There's a lot that frightens me about raising two daughters, and media consumption is at the top of the list. I wonder what movies and shows my kids will watch, and I wonder what problematic lessons about womanhood, sexuality, friendship, or femininity they'll walk away with. All that said, 2018's summer hit, To All The Boys I've Loved Before, offers me some hope. I may be a decade and a half older than its target audience, but when my girls are old enough to enjoy it, this is definitely a young adult romance I'll happily show them.
As a young person growing up in the early-to-mid 2000s, I could never quite articulate my discomfort with romantic comedies geared at teens my age. I didn't have the language to explain why those classic makeover scenes in films like Clueless or The Princess Diaries (you know, the ones where the leading lady metamorphoses into a conventionally attractive hottie who is suddenly deemed worthy of respect) made my skin crawl. Nor could I express why seeing yet another thin, white, beautiful protagonist (What A Girl Wants, A Cinderella Story, Freaky Friday, 13 Going On 30) get into young-adult-appropriate shenanigans made me kind of sad.
As an adult, I realize why these films and series were less than satisfying watches. By and large, they focused on one experience: that of the young, pretty, white, suburban American girl.
As a Colombian American, I wondered why characters of color (be it Miranda Sanchez in Lizzie McGuire or Chastity in 10 Things I Hate About You) were always cast as sidekicks in films and TV shows alike (That's So Raven being a notable exception). And to this day, I cannot understand why no one appreciated how brilliant (and stunning) Topanga was before her hair got straighter and her clothes got tamer in Boy Meets World.
As an adult, I realize why these films and series were less than satisfying watches. By and large, they focused on one experience: that of the young, pretty, white, suburban American girl. When it comes to romance, those same girls often have to compromise their styles and personalities to get the guy. They are arguably presented as caricatures with one or two prime personality traits and little room for character development. Some are extroverts and some are introverts. Some are "boy crazy" and some have never even held hands with another human being. Some are "punk" and alternative, others as straight-edge as they come. None are all that multi-faceted. To All The Boys I've Loved Before, however, is not an early 2000s YA rom-com. It's something far better.
Let's start with the protagonist, Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor). The film follows Lara Jean's story as five secret love letters she has written to former and current crushes make their way to their (never actually) intended recipients. It's not only rare, but practically unheard of, for a mainstream film to center the experiences of Asian American characters (or, if we're being honest, characters of color in general). To All The Boys I've Loved Before, however, does precisely that through Lara Jean and her sisters.
I would never want to raise children who believe that it is only cute white girls who can get into adventures and mischief; who can love and be loved.
This is critical in the realm of representation. I would never want to raise children who believe that it is only cute white girls who can get into adventures and mischief; who can love and be loved; who can be clever, interesting, stylish, or strong. I would also never want to raise children in a world that doesn't care about including them, or the experiences of others different to themselves. For this reason, it feels equally important that we get to know Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro), an openly gay character of color whose sexuality is never once scorned or ridiculed by his peers. Noticeably absent from the film was plus-size representation, something undoubtedly disappointing, but overall, the film did far more good than harm.
From Lara Jean, to her little sister Kitty (Anna Kathcart), to her big sister Margot (Janel Parrish), to her best friend Chris (Madeleine Arthur), to her rival Gen (Emilija Baranac), TATBILB does a phenomenal job at showcasing strong and unique female characters. We watch Christine interrogate LJ's father about his chosen profession (gynecology). We see Kitty rock a "girl power" tee; the same Kitty who is assertive, outgoing, and brutally honest throughout (I will never forget when she called LJ out on not having Saturday night plans, or when she lectured her father on the merits of the "goddess within"). We applaud as Lara Jean confronts Gen when she believes her rival has leaked a faux sex tape of herself and Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). "It's bad enough if a guy were to do this, but the fact that a girl did? It's despicable."
More than any individual scene, however, Lara Jean's strength is most exemplified through the fact that she remains Lara Jean the whole way through. Unlike so many films of the genre, LJ doesn't compromise herself. She doesn't change her style, even if it's not considered "stylish" among some of her peers. Even if it's not considered "sexy" in the mainstream kind of way (which dictates one must also be somewhat naked to be sexy). She doesn't have to "transform" anything about herself, in fact (except her bedroom, but it needed to be cleaned and the whole thing felt like a metaphor for her growing up a little).
Lara Jean Covey lands the guy simply by being herself, always and fully. One might argue that Lara Jean and Peter grow through knowing one another. She leaves her shell a little bit, allowing herself to take more risks, meet more people, and become close to someone. He learns to open up. That they grow from each other's company without altering fundamental aspects of their personas is critical, though. This, I believe, is what should happen in a relationship, and it's certainly a concept I'd like to introduce to my own kids.
There are countless other gems that I cannot wait for my girls to experience. When Lara Jean's father gives her a bag of condoms as she prepares to go on a weekend trip away, for example, he was ultimately empowering his daughter to make safe choices. To make choices for herself. Sure, there was some awkwardness to the exchange, but it was a much more progressive approach to talking about sex with your girls than I ever got to witness in my own life.
In the diversity of its female stars (none of whom shared styles or personalities), it served as a reminder that there is no one way to be a girl.
What's most excellent about this film is that in ways both subtle and overt, it kept contemporary feminism in mind from start to finish. It never upheld concepts of "modesty" or "abstinence" as important. It didn't force its protagonist into physical situations she wasn't ready for. Instead, she controlled the pace of intimacy between herself and Peter. It referenced the importance of independence, as well as romance. When Margot breaks it off with Josh, for example, it is because her mom once told her never to go to college with a boyfriend. And in the diversity of its female stars (none of whom shared styles or personalities), it served as a reminder that there is no one way to be a girl. There is no one way to be "strong."
At the heart of this story is ultimately the notion of strength in sisterhood (as cheesy as it may sound). Regardless of Lara Jean's crush on Josh, she never considers dating him. She never considers betraying someone she cares about. As for Kitty, when she mails Lara Jean's love letters out, it is of a genuine desire for her sister to be happier: to put herself out there, to be a little bolder, and to let people in. When Chris jumps in to defend Lara Jean's vintage boots in the face of bully Gen, well, I couldn't help but smile. Time and time again, To All The Boys I've Loved Before proved that women are stronger together. And that, I most definitely want my girls to know.