What’s your favourite Lane Kim moment? The time she rebels against her Seventh Day Adventist mother, Mrs Kim, by dying her hair purple? The night she sneaks out of her house to play a 1am gig at legendary New York venue CBGB’s? Mine comes during Season Three, when Lane’s band, Hep Alien, perform at a Stars Hollow keg party and she’s secretly dating Dave Rygalski (Adam Brody), a warm-hearted local guitarist who adores her so much, he attempts to impress Mrs Kim by speed-reading the bible in one night. In the same episode, Lane (Keiko Agena), who, by the way, is Rory Gilmore’s (Alexis Bledel) inimitable, Korean-American best friend on the Gilmore Girls, comes clean about her double life via a drunken phone call. If you were a second-generation kid who’d grown up squashing your desires on a daily basis, chances are that it would resonate with you, too.
When Gilmore Girls premiered in October 2000 (thanks to the Family Friendly Forum, an advertiser-funded script development fund aimed at greenlighting family-friendly stories), we’d never seen a character quite like Lane Kim. Sure, television had been crowded with protagonists like Freaks and Geeks’ Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (Claire Danes), whip-smart teenage misfits for whom retreating to bedrooms with The Who and Sonic Youth records was the ultimate cure for small town sorrow. But Lane was the only character I’d seen for whom whiteness wasn’t the prerequisite for being a teenage misfit. That Gilmore Girls presented the fact that Lane could drum in a band and hide Jane’s Addiction CDs under her floorboards while dealing with a loving if overbearing mother who regularly threatened to ship her back to Korea (a familiar bluff to anyone with immigrant parents) as natural and logical felt like a revelation.
Lane, maybe because she was based on Helen Pai, the Korean-American best friend of Gilmore Girls’ creator Amy Sherman-Palladino, reflected a reality in which people of colour were complicated beings whose every trait wasn’t a consequence of some deep cultural struggle. Of course, it’s not that deep cultural struggle isn’t a factor. It’s just that other struggles — such as deflecting the affections of a suitor you’re not really interested in (Young Chui, Season 3) or rehearsing like crazy to showcase your band in front of a label or negotiating that first, awkward transition from friendship to a relationship figure in your life just as much. Unlike Rory, whose Type-A perfectionism and flaky disregard for her best friend whenever Jess swung into town, could border on grating, Lane was a relatable mix of ambitious, loyal and plucky. She was the version of myself and my friends that I never knew that I needed to see on-screen — until I finally did.
Along with lightning-fast banter, a nonwhite protagonist with so much promise was the greatest gifts Gilmore Girls gave us but the show wasted no time taking it away. As Netflix has fanned a new wave of Gilmore Girls’ fandom, it’s sparked an awareness of all the ways in which Lane’s been sidelined, reduced from larger-than-life character to Rory’s cipher. It was bad enough that we last met Lane married to her bandmate Zack and pregnant with twins, dooming her to squander her future waiting tables at Luke’s — one of the worst crimes of the much-maligned Season Six, famously written without Sherman-Palladino’s involvement. But in A Year In The Life, Netflix’s much-hyped four-episode special, Lane, whose twins have grown up, materialises only when Rory needs a place to crash or a sounding board for her career melodrama or to provide the backing music to Star Hollow’s newest pop-up bar. Does she feel trapped in Stars Hollow or resent Zack and the kids? Does she wish she’d hitched a ride out of town to drum for a post-punk band in Brooklyn? Her interior life has been reduced to nothing, even though the audience knows she deserves so much more.
Sadly, Gilmore Girls isn’t the only television show with a promising approach to diversity but zero interest in enacting nonwhite character’s rights. Dawn Chambers (Teyonah Parris), Don Draper’s African-American secretary on Mad Men represented an opportunity for the show to explore a nonwhite character’s consciousness rather than reflect white characters’ prejudice (remember the scene when Peggy flinched at leaving Dawn with her purse?). Girls introduced Sandy (Donald Glover), Hannah Horvath’s black, republican boyfriend largely to make a point about the power dynamics of interracial relationships. Even Broad City, a show that nails racial humour uses Ilana’s sometimes lover Lincoln (Hannibal Burress) as a punchline. He mostly exists to send up Ilana’s commitment-phobia, rather than evolve as a character himself.
In an October 2014 The Toast article, Mallory Ortberg outlines an alternative trajectory for Lane Kim. Ortberg asks us to imagine in which Lane leaves Stars Hollow, tours Europe, Australia and South America and then maybe thinks about settling down. Imagine if nonwhite characters who are ambitious, loyal and plucky could live their best stories rather than see their desires squashed.
Creating diverse characters is one thing. Allowing them to take flight is something else.