feature photo courtesy of @toalltheboysnetflix
Did no Nguyen ever catch Lara Jean’s eyes?
When Lana Condor’s Lara Jean first rose to prominence beyond our Netflix screens, it felt like a win for all Asian girls around the world, especially the overly-sensitive-and-a-little-needy Asian girls around the world that had a knack for crushing a bit too hard (read: me). She was a much-welcome departure from the stale archetypes Asian girls have been shoved into, whether it be the one-dimensional Asian friend with a streak of purple hair or the white-washed ABG (“Asian Babygirl”) that looks like they could be on the cast of Rich Kids of Beverly Hills. Instead, she was sweetly naive, trusting without the caricature of social awkwardness, beautiful in uncomplicated, obvious ways.
In the book and movie, Lara Jean sends a letter each to Kenny Donati, Lucas James, John Ambrose McClaren, Josh Sanderson and, of course, everyone’s favorite, Pete Kavinsky. I understand the desire to cast Lara Jean in an interracial relationship that mirrored her own parents’, as it steps away from the confining narrative that people only “stick to their own races,” or that interracial relationships can only exist under fetishized power imbalance.
The normalization of an interracial relationship in this film should be applauded, as it is so rare to see Asian women situated comfortably in interracial relationships when they’re always dismissed as ‘easy’. In a fictionalized, idealized world, race is neither a determining factor in anyone’s relationship nor was it ever their sole characteristic. There were no “cultural crossroads” driving the plotline; thus, it showed that we are capable of loving and being loved without participating in some grand case study on contemporary ethnic sociology. While critical studies of power, race, and gender are absolutely necessary, and we’d love to see more biopics of formidable Asian titans and changemakers, or more attention paid to class and migrant struggles, a rom-com like To All The Boys is its own form of revolution. I know it sounds silly, but to be allowed to enjoy something frothy, to have a sweet, imperfect character complicate the conversation about representation, feels like progress to me.
The same could be said for framing Asian males as romantic interests; more often than not, they’re stuck in a perpetual loop of one-dimensional characters of socially awkward Asian nerds (I still can’t forgive or forget Sixteen Candles’ Long Duk Dong), or Asian jocks who enjoys being shirtless way too much (Mainly Reggie Mantle on Riverdale, but also, everyone on Riverdale).
To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You didn’t neglect to include a steamy Asian male love interest. When God gives you Ross Butler, stick Ross Butler in all of the television shows on the air (13 Reasons Why and counting...). I don’t understand how any of us can focus on the limbo of Pete Kavinsky when Ross Butler’s Trevor Pike is right there.
Even though Butler’s appearance is fleeting (and convincing, as a 29-year-old playing a 16-year-old, Asian really don’t be raisin’), his role as a suitable love interest made me long for more. Butler’s charm is that he feels authentic; his appeal is that even though he’s perfect daydream material, he’s also attainable. He’s the boy-next-door that could’ve actually lived next door.
Growing up, I always wished for more representation of desirable Asian love interests. Even though I know it’s selfish (and potentially problematic) of me to wish Lara Jean had been paired with an Asian love interest (I know, I know, we’re fighting the “sticking together” stereotype”), my truest desire was simply to meditate more on the desirability and desires of Asian men.
We’ve seen a handful of Asian male love interests on film and television in the past few years. No one ever felt quite right. Their ‘Asianness’ sometimes seemed like a tradeoff for their desirability. In examples like Reggie Mantle on Riverdale or Tom Webster in Last Christmas, the only reference to their Asianness remained superficial. If we were to shape these characters the way we shaped Lara Jean, we might be blessed with glimpses into Asian cuisine (Reggie Mantle making Gimbap? Please and thank you!) and Asian family dynamics (Tom Webster was a total gentleman because of his tiger-and-helicopter-mom? Yes, relatable!).
The whitewashing of Asian male love interests seems to imply the Asianness of these love interests emasculates them. It always seems like these love interests have to jump through more hoops than any Caucasian male love interests. While anyone from Timothée Chalamet to Jason Momoa can be seen as a suitable love interest, Asian male love interests seem to always fit the same Charles Melton cookie-cutter image.
I really wished some Nguyen had caught Lara Jean’s eyes.
The campaign for diverse storytelling is complex: on the one hand, we don’t want to tokenize our own people by projecting cultural cues onto the first actor that somewhat resembles us. I’m not saying that the next Asian male love interest also needs to participate in a subplot about the traumas of an emotionally distant father who was only ever enthusiastic about chess tournaments or math camp. I’m also not saying it wouldn’t be nice, though. Among all of the serious, pressing issues diasporic Asians need to confront - civic engagement, immigration policies, displacement - still exists a basic, widespread yearning for cultural markers that we belong, that our stories are worth being written and shared. We’ll keep writing about the role models we need; and when they’re imperfect (which is inevitable), we’ll keep critiquing the roots and fallacies of these desires.
And while that happens, God bless Ross Butler. We see you. 👀