‘Diversity’ Is Complicated. Asian-American Rom Coms Make It a Little Simpler.
By J.D. ECARMA
Ali Wong’s Netflix film debut makes it official: Asian actors leading frothy romantic comedies is a trend. “Always Be My Maybe” is the latest in a string of delightful rom coms featuring Asian leads, after “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” made movies fun again in 2018, a dark year for movies that absolutely needed a splash of bright color.
Representation isn’t only about ending racist portrayals of people of color in film or showing tragic, true-to-life dramatic stories of struggle. Pure entertainment and fun shouldn’t be overlooked. Diversity doesn’t just mean giving every culture space to tell their hardest stories — it means people of color writing, directing and being cast in universal stories and a range of genres. Not every movie about black people will be “Precious” or “Moonlight,” for instance; some will be glossy, gorgeous superhero flicks like “Black Panther” or girlfriend comedies like “Girls Trip.”
And apparently, Asian-American stories are a perfect fit with the universal themes of the rom com.
Preceded by the screwball comedies of the 1930s, romantic comedy was a film genre pioneered by white Hollywood in a time where racism and whitewashing were the norm. But despite its roots, let’s not throw the delightful film genre out with the bathwater.
Is it a tragedy that for much of film history, acting was simply not an option unless you were white? Of course. I’m sure we missed out on countless talented artists who didn’t get the opportunity to write and perform in a still-racist film industry. While acknowledging that fact, I think we can take a moment to celebrate artists who are making up for lost time and children who get to grow up seeing themselves onscreen in this new golden age of diverse content.
Generally defined as a comedy about the obstacles between two romantic interests who get together at the end, the romantic comedy as a film genre taps into universal themes: the mystery of romantic attraction; the comedy brought on by human foibles and flaws; and the soothing formulaic structure we were taught to love in Disney cartoon fairy tales as kids. We should be happy to live in an age where we get to see people from a range of backgrounds in stories told with the light rom-com touch.
If it’s wrong to love the movies that got us here, “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” doesn’t want to be right, unashamedly referencing its biggest cultural influence: the work of iconic 1980s film director John Hughes.
What does a white male director have to do with a YA novel turned Netflix original movie about a Korean-American girl trying to survive high school? Hughes was arguably a pioneer in his time, helming hit films that starred Molly Ringwald and not only portrayed the struggles of adolescence but also showed Hollywood that movies about a young woman’s inner life and character development could be hits. Hughes and Ringwald made their mark as a creative pairing with rom coms “Sixteen Candles” and “Pretty in Pink” and the iconic high school movie “The Breakfast Club.”
In “To All the Boys,” Lara Jean (played by Lana Condor) talks about her Korean mom and acknowledges racism in some of the old movies she loves, but the movie isn’t so much about the Asian-American experience specifically as it is about the experience of any smart, funny, quietly-gorgeous-but-doesn’t-fit-in-with-the-”cool”-kids teen girl in your average American high school. “To All the Boys” is way more “Pretty in Pink” than it is “Joy Luck Club,” and that’s OK.
We don’t have to cast off older film history when it’s so much more fun to take it and build on it. Does it feel a little odd now to watch an ‘80s flick like “The Breakfast Club” or “St. Elmo’s Fire” and notice that every single character appears to be very white? A bit, yes — that’s just not the world we live in anymore now that media increasingly reflects what American society really looks like. Is “The Breakfast Club” still an iconic piece of film history and was the Hughes-Ringwald duo a trailblazer for more complex female characters in movies? Absolutely.
I’m glad we live in a world where “Crazy Rich Asians” gets to be a huge hit with multiple sequels in the works and Netflix subscribers are impatiently waiting for “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before 2.” But when people toss around the words “representation” and “diversity,” I struggle to find a way to articulate my experience, other than to say that “representation” has become a buzzword for something too layered, subjective and varied to be encapsulated in one word.
At 15, I loved getting to see Vanessa Hudgens in Disney’s surprise hit “High School Musical.” I loved that Hudgens’ family background was similar to my family background, loved that she looked more like me than anyone I’d seen onscreen before. Like me, she was a multi-racial, all-American girl, and she got to be the lead female character! Not the best friend! She sang an introspective dramatic solo in moodily lit school hallways! And she got the guy! Every teenage girl should get to see herself onscreen that way.
Representation is a funny thing. It often feels as if physical representation (in terms of seeing your specific racial and/or cultural background onscreen) is all-important, but I think there’s more to it. I was Gabriella partly because I was a bookish, shy Filipina-white girl, but I also related to her simply because I was in high school at the time. As someone who grew up American with one white parent and one Asian parent, I relate to Lara Jean and her all-American family of two mingled cultures … but at the same time, I’m sure white teen girls who watched and loved “To All the Boys” last year got to relate on a different level, one I can no longer access now that I’m in my late 20s.
We should all be allowed to find ourselves in art. My 16-year-old self didn’t relate any less to Taylor Swift because she’s white, blonde, blue-eyed. I was a teen girl in a small town, listening to her writing about being a teen girl in a small town, and I saw myself. At 16, I was the girl with a hopeless crush singing along to “Teardrops on My Guitar.” When “22” was playing on the radio, I was 22 and also finding it “miserable and magical.” I too moved to New York, put my broken heart in a drawer and embraced life again; and in my mid- and late 20s, I found that reputation was everything when no one cares about who you really are, but the few key people who stick around are worth it. Love, loss, struggle, hope, triumph — these are universal themes, part of the human experience and definitely part of every rom com.
Funny and lighthearted and silly as they may seem, romantic comedies are secretly about what matters most to all of us: love, family, community, the things that make up a life. Maybe that’s why it feels so important to see a new diverse landscape in this movie genre. Maybe “diversity” is a paradox, seeing racial background and culture as something to be taken very seriously and yet not seriously at all, both at the same time.