Chin: To All The Rom-Coms I've Loved Before
The joy of fantasy shouldn't conceal questions of representation.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is corny but good — a throwback to “Sixteen Candles” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” unlike what its misleadingly poetic title might suggest. Most of the online hype praises the film for including an Asian female lead while still remaining accessible to other audiences. It delves into high school issues to which other girls can relate — popularity or lack thereof, embarrassing gossip, complicated family situations, teen angst.
Still, racial identity is a present theme, both explicitly and implicitly. Lara Jean, the film’s lead, questions her dad’s ability to make Korean food. And the way Lara Jean interacts with other white characters often carries a racial undertone. Both boys and girls refer to her as innocent and cute, two monikers stereotypically applied to Asian women. Her dedication to her studies, emotional distance and insistence upon keeping a contract for her fake relationship walk the line between relatability and reductive caricatures. Even her alienation seems racially charged, as she and other people of color in the film (such as the gay, African-American boy she kissed in middle school) are portrayed as being lower on the social ladder.
All in all, the show has generally been praised by empowering Asian women. Yes, an Asian woman of color can be the lead in a broadly relatable romantic comedy. Yes, an Asian woman — or outcast of any sort — can be the object of desire. But the two male leads in this love triangle are white men. Not only that, but they are two white men straight from the two most popularized desirable male stereotypes — the all-American jock and the frail, sensitive softboy who probably listens to Mac Demarco on his Crosley record player. On the one hand, “To All the Boys” sends the message that women of color and women that fit in can retain their oddities and still coexist with (and even please) the mainstream. On the other hand, it perpetuates the idea that a woman of color’s fantasy is and should be appealing to cisheteronormative white men.
This model isn’t new. You see it in “Full Metal Jacket.” You see it in “The Quiet American.” You even see it in “The World of Suzie Wong.” In these “historically important” American movies, an Asian woman with relatively low social power desires an American man with high social standing — a GI, a diplomat, or a wealthy traveler. “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which at least problematizes some of these power imbalances and demonstrates the female lead’s agency, nonetheless replicates this unsettling model of race and gender relations at the high school level.
While on the one hand “To All the Boys” is a replication of racial archetypes in older films, it’s also a replication of rom-com cliches. More specifically, it extends rom-com cliches by adding a racial element to the outcast girl archetype in the lead role. This archetype is best described by Molly Ringwald in — well, in mostly all of her roles — but particularly in “Pretty in Pink.” With few friends but a slightly creepy Duckie, vintage outfits made from scrap fabrics, and “A-side” female cliques picking on her constantly, the character Andie is made to look like a loser. Lara Jean is similarly lonely save for a goth sidekick and sad boy pal, gets a snide comment from a popular girl about her vintage boots and even has a similarly quirky and androgynous nickname (Largie).
But what makes this loser role unique to the rom-com genre is not the overtly loser qualities, but the ask for the audience to suspend disbelief. Aside from the actress’s rather conventional beauty, the character attracts the attention of one of the most popular guys in school. Similarly, Lara Jean attracts the star lacrosse player and, once she literally lets her hair down, attracts stares from multiple people meant to suggest her beauty. For many young girls who feel like outcasts, a hairstyle change is not always enough for social acceptance. Yet why is acceptance something to aspire to? These narratives allow the viewers to experience a fantasy of normalcy, and how life might feel much easier that way. Such narratives delicately balance creating lighthearted fantasies and encouraging shame for difference, racial or otherwise.
Her triumphant declaration that she had “always fantasized about falling in love in a field” as she kisses Peter on the stadium turf is self-explanatory; it is a fantasy. Romantic comedies are enjoyable precisely because they play not to our deepest desires, but perhaps to their simplest desires. This particular subset of romantic comedies markets to an audience of girls who sometimes feel like outcasts. Instead of sending the message that it is okay to be different, they act as wish-fulfillments and allow viewers to imagine what it would be like to be accepted by mainstream society — represented by the metonym of all-American lacrosse player, Peter. Not only does this seem to be a wish-fulfillment of social belonging, but also one of racial belonging. But as David Eng and Shinhee Han note in “Racial Melancholia,” assimilation is unattainable despite (or because of) the ambivalence with which it is met.
Sometimes, these seemingly uncomplicated narratives are fun to enjoy. But it is important to not let a fantasy of representation obscure the difference between progress and perpetuation, and to both enjoy and critique the ways in which representation occurs.