The romantic comedy has always held a contentious place in modern American culture. From classic ’30s and ’40s screwball comedies such as Howard Hawks His Girl Friday (1940) to the sex comedies of the ’60s such as Michael Gordon’s Pillow Talk (1959) to the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks comedies of the ’90s such as Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, audiences have flocked to these “feel good” films. Critics, however, have not always been as complimentary. In 2014, writing for The Daily Beast, Andrew Romano declared “The Romantic Comedy Is Dead“. The declaration sparked a series of polarized responses from echoing attacks (Emily Yahr writing for The Washington Post) to earnest defenses (Jen Chaney writing for Vulture).
Then, in early summer of 2018, buzz began about Netflix’s adaptation of Jenny Han‘s 2014 young adult novel, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, (Simon & Schuster). The trailer released in early summer, and critics were already declaring that the film would save the genre upon its release in August. Refinery29 predicted that the film would contribute to a “rom-com revival” and Vox‘s culture writers declared a “hopeful future” for the genre.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, directed by Susan Johnson, follows the traditional narrative arc of the romantic comedy – encounter (or meet cute), complication, and resolution. The premise is that 16-year-old Lara Jean (Lana Condor) writes love letters to all the boys she’s loved, storing them in a hat box without the intention of ever sending them until one day her little sister, Kitty (Anna Cathcart), mails them. The result produces some awkward moments for Lara Jean as some of the boys from her past confront her upon receiving these love notes. Lara Jean is particularly mortified at having her older sister’s boyfriend, Josh (Israel Broussard), be the recipient of one of the letters, and in order to throw him off the trail, she takes up a fake relationship with one of the most popular boys in school, Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo). Peter benefits from the deal as well; he’s interested in pursuing this fake relationship to make his ex-girlfriend Gen (Emilija Baranac) jealous.
While on the surface, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before seems like a traditional romantic comedy, it varies in some significant ways. Most obviously, the film features an Asian American protagonist (Lara Jean’s father is white, her mother, who is dead, was of Korean descent; Condor is a Vietnamese-born American actress) and Asian American supporting characters (Lara Jean’s sisters, Margot, played by Janel Parrish and Kitty, played by Anna Cathcart). Critics, including Han herself, have noted this casting is revolutionary for a genre whose lead roles are often occupied by white women and men. Further, the film clearly critiques one of the most damaging Asian stereotypes in rom-coms of the past – that of the portrayal of Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), the exchange student in director John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles (1984). This visibility of Asian American characters on screen is incredibly important in a film industry whose diversity issues have been in the spotlight as of late.
To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before troubles the genre of the romantic comedy in other significant ways, too, most notably through the portrayal of the heroine and hero. While her sister’s actions seem to imply that Lara Jean is not a character in charge of her own fate, Lara Jean is very much a romantic comedy heroine with agency, and Peter is a hero with respect for the heroine, particularly in regard to her sexual boundaries. Writing these lead characters as such, Han and Johnson have produced a romantic heroine and a hero who better reflect the values of the #MeToo movement.
Traditionally, the heroines of rom-coms are portrayed as passive objects waiting for their admirers to come to their senses. In classic romantic comedies, heroines such as Samantha from Sixteen Candles and Diane Court (Ione Skye) from Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything (1989) prevail. In that film, Samantha pines for Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling) until he comes to the realization that he loves her; Diane finally declares her love for Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack), but the relationship cannot begin until he decides that he wants Diane. Lara Jean’s character could play that way, but she doesn’t. From the beginning of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean takes charge of her own fate. When drawing up their fake relationship contract, Lara Jean makes her conditions clear to Peter. She explicitly outlines what behaviors the “couple” can and cannot engage in (no kissing because, as Lara Jean explains, she doesn’t want all her firsts to be fake).
Additionally, Lara Jean doesn’t wait for Peter to make the declaration of love, or grand gesture, so often performed by the hero in the traditional rom-com. In movies such as Say Anything or 10 Things I Hate About You (Gil Junger, 1999), the hero dramatically declares their love for the heroine in a key scene of the film – in the former, John Cusack’s character stands outside Diane’s window with a boom box, in the later, Heath Ledger’s character leads the marching band in a rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” in order to woe Julia Stiles’s character. Even more contemporary, “independent” heroines such as Julia Roberts’s character in Garry Marshall’s Pretty Woman (1990) or Mila Kunis’s character in Friends with Benefits (Will Gluck, 2011) wait for the declaration of love; in Roberts’ case, her Prince Charming (Richard Gere) shows up in a white limo while in Kunis’s case the declaration is accompanied by a flash mob.
By contrast, Lara Jean initiates the grand gesture, not once, but twice, in the film. On the ski trip, she is the one who goes to a waiting Peter when her friend, Lucas, points out that Peter is smitten and “probably waiting for you in the hot tub.” And, in fact, Peter is waiting for Lara Jean in the hot tub, but it is Lara Jean who approaches him for their first kiss there. Then, at the end of the film, Lara Jean overcomes her fear of driving to school and presents Peter with a real love letter before the two kiss. This role reversal – just like the title of the movie exchanges “boys” for “girls” (” To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before” is the title of a 1975 song made popular in the ’80s by Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson) – puts the heroine in the position of power – a point even more significant, as Lara Sirikul notes in her article for Bitch, when thinking about the portrayal of Asian American women as “weak” and “submissive” in past roles.
This self-reliance on the part of the heroine is important in terms of modernizing the genre of the romantic comedy, and Johnson’s reworking of the hero, in turn, is also important. In her article for The Atlantic, Julie Beck reports on a study out of the University of Michigan which concluded that male behaviors in romantic comedies often parallel the behavior of stalkers. The trope in rom-coms of “persistent pursuit”, a term used by the leader (Julia Lippman) of the study, is all too common. Lippman notes that often in these films the idea is “‘if you [the hero] put in the time, you’re entitled to her.’ What she might want in the situation is really beside the point. Because really she does want you, she just hasn’t realized it yet.” By including a resolution with a happy ending, these films reinforce the message that this behavior is acceptable.
Peter, by contrast, does not fulfill this stereotype. If anything, as shown earlier, he’s the one taking cues from Lara Jean. He’s respectful of her boundaries (i.e. ,the no kissing condition of the contract and being the recipient of the grand gestures) – a quality not always upheld in rom-coms whose “persistent pursuit” behaviors are rewarded. In an article for The New Yorker, Molly Ringwald revisits such films as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, the classic comedies that she starred in, in the ’80s. She remembers the moment in The Breakfast Club when John Bender (Judd Nelson) hides from a teacher under the table. She notes that, while the film doesn’t explicitly show it, the implication was that Bender was looking up the skirt of the character Claire, who Ringwald plays, and touching her inappropriately.
In Sixteen Candles, the girlfriend of hero Jake Ryan gets drunk at a party and passes out upstairs. Ryan declares at one point that he could “violate her ten different ways if [he] wanted to.” These issues of consent should resonate with contemporary audiences who have seen the sexual misconduct of male Hollywood executives like Harvey Weinstein, and actors like Louis C.K., dominate the headlines of late. Having Lara Jean articulate terms of her relationship with Peter and having Peter respect those boundaries sets up a much healthier dynamic, which is particularly important in a teen romance whose primary audience may be encountering such situations on their own for the first time.
The conclusion of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before reinforces these dynamics between the heroine and hero. At the end of the film, Lara Jean’s high school classmates attempt to slut shame her when Gen, Peter’s jealous ex-girlfriend, posts a “sex tape” on Instagram of Peter and Lara Jean in the hot tub. Peter corrects the misconception to all the students sniggering in the hall, and while his instinct is to confront Gen on Lara Jean’s behalf, he respects Lara Jean’s decision when she declares, “This is a fight I have to handle myself.” She corners Gen in the bathroom with the accusation, “It’s bad enough if a guy were to do this, but the fact that a girl did? It’s despicable.” This moment not only condemns the slut shaming of women by men in romantic comedies, but it also points out the loathsome behavior of some women in these films.
Often, in romantic comedies, we see a side character being shamed or even punished for her interest in sex. This character serves as a foil to the chaste, virginal heroine and as a warning to viewers. In Sixteen Candles, Caroline becomes the joke of the film when she ends up with the school nerd Ted (Anthony Michael Hall). In Roger Kumbel’s The Sweetest Thing (2002), Selma Blair’s character, with her fervent appetite for sex, is the only one who remains single at the end of the film. Even more significant is that the greatest complication of the film – the posting of the hot tub video on Instagram – is solved by Margot, Lara Jean’s oldest sister, who emails Instagram and asks them to take the video down. The film not only condemns slut shaming but the all too common posting of revenge porn. The message, then, of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is not only one of girl power but also one of women empowering other women.
The ending of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is peppered with allusions to romantic comedies of the past – a dramatic drive with time running out (a nod to all those airport scenes), puddles in the parking lot (a nod to all those scenes of characters running in the rain), a field (10 Things I Hate about You or Raja Gosnell’s 199 film, Never Been Kissed), the dramatic music. Jenny Han has even said that Cher from Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995) inspired Lara Jean’s wardrobe in the closing scene. But the grand gesture reads a bit differently – and not just because it’s Lara Jean who initiates the kiss.
When Lara Jean first approaches Peter, he sees that she’s holding a letter, presumably a love letter for him. At first, he playfully grabs it, but then when he sees what it is, he becomes serious and says, “If you want me to read that, you need to give that to me.” This line says so much about their relationship and so much about how this movie differs from rom-coms of the past. It puts Lara Jean, the heroine, in the active position of writer, distinct from the role of heroes such as Andrew Lincoln’s character in Richard Curtis’s Love, Actually (2003) who presents Kiera Knightly’s character with scrawled declarations of love on cue cards. Indeed, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before portrays Peter as respectful of Lara Jean, unlike say, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in Sharon McGuire’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001) who reads Bridget’s diary without asking. In rewriting the roles of the romantic comedy heroine and hero, Jenny Han and Susan Johnson present viewers with a romantic comedy that updates the genre’s gender dynamics for the #MeToo era. It’s about time.