More than three weeks after its release, there’s still a lot of online buzz about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. There are talks of a potential sequel, Twitter and Reddit users are renaming the movie based on their own high-school experiences, Yakult—the yogurt shown in the film—is flying off the shelves, and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) is now, officially, the internet’s boyfriend. Netflix’s popular romantic comedy, based on Jenny Han’s bestselling 2014 novel, follows half-Korean, half-white teenager Lara Jean (Lana Condor) after the five love letters she wrote (but never sent) to boys she’s crushed on are mysteriously mailed to them. Hilarity ensues when Lara Jean begins “dating” Kavinsky to make his ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac) jealous and keep her sister’s ex-boyfriend Josh (Israel Broussard) at arm’s length after he receives one of her letters.
By all accounts, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before appears to be a win for Asian American representation: Condor is one of the few Asian women, outside of Constance Wu and Parminder Nagra, to be cast as the lead love interest in an American romantic comedy. Plus, Kavinsky doesn’t demand Lara Jean’s love; he earns her affection through respect and high-level, albeit unrealistic, emotional maturity and intelligence. Yet many Asian American men and women feel that the film doesn’t truly represent them because none of Lara Jean’s love interests are Asian American. Recently, ProAsian Voices started the #AsianLove campaign because “the phenomenon of white men-Asian women couplings” is so pervasive in media.
In an accompanying blog post, writer Ji Xian argued that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before “framed whiteness as ideal” by not having Lara Jean send a single letter to an Asian American man. Given Hollywood’s long history of emasculating Asian men, it’s understandable that Asian Americans desire better representation in love stories. Take, for instance, Sixteen Candles, John Hughes’s classic ’80s rom-com that racistly caricatured Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe) or white-savior movies like The World of Suzie Wong (1957) and Miss Saigon (1991) that have shown Asian men as villains who Asian women must be saved from. However, the criticism of Lara Jean’s love interests seems to be rooted in a double standard: It’s acceptable for Asian men’s stories to exclude Asian women, but the opposite is intolerable.
The very idea that every film featuring an Asian woman should include an Asian love interest reinforces the misguided notion that Asian women “belong” solely to Asian men. Recently, there’s been an increase in the number of Asian and Asian American male leads on TV and in film: Henry Golding in Crazy Rich Asians, Hayden Szeto in The Edge of Seventeen, Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick, Ryan Potter in Running for Grace, John Cho in ABC’s Selfie, Ricky He in the Disney Channel’s Freaky Friday, Vincent Rodriguez III in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Manny Jacinto in The Good Place, Sung Kang in the Fast and the Furious films, and Aziz Ansari in Master of None. Instead of being seen as meek, asexual, or controlling, these leading men are charming, funny, and desirable, which can change the tide for how Asians are perceived and treated onscreen and in real life.
Many of these TV shows and movies have been praised for their portrayal of Asian men, and were either never questioned for excluding Asian women as love interests or avoided the criticism altogether. Unlike the book’s author Jenny Han and the movie’s star, many of these Asian male showrunners and actors weren’t asked about their “responsibility” to include Asian women as romantic leads. In The Big Sick and Master of None, Asian women are stereotypically portrayed in salwars and fake accents, and they’re rejected by Kumail Nanjiani and Aziz Ansari’s characters, but Lara Jean is a different kind of Asian American character.
In the past, many westernized films often depicted Asian women as weak and submissive or as the overly sexualized Dragon Lady or Lady of the Night who must be rescued by a “white savior.” Those sort of portrayals have fueled fetishism and “yellow fever,” which according to the Japanese American Citizen’s League, “dehumanizes Asian women and contributes to a culture where sexual violence against Asian women is normalized.” Lara Jean doesn’t fall into any of these stereotypes; she and her sisters are average American teenagers who have messy rooms, uncomfortable encounters with classmates during lunch, and high-school crushes.
Lara Jean, who used to live in a fantasy, becomes the heroine of her own story by taking control of her emotions. After losing her mother, Lara Jean maintains a tight-knit circle of friends and family, and only really lives when she escapes into rom-coms and romance novels, but her all-for-show relationship with Kavinsky forces her to confront her feelings. Initially, Lara Jean begins retreating from the relationship “because if it wasn’t real, then I didn’t lose anyone,” but when she and Kavinsky have their first big fight, she realizes that hurt shouldn’t derail her ability to get close to new people. Their breakup forces her to confront the one thing she fears most—driving—and it also pushes her to finally express her feelings without fear of rejection.
Lara Jean doesn’t wait for Kavinsky to come crawling back to her. Instead, she drives her own chariot, as scary as it is, to win back the boy she loves. She doesn’t need a savior. She saves herself. Instead of being a supporting character who progresses the white protagonist’s storyline or being the token Asian character, Condor got to be the romantic lead in a movie where stereotypes are dispelled. Isn’t that a win worth celebrating, no matter who Lara Jean ends up dating? I recently interviewed John Cho for The Nerds of Color about when we’d see more Asian onscreen representation, and he said “We [as Asians] don’t dream big enough. We sort of feel that ceiling. So, our dreams go right before the ceiling—to the sprinklers. And, we don’t think above it.”
It has been so rare to see Asian or Asian American actors lead major Hollywood stories, especially rom-coms, but a new generation of movies is now following Cho’s advice and dreaming bigger with more diverse love stories. Now, thanks to films like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Edge of Seventeen, and Running from Grace, Asian American teenagers can see dimensional versions of themselves onscreen who are worthy of falling in love, no matter who they end up with.