Plenty of teenage romantic comedies employ the classic trope: the underdog heroine who, despite the jealous queen bee’s attempts at sabotage, wins the heart of the hunky jock. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before follows that formula to a tee, but for me, it still felt brand new. As an Asian-American taught to believe that I belonged on the sidelines of white women’s stories, watching the Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s novel showed me something I’d never seen before on screen: My 16-year-old self.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before tells the story of Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor), a shy 16-year-old who writes love letters to her crushes without intending to send them. Of course, all of them end up getting sent. Popular heartthrob Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) receives one, as does Josh Sanderson (Israel Broussard), who (yikes) is also Lara Jean’s older sister’s ex-boyfriend. Peter and Lara Jean scheme to “fake date” each other—Peter to make his ex-girlfriend, queen bee Genevieve (Emilija Baranac) jealous, and Lara Jean to keep Josh at arm’s length. As they open up to each other about, as Peter puts it, “real stuff,” like the loss of their parents, their relationship starts to get real.
Like Lara Jean, I was a quiet bookworm who felt safer staying invisible in high school, a complete personality foil to my best friend, *Claire. Claire had blonde hair, blue eyes, and an energetic personality. While she was by no means a queen bee, everyone wanted to be in her orbit. Guys had crushes on her, and girls competed for her friendship. I loved Claire, but I often felt like her shadow. When people flocked to her during lunch period, I stood off to the side, too scared to speak to anyone outside of my tiny circle of friends, especially guys. After school one day, I complained to my mom about how everyone seemed to look past me and gravitate to Claire.
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“Of course,” she responded. “It’s because she’s white.”
My mom, who immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when she was 17, told me that guys had overlooked her in favor of white girls, too. As problematic as it is, for my mother, it was a statement of fact — and it subsequently became a truth that I accepted, however deflated it made me feel. I resigned myself to my mother’s truth: My lack of a social or romantic life wasn’t because of my guardedness, low self-esteem or anything I could change. It was because I wasn’t white.
The dearth of Asian female leads on-screen reinforced this belief. Sure, Laney Boggs from She’s All That and Jamie Sullivan from A Walk to Remember could break through their shy, nerdy shells and steal the popular guy’s heart. But those storylines weren’t meant for girls who looked like me. Asian girls got to be the sidekicks now and then — the Lane Kim to Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls — but never the heroines. Watching Lara Jean felt surreal. I almost wanted to pinch myself during the house party scene, when Peter grabs Lara Jean’s scrunchie, saying she looks pretty with her hair down. Same thing goes for the scene when Lara Jean faces her fear of intimacy and actually opens up to Peter about her mom’s death. If you had told me at 16 that not only was I pretty, but I could have totally hit up a house party and expressed my innermost feelings to a crush, I would have laughed. Maybe I just needed to see someone like see me experiencing them, even in a movie, to take that idea seriously.
Watching To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 15 years ago wouldn’t have drastically changed my life, but it would have at least offered a counter-narrative to the one my mom, Hollywood and society in general perpetuated. It might have allowed me to imagine other possibilities for myself. Dating a popular white guy certainly isn’t a real way to validate your identity, but watching Lara Jean make herself vulnerable to Peter might have made it easier to imagine letting my own guard down.
As much as my 16-year-old self needed to see To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, my 31-year-old self needed to see it, too. The lump I felt in my throat watching someone who looks like me as the heroine was a reminder that it’s the type of love story I’m still not used to believing in — but one day, hopefully, I will.
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