The APAHM Project Day 17: To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Film: To All The Boys I've Loved Before
Directed by: Susan Johnson
Where to Watch: Netflix
Why it Made the List:
In August of 2018, we got 4 movies that starred AAPI: Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, Running for Grace, and To All The Boys I've Loved Before. We have covered 3 of these movies in 2020's APAHM Project and even covered CRA twice, but TATBILB has never been included. TATBILB follows a high school girl named Lara Jean as she finds herself in a fake dating situation that also happens to be her first love.
If you think I have been excluding TATBILB all these years because I dislike the movie, you'd be dead wrong. I LOVE this movie. I have maybe seen it more times than CRA, cuddled up in a blanket with a hot cup of tea after a long day. And maybe it's my love for this movie that made me afraid to write about it.
Which is very on-brand for Lara Jean. Lara Jean Song-Covey, played by Lana Condor, is the protagonist of this movie series. She is a 16-year-old, half-Korean, half-white American girl who lives in her own romanticized version of the world. She has such strong emotions and loves to read about love stories, but in reality, she's scared of being with someone because she is afraid to lose them (her mother had passed away about 10 years ago). When she likes a boy, she writes them a love letter instead of expressing her emotions directly. But when the letters are accidentally sent out to her crushes, one of which is her sister's ex-boyfriend, she arranges a fake dating scheme with love letter recipient Peter Kavinsky. Of course, LJ and Peter eventually fall in love and they live happily ever after.
This plot seems so played out. Fake dating is a trope that is used time and time again. And yet, this movie is so refreshing. The characters are all very likable and the music choices are A+. I loved all of Lara Jean's outfits (I now I own wayyyy more scrunchies that I care to admit thanks to this movie) and the chemistry between Lana and Noah Centineo is off the charts. Plus, the framing and use of color is unnecessary but much appreciated for a high school rom-com flick.
But here is why I love this movie so much. Lara Jean is the first character that I have truly related to on screen who looks like me. I thought when I saw CRA for the first time that I related to Rachel. And in many ways, I did. It's one thing to relate to someone's situation and another to seriously say "that character is me." Lara Jean and I share a lot of surface-level similarities: obviously our initials/nickname, our love of sweets, our feminine sense of style, our love for our sister(s) and family. Lara Jean is seen as the quiet and innocent type to those who don't know her and I've been called a goody two shoes pretty much my whole life. Lara Jean also loves artsy things, like scrapbooks, stationery, and DIY projects. She chooses to escape through books, and I through movies and TV (although I do love a good book). We both like rom-coms and reruns of The Golden Girls. And yes, we both have staying in on Friday night and watching TV instead of going out in common too.
Even though Lara Jean is 16, I related to a lot of her internal thoughts and struggles as a woman in her late-20s (yikes, late?!) I agree that it's easier to fantasize about love and relationships. It's clear that even though Lara Jean is afraid, she also has some trust issues (i.e, skeptical of Peter's intentions and doesn't trust him with her phone, etc.) and has a hard time letting people into her life. Lara Jean claims that she doesn't think any guy has ever liked her "in that way" and Peter calls BS. Lara Jean's crush, Josh, liked and dated her sister instead of her. When something like that happens, you can't help but think there is something wrong with you or that you are unwanted. I've had many guys like my friends over me. And it really hurt back then because I would ask myself "what does she have that I don't? We're friends, so we're similar."
After Lara Jean finds out that Peter went to his ex's hotel room after she and Peter had confessed their true feelings for each other, she tells Peter that she is "tired of being second best or fake best." LJ is second to her sister and to Peter's ex. And this is a feeling I have had for years. I am the youngest of two. Growing up, my parents usually would get excited about whatever new thing my sister did because whatever I did they had already experienced through her. All my friends have S/O's that they choose to do things with which is totally understandable. Even my dog prefers my mom over me. It's incredibly hard to feel like you are not the priority in someone's life. But the thing I have to remember is to prioritize myself. Lara Jean has a heart-to-heart with her dad after her breakup with Peter where he reminds her to not hide true self from the world and that Peter helped her to open up and be the person that she is with him and her sisters.
When I finished watching the third movie, there was this pang in my heart. Down to one of the last scenes in the movie, where Peter retells the story of how he and Lara Jean met all those years ago in middle school...her hair was stuck in the chair and he helped her. The amount of hair that I have lost to school chairs in grade school could probably be enough to make a wig, I swear. I mean, I have never EVER seen myself in a character like I did with Lara Jean Song-Covey.
Additionally, the film has Janel Parrish (Pretty Little Liars) and Anna Cathcart and is littered with subtle Asian traits such as Josh taking his shoes off before coming into the Covey house (this tidbit is later negated when Margot climbs under Lara Jeans covers with her dirty shoes on), Yakult, and the girls having house slippers on the front porch. The sequels continue with the references and even includes Korean Lunar New Year traditions and an quote from Lara Jean who explains that when she was in Korea, everyone looked to her like she should speak Korean.
I have seen several critics and viewers call out a few things in the the TATB films as well as Jenny Han's other project The Summer I Turned Pretty such as why is Lara Jean half-Korean instead of full Korean (we discuss what it means to be "Asian enough" in APAHM Project 2020, Day 9 and Day 30)? Why doesn't she go by Song-Covey? Why excuse that Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles is racist but it's okay because Jake Ryan is hot? Why do these Asian female leads fall for white boys? People are allowed to fall in love with whoever they choose, but it is interesting that Han has never had Lara Jean be interested in Asian guys of "all the boys" she's loved. Trevor is played by Ross Butler in the sequel who ends up with Lara Jean's best friend. John Ambrose, who is described as having hair the color of corn and blue eyes in the book, is played by Jordan Fisher. Lucas is played by Black actor Trezzo Mahoro. Casting took the liberty to diversify all these characters but the source material has them all as white males, which lends itself to the controversy that white men are often seen as desirable and superior to other races and that Asian men are not seen as sexy. However, Asian, Black and Latina women are all hypersexualized. This article points out examples across multiple titles, and while I find some examples to be a bit harsh, they are an Asian male who, again, are being told they are not desirable. Their point of view is obviously different than my own. We have seen the Asian woman wanted by non-Asian men but we don't often see the opposite side of that. All of these are very valid critiques and I think it definitely opens up the narrative, as well as the opportunity, to do better in the future.
Clearly I could write my own love letter to Jenny Han thanking her for a character like Lara Jean. Lana Condor was the perfect casting choice. You never really know what it feels like to be represented until it actually happens. It is a feeling that I can't describe and I wonder if this is how other people feel all the time when they see a character like them. Han explained in an interview "People didn't understand why the main character needed to be Asian. I explained to them that it wasn't that she needed to be Asian, it's that she was. ... There doesn't need to be 'a point' to her being Asian. She just is." I didn't do much research into any studios giving Han push-back on making Lara Jean white or not, but I'm glad that she stuck to her story and her character and made sure Lara Jean was Asian. I am excited to see what themes are covered in the spin-off series XO, Kitty which premieres on Netflix tomorrow!
Small Business Shout Out!
Here's a small business shout out I'm sure Lara Jean would appreciate. Peach and Lily skincare was founded by Korean-American esthetician Alicia Yoon. Not only is LJ a big skincare fanatic but the packaging also comes in the cutest peachy-pink color! I have been loving their glass skin serum and vitamin C serum, as well as their matcha pudding moisturizer. My skin really broke out from wearing a mask on hot summer days on set for hours. It has been a slow process, but I really think Peach and Lily's products have made such a difference. Additionally, Yoon makes a good point that many cosmetic and beauty brands were not vocal about Asian Hate although they draw inspiration from Asian practices and pop culture (looking at you, Colourpop). It is nice to know that Peach and Lily wants to use their business as a platform to condemn racism and discrimination against Asians. Be sure to check them out at www.peachandlily.com or at an Ulta store near you!
If You Liked This, You Might Like:
Never Have I Ever on Netflix
Dash and Lily on Netflix
Love Hard on Netflix