To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before: An Excerpt From Feminist Flicker

My 78th Feminist Flicker column, on Channillo, digs into the hit Netflix movie, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. Here’s an excerpt (which contains spoilers for Sixteen Candles and Fight Club):

“So, what makes To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before so special? It focuses on a very specific point in a teenage girl’s life – when she has carefully cultivated her life to fit into her comfort zone, but realises she is outgrowing it. She fantasises about life outside the comfort zone, but needs a very big nudge to actually make something magical happen, and embrace newness in life. It’s about fear, grief, and riding the metaphorical roller-coaster. It’s about family, joy, and realising the impact we each have on those around us, even at a young age.

It all centres around Lara Jean Covey, played by the excellent Lana Condor. She is the middle child of a set of three sisters. Her older sister is Margot (Janel Parrish), her younger sister is Kitty (Anna Cathcart), and they live in Oregon with their father, Dr Covey (John Corbett). Their mother died when Kitty was very young, but their father tries his best to cook Korean food just the way she once did. As a result of their grief, the sisters are all very close, with Margot and Lara Jean being particularly reliant upon one another. But, Margot is leaving to attend college in Scotland, which sets Lara Jean somewhat adrift. In addition, Margot dumps her boyfriend of two years – the family’s neighbour, Josh (Israel Broussard) – who was once Lara Jean’s best friend.

Now, here comes the central premise – the big nudge that Lara Jean needs to make something magical happen. She has a hatbox that once belonged to her mother, inside which she keeps five love letters that she has written over the years to each of the boys upon whom she has had major crushes. Josh is one of them. There’s also Kenny, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), Lucas (Trezzo Mahoro), and John Ambrose (Jordan Burtchett). As Lara Jean mopes around the house pining for her older sister, her younger sister decides that, at the age of sixteen, Lara Jean should be out with her friends and going on dates. Lara Jean is stuck in her comfort zone, though, so Kitty finds the love letters, notes that they are all addressed, and secretly mails them – hoping to shake things up a little.

Peter, Lucas, and Josh all attend High School with Lara Jean, and so approach her individually about the letters – and she is mortified at the realisation that the inner-most thoughts and feelings she once had about them have been revealed. Peter finds her first, and tells her he’s flattered, but “it’s never going to happen,” because he is dating Gen (Emilija Baranac), who is Lara Jean’s former best friend and current nemesis. Lara Jean sees Josh approaching and, because Josh is the most recent crush, she grabs Peter, throws him to the floor and kisses him – to make Josh believe that her heart is otherwise occupied. She then runs and hides in the bathroom. There, Lucas approaches her, and reminds her that he’s gay.

The story then heads into an interesting phase, in which we suspect that the love story will be about Lara Jean and Josh – but it’s actually about Lara Jean and Peter. Gen has unexpectedly dumped Peter, and he is still obsessed with her – so he proposes that he and Lara Jean fake a relationship to make Gen jealous, and to help Lara Jean avoid having to have awkward conversations with her sister’s ex-boyfriend. After some lengthy consideration, Lara Jean agrees – but seeks to set some ground rules.

The issue, for Lara Jean, is that while Peter is experienced in the relationship department, she has never had a boyfriend before, so she doesn’t want her first experiences of intimacy to be fake. She sits with Peter and draws up an agreement about what is acceptable, and what is not. This discussion is a fascinating point in the movie, because it achieves a great many things with a relatively brief amount of dialogue. Lara Jean bases her stipulations about touching on the opening shot of Sixteen Candles, telling Peter that he can put his hand in her back pocket. Peter has never seen Sixteen Candles, so she sets another rule that he has to watch it with her.

She also states that neither of them can tell anyone that their relationship is fake – which prompts him to refer to Fight Club. She has never seen Fight Club, so he sets a rule that she has to watch it with him. They then have this plan, in writing, for a movie double-bill – a cultural exchange, if you will – through which they can each learn about the other person. For Lara Jean, this is important because her entire approach to romance is based in fantasies that have been built around a lifetime watching movies, without any real life experience. For Peter, this is important because it helps prove to Lara Jean that he has an intellectual life outside of the pursuit of girls.

But, while this is a pivotal point in the story, there is much more to the choice of those particular films than just what is important to Lara Jean and Peter within the parameters of their pretend relationship. Lara Jean’s choice of Sixteen Candles, for example, speaks to the continued, insidious duality of sexism in movies.

Sixteen Candles is a notorious example of the hideous, blatant misogyny perpetrated by Hollywood in the 1980s – with various male characters extolling the virtues of date-rape and the objectification of women and girls. Contemporary critical analysis of this film often arrives with the disclaimer that these problematic elements are simply reflective of society at the time, and that such scenes would never be accepted by audiences of today. But, Lara Jean’s misty-eyed appreciation of the movie, as containing models of her romantic fantasies, makes the point that such films lose neither their influence, nor their power to shape the development of social attitudes. Though Sixteen Candles was released long before Lara Jean was born, it is her chosen touchstone for romantic expectation. The fact that the Lara Jean character is of Korean heritage, and the film Sixteen Candles includes a deeply racist depiction of an Asian foreign exchange student is also an important point here. She holds the film as a personal favourite, because it includes some romantic elements that appeal to her within her comfort zone – and she simply tunes out the misogyny and racism in order to enjoy that.

This also speaks to representation issues in western popular film. Lara Jean reveres romantic films that engage in both active racism (the inclusion of blatantly racist characters), and also racism by omission (the exclusion of characters of colour), because these are the only romantic films that are easily accessible to her in America. She is regularly required to choose between representation of her womanhood, and representation of her ethnic heritage, because there are so few stories available that provide representation of both.

By contrast, Peter’s chosen film is Fight Club, which speaks to a very different relationship with pop culture. It refers to the insidious duality of toxic masculinity which, despite intersecting with sexism in society, is also a separate issue. Fight Club is about the internal conflict of men, caused by the modern day evolution of an aspirational economy. It is the idea of reality versus expectation. This reference actually reflects Lara Jean’s relationship with Sixteen Candles, but Peter’s relationship with Fight Club has one crucial difference – he is able to see himself represented in his favourite movie. He can identify with the white men onscreen, constantly assessing their place in the world.

Peeling back another layer, however, we also see that the two white male leads of Fight Club are (spoiler alert!) two parts of one man, and that the growing division between these two parts causes problems for the whole. In watching Fight Club, there is no requirement of Peter to divide aspects of his identity in order to find representation, in the way that Lara Jean must divide herself in order to find what she needs in Sixteen Candles. So, in more ways than one, Peter has far greater privilege here than Lara Jean does – which is why it is so important that he concede a number of points while negotiating their fake relationship contract.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before then becomes a story about the growing, unspoken affection between Peter and Lara Jean. Though they maintain the relationship is fake, there is palpable chemistry between the two as they undertake their contractual obligations. It is the chasteness of the endeavour that builds their emotional intimacy – in keeping with Lara Jean’s favourite parts of Sixteen Candles – until Peter begins to express his real feelings using material possessions and commerce, in keeping with elements of Fight Club.

He takes her favourite scrunchie as a way of reassuring her that she looks good wearing her hair loose – and promptly makes the mistake of allowing Gen to take it. He tries to demonstrate his affection for Lara Jean by researching her favourite snacks, and trekking to the Korean grocery store on the other side of town to buy them for a bus journey. The latter point leads to their first ‘real’ kiss on a school trip, while the former leads to them falling out again afterward.

It is this ‘falling out’ that brings the other conflict in the story into sharp focus – and that is, the conflict between Lara Jean and Gen. The two were once best friends, while Gen had a crush on Peter. But, during a game of Spin The Bottle, Peter and Lara Jean kissed, and Gen never forgave her friend for such a betrayal. She has picked on Lara Jean ever since – even while dating Peter.
It isn’t until Gen explains this grudge to her during an argument that Lara Jean comes to realise her part in the feud. In their earlier years, Lara Jean didn’t appreciate the strength of Gen’s feelings – despite literally writing love letters about the strength of her own. Gen spent years making barbed comments to Lara Jean, at every opportunity, and Peter suggests faking a relationship knowing full well that it would elicit a vehement response from his ex-girlfriend.

That vehement response takes the form of Gen trying to seduce Peter, and leading Lara Jean to believe that she is succeeding. That’s why she takes the scrunchie, and that’s why she has a hand in a ‘revenge porn’ posting on social media, after someone secretly tapes Peter and Lara Jean making out in a hot tub. This part of the narrative is all about Gen and Lara Jean knowing each other well enough to be able to push all the right buttons, with a high degree of precision.

But, the point of it is for Lara Jean to finally realise her own impact. She has skated through life until now – safely ensconced in her own comfort zone, and feeling marginalised by those around her. She feels like a spectator, rather than a participant, and when Gen and Peter began to date, this only served to amplify that feeling. Her conflict with Gen brings her to understand that her reality differs to this fantasy, or expectation (in keeping with those movie choices again), and that she has consistently had an impact, but simply chose not to consider it. Gen lashes out at Lara Jean because she makes her feel insecure about her relationship with Peter – because Lara Jean does not acknowledge her own power…”

Read the rest here: Sarah Myles on Channillo

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