This film, starring Lana Condor and Noah Centineo, told the story of a mixed race Asian teenager falling in love and became one of the streaming platform’s most popular original films. Its success has helped usher in a new and sorely needed era of diversity in the romantic comedy genre.
Cho Chang was really important to me growing up. God, how do I even begin to describe how important Cho Chang was to me growing up? There she was, someone to cling to in the vastness of the popular culture I consumed who, like me, was an Asian girl with a thick curtain of black hair just like mine. Someone who looked like me who, crucially, a mythical boy wizard might be interested in kissing.
I think of Cho Chang sometimes and how desperately I clung to her, even when I was much more interested in Hermione or Ginny or even Luna Lovegood. But I don’t look like them, no matter how much I wanted to. I don’t look like my other teen heroines Elizabeth Bennett, Nancy Drew or Katniss Everdeen either. So I think of Cho Chang and I think of Mulan and I think of Lane from Gilmore Girls, three characters who gave me a fizz of recognition every time I saw them onscreen or on the page. But I also think of how many years I spent making do with seeing myself only in secondary characters – an exception made for Mulan, of course – even though their lives and desires, their everythingness, really, was so small.
This is what it’s like to be a woman of colour craving representation in popular culture. I’m not surprised, then, that one of the most popular Netflix original films of all time is To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.
When I first saw the film in September 2018, on the weekend of its release, I remember thinking: Huh. I felt this warm, reflected glow, so much so that when the movie was over, I immediately rewatched it. And then I rewatched it again. I ended up seeing it five times that first weekend. (Drag me, Netflix press release, which described To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before as one of their most successful films with serious “rewatch potential”.) I’ve probably seen it [redacted] times since.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, whose sequel To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: PS I Still Love You is released this week, is a classic teen romantic comedy. It follows Lara Jean (Lana Condor), a shy schoolgirl who prefers writing secret love letters to her crushes instead of actually telling them how she feels.
But her life of invisibility is scuppered when those letters are accidentally delivered to their recipients, one of which is Josh, her older sister’s ex boyfriend. The other is Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), the tall, dark and extremely handsome high school heartthrob. In order to throw Josh off the scent, Lara Jean and Peter enter into a fake relationship, complete with its own set of rules and guidelines, all of which were designed to be broken. If you haven’t seen To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, I think you can probably guess what happens.
All good romantic comedies are a fantasy, and none more so than the high school romcom. We watch them precisely because they are fairytales, because they’re so puffed up on hope and wishes and dreams that if you let go of the string the whole thing will fly away. The success of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is the success of every romcom when it’s told with the right amount of sparkle and fizz. Girls are always just girls, standing in front of boys, asking them to love them. Even despite the confines of their fake relationship, Lara Jean’s confusion over Josh, and Peter’s extremely nosy ex girlfriend, their love finds a way.
This is a story that has been told so many times in romcoms that the genre has become something of a parody of itself. But the reason To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before succeeds and, say, The Perfect Date – another Netflix x Noah Centineo vehicle – doesn’t is because Lara Jean is an Asian woman.
Lara Jean’s Korean American mixed race heritage is an important part of the film and the original book series by Korean American author Jenny Han. Since the death of her Korean mother, Lara Jean’s white father tries to ensure that his daughters feel the ties to their Korean heritage. In PS I Still Love You, the Covey girls wear their hanboks, the traditional Korean dress, to a new year celebration with their grandparents. In an early scene in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Mr Covey (John Corbett) cooks his family a Korean meal.
Seeing these little moments of Asianness in a major Netflix movie matter, but what matters more is that Lara Jean’s Koreanness is not the sum total of who she is. Her Asianness is an important part of her, but it’s not the only one. Peter Kavinsky isn’t interested in her because she’s Asian, he’s interested in her because he wants to figure her out. Peter Kavinsky, the highschool heartthrob that every girl in the tri-state area has a crush on, doesn’t want to get into a hot tub with Lara Jean because she’s Asian, he wants to get into that hot tub with her because he can’t stop thinking about her.
When their relationship is tested, it’s tested not because of cultural clashes, but by the kind of stuff that has tested romcom heroes and heroines since the dawn of time. How do I really feel about this person? Will this person hurt me? Do I trust them enough to let them?
Unlike Cho Chang or Lane Kim, Lara Jean’s life has breadth and depth to it. It’s big and bold: by the time the second film rolls around it will have featured not merely one but three romantic interests. (Get it, Lara Jean.) To paraphrase another romcom – directed by a woman who, despite the ingenuity and quality of her work, rarely made space for people of colour in her films – Lara Jean isn’t the best friend, she’s the leading lady.
In that sense, Lara Jean is like any other romcom character – she just happens to be Asian. This is remarkable in a genre that has for so many years prioritised white stories over the ones of Asian, black and Latinx characters. But Lara Jean is just like Cher in Clueless, Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You and Molly in Booksmart. She wants the same things as those characters: to find someone who will love her just as she is, idiosyncrasies and all.
And that matters. Asian representation in cinema remains abysmal, even despite the mainstream success of films such as Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, Always Be My Maybe and the four-time Oscar winning film Parasite.
But visibility of Asian actors remains a perennial problem: none of the stars of The Farewell or Parasite were nominated at the 2020 Oscars, and media outlets frequently misname Asian actors in their reporting. As recently as 2015, major Hollywood directors believed that it was OK to cast white actors in Asian roles, which is how Emma Stone ended up in Aloha playing a Chinese Hawaiian character called Allison Ng. As recently as 2018, less than 1% of roles in major Hollywood movies were for Asian actors.
So it matters, then, that a major Netflix movie features an Asian woman in its lead role. It matters that she is shown to be as deserving of love as any leading lady. Lara Jean’s desires are as valid as every other heroine who has preceded her, every Cady Heron and Andie Walsh and Christine ‘Lady Bird’ Mcpherson. Lara Jean deserves to be the centre of attention, like every Asian girl. Like everyone.
In the original book series of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean bemoans the lack of Halloween costume ideas for Asian and mixed race teenagers. “There are very limited options for Asian girls on Halloween,” she says. “Like one year I went as Velma from Scooby-Doo, but people just asked me if I was a manga character.”
In case you were wondering about the importance of representation, cast your mind back to the Halloween after To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was released in September 2018. On social media and in real life you couldn’t miss them. There they were, dozens and dozens of women dressed up in a-line skirts and striped rollnecks, carting around novelty prop letters addressed to their very own Peter Kavinskys, grinning at the camera with the ecstatic expression of women who finally feel seen. There they were: a generation of Asian women who will grow up being able to think of themselves not as the Cho Chang of their own lives, but the Lara Jean. The leading lady.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before streams on Netflix now. The sequel PS I Still Love You streams on Netflix from 12 February.
Images: Netflix, Neon
Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.
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