Tag Archives: To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before

Shoes

My favorite part of Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe might just be a tiny beat that happens part way through the movie. It’s hardly a big moment, just a bit of table setting that, for someone like me, holds all the more import.

There’s a party, and a couple kids are chasing each other. They run up the steps to the house and, without pausing to think, slip off their shoes before entering. The camera follows them as they run through the house and to the back door where they put their shoes back on and continue their chase outside. It’s a really small beat, and the whole shoes thing isn’t highlighted — there’s no cutaway to the kids’ feet or anything; the long shot just serves to establish the party in the suburbs.

Maybe you don’t quite get what I’m getting at.

I moved to the US when I was fourteen. There was a lot of little culture shocks, from tax not being included in the sticker price to the fact that I had to drive to get anywhere in the suburbs. A big one was that Americans wore their shoes inside the house. As someone who grew up in Singapore, I was very used to removing my shoes before going into a house. Why would I want to track the outside world into someone’s home? That’d be barbaric.

I got over it, and these days usually ask when I visit someone if it’s shoes on or off (my apartment is firmly shoes off, if you were wondering). Wikipedia has an interesting rundown on the practice of removing shoes inside, surveying the custom in several countries. It’s not common in the US but, as the article notes, “…removing of shoes is common among certain immigrant communities.” Which, I suppose, explains me and mine. But I’ve digressed.

There’s a beat in Always Be My Maybe where a pair of kids, unprompted and without a word, pause their playing to take their shoes off when entering a house, and put them back on when they exit. It’s such a small detail, but one that is absolutely rife with verisimilitude and meaning. It’s something you’d expect to see in an Easy Asian household like the one depicted in the film. Given that the film’s three writers are all of Easy Asian descent and the director herself a child of Iranian immigrants, it’s not surprising that the detail made it in.

And it’s treated as normal to boot. I know this seems like such a small beat to obsess over, but it’s a really big deal for. In all the American media of consumed over the years, nowhere have I seen this tiny but important facet of my life portrayed on screen. And certainly not as casually and matter-of-factly as here. In that moment I felt seen, I felt like this part of me and my life was important and valid. That the habit of taking my shoes off inside wasn’t unusual.

I yearn for stories by different people, I yearn to hear about other experiences and takes on life. I also want to see my own experiences presented in media; I want to see myself represented. Always Be My Maybe may not be the best movie in Netflix’s stable of romcom revivals (that title belongs entirely to Set It Up and if you disagree you are wrong) but it gets a special little place in my heart for how it portrays its Asian American protagonists without making the whole movie about the ‘Asian American experience.’ Sasha and Marcus are presented as fairly normal people, they aren’t ‘foreign’ or ‘exotic,’ they’re just them.

In a few ways, Always Be My Maybe seems not unlike To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before in that both films feature leads who are people of color without the plot being about how they’re minorities. At the end of the day, I want to see little parts of my life portrayed as being, well, normal and not some bizarre thing done by the Other. Movies like Always Be My Maybe and To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before do that. And now I want more.

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A Normal Teenager Named Lara Jean

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before really feels like a classic 80s teen romcom, except it was made much more recently. It’s delightfully sweet, and has that uncynical honesty that readily calls back to fare like Sixteen Candles or Can’t Buy Me Love. Honestly, this movie is almost an anachronism, but a delightfully refreshing one at that.

Now here’s the thing, unlike all those 80s teen romcoms, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’s protagonist is Asian-American. Lara Jean Covey, played by Lana Condor, a Vietnamese-American actress, is one of three sisters. Their Dad’s white, their passed-away mother Korean. This isn’t really relevant to the plot, it’s mentioned in passing here and there, and their dad makes a decided effort to blend some Korean culture (namely: cuisine) into everyday life. But beyond that, Lara Jean and her sisters are just typical Americans.

Point is, she’s really pretty normal.

Which is actually pretty unusual. Lara Jean’s narrative has nothing whatsoever to do with her identity. She just happens to find herself in the midst of some romantic comment shenanigans after some love letters that were never meant to be sent got sent.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is based on a book of the same name by author Jenny Han. Apparently, there was a few groups interested in adapting it to a movie, but they all wanted to make a change: make Lara Jean white. Han stuck to her guns and eventually a studio came along that was alright with keeping Lara Jean Asian (as, let me remind you, she is in the books) and so we got the movie.

Let’s focus in on just how ridiculous this is. You’ve a bunch of movie studios game to adapt a book, on the condition that the protagonist be white. Only one of the ones that approached her agreed to keep Lara Jean as an Asian-American. Sure, the story’s got basically nothing to do with her race, but that’s all the more the reason why it’s important for her to be Asian.

If you’ve read this blog for a while you probably know that I am a really big proponent for representation in fiction. So of course I want a character who’s a minority in the source to remain such for the adaptation. Especially when it’s a story where her race doesn’t come into play.

Yes, there’s a time and a place for ‘Asian stories’ and all that, but there’s also a space for stories about people-of-color getting to be normal. Look at all those classic 80s teen romcoms we love so much, everyone’s white. Kevin Bacon in Footloose, Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles, John Cusack in Say Anything. There’s the implicit suggestion that those stories are their stories; sure, they’re meant to be everyman, characters who the audience can see themselves in, but there’s still this undercurrent of the everyman usually being a white dude.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel with any of its plotting. Yet it’s a delight of a movie, especially coming in an age when we really don’t have much in the way of romcoms anymore (Set It Up, also on Netflix, is wonderful too, by the way). Having an Asian-American woman as the main character, adds a small, cosmetic spin on things and makes these stories just a little more inclusive. So if we’re in the middle of a romcom renaissance, I’d like more of that too, thank you very much.

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