P.S. Biracial Representation Matters Too
Image courtesy of YouTube./ CC BY-NC 2.0.
A half-Korean teenage girl stays home baking on a Friday night. She only has a few close friends, including her older and younger siblings, and oftentimes finds herself reading alone at lunch. Though she is vibrant and outgoing with her family, she is subdued and shy around her peers. The girl I am describing is me.
It is also Lara Jean Song Covey.
As those familiar with the romcom of the summer of 2018 know, Lara Jean Song Covey is the protagonist of the Netflix film, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” based on the novel of the same name by Jenny Han. Lara Jean is your average adorably awkward teenage romantic who spends more time fantasizing about her life than living it. For that reason, she copes with her crushes by writing them letters to confess her feelings. Not that she would ever send the letters; getting her feelings down on paper allows her to move on with her life without having to actually confront said feelings. These letters serve her well–until they don’t. One day they all go out in the mail, including the one she wrote to the boy she actually likes, who just so happens to be her older sister Margot’s ex-boyfriend, Josh Sanderson. To keep Josh in the dark about her feelings, Lara Jean makes a pact with Peter Kavinsky, another letter recipient and the most popular boy in school, to fake a relationship. Through this fake relationship Lara Jean comes to understand what it means to live and love.
I first encountered Lara Jean as a high school freshman. It did not take long for me to recognize the similarities between myself and Lara Jean. We are both middle children, we are both homebodies, we both love to bake, we are both romantics and we are both half Korean. Though all of those similarities played into the connection I felt with Lara Jean’s character, it was her being half Korean that allowed me to truly see myself in her.
The biracial experience is one that is seldom talked about in mass media. By biracial experience, I am talking about the degree of disconnect we biracial people feel from one or both sides of our backgrounds. It is the feeling that we are not enough to fit into either of the arbitrary racial categories to which we belong. According to the 2010 census by the United States Census Bureau, three percent of the American population reported multiple races. Though three is not a high percentage, three percent means that the experiences of at least nine million people go unaddressed. And our numbers are growing.
“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was the first book I had ever read that depicts some of the nuances of the biracial experience. It was something I recognized, because I lived it: not being served kimchi because I was perceived to be “too white” to handle the spice or dressing up in hanboks on New Years to feel more connected to the culture I did not grow up immersed in. Though Lara Jean’s biracial identity plays a minor role in the overall plot of the story, it plays a major role in her characterization, helping readers understand the motivations behind her actions. The film adaptation blatantly ignores these nuances.
In the film, the only real references from the book to Lara Jean’s Korean heritage are the Korean meal with which the film opens and the “Korean yogurt drink” Kitty, Lara Jean’s younger sister, lets Peter taste on the car ride to school. Even Lara Jean’s mother is barely mentioned in the film, when in the book she plays a large role in Lara Jean’s internal struggles.
In the novel, Lara Jean and her sisters identify as the Song girls to tribute their late mother, as it was her maiden name. It is referenced throughout the book with phrases like, “We three Song girls have an unspoken pact,” or “We’re the Song girls forever.” The film changes this to the “Covey girls,” even though the book explicitly states that they are the Song girls because it was what their mom called herself. In changing Song to Covey, the film ignores the importance of Lara Jean’s mother as well as her connection to her Korean side.
In the novel, Halloween is a telling scene as to the state of Peter’s feelings for Lara Jean, contributing to the development of their relationship. Peter dresses up as Spider-Man, so he wants Lara Jean to dress as Mary-Jane. However, Lara Jean found in the past that her Asian features make people assume she is anime when she dresses up as non-Asian characters; therefore, she chooses to dress up as Cho Chang from Harry Potter. Josh happens to dress up as Harry Potter. Peter becomes jealous, because it seems as if Lara Jean and Josh dressed up in a couples costume. Though this is a minor detail in the novel, it demonstrates how Lara Jean’s biracial identity drives the overarching plot forward.
In the film, this scene is replaced with one in which Peter becomes jealous because Lara Jean and Josh are talking in the hallway. Peter claims that she shouldn’t talk to him because it makes it look like there’s something between them. Not only is this scene regressive, because Lara Jean should be able to talk to whomever she wants without her “boyfriend’s” approval, it also does not make sense. Lara Jean and Josh were always friends, so their relationship would not be perceived as anything but friends when they talk in the hallway.
Though they are not Korean, casting Lana Condor (Lara Jean) and Janel Parrish (Margot) in the film provided both Asian and biracial representation. While these representations are a step forward in Hollywood, the execution of the film virtually erased the Korean elements of the story Therefore, the film could have cast any generic teenager to play Lara Jean. In the grand scheme of things, this is not a bad thing. In the past, Asian representation in film has played to Asian stereotypes. The fact that Lara Jean could have been played by a girl of any race is a sign of progress. However, had Lara Jean not been written as half-Korean in the novel and was instead of ambiguous racial background, it is unlikely that an Asian casting would have been in the cards. Therefore, the film ought to have depicted the story of the half-Korean teenage girl written about in the book. If that had happened, the biracial experience might be better understood.
Overall, I am more than happy to curl up with a bowl of popcorn on a Saturday night to watch “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” (like the homebody I am). It has a great cast, stunning visuals, and all in all makes you feel good. Everybody needs a bit of cheesy, hopeless romance every once in a while, and this film is the perfect fix. Though great on its own, I wish it had offered its audience a glimpse into the biracial experience. Perhaps it would have given the film a little more substance than your average teen romcom. My hope is that viewers are inspired to pick up Jenny Han’s book, partially because people ought to read more, but mainly because it provides a better reflection as to what it is like to grow up biracial–or at least half-Korean.