After the blockbuster release of the first To All the Boys film in 2018, Jenny Han, author of the trilogy from which the franchise is adapted, wrote in Today, “To know that Korean-American Lara Jean Covey joins the ranks of Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles and Cher Horowitz in Clueless as iconic teen rom-com heroines feels historic and important.” And indeed, Lara Jean is perhaps the first of these American teen girl characters from the last 40 years who is both in their mold and isn’t a prototypical suburban white girl.
Like Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone before her, Lana Condor’s performance, wonderfully tender and more charismatic as the films go on, will help cement Lara Jean as one of these classic teen heroines. While Noah Centineo seemed, at first, to be the breakout star of the franchise, by the end of the third film, it’s Condor’s charm that lingers, not Centineo’s increasingly dim grin. The other, and primary, reason she will live on, is that Lara Jean is cut from the same cloth as those teen girl characters that have been fondly remembered decades after the fact. As Clueless’s Travis Birkenstock might say, the way I feel about Cher Horowitz is the way my kids are going to feel about Lara Jean.
But I wonder what that means and if that’s necessarily a good thing. My own references come mostly from Disney, the Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, and Lindsay Lohan characters of the aughts. They taught me about bras, hormones, and the importance of friendship, but the strongest impressions they left were those most often reinforced: that I must place a sacred emphasis on the rituals of the American public high school, like school dances and football games. That my chief antagonist in life would be a needlessly bitchy girl, and that any moment my efforts to be cool might be thwarted by some sort of public embarrassment. These are all tropes that recur in the TATB movies, with the instance of embarrassment — the circulation of Lara Jean’s “sex tape” — seeing itself resolved before the effect of public sexual humiliation on a teen girl is explored.
But you can trace Lara Jean farther back, to the teen heroines of the ’80s and ’90s. She doesn’t get a makeover, but it’s easy to see her similarities to another bookish, crafty introvert — Laney Boggs. This is emphasized by the required party scene from the first TATB film in which Peter Kavinsky takes Lara Jean as his date, only so she can be scoffed at by the needlessly bitchy girl. And while TATB isn’t entirely a story about a boy who tries to change a girl because she isn’t good enough, we still watch Lara Jean try, in the second film, to align herself with her idea of the “perfect girlfriend.” It’s an idea built on a long line of classic teen heroines and Peter’s instructions, which include the suggestion that Lara Jean dress as a cheerleader to support him at his lacrosse game.
And of course she does this, because as the films un-self-consciously explain, Lara Jean’s idea of love is thoroughly Hughesian, a kind of romance so regressive Ringwald herself took to The New Yorker to reevaluate her work with John Hughes following the events of Me Too. It’s an idea of love that shills white, male romantic heroes as the ideal, and makes them so unimpeachably perfect we might forget they’re an accessory to date rape. It’s an idea that teaches girls grand romantic gestures mean love and that virginity is a precious thing to be saved and the act of it being taken must be ecclesiastical or we’ve failed.
Lara Jean is so like Samantha Baker that Sixteen Candles, her favorite movie, is referred to several times throughout the first TATB film, and its elements recur throughout the trilogy. The strangest moment of this is when she and her sister watch it with Peter, and he points out that the character of Long Duk Dong, a famous example of anti-Asian racism in American cinema, is indeed racist.
It’s a scene that wouldn’t have existed 15 years ago, but I wonder what I would have taken from it had I seen it then. Perhaps Peter would get my seal of approval for noting racism. At the same time, I would have watched Lara Jean, the rare heroine who looked more like me than the others, excuse racism because the Jake Ryan character is hot. I’d then watch her fall for Peter Kavinsky — the Jake Ryan of the TATB universe — and I wouldn’t doubt for a second that I should aspire to be with someone like him.
And of course I did date the Jake Ryans of the world, because I saw the same thing 15 years ago. Save for a few exceptions — 10 Things I Hate About You’s Kat Stratford comes to mind — our most enduring teen girl characters not only share the same romantic aspirations but have failed to evolve beyond a shared set of traits marked by passivity, compliance, and insecurity. These are the things that make them iconic, and this only makes sense when we remember that the movies and shows about teenage girlhood in America are mostly things made by men for girls. (The first TATB film was directed by a woman, but the second two were directed by men.)
Perhaps the franchise’s greatest legacy is the positioning of Condor, a Vietnemese-American actress, as a teen icon in the image of an Alicia Silverstone or Hilary Duff. I’m optimistic that she’ll be afforded the same kind of opportunities as her white predecessors, given it has already been announced she’s starring in and executive-producing a new Netflix comedy.
As for Lara Jean, what I can say is that she’s a step in the right direction when it comes to what an archetypal, mainstream American teen girl looks and lives like; unlike those before her, she comes from a biracial family, sometimes wears hanboks, and drinks Yakult instead of Coke.
These things seem, especially for people like me who did grow up biracial in America, more like fun cultural signposts that work well for a Netflix movie than significant aspects of her Korean heritage. But my teenage self would have seen much more of her life in Lara Jean Covey’s than she did in Cher Horowitz’s. And I think that’s what Han meant when she said Lara Jean is historic and important — because in that sense, she is. In others, she’s just like all the rest.
To All the Boys: Always and Forever is out on Netflix now.