"To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before": Minorities Out of the Margin

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is a teenage romantic comedy that Netflix released on its streaming service in August 2018. The plot of the movie doesn’t stray too far from its rom-com predecessors — think “10 Things I Hate About You,” “A Cinderella Story” or “13 Going on 30.” It follows your average high school girl, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), who writes secret love letters to the five boys she’s ever loved. Without her knowledge, her letters are mailed out, and Lara Jean must deal with their effects on her romantic, social and family life. It’s the classic girl-doesn’t-expect-to-fall-in-love-with-asshole-popular-boy-but-does-anyway movie.

Despite (or maybe because of) the warm and fuzzy clichés, this movie is worth seeing and one that I wish had come out during my childhood. The film balances the romantic tropes that we all know and love with the diversity that reflects American teenage life today. Lara Jean comes from a biracial family — her mother, who passed away, was Korean, and her father is white. The cast reflects this background. Condor was born in Vietnam and adopted by white American parents, while Janel Parrish, who plays her older sister, is also an Asian American of half-Chinese and half-white descent.

The character of Lara Jean is revolutionary for Asian-American women and hopefully other women of color for a few reasons. The first is that she is the protagonist. In my childhood, every protagonist in a romantic comedy — or in any genre, really— has been white, skinny and, 80 percent of the time, blonde. We think racial bias is a thing of the past, but Jenny Han, the author of the novel which the film is based off of, had to fight claims that an Asian-American lead would not sell. It is so refreshing to see someone who looks like me finally get a love story of her own. The second is that Lara Jean is average. In media, the Asian woman is either a cartoon, the token Asian friend or extraordinary abnormal. She’s hyper-sexual and bitchy (Ling Woo in “Ally McBeal”), an airhead (London in “Suite Life of Zack and Cody”) or asexual (Lane Kim and Mrs. Kim in “Gilmore Girls”). These characters made me physically cringe and shut off the TV in frustration.

Lara Jean is the first character that we can relate to — she shows us that you can be Asian and American at the same time. She has crushes on boys, makes cookies for her school’s bake sale and goes to parties thrown by the lacrosse team. Her life is one of teenage confusion, which most American girls can relate to. Simultaneously, the film makes nods to Asian-American life. For example, Lara Jean’s younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) complains about how she misses their mother’s Korean food. The sisters’ mourning for their mother also leads to a scramble to figure out how they can preserve their identity in the face of tragedy. The sisters pursue “normal” American lives, but also deal with the identity politics that exist for most American teens today. In fact, it tells us that thinking about your identity is the new normal.

Another example where this film references Asian-American identity is when the school’s popular lacrosse player, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), picks up Lara Jean and Kitty for school. Taking a sip of Kitty’s Yakult, he is pleasantly surprised. For reference, Yakult is a Japanese yogurt drink that comes packaged in small plastic cartons with a red seal at the top. It’s oddly watery and sugary, and you can’t get enough of it — there is no American equivalent that I’ve come across. I found myself smiling when, at the end of the movie, Peter confesses driving across town to an Asian supermarket to buy Yakult for Lara Jean. Partly because it was romantic, but more importantly, because it was relatable. The scene made me start reminiscing on the hot summers when I would squeeze those tiny plastic bottles for the last drop of Yakult. The magic is in the details, and the movie’s reference to my and many other Asian Americans’ favorite childhood drink touched me in a way few movies ever did.

Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship is also groundbreaking. He gives Lara Jean the love that she, and so many other women of color, deserve but seldom receive in popular media. The movie normalizes the idea that women of color are not inferior or to be fetishized. Peter treats Lara Jean with respect for who she is as a person — and that includes her identity. The movie also dispels the notion that women of color have some sort of obligation to end up with men of the same racial background.

One of the most glaring examples of this idea is Dionne from “Clueless.” Despite having an amazing sense of style and being stunningly beautiful, Dionne is subject to being Cher’s crony. It is assumed that she will end up with a black man, namely her boyfriend Murray, while Cher and Tai are assumed to end up with white boys. Dionne’s the token black friend, so of course she will end up with the one black boy in the movie.

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” breaks this “stay in your lane” mentality that is infused with subtle racism and xenophobia. Watching Peter and Lara Jean validated my own experiences of crushing on all kinds of boys: Asian, white, biracial, black, Latino, the list goes on and on. At the same time, it’s important to note that women of color have no obligation to be with white men, either. The racial politics of picking a partner are complex, often oppressive and depend on each person’s experiences.

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” gracefully teases some of this complexity out. It is not the perfect movie (in my book, the dad would also be Asian, but I was #TeamAidan from “Sex and the City” so I’ll let it slide), but it would be absurdly unfair to expect one movie to address all of my childhood qualms. And ironically, the most radical thing about the movie is that it doesn’t claim to be “the Asian-American coming-of-age story.” Of course, we need films like those, and “Crazy Rich Asians” does a fantastic job of making the statement. But we also need movies that tell us that we’re just like anybody else, deserving of love and recognition for who we are. In the world of the movie, it is matter of fact that an Asian teenage girl experiences the same heart-throbbing love that a white girl would — that she is equally deserving and equally multi-dimensional in her teenhood, if not more so.