By Rochelle Friedewald
With the vigor of my crush-ridden 13-year-old self, I sat down and watched Netflix’s new To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before precisely at 12:01am on the day of its release. After the credits rolled, I was swooning. I had been waiting for this type of rom com for what seemed like my whole life. Finally, I saw my high school self onscreen, as the bookish, shy Lara Jean (Lana Condor) who waded through the waters of romantic vulnerability and ended up with an adoring, devilishly handsome jock Peter (Noah Centineo). After Twitter exploded with praise the next day, I watched it again and swooned harder. After reading Jenny Han’s op-ed in the New York Times, I cried, watched it for the third time in 24 hours and screamed internally over the sheer cuteness of the whole storyline. Dramatic? Yes. Completely and totally warranted? Also yes.
Soon after this triple viewing, I met up with a friend, who also happens to be Asian American. We were both back in our hometown with nothing in particular to do, so we decided to throw a couple beers back at a local bar. The second we walked in, all eyes were on us. I figured it was because we were the only women in a dive bar in deep suburbia, and my suspicions were confirmed when I spent the following five minutes bashfully brushing off an older man’s aggressive advances. His friend apologized on his behalf.
“Sorry about that, sometimes he can’t resist when he sees a girl like you. Especially when you’re dressed Asian too.”
I was wearing black joggers, a tee shirt and sneakers. He motioned to my miniature, light pink backpack, with a patronizing smirk that indicated he expected me to chuckle at my apparent blindspot. I hadn’t prepared for this one. Usually I knew to build up a protective layer of psychological armor when I wore any of my Hello Kitty accessories; I’d found after several public outings with the popular childhood cartoon on a shirt or backpack that I’d be roped into random inquisitions about Japanese fashion and anime fandoms by utter strangers, who were overwhelmingly white men. They were always disappointed to find my affinity for the animated character was a nostalgia-laden mimicry of my favorite female rapper’s style, and no, I didn’t like bright colors or cosplay Harajuku, my Mandarin was terrible, and I thought Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist were both just alright. Weebos, I would think, bristling with a practiced nonchalance. My skin was tough, and worse things had happened. But something about this particular comment in this particular bar felt like a prick on my flesh. I had not accounted for pastel colored handheld baggage in my laundry list of “things I would be singled out for in conversation with a white person.” I must have forgotten where I was. This was suburban America, the deep South, the urban county with the highest proportion of conservatives in the nation. I was so stupid to think in an all-white neighborhood I would not be immediately codified as different. Suddenly I felt hurt, naive, and defenseless. I felt the way I had when I was 16.
I remember desperately wanting to be white in this town’s high school, a feeling I seem to share in common with every other woman like me, who grew up in a city like mine. Not only had the attractiveness of white girlhood been delineated in every popular media representation I saw of a high school girl like me (Sixteen Candles, Clueless, A Cinderella Story, She’s the Man), its desirability reverberated in almost all burgeoning social hierarchies I saw in my high school. White girls were the most popular, the favorite among teachers, and most importantly, the favorite among boys of all colors and backgrounds. They were chased, courted, and admired widely in real life and onscreen. I copied their every move from the earliest age I can remember. I wanted to live in their skin, to move like them, and to look into a handsome boy’s eyes with my own big, bright blue ones and listen to him detail all the things he loved about me (shoutout to When Harry Met Sally for that specific fantasy). I added blonde highlights to my ink black hair, lived religiously by my Delia’s catalog, and moodboarded every look from Pretty In Pink, hoping to have my mother precariously sew flirty pink outfits capable of camouflaging my ethnicity and earning the attention of all potential Prince Charmings. By age 13, all I wanted was to be wanted.
Lara Jean, amazingly, did not have that complex. It was this facet of To All the Boys that earned the movie high praise; Lara Jean existed to show girls of color and the public at large there was a new type of all-American girl, one who didn’t have blonde hair or blue eyes but also wasn’t defined by her ethnic identity or sense of otherness. She was just another high school girl, one who dreamed of true love and liked vintage boots and hated driving. She was scared to open up, to be rejected by someone she cared for, and to be made “second best” in favor of Peter’s beautiful and cruel blonde ex-girlfriend Gen. Luckily, like it always does in the fantasy land of romantic comedy tropes, she prevailed over the conniving popular girl and won the guy. My real life high school love triangle had not gone as well; a boy I was deeply obsessed with at 16 did enjoy my presence, but had the habit of unceremoniously dumping me every time Cassie*, a gorgeous blonde with protruding hip bones and tanned skin, showed him an inkling of interest. I took him back every time things didn’t work out with her for one reason---I would one day get my love confession from this handsome white boy, hopefully in the rain, or during a slow dance at prom or in the bleachers of a monumental football game. It didn’t come, despite doing everything he asked of me in hopes that someday it would.
My innocence had betrayed me. I had peaked this boy’s interest with my shy mannerisms, a perceived facade that would give way to a wild bedroom persona as soon as he awoke my sexuality, he said. I spent most of my junior year weathering the ebb and flow of his interest, timing my sexual concessions to the rhythm of my own intuition, which told me when I was at risk of losing him again. I fielded questions about the size of my vagina and skirted conversations about his geisha girl fantasies. I understood comments like this had to be weathered when blending into white personhood, never mind my own discomfort.
Mutations of this white fascination made appearances in other intimate moments with other love interests, and I developed my thick skin and a steady, fake indifference. Other girls I knew, girls with darker complexions, had more frightening and disparaging assumptions to deal with. If I existed in a realm that condoned sexual fetishization, other girls had existed in one further, one that categorized their sexuality as nonexistent and laughed at the notion that they could be considered otherwise. Some of these girls didn’t even exist as human beings to the boys around us. The one group of black girls in my grade level were referred to as clique-ish, unfriendly, and boyish. One boy on the football team once declared that Jamie*, a unequivocally gorgeous light-skinned girl who was both on the track team and at the top of our class, was the “only one he would go for.” Hypothetically, of course. He wouldn’t even “force fuck” her darker best friend, Stephanie*. Girls darker than me didn't have the ability to traverse the plains of white personhood like I could, and they suffered for it. I knew almost innately, that of the non-white girls, I was probably the luckiest.
Most of the time I don’t feel like how I felt at 16 and thankfully, have little reason to. I even eventually had a real high school romance, not unlike Lara Jean’s, with a kind-eyed “jock” who’d exchange love letters with me. Coincidently, he was not white. He made no grand gestures and crafted no monologues about his endless devotion, but he would stay up till 2 a.m. on Skype with me when I couldn't sleep, buy me Sonic slushies after school, and never expressed anything but eager yet respectful desire, so I was content. A year later I learned of deep, soul-crushing love with another man and eventually, with a woman, and how its life altering nature could never fit into the bubbly, neat lines of a teen will-they-won’t-they film. I learned through experience romantic comedies weren’t templates for real life love but rather sappy tales designed for escapism, a lesson I suspect every doe-eyed high school girl eventually learned too.
It comes at no true surprise to me that Lara Jean, a girl so much like me in looks and personality, had an onscreen high school experience so deeply divorced from my own. This was fantasy, and after all, the point of a deliberately Asian American lead was not thematic realism, but to allude to the validity of the feelings, hopes, experiences, dreams, and crushes of girls like me and Lara Jean. The dynamic between and surrounding Lara Jean and her Caucasian beau seemed to transcend race and it was a nice departure from the norm. There were already movies with an interracial relationship storyline that centered on perceived societal absurdity of the whole spectacle---the light-hearted ones dealt with the “hilarious” hurdles both sides of the family stumbled through to fully accept the “untraditional” union, while the more serious ones, most notably the film Get Out, dealt with the implications of white fascination most commonly and deliberately borne out of intimate fetishization and thus dehumanization.
I’m more than content enjoying a racial utopia in fictionalized tales of young love, and seeing personhood never questioned and sexual agency never blurred. I’m perfectly fine with dreaming about boys like Peter, and I’m sure other girls are okay with it too. I mean, who wants to watch the painful and awkward intricacies of real life high school romance when you could pretend all the boys you knew at 16 were just as hot and emotionally literate as Peter? I just wonder how different I would have felt at that age if the girl onscreen falling in love in the rain, at prom, on football and soccer fields didn’t just look like Molly Ringwald, Amanda Bynes, or Hillary Duff, but rather, looked like me. I wonder if I would’ve still been dying my hair blonde and envying girls like Cassie* and putting up with certain boys. I wonder if I would’ve felt differently about my face and my inherent value. I wonder if I would’ve had the same story to tell, the one that still makes me feel a bit sick and a bit like I’m still 16, naive and desperate for approval.
I’ve been scrolling through the comments of To All the Boys tribute videos on YouTube lately, mostly just to see preteen girls swoon over Lara Jean’s love story and discuss how to emulate her cute and quirky style. They’re demanding the sequels also get made into Netflix movies, but I find myself wanting more for them. I want stories of brown girls, black girls, gay girls, trans girls, brown and black trans girls, fat girls, disabled girls, black and brown disabled girls, girls with mental illness, being adored by that Perfect person and falling in love with said person. I would like every single girl in America to see themselves in a fantasy version of their love life, even if it’s just to set unrealistic precedents for their forthcoming dating lives. I would like for no other girl ever to feel the way I felt at 16. I would like to think if they regularly saw themselves in tales of hyperbolic romance, they would have the self esteem that I didn’t have to tell a boy with something to say about their skin or their sexuality, “Hey! F*ck you! You don’t even deserve a girl like me!” and never have to think twice about it.
*Names have been changed to respect privacy