“Is the shellfish thing serious?” – Religion and the “Gilmore Girls”

Fans have been eagerly awaiting this day for nearly a decade: new episodes of the TV series Gilmore Girls will be available for streaming on Netflix. In the early millennium, the series about the single mother Lorelai and her daughter Rory was famous especially for its fast dialogues full of political and pop-cultural references. In 2000, at the beginning of seven seasons and 153 episodes, Rory was a 16-year-old teen, going to school and dreaming of studying at Harvard, while her mother, Lorelai, was 32 and successfully managing an Inn. The third main character was not a person, however: Stars Hollow, the fictive small town in Connecticut where they live. It depicts an idyll of village community with as many town meetings as festivities throughout the seasons.

Although it seems to be the ideal version of the average US-American small town, and many occasions are sought and found to celebrate the one or other collective event, religion seems nearly absent. However, the more revealing are the incidents where it shows – and these are the ones I want to have a look at in the following paragraphs.
The observation that there are very few elements related to religion might be especially surprising regarding the mainstream religions. Festivities are only connected to seasons or held without any special occasion reason, and also Christmas or Thanksgiving celebrations bear no obvious relation to any kind of religious elements or interpretations in the series. In very few episodes, however, we get to know the local reverend and rabbi. Both are depicted under one common narrative, i.e. that of a cordial and constructive liaison. Probably the episode where both have the most lines shows them sitting together at Luke’s, the local diner, while Taylor, the town’s selectman, tries to convince them to forbid some protesting at the steps of their – shared – religious building. Taylor claims that God is on his side, but both laugh at him:

“Did you hear that, David? Taylor Doose is in direct communication with God!”
– “Thirty years I’m working for God – I haven’t received so much as a card!”
“Is it by phone that you speak with him, Taylor?”
– “Do you have a God-phone, Taylor?”
“What’s he like? For us common folk, who’s never met him?”
– “Is he short, is he tall?”
“Does he like to laugh?”
– “Is the whole shellfish thing really serious, because I gotta tell you, some of these red lobster commercials, …”
“They look good!”
– “With the melted butter…” (both laughing)

You may want to see the whole scene at Youtube:

It is not only obvious that both ally to support a quite liberal concern, and both make fun of the rather restrictive selectman, but they also take their respective religious authorities and dogmata all but seriously. Mainstream Christian and Jewish religion is, at it seems, most simpatico if it’s all fun and games. The liberal perspective is underlined when we learn that both share one religious building, a so-called churchagogue, where one is hurrying the other to finish his sermon and afterwards replaces the cross at the wall with a Star of David to begin his own service.

Picture of a Churchagogue: "Churchagogue" by Lian Chang, cc: by

Picture of a Churchagogue: „Churchagogue“ by Lian Chang, cc: by

You can also see the churchagogue in Stars Hollow in the following scene from the very same episode on youtube (but beware, bad sound quality!):


Also, in another episode the church bells are reinstalled after years of silence due to the last will of an unknown town member. While at first everybody is thrilled, later on the bells get on everybody’s nerves, so Lorelai and her friend Luke decide to sneak into the church and destroy them. They are caught in the act by the Reverend, but when he realises what they are up to, he disappears, obviously in content. So religion is not only funny as hell, but also it is clearly characterised as a pain if it becomes noticeable in the inhabitants’ everyday lives eventually.

So all in all, mainstream religious traditions are depicted as ideally easy – or indiscernible at best. But there is one major example in the Stars Hollow universe – the Kim family, consisting of Rory’s best friend Lane and her mother Mrs. Kim. (Although there might be a father, he is never shown or mentioned in any significant regard.) Mrs Kim is a strict Seventh Day Adventist, and imposes respective rules on her and her daughter’s life. Lane has to dress properly, is not allowed to have a boyfriend (especially not outside the Korean Adventist community) or listen to nonreligious music et cetera. But Lane herself is an average young girl with interest in boys, make-up, and also a huge rock fan. While she rejects all the Adventist stuff, she nonetheless respects her mother and is closely connected to her. Therefore her revolt is mostly a silent one, making up excuses and alibis for staying away to practice with her band or seemingly hooking up with a Korean boy while secretly meeting her real boyfriend.1 Step by step she gains some freedom, but still, her options are very limited: While Rory leaves to study at Yale, Lane can decide only between some Adventist colleges and has to spend her summer in Adventist camps. Admittedly, there would be really more to tell about the Kims and their personal and religious developments later on, but a core narrative is obvious: If religion is taken seriously, it’s not fun at all but rather backward and a hindrance to common needs. This underlines the message given in the rare other depictions of religion: Leading a religious life restricts it adherents as well as everybody else affected. Life can be easy, comfortable and fun only if nobody – not even religious authorities – take religion too seriously.

In this regard, yet another observation seems worth noticing: While the series has been praised for its progressive attitude towards women equality and gender issues, other topoi of discrimination are not addressed. The town is quite homogeneous regarding ethnic groups, i.e. it is all western & white – except for the Korean Kims. So the strange habit of being religious is also assigned to the foreigners; and here, religion is not a resource, but clearly an obstacle for them to integrate themselves in the town community and the American way of life at all.

In the years since the first seven seasons, the world around Stars Hollow has changed. While evangelical and charismatic traditions may still be most present in US-American everyday life, public discourses are rather coined by the presence of other traditions, e.g. Islam. We will see if the upcoming episodes will update the ever-idyllic Stars Hollow.

AN

  1. This article refers mainly to the first 4 seasons of the series, since the author is still in the process of (re-)binging it. Expecially regarding the Kim family, things get a lot more complicated in later episodes in terms of religion. Please feel free to provide a follow-up article! []

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