Lara Jean Song Covey. The protagonist in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a stationery aficionado and an inadvertent symbol of shining hope. She traverses high-school life as a middle-of-the-road student, mostly content in her ordinariness, before hitting an abrupt swerve on the turn-laden road of life at the climax of her story– the letters, the love, the lack thereof, and the eventual triumph. Not important.
. . . In actuality, it’s all pretty vital. Just not nearly as much as what the story, as a whole, has come to represent.
Lara is significant as a main character for what she is, surely– an introvert overcoming the hurdles of social awkwardness to ascend the metaphorical ladder with steady footing. However, she’s arguably, infinitely more important for what she isn’t. Lara. Isn’t. White. She falls in love (over and over and over and over and over again), lives her life, gets the guy, takes center stage, and remains Asian the entire time. Not once does Lara Jean, portrayed to perfection by Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor, defer to a bleached-blonde rom-com stereotype with some self-deprecating remark and a floor-ward glance as she shies off to the side to let the Caucasian hero to her As-Am sidekick swoop in and descend upon her, likely equally white, love interest.
Simply put, it’s almost strange to see someone that looks like me rocking the small screen. Though, that isn’t to say that Asians blot out much of the silver screen either. Representation in any form now comes as something of a surreal shock. As far as Asian portrayals in any mainstream media goes, it’s been a long, hard fight to wrest dated stereotypes from the clutches of the slowly atrophying fingers that tend to pen Hollywood’s old stories and old prejudices alike.
For so long, we’ve fought for basic human decency in the crafting of these representations– to be viewed as people rather than slant-eyed caricatures with exaggerated accents. With this role, it seems as though we’ve leveled the field and emerged from the rubble, bruised, but still standing tall. Lara Jean is the protagonist. Not the stereotype. Not the nerd. Not the convenient plot device. Not the butt of the joke. Not the supporting character. It might not seem like much, but we celebrate victories, no matter how small. That isn’t to say it wasn’t a fight to get to this point, though. Jenny Han, the author of TATBILB and another Asian inspiration to be admired, writes about her brief struggle with production companies in an essay for the New York Times. “I ended up deciding to work with the only production company that agreed the main character would be played by an Asian actress,” said Han. “No one else was willing to do it. Still, I was holding my breath all the way up until shooting began because I was scared they would change their minds. They didn’t.”
The fear of working with Asian leads is evident in that hesitance, though, as it tends to be when with dealing with any other historically underrepresented minority. It’s hard to get both the marginalized face and voice out there, simply because we’re written off for being unmarketable and unrelatable before we have a fair, fighting chance to pitch ourselves. We’re often not even given fair consideration, much less an opportunity like this to prove that assumption incorrect.
Things are finally starting to change, though. What Lana, Lara, TATBILB, and Jenny Han represent, more than anything else, is progress in this particular fight. They’ve wedged their collective, Asian-oriented foot in the door, and ideally, now would be the time to start surging forward behind the precedent they all set. We can look to the future now, and finally be eager to see who the spotlight will land on next with the hopes that the next face it illuminates will look just like ours.