To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: how Hollywood woke up to the Asian-American experience

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Netflix

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (TATBILB) has been hailed as the first mainstream teen romance to feature an Asian-American lead. The Netflix comedy revolves around Lara Jean Song-Covey, a Korean-American teenager whose life is turned upside down when her secret love letters are mysteriously posted to their subjects.

But TATBILB does not make Lara Jean’s ethnicity a focus or even a plot point. The fact that Lara Jean is Asian-American is a backdrop to the movie’s romcom plot. For me, a Chinese-American woman, that makes it a valuable contribution to Asian-American representation in the mainstream media.

While Hollywood has been increasingly courting Chinese markets, this does not necessarily mean increased Asian-American representation: most producers approached by the author of the book TATBILB is based on wanted to make Lara Jean white.

This happened with Crazy Rich Asians, too, the hugely popular romcom about a Chinese-American woman who discovers her fiancé is actually part of a mega-wealthy Singaporean family. Producers again wanted to make the lead character white. While a key component of CRA’s plot is the “reverse culture shock” felt by an Asian-American person travelling to Asia, TATBILB shows a different picture: that of an Asian-American living in a part of the US where there aren’t many other people who look like her, apart from her family.

Casual racism

I was born and grew up in the suburban Midwest of the United States. I have almost always lived and worked in majority white communities. Watching TATBILB, I wished I could go back and show the film to my 12-year-old self, who was always so acutely aware of my own racial identity.

At the time, I would not have understood the political implications of Lara Jean’s race, but I absolutely would have understood that in Lara Jean, I was seeing someone “like me”, but whose race was portrayed as effectively neutral. The pressure was relieved in a way that has never been – or likely will be —- in real life.

My friends have been and continue to be mostly white people. Over the years, I have collected a hoard of mildly to egregiously racist anecdotes, ranging in severity from my (white) third-grade teacher who called me up to the front of the class one day to demonstrate the authentic pronunciation of the word “tsunami” (I do not speak Japanese), to when one of my (white) middle-school classmates said to me that she should be able to audition for the role of Cho Chang in the Harry Potter films, as all she would need to do would be to “tape her eyes”. She demonstrated this by pulling the corners of her eyes up with her fingers. Recently I was queueing in a café when a (white) British woman behind me picked up a handful of my hair and commented how lucky I was that people of my “nationality” could grow hair as dark and long as mine.

When I teach anthropology, one of the most difficult ideas to get across to new students is how to bridge the gap between the personal and the structural – how do you get, analytically, from individual actions to big, institutional trends? It’s a difficult conceptual leap – and each discipline has a different approach.

Anthropology approach is through what we call “long-term participant-observation fieldwork” – that is, we travel to our chosen field-site and stay there, observing and participating in local life, until we have been there long enough (usually at least a year) to have accumulated enough experience that we can tell what is a social blip, and what is part of wider structural, systemic patterns.

Over time, I have accumulated these small experiences from colleagues, teachers, neighbours, friends – and I realise they were rarely born of malice. My classmate almost certainly had no intention of reinforcing stereotypes about Asian eyes as “slitty”. My teacher was probably not trying to imply that China and Japan are countries with indistinct languages, histories and cultural traditions. The woman in the café likely meant nothing more than to compliment my hair – she wasn’t trying to suggest that I couldn’t really be American because of how I look. Even so, these experiences are symptoms of wider structural racism where people individually – unintentionally or not – reinforce an inherently racist status quo.

The mainstream media’s take

This structural racism includes mainstream media too. Whenever I watch a TV show or film with a character of Asian descent in it, I am always on some level slightly tense. I wait for their ethnicity to be addressed and handled clumsily. Maybe the Asian character has a “tiger mother” who demands academic success over all else. Or maybe she is stereotypically submissive and fragile, a popular trope.

Yet, never at any point does TATBILB imply that Lara Jean is anything but simply herself. She is Korean-American, but the fact that she is not white is never presented as an obstacle to overcome – it’s just part of who she is. The deliberately low-key, neutral handling of Lara Jean’s ethnicity and the fact that her race is incidental to her overall character arc is to me a relief.

Of course, there are issues with this: the neutralising of Lara Jean’s ethnicity could be viewed as making her “act white” in order to soothe mainstream audiences who are uncomfortable being reminded of how much race is not invisible, but infuses every aspect of someone’s life. TATBILB is also able to project this idyllic image because everyone in the film is comfortably middle-class. But all the more reason for much wider representation. Asian-Americans are hugely diverse. One film cannot handle it all.

To All The Boys I’ve Ever Loved joins Crazy Rich Asians in this ongoing increase of Asian-American representation in mainstream media. But what we need is a diversity of experiences – films and TV that feature Asian-Americans from different backgrounds in front of and behind the camera. For me, this is a wonderful and joy-filled start.

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