Netflix's recent film featuring a non-white leading lady will do more for diversity in Hollywood than Crazy Rich Asians

As a mixed race British girl, I grew up seeing very little representation of people who looked like me in the films I was watching, but this may be changing

Lauren Chassebi
Monday 27 August 2018 18:39
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To All The Boys I've Loved Before teaser by Netflix

Receiving high amounts of praise from audiences for its cast made up almost entirely of Asian-American actors, Crazy Rich Asians is currently topping the box office, while bringing diversity to Hollywood on a mass scale.

The film has prompted a conversation around the question of whether we have enough diversity in Hollywood. But simultaneously – if with much less fanfare – another film has been adding to this representation in a more subtle way.

To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is a classic teen romance, based on a novel of the same name by Jenny Han and adapted to film by Netflix. It centres around Lara Jean, who becomes caught up in a love story when a handful of love letters she’s written are accidentally mailed out. It may sound like your typical teen drama, and in many ways it is. But what has led to To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before receiving attention and praise is that instead of succumbing to usual Hollywood typecasting, this classic coming of age movie centres around an Asian-American protagonist.

Why does this matter? In many respects, it shouldn’t. It should feel completely normal to us that an actor who isn’t white has been cast as the lead in a Hollywood budget film. However, to a mixed race British girl who has grown up seeing very little representation of people who looked like me in the films I was watching, Lara Jean’s character feels like a small step in the right direction towards diversity in Hollywood.

Crazy Rich Asians Clip - Come To Singapore

It wasn’t without difficulty that this representation came to be in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. In a New York Times column, author Jenny Han revealed that there was only one film producer she met who was willing to cast an Asian-American actress in the lead role.

For individuals who are used to seeing their own race represented in the films they watch, it may be easy to overlook just how important it can be to have characters like you to relate to.

I grew up longing to look like the slim, pale-faced girls that graced my screen. I’d look at my own skin and feel like I wasn’t good enough to imagine myself living the lives they did. On the rare occasion that I did see girls who looked like me in films, they were never the leading lady, but a quiet friend, or a character on the sidelines, who would disappear after a couple of lines, forgotten for the rest of the film.

Non-white characters are often typecast into these roles, where their entire character is limited to their race. It’s the rejection of this typecasting that makes Lara Jean’s character feel like a big deal. Instead of her entire character being based on the fact that she’s half-Korean, her race isn’t drawn to our attention. It’s only referenced by subtle nuances such as the food her dad cooks for dinner and the Korean supermarket where they shop. Rather than falling into the usual Hollywood stereotype of making her race a character mould, Lara Jean becomes our regular teen heroine, while at the same time representing a group that doesn’t often get to see themselves as the face of this type of story.

While Crazy Rich Asians offers diversity that makes a statement in the form of a full Asian cast, Netflix’s film is more subtle in its approach. Arguably, both of these films are steps in the right direction towards increasing diversity in Hollywood, but for me, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before has especially made a statement – one that says that Hollywood can do better, and that we deserve to see more non-white actors and actresses playing interesting and diverse characters, who are defined by more than just their race.

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