With last month’s new hit Asian-American films, August seems as though it has become a new landmark for Asian representation. Set against the hype from “Crazy Rich Asians,” which features an all-Asian cast, Netflix released a romantic comedy movie, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” (TATBILB) in which the main character is an Asian American. While its predecessor clearly represents the idea of pushing Asian culture to the forefront, TATBILB instead raises the question of how accurately Asian culture was portrayed.
Preceded by Hollywood’s abysmal history of non-white casting in movies, Asians have been grossly underrepresented. A recent study entitled “Tokens on the Small Screen” shows that 64% of current television shows do not have a single Asian American character. Even amongst the shows that do include Asians, the characters usually fill minor roles with stereotypical movie tropes that associate them with being exotic, emasculated and nerdy. After so many years, we finally see a push towards proper Asian representation.
Based off a novel by Jenny Han, TATBILB features a less conventional approach to Asian representation. While the in-depth featuring of Asian culture seems more intuitive, it instead centers around an Asian-American teenager named Lara Jean Covey, living an “American” lifestyle. In this case, race is not her defining feature; her sole purpose in the movie is not just to fill in the role of “that one Asian girl.” Instead, the movie portrays the depth of her character, humanizing and more importantly normalizing Asian appearances in movies, which is a brilliant move towards Asian integration.
However, the casting of the movie itself could use more work. In the book, the Covey sisters are supposed to be Korean-American; however, none of the actresses are Korean-American. One of them is not even Asian at all. While actors are not always rigidly restricted to the same ethnicity as their character, these three are supposed to be siblings, and they are not even all Asian.
While this is a minor detail, interchanging their races ignores the cultural differences of each ethnicities and instead feeds into a Eurocentric view of Asians. This is because of the cross-race effect, in which people are better able to distinguish members of their own race or ethnicity than others. The only way to improve this problem is by familiarizing ourselves with people from other ethnicities, but if movies stereotype Asians, the problem of recognition only worsens.
A strong allure of the movie was the five male love interests for Lara Jean. While Han did not specify the race of each boy, she gave most of them white names and descriptions. In the movie, all of the male characters are white except for one black character, Lucas James, whose name was purposely changed from the book.
Since they chose to stray from the book and diversify Lucas’ character, they could have pushed it and included more non-white actors. This lack of inclusion is significant because throughout the history of American media, Asian men have not been portrayed as love interests, and Han’s exclusion also perpetuates the idea that only white men are attractive.
With the burden of Asian representation, the movie did not wholly remain true to the ideals of representation, although it is definitely heading in the right direction. Hopefully, they will inspire more non-stereotypical roles for Asian actors as we step forward into a more diverse future.