A movie adaptation of Jenny Han’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before will give American audiences something they rarely get to see on the big screen: Asian-Americans as lead characters.
While the small screen has seen a relative uptick in Asian-American leads and storylines with shows like ABC’s Fresh off the Boat, Netflix’s Master of None and AMC’s Into the Badlands, the film industry still lags far behind.
In fact, lately it seems as though we’re more likely to see the erasure of Asian and Asian-American roles on the big screen rather than actual representation.
In the past few years, we’ve seen the casting of Emma Stone as a hapa character in Aloha and Scarlett Johansson as Major in the Ghost in the Shell adaptation.
Despite the amount of blowback these casting decisions end up garnering, it always seems like Hollywood remains rather tone deaf. Rather than course correcting as an industry, we’ve instead been given Zach McGowan as native Hawaiian Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele in the upcoming film Ni’ihau.
Which is why a film like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is both timely and important.
When I first read Jenny Han’s novel, I fell in love with it immediately.
First off, it featured one of my all-time favorite romance tropes — fake dating becomes real dating — and pulled it off flawlessly. Secondly, it depicted an Asian-American character and her close relationship with her sisters in a way that was both refreshing and relatable to me as an Asian-American who considers her sister to be her best friend, but rarely — if ever — gets to read about that experience.
When I finished the novel, I could immediately see it as a movie. It’s a story that, in addition to appealing to me as an Asian-American reader, also appealed to the parts of me that just enjoy reading well-crafted romance and seeing strong female relationships.
However, with whitewashing so rampant in the industry, I was pretty convinced that the only way this movie would ever get made would be if the main characters became three white sisters from the suburbs.
I could already imagine the studios defending the casting, the statements of “we just went with the actresses best for the role” and “it doesn’t really matter who plays the character — as long as we get the story right.”
You know, all the things that Asian-Americans — and, let’s be honest, basically all people of color — have had to hear year after year, missed opportunity after missed opportunity.
Which is why, when Jenny Han announced on Twitter that all three of the Song sisters would be played by Asian-American actresses in the movie version of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, I let out a noise that was half excited shrieking, half muffled sob of relief.
An adaptation of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before feels a little bit like a small miracle to me.
On its face, it may not seem that way. After all, the story essentially centers around three normal sisters, with the title character of Lara Jean going through similar conflicts and plot points that we’ve seen presented on the big screen numerous times.
But the thing that makes this story so miraculous, so quietly revolutionary, is the fact that for the first time since I can remember, we’ll get to see these plot points played out on the big screen by characters who aren’t white.
In fact, it is that commonality of the storytelling, the everydayness of it, which is part of the reason why this story and this movie feels so revolutionary.
Lara Jean and her sisters are Korean-American teens and they definitely proudly claim that as part of their identity — but it’s not the whole of their identity. While I absolutely appreciate stories that highlight what it means to be an Asian-American, I also just want stories featuring Asian-Americans in which the focus is not that one aspect of their identity.
We’ll get to see Lara Jean — a Korean-American, mixed race teenager — navigate the complex ecosystem of high school. We’ll watch as her fake/just-for-show feelings become oh-crap-this-might-be-real feelings. We’ll get to see her close relationships with her two sisters, a has-it-all-together big sister Margot and her incredibly sassy, sure to be scene-stealing younger sister Kitty.
And while I definitely understand the disappointment and frustration of those who see the casting of Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor as Korean-American Lara Jean Covey as perpetuating stereotypes of sameness and interchangeability among East Asians, I likewise think it’s equally important to understand the magnitude of just what Jenny Han has accomplished by even getting this adaptation to the big screen with the race of her main characters intact.
There is absolutely an alternate reality in which this film is made — but with white actresses instead. There’s also another completely plausible alternate reality where this film isn’t made at all.
As author Sona Charaipotra said on twitter:
Let's not stop aiming big. But sometimes you have to move forward the inch-by-inch that you're allowed before you can make grand strides.
— Sona Charaipotra (@sona_c) July 21, 2017
We all need to keep up the conversation about why representation matters. But we also need to show up to films with representation in them — even if it’s a smaller step than we might want — so that that conversation can continue.
For now, thanks to Jenny Han, we’ll have an entire generation of young adults who will finally get to watch Asian-American teenagers do exactly what we’ve seen white teenagers do on-screen for decades: Act like teens, learn what it means to grow up, and fall madly in love.
And I for one can’t wait to see it.