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I love you, Peter Kavinsky: on rom-coms and representation

Sep. 7, 2018
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Watching a romantic comedy requires you to enter an unspoken agreement: you will toss aside all notions of reality in exchange for the chance to live vicariously through the characters.

For all its tired tropes, the rom-com holds up because of this secret longing. The rom-com knows that you know that hardened bad boys don’t fall for mousy girls in real life, and the rom-com doesn’t care. Suspension of disbelief is a small price to pay for the experience of having the golden-haired heartthrob chase after you, if only for an hour or two. 

That escapism, that act of inhabiting another’s body, is so integral to the experience of rom-com viewing that, when you can’t step into the protagonist’s shoes, the movie just doesn’t feel right. After all, it is an essential part of being a teenager, really, to find the teen idol you relate to so much that you feel like you practically are them, that their hopes and dreams and romances are yours, too. 

*****

I think high school boys are the worst. I think crushes are the worst and relationships are the worst and everything about love in high school (if it exists!) is the worst.

And yet, there’s still something in me that wants so desperately to be loved and chased after, even by High School Boys Who Are The Worst. 

Enter the rom-com: safe, predictable; come for the hour-long relationship and experience none of the heartbreak. Such films were practically engineered to be the perfect brand of escape, and, for me, they satisfied the intense and quintessentially teenage need to be desired.

That satisfaction was fleeting.

It was difficult to see Cher Horowitz and Kat Stratford and Mia Thermopolis sauntering across my screen. How could I make the movie romance mine when the girls didn’t even look like me? How could I even pretend that the guy in the movie liked me when he was falling for girls with wide eyes and blonde hair? 

It is so easy to step into the protagonist’s shoes when she looks like you. After all, if most of your features are reflected onto her face, it’s not hard to imagine what it would be like to be her, to have her love interest’s hands touching the beautiful blonde hair that looks just like yours.

But, as I touched my Asian hair and Asian eyes and flat Asian nose, I knew that I could not be those girls. I would never experience those things. And, just like that, rom-coms turned sour. Because the thing about rom-coms is that you’re supposed to relate to the characters so you can live through them. And the thing about movies in general is that, as art, they imitate life. So when you grow up never seeing girls who look like you in the romance movies, you come to the conclusion that, well, maybe girls like you just aren’t cut out for romance.

Maybe Asian girls aren’t meant to be loved in the same way the other girls are.

All this was proven wrong when I met Lara Jean Song Covey and Peter Kavinsky. 

******

Lara Jean, played by Lana Condor, is the star of Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, based on the best-selling novel by Jenny Han. Lara Jean is an Asian-American girl with my hair and my eyes and my nose. Lara Jean is a girl who looks like me. 

Seeing her on-screen brought me to tears. 

She was wanted. To finally see a girl who looked like me portrayed as wanted and beautiful meant everything to me, because my experiences with boys at my high school haven’t really been stellar, to say the least. Boys have told my friends they don’t want to date Asian girls because it’s weird to date someone outside of your race. Boys have told me that I would be really pretty if I weren’t Asian. Boys have straight up just said (to my face, no less!) that Asian chicks aren’t hot, anyway, and it’s all been enough to make me wholeheartedly believe that my Asianness makes me inherently 1. unattractive and, consequently, 2. undateable.

But here, in To All the Boys, there was a girl—the lead, in fact—who was Asian. And she was lovable and beautiful and powerful, and, while watching her antics, I, too, felt lovable and beautiful and powerful.

And then there was Peter Kavinsky.

It’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. The guy is attractive. It’s in the way he playfully cocks an eyebrow while sipping his milkshake, the way his eyes scrunch when he grins that grin, the way he so deftly spins Lara Jean with a nimble hand in the back pocket of her pants. 

But Peter Kavinsky, played by Noah Centineo, brought something far beyond his good looks to this film. He brought a presence of hope, one of the most fundamental aspects of the rom-com experience. When you watch these kinds of films, you hold a secret sliver of hope deep within your chest that maybe if you met the love interest in real life, they would like you back. Such a feeling was unfamiliar to me, because, again: how could I feel that hope when I resembled positively none of the stereotypically beautiful rom-com girls? 

Peter Kavinsky helped me feel that hope. 

Peter is not like those boys, the aforementioned High School Boys Who Are The Worst. He thinks Lara Jean is beautiful in her identity. He steals her scrunchies and drives across town to the Korean grocery store because he knows she loves that yogurt, damn it. 

Perhaps it seems that I’m celebrating a boy simply for not being racist, but this is not that. This is not a celebration of finally feeling attractive enough, making an Asian identity palatable enough, for a white gaze. It is about finding someone so different from all the other boys you’ve encountered, and still so in love with a girl so much like you. It gives you a glimmer of hope, a glimpse at normalcy, and an idea of the boys out there who will appreciate you for what you’re worth. And isn’t that the defining feature of the romantic comedy? Showing you situations, albeit unrealistic, that could be yours, and letting you play pretend?

 Peter Kavinsky represented everything the rom-com should have been for me from the start: safety, predictability, someone worth suspending your disbelief for. Someone I can suspend my disbelief for.

Of course, he is fictional. But that’s what makes this so special. For the first time, I could pretend that the heartthrob was in love with me, because he was touching the black hair that looked just like mine and staring into the eyes that looked just like mine.

For the first time, I had a movie that allowed me the experience of stepping into a character—here, Lara Jean—and pretending that the golden-haired heartthrob loved me. If only for an hour or two.

******

To All the Boys soon took on so much more meaning for me than just showing an Asian girl as desirable. It blossomed into a guidebook to having pride in an identity, a manifestation of everything I could be. That is the true importance of minority representation in media: representation shows you all the things you never thought you could have.

I had long assumed that, as an Asian-American, I would be forever bound to the metaphorical sidekick roles in life. Lara Jean was no sidekick. (I mean, did you see her strut across that lacrosse field?) And as I watched her story play out, I realized that I was no sidekick, either.

All this is not to say that there weren’t moments of sadness during the film. Lara Jean carried herself with a certain confidence, something that, for me, was always so close to being tangible but never quite materialized. Overdramatic as it sounds, I sobbed on the couch seeing her own her identity, because I wanted so badly to do the same. I think, though, that it was in these minutes of quiet loneliness that I realized I could do the same. Lara Jean’s power had been within me all along. All I had to do was harness it.

******

In a piece for The New York Times, Jenny Han wrote: “What would it have meant for me...to see a girl who looked like me star in a movie?”

Ms. Han, for me, it means possibility. It means hope, a peek at a place of confidence where I am proud of my identity. 

Ms. Han went on to say, “I hope teenage girls see Lana Condor and feel the way I felt about my teen idols… I hope they all end up on someone’s bulletin board.”

I hope Jenny Han and Lana Condor know that I’ve printed out photos of Lara Jean, in her knee socks and scrunchies, and tacked them to my bulletin board. 

And finally, Ms. Han wrote, “...when you see someone who looks like you, it reveals what is possible...This is why it matters who is visible. It matters a lot. And for the girls of 2018, I want more.” 

Me too.

“I want the whole world.”

I hope Jenny Han and Lana Condor and Noah Centineo know that they have given me so much.

The whole world.