I’ve always loved classic, John Hughes-esque teen rom coms, but they reduced their Asian characters to stereotypes and sidekicks – until now
“Isn’t this character – Long Dong Duk, or whatever – kinda racist?” Peter Kavinsky, the main love interest in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before asks when Lara Jean Song Covey makes him watch her favourite film, John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles. “Not kind of,” she answers matter-of-factly, “extremely racist.” But still, she says, she and her little sister love it. Why? “Hellooo – Jake Ryan, duh.”
The implication is, cute boys > racist stereotypes. For a while, my younger, less woke self bought into the same formula. Like Emma Stone’s character in Easy A, I wanted my life to be a John Hughes film, with Jake from Sixteen Candles waiting outside the church for me, or Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club thrusting his fist into the air because he knows he got me. In my head, I was always Molly Ringwald – but it was an uncomfortable realisation that, to everyone else watching, my closest equivalent was Long Duk Dong – the bizarre Chinese exchange student who is the constant butt of the joke. It was as though, to get the happy ending I wanted, I had to also accept this version of myself that was funny because they were undesirable. To All the Boys…, a new Netflix adaptation of Jenny Han’s acclaimed young adult novel, changes this.
For once, in Lara Jean (played beautifully by Vietnamese-American actress, Lana Condor – Hollywood, please take note!), I could see myself as the Molly Ringwald in a teen film – no longer the sidekick, or the best friend who’s really good at maths, or worse, the one unnecessarily played by Scarlett Johansson. At the same time, in the film, no unnecessary fanfare is made of Lara Jean’s heritage. Unlike Long Duk Dong, whose Asianness is literally announced with a gong sound at every mention of his name (I wish I was joking), Lara Jean’s Asianness is, refreshingly, not her defining feature. It’s incidental, shown in little details like her dad (played by Aidan from Sex and The City!) trying, badly, to cook Korean food like his children’s late mum, or cutie Peter trekking all the way to the Asian supermarket across town to get her favourite Korean yogurt drinks.
Having been on the receiving end of a lot of yellow fever in my life (guys who only found me attractive because they had a clear Asian fetish), I couldn’t help but watch Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship develop with a wary eye. Had she been more kawaii, or had the story made more of her race, I would’ve been ready to switch off. But To All the Boys... treats Lara Jean like any other multi-layered romantic lead – the fact she’s Asian-American is a welcome added bonus, outside the world of the film itself.
“To All the Boys... treats Lara Jean like any other multi-layered romantic lead – the fact she’s Asian-American is a welcome added bonus”
By no means is To All the Boys… perfect, but it’s a good start in the right direction. Your cultural identity is both your heritage and the environment you were raised in; collective cultural touchstones form points of connection and belonging. Being a hyphenate like Lara Jean (I’m British-Taiwanese, to her Korean-American), there was always a disjoint in where I wanted to see myself, and where I actually found myself. Though I could look to Asian dramas to find the characters that looked like me, the social constructs I found myself in and related to – being raised in the west – were vastly different.
As cliché as they are, the pervasive power of high school mythologies that shape classic films like Hughes’ is undeniable. Lara Jean’s entire concept of romance comes from a tiny detail from the opening of Sixteen Candles: couples walking with their hands in each other’s back pockets. The film itself is full of Hughes references, from the slow clap to the grand, sweeping final shot of a football field. (Not to mention all the cult teen movie moments that author Jenny Han filmed the cast re-creating behind the scenes.) This imagery, and the use of these cultural touchstones, places Condor firmly within the western teen rom com canon. Seeing her recreate age-old rom com magic with Peter is a powerful image: the popular boy is shown to want someone other than the pretty, white, all-American girl. For the longest time, this kind of story was just a fantasy for me – like Lara Jean when she imagines herself in the trashy romance novels she reads. Now, with To All the Boys…, this gap between fantasy and reality is closing. And I’m here for it.