By ALEENA SIRITANAPIVAT
Growing up Asian in the United States of America can be, needless to say, overwhelming. Everywhere you look, models and actresses are glowing, gorgeous, and… American. With chiseled faces, large eyes, and different hair colors surrounding you, you start to feel alien. Your skin is “yellow” in complexion, your hair can only be long and black, your eyes are slanted and brown, and the only label you get is smart and quiet. Asians in movies are depicted like that: long, black hair; slanted eyes; smart; and quiet. They are often pushed to the side because they aren’t “main-character worthy,” and that’s how you grow to see yourself as.
Imagine this: Lara Jean Covey, a teenage Korean-American girl, who prefers to read in her own little world and loves her family to pieces. She exemplifies all the stereotypical Asian traits; except, there’s something new. She is the main character in one of the latest romance movies adapted from a novel. Better yet, she is played by Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor. “So what?” you may ask. The answer to that is simply whitewashing.
Whitewashing is a practice done in the film industry where a character that should be non-American is played by an American actor. This casting can change the movie in its entirety and ruin the concept the original author was going for. In an interview with People magazine, Jenny Han, writer of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” has said that she went to multiple studios who loved her story but rejected her mandate of an Asian protagonist (Gillete). Han refused to give up until she finally found a studio that accepted an Asian main character, and thus the hit Netflix film “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was born.
Besides starring an Asian actress for an Asian protagonist, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” gives insight into many other forgotten situations. For one, Lara Jean and her two sisters, Margot and Katherine “Kitty” Covey, live with a single paternal figure. With their mother having passed away, the movie depicts the life of a hard-working father who tries his best to raise his three daughters on his own. The gap left by the mother affects both Lara Jean and Margot as the eldest siblings because they have to set an example for Kitty and help their father. We see another side of this with male protagonist Peter Kavinsky and his mother after his dad leaves them to fend for themselves.
We are also able to look into the perspective of the antagonist Genevieve, also known as Gen. Normally, the mean girl archetype is just that: a mean girl. However, in the case of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” she isn’t just a mean girl. While she does fit the stereotype of a mean girl, she has her reasons for acting the way she does. When she and Lara Jean were best friends, what Lara Jean did in Gen’s eyes was a betrayal. She was hurt and reluctant to let go of their friendship because she loved the Covey family, but it wasn’t the same. While in the movie Gen pours out her feelings with the line “I’m not as tough as I pretend to be,” in the book she tries to come back. There are reasons behind her actions — hurtful though they may be, but all for protecting herself. Josh Sanderson, the best friend, and Lara Jean’s first real crush was cast away by both Margot and Lara Jean and had nowhere else to turn to. He is another victim in this story, but instead of turning immediately towards anger, he also confesses his emotions. That’s different; the action allows us to see vulnerability in a male character, which is something that should be more common. Boys should equally be permitted to show how they’re feeling instead of keeping it all bottled up by playing the tough guy. Albeit, the book does a better job of that than the movie, but you can decide that for yourself.
As an Asian-American, I could barely believe it myself. After “Crazy Rich Asians” with an all-Asian cast comes out, a teenage romance with an Asian star appears. I’ve never seen so much representation before. To be the main character in my own story like Lara Jean was something I never imagined for myself. It was always the same: play the side character. Now, I see myself in a brand new light. I see myself creating my own story, and I hope that other little Asian-American girls can see themselves doing that too. However, you’re not wrong to say that, just like “Crazy Rich Asians,” “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” is another step towards Asian representation, but it involves so much more. It truly is a tribute to those forgotten and overlooked.