To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is one of Netflix’s biggest hits in 2018. At first glance, you might think this is a typical chick flick: it’s all about first love, high school drama, and feelings of an extremely introverted girl. In this case, the girl’s name is Lara Jean. When she has a crush on someone, she always hides her feelings at the bottom of her heart, and only expresses them by writing secret love letters that she never sends out.

However, Lara Jean has never expected that one day all of her private letters would be mysteriously delivered to their recipients. Among these recipients is Peter Kavinsky. He’s the ex-boyfriend of Gen, Lara Jean’s ex-best friend but now arch nemesis. After Lara Jean explains to Peter the letter, Peter suggests that they fake date each other to make Gen jealous, and Lara Jean agrees. As they pretend to be a couple, the two develop true feelings, and eventually they confront each other about their feelings on the school ski trip.

To be honest, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not a really complex or a thought-provoking movie: stories about fake dating each other and then having real feelings have long been common on the screen. But this is actually what is clever about this movie: it never wants to set you up with more expectations for it than that of a chick flick. Instead, the movie aims to present the confusion, embarrassment, and teenage romance that can take place in any ordinary girlhood. 

Take a look at how embarrassment in girlhood is portrayed in this movie. As Lana Condor, who played Lara Jean in the movie, said in an interview, “In high school I always felt uncomfortable, but everyone feels uncomfortable in high school, right?” I think many girls can relate to how terrible and ashamed Lara Jean feels when her deepest secrets go public. 

When the first boy (Peter) receives the love letter and comes to talk to Lara Jean, she faints on the spot upon realizing what has happened. Seconds later, when she comes to herself, she sees a second boy coming to her with another letter in hand. In order to avoid another round of embarrassment, Lara Jean kisses Peter in a moment of desperation. After the second boy walks away, Lara Jean panics again and hides in the bathroom. But then someone knocks on the door. It turns out that a third boy also comes to her with another love letter…

At this point, I can feel Lara Jean so well: she has lost control of everything; it’s the end of the world. For an ordinary high school girl, what could be more embarrassing, awkward, and terrifying than the possibility that all her crushes discover her secrets and come to confront her one after another?

In this aspect, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before did a great job in portraying adolescent girlhood. But what follows makes this portrayal even more powerful and touching: When confronting Lara Jean, no one taunts or makes fun of her. All the boys try to clarify their feelings with respect for Lara Jean, which opens up the possibilities for new friendships and relationships. We can also see Lara Jean’s sisters’ support and her father’s understanding. There is respect, understanding, and kindness from all around her, even when she thinks the most embarrassing thing has just happened.

Turning the embarrassment of girlhood into an opportunity for the girl to bravely step out of her comfort zone – this is where I want to shout “Bravo!” to To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. As Lara Jean’s sister says in the end of the movie, “If you really truly didn’t want those letters to be sent, then why did you address them? Can you maybe just admit that some part of you doesn’t want everything in your life to be a fantasy?” “You’ve gotta tell people how you feel when you feel it.” Lara Jean’s story demonstrates the value of stepping outside your comfort zone and taking risks to connect with other people. This is a simple truth, but the movie shows it in a way that you can relate naturally to. 

It is worth mentioning that To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before came out at a critical moment when the awareness of having more diverse Asian representations started to increase. Some of the biggest and oldest stereotypes that Asian American girls have been wanting to escape are: having good grades, always being a good girl, and they prefer staying in rather than socializing. Well, Lara Jean conforms perfectly to these “stereotypes”. She’s the opposite of a social queen, she enjoys reading and being alone, and she would even describe herself as an “invisible person”. Putting the viewers in the perspective of an ordinary young Asian girl could make them understand that, “it turns out that we are all the same”.

Lara Jean, like many other girls, is shy, rich in feelings, and a hopeless romantic. She writes her romantic fantasies about the most handsome boys in class. She worries about studying and her driving skills. She has a room that’s always a mess. She plans her dates using old rom-coms as references. She becomes nervous and insecure when she goes out with Peter, the most popular boy in the school. She doubles her efforts to be a good girlfriend for her first relationship. But she’s also a fully fledged person who has interests and ideas and really deep, really real feelings. If ordinary girl Lara Jean shows the empowerment of stepping outside of comfort zone and making connections, Asian girl Lara Jean proves the importance and the rising awareness of Asian representation in mass media. 

-Yuwen Zhang
Education Assistant
Girl Museum Inc.

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