maintaining positive relationships, but any guy that expects his wife to obey him? All the nopes.

  • Tim

    Hey, thanks for the reply.

    I get the humor in a Marxist having a Tea Party Repub reblog their post. 🙂 Sometimes people disagree; I think most of the time we just misunderstand. I think it’s humorous how within the US we often view ourselves as very politically divided whereas most of the Europeans I’ve talked to (mostly NATO) view us as pretty politically homogenous – they see almost all Americans as agreeing with each other politically on about 90 percent of everything though strangely we quibble with each other over ten percent. But internally, we never talk about the 90 percent; it’s so much a part of American culture we assume that’s just reality or brute fact.

    I grant you someone who says, “I demand my wife be submissive and obedient” pretty much sounds like an asshole, whichever way you slice it, even if they’re able to put on a nice face in other relationships. You’ve convinced me.

    But I appreciate your allowance for the existence of a “soft complementarianism” which is fairly egalitarian in practice. People use language that they’re comfortable with to describe what they’re doing. But in practice, you can either A) be caring and considerate of another person, listen, understand and respond to their needs and desires, and, treat them fairly, for example dividing up household chores equitably, or you can B) try to manipulate and control the other person to get the most you can out of them while giving the least. Or somewhere in between. But it’s not that complicated. Decent people will try their best to act decently, regardless of the language (sometimes sexist) they use to describe why they’re doing what they’re doing. Assholes (xian or not) will be assholes; the only difference really being the frosting of justifications and rationalizations they spread over the shit cake.

  • LCP

    I have more of an issue with Emily Gilmore’s treatment of her grown daughter, than I do with Lane’s mother. It’s one thing to be too controlling of an underage child, than to continue to try to rule the life of an adult daughter. I’m not saying that Lane’s mother isn’t a horrible, abusive human, but I don’t think her behavior isn’t taken seriously. The other characters seem to realize it’s a problem. However, as a former controlled child that turned into a controlled adult, I would say from personal experience that being manipulated and controlled by your mother when you are an adult (and when she attempts to use your children in her manipulation) is way worse.

    • Bri

      I always thought that was the point. No one thought Emily’s behavior was acceptable except Emily (and sometimes Richard). Lorelai frequently told Emily that she was out of line, and even when she didn’t take as strong of a stand as she probably should have, she was still clearly upset by the things Emily did. Do you think the show didn’t take it seriously enough?

  • There is a difference between love and acceptance. Yes! Thank you!!
    Honestly, I never noticed Lorelei being controlling except in a few instances, but coming from a replica of Lane Kim’s home (oh how well I remember homeschool grounding) I tend to not notice those things when I should. I would really enjoy a blog post calling out the things Lorelei did.

  • anneris31

    I’m so glad there are other people that recognize how manipulative and emotionally abusive Mrs. Kim is. As much as I love this show, the manipulation and horrific abuse of authority demonstrated by Mrs. Kim, Richard, and Emily have always left me with a bitter taste in my mouth. When I try to explain this to people, they are usually glib and dismissive (“but it’s funny!” they say, or “but remember that time when they were nice?” as if a few moments of humanity excuses the emotional abuse and mental manipulation).
    Really, if you look at the show from a different perspective, the underlying message is that it is impossible to escape manipulating parents completely. Both Lane and Lorelai temporarily escape their parents’ domineering reigns, but eventually, through more manipulation, the parents manage to keep their hold over them in some way. Lorelai runs away to escape her parents control, but is then forced back under their thumbs when she goes to them for help for Rory’s school. At the end of the show, nothing has changed. Lorelai still goes to Friday Night Dinners and presumably still endures Emily’s condescension and Richard’s complete lack of disregard for her at all. Lorelai is still under her parents’ influence because they have never acknowledged their mistreatment of her nor did they vow to change. Lane moves out and gets married, but instead of relishing in the freedom of being independent and carefree for the first time in her life, gets pregnant with two babies and gets her domineering mother back into her life again. The second that she’s free of her mother, she gets saddled with the new responsibility of motherhood. While it’s obvious that Lane loves her sons, she deserved some time to herself to come into her own as a woman. Mrs. Kim even has the nerve to order Lane to raise her sons in the same manner she was raised in, repressed by their grandmother’s totalitarian view of religion.
    Maybe if Mrs. Kim or the Gilmores acknowledged they were wrong or apologized in some way, the show’s comedic take on their abuse wouldn’t be so horrific. But they never do. It’s a wonder that Lane and Lorelai are as well-adjusted as they are.

  • Carla O’Connor

    I am literally watching that episode right now and typed in “gilmore girls child abuse lane” and came to your page. I wholeheartedly agree with you.

  • Branwen

    I am on the episode you referred to when Lane is “homeschooled” and this prompted me to google “Mrs. Kim abusive” and this article popped up. I completely agree with everything you said. It’s annoying, really that everyone in the show seems to just accept it.

  • Sharron Myers

    I started watching GG this past year as a 26 year old. I will say, the show pulled at my 13-year-old mommy issues, and I loved the dynamics between Lorelai, Rory and, especially, Emily.

    But immediately, I saw the abuse. In the pilot, and this is what (sickeningly) hooked me. L asks E and her dad, Richard, to pay for R’s school. So what is E’s response? Manipulative abuse and control through financial means. As a child who suffered immensely from financial abuse, I saw the MAJOR red flag, right away.

    The abusive-made-humorous/glorified relationships that followed were the theme of the show. Lorelai and Luke. Lorelai and Emily. Lorelai and Richard. Lorelai and Rory. Lorelai and Sookie… Lorelai and @everyone.

    Emily and @everyone (including her maids)

    Mrs. Kim and Lane…. yikes.

    Logan and @everyone

    Jess and @everyone

    Luke and @literallyeveryone

    Miss Patty and @everyone (including her inappropriate *glory days* story times)

    Taylor and @everyone

    Paris and @everyone (except she seeks therapeutic help from a profession *kudos*)

    Shows from the early 2000s are full of ‘normalizing’ behaviors that are truly abusive, racist, divisive, and controlling. Thank the universe, we are waking up!