by Sophia Stephens
When I finally saw To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Netflix’s highly-anticipated teen rom-com adaptation of Jenny Han’s 2014 novel of the same name, I did not fall in love. Instead, I felt a growing unease that left me feeling incredibly uncomfortable by the supposed “happily ever after” conclusion of the film.
For those who have not seen the film, here’s a rundown of the plot (spoilers ahead): 16-year-old half-Korean, half-Caucasian Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) has a thriving romantic imagination from her collection of novels, but has yet to have a real-life relationship of her own. However, over the years, she has written several addressed letters to past crushes—five in total—that she keeps in a teal box from her late mother.
Lara’s younger sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) decides to secretly mail out Lara’s feelings and kick-start her true-life chance at love… and that’s where the problems begin.
Since its August 17th release, the film has been praised for featuring mixed-race Asian-Caucasian characters. It has also been critiqued on multiple points, mainly on the observations that there are no Asian boys featured as Lara Jean’s romantic interests, and the tokenization of the film’s only other speaking character of color outside of Lara Jean’s family—her former crush Lucas James (Trezzo Mahoro). Lucas, who is Black and gay, has a minor role in the film that mostly centers his sexuality as a point of comment for other characters.
However, what upset me the most was seeing a storyline that sees Lara Jean initially positioned as a pawn between Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) and his ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac), Lara Jean’s ex-best friend from middle school.
For me, seeing a character of color forced to be the middleman between the feelings of two White people isn’t representation worth celebrating. Instead of enjoying a story about a young mixed race Asian girl falling in love for the first time, I instead felt confused and hurt as I realized that this story wasn’t as original or uplifting as it was initially made out to be.
One trope that is common with portrayals of Asian women, especially when there are romantic ties involved, is that they are wily, cunning, and able to “trick” men into having a relationship with them—an example of this is the Asian gold-digger who marries a White man (often much, much older) for his money and a green card.
Although Lara Jean enters the contract of her own will, this mechanism is reminiscent of an incredibly racist stereotype. When Lara Jean and Peter get together, she is treated with suspicion and ridicule for getting together with the most popular boy in school—people don’t see or treat her as a viable or valid partner for Peter, nor does he (at first). This plot device reinforces the notion that Asian women simply cannot fall in love—or have someone fall in love with them—without having an ulterior motive or a trick up their sleeve.
Consistent portrayals of Asian girls and women using everything under the sun except their true feelings to gain a partner isn’t positive or original, no matter how it is packaged. Asian girls and women are enough as they are, deserve healthy relationships based on love and communication, and are also deserving of seeing those things be reflected back at them.
Lara Jean’s treatment throughout the film directly speaks to the need for children of color to be encouraged in being assertive, upfront, and clear about their needs and desires, especially when they are beginning to experience romantic feelings for the first time.
This film has been very popular and it may be worth watching with your child, as long as you can view it critically. When talking to your child about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, make sure to communicate that while everything does work out by the movie’s end, unhealthy boundaries, lack of communication, hiding your feelings, and allowing others to take advantage of you does not lead to those results in the real world—especially when you are a person of color.
Here are some questions to guide your conversation:
Do you think Lara Jean is treated fairly by Peter?
How does Lara Jean communicate—or not communicate—her feelings? What would you have done in her shoes?
Do you think that Lara Jean and Peter have a healthy relationship?
Do you think Lara Jean would have found love if she hadn’t drawn up a contract with Peter?
Would you have put up with everything that Lara Jean went through to be with someone like Peter?
Have you watched this movie? What did you think of it? Did any interesting discussion come up for you?