To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: Why Subtlety May be Better Than Directness
Following the box office hit that is Crazy Rich Asians, discourse on diversity in Hollywood has been reignited and now with Netflix’s new To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Asian representation has been placed at the forefront of the ongoing conversation.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on the novel of the same name by Korean-American author Jenny Han; it is a reimagined version of your classic American teen high school romance. The story centres around sixteen-year-old half Korean half American Lara-Jean (played by Lana Condor) who finds that she must confront five boys to whom she wrote and addressed love letters to throughout the years. However, when they are mailed out without her knowledge – cue the typical yet always enjoyable tropes of teen love- drama and a smidge of unnecessary misunderstanding ensue.
It would seem that Han’s refusal to white-wash her Asian-American protagonist is the primary reason the film adaptation of her novel has been receiving so much praise, not to mention the timeless appeal of the ‘hot jock’ character, Peter Kavinsky (played by Noah Centineo), whose role in the film has propelled him to twitter heartthrob status. While the plot is not particularly revolutionary, the fact that a genre of film so classically integral to American Hollywood stars multiple Asian characters is where the revolution is really happening. The way the film quietly incorporates Lara-Jean and her sisters’ Korean heritage into small aspects of their lives establishes them as distinctly both Asian and American. Scenes like the one where Lara-Jean's white father attempts, and fails miserably, to recreate her mother’s traditional food, illustrates a mixed cultural experience every person of colour living in the West today can relate to.
The film's light-hearted genre allows it to handle it's characters' heritage with subtlety and tact. Too frequently in American cinema, the types of films with the highest diversity ratios are those that require people of colour to fulfil a racially insensitive role, usually one that serves no purpose but to glorify or prop up the white protagonist. From ‘slave’ movies directed by white people to wildly islamophobic political thrillers, these films and television series' tend to garner the most critical acclaim due to their gritty, hard-hitting subject matters. Watching Homeland’s Claire Danes and her team of patriots, for example, try to save America from the ‘national security threat’ that is angry bearded brown men in traditional attire, does nothing but perpetuate the ignorant stereotype that Muslim people are a threat to national security. This, however, does not seem to obstruct the fact that Homeland has an entire Wikipedia article dedicated to the multiple prestigious awards it has received. It is also true that by virtue of its plot, it has a surprisingly high concentration of POC characters. Does this mean, then, that a higher ratio of diverse characters translates to better representation? Evidently not.
Representation is just that: representation. It is about how POC characters are represented, not how many are featured. You could take the direct approach to representation: for instance, the stark absence of authentic and native stories from the Western cultural sphere calls for in-your-face jam-packed POC projects like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, films that are loud, unapologetic celebrations of their respective cultures. However, a quiet, subtle celebration does the job just as well. To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before does not revolve around Lara-Jean’s Asianness, and that’s ok. By centring narratives that are painfully relatable (like the plot of a good old-fashioned rom-com) around protagonists of colour normalises them into the American or, more generally, Western mainstream cultural landscape. What Lara-Jean goes through could happen to anyone, her story is universally applicable, and yet it still maintains flavours of her native culture that are specific to only Asians or Asian-Americans. And that too is ok.
If nothing else, the way To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has successfully permeated every nook and cranny of the internet and, at the very least, serves as an exemplar as to why producers should not be afraid of ostracising their white audiences by casting POC protagonists. And that is always a win in the continuous battle for better representation.
To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is available now on Netflix.
[Photo Credits: Gage Skidmore - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0]