The utopian, careless world of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”

to all the boys i've loved before
Ameena Golding/Staff

I
n the New York Times, Jenny Han describes the obstacles she faced trying to get an Asian-American actress cast in the movie adaption of her YA novel, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”: “One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter.” Han replied, “Well, her spirit is Asian-American.”

Han’s simple refutation moved me. In my junior year of high school, my English teacher recommended I watch John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles” on my 16th birthday. I finished the movie incensed, mortified and nauseated by Long Duk Dong’s grotesque character — a sex-crazed, emasculated caricature of Asian men. Ever since, I’ve avoided romantic comedies, but the night after I read the article Han penned for the New York Times, I decided to watch “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” on Netflix.

And what a spirit the 16-year-old, Korean-American protagonist of the movie, Lara Jean, has. She’s portrayed by Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor as shy yet quietly confident. Rather than confess her feelings to the five crushes she’s had, Lara Jean writes each of them an unsent love letter and lives out her romantic life through romance-novel-fueled fantasies. Yet she’s open about her fear of the emotional risks an actual relationship entails and her love for bodice-rippers. In other words, Lara Jean is not your stereotypically demure, robotic Asian-American girl.

When Lara Jean’s letters get mysteriously sent to the guys they’re addressed to, Peter (Noah Centineo), one of the five recipients, convinces Lara Jean to pose as his fake girlfriend. Soon the situation spirals, pulling in ex-girlfriends, ex-best friends and ex-boyfriends of sisters. (If nothing else, watching this movie will make you recall the vague incestuousness of high school relationships.)   

Where the plot is cliched and predictable, the leading characters are not. Just as Lara Jean slips out of the constraints of Asian-girl femininity, Peter avoids idealizing stoic, callous masculinity.

As many other articles have expressed, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is a good, near-revelatory rom-com. Where the plot is cliched and predictable, the leading characters are not. Just as Lara Jean slips out of the constraints of Asian-girl femininity, Peter avoids idealizing stoic, callous masculinity.

The movie is also warped, however, by a baffling carelessness. There are the minor (though no less blatant) missteps, such as making Lara Jean such a bad driver that this ineptitude nearly becomes a plot point.

Then, there is the more wryly ironic obliviousness. The story is set in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, a city known for its quirkiness and progressiveness. It’s also oftentimes called “the whitest city in America,” as well as one of the most historically and currently racist. The Portland Lara Jean lives in, though, isn’t one in which a driver rants at an Asian woman, accusing her of being an “illegal.” It’s not the Portland in which there was housing discrimination against the Black community and Asian-Americans. It’s not the Portland in which white patients refused care from an Asian-American ER doctor. And as hostile as Portland can be to Asian-Americans, it is much more so to other minorities, most notably Black people.

In shots of Lara Jean’s neighborhood, seemingly customized, sprawling houses and flourishing greenery line the wide streets. There is a sweet, expansive airiness to both the outside and inside space, disclosing none of the oppressiveness and reflexive self-consciousness that pressed into me during my childhood in a predominantly white suburb. Indeed, nothing is discussed, directly or indirectly, about Lara Jean’s or her sisters’ experience growing up Asian-American with a white father and Asian mother. The only aspects of Lara Jean’s Asian-ness that are allowed into the movie are already mainstream, familiar aspects of Korean culture: In the beginning of the movie, Lara Jean’s dad attempts to prepare an unspecified, dubiously Korean meal, and toward the end, Lara Jean indulges in Korean face masks with her friend. The Portland suburb Lara Jean lives in, then, is a utopic, postracial one. In almost all ways except for in appearance, Lara Jean is whitewashed.

Seeing an Asian-American girl’s exteriority and interiority be valued and normalized soothed something inside of me. After all, representation in movies can have myriad impacts — but we can’t be satisfied with representation in only its easiest, most superficial form.

By situating an Asian-American heroine in the center of this suburban setting, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” attempts to subvert the dominating whiteness of ‘80s and ‘90s rom-coms. This metacommentary is made more explicit in a scene in which Lara Jean and Peter watch “Sixteen Candles,” Lara Jean’s favorite movie. When Peter asks if Long Duk Dong is an offensive character, Lara Jean bluntly answers in the affirmative. Yet — “Why are you even asking that question?” Kitty, Lara Jean’s little sister pipes up. “Hello, Jake Ryan!” she exclaims, referring to the white male lead of “Sixteen Candles.” Lara Jean says nothing.

Once “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” asserts the desirability of white men at the expense of Asian men, as other articles have also noted, it becomes impossible to ignore another phenomenon in the movie’s utopic world: There are no Asian men love interests. With the exception of queer, Black Lucas, all of Lara Jean’s five crushes are white. In fringe online forums with a barely tamped down “incel” bent, a growing number of Asian-American men spew their disgust and bitterness for WMAF (white male/Asian female) relationships. Asian women in these relationships are “white worshipping,” “self hating” and have “internalized racism against Asian men.” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is exactly the kind of movie they resent most.  

Of course, most people can agree that no one is allowed to police women’s bodies and sexualities or to feel as though they have a right to them. We can acknowledge this and simultaneously be empathetic to marginalized groups of people who feel sexually and romantically undesirable and ignored. Media — from anti-Asian cartoons in the 19th and 20th centuries to Steve Harvey’s talk show to “Sixteen Candles” — is one of the primary perpetrators and influencers of this constructed hierarchy of desirability. It is necessary, then, to point out the blind spots of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” if only to ensure that these blind spots aren’t reproduced in the probable sequel.

This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hurt to find fault with the movie. Seeing an Asian-American girl’s exteriority and interiority be valued and normalized soothed something inside of me. After all, representation in movies can have myriad impacts — but we can’t be satisfied with representation in only its easiest, most superficial form. One day, maybe, we’ll be able to criticize movies with Asian-American leads without feeling as though we were committing an act of personal and communal betrayal. Then, I think, we’ll have achieved true representation.

  

Contact Angela Yin at [email protected]