I’m not the type of person who watches one movie after another on long-haul flights, and usually spend the better part of the sixteen hours sleeping. The trip back from Hong Kong before the beginning of this semester ended up being one rare exception, however, because there was a crying baby in the seat next to me. I had no choice but to cycle through all the MCU movies they had (thank God), and afterwards, set my eye on a movie I had deliberately avoided seeing in the spring — Love, Simon.
Despite putting the movie’s soundtrack on repeat the moment it came out, and despite promising every one of my friends who went to opening weekend and raved about it afterwards that I would go see it, I never did after watching the trailer. You would think that as someone who loves rom-coms and never shuts up about representation, the premise itself is enough to make me want to go. Well, I thought so too, but the trailer didn’t sit well with me, and that feeling of vague discomfort persisted even after finally succumbing to my curiosity (and the tantrum-throwing infant) and watching the movie. Don’t get me wrong, Love, Simon did everything a good rom-com is supposed to — it made me laugh, made my heart melt at the happy ending, and even made me miss being a teenager — but for some reason I couldn’t name at the time, it wasn’t the movie I wanted.
That is, until I saw To All the Boys I Loved Before at a movie night on campus, only a few days later. Plenty of reviews about this Netflix summer hit, including the one by my fellow Arts writer Olivia Bono ’20, applauded the movie for having an Asian-American lead actress and sticking with the way Lara Jean is actually written in the original novel. What people haven’t talked about enough, though, is how even more remarkable it is to have an Asian-American lead in a movie not about being Asian-American. Throughout the movie, I kept expecting Lara Jean to be bullied for being mixed-race, to be criticized for having Asian physical features, or even just described to be good at math and science. None of these things happened, however, and the only Asian-specific or “relatable” little detail that comes up is her love for a yogurt drink which I also adore. Despite the lack of stereotypical racial identifiers or discussion of racial identity, however, she’s not any less Asian-American than, say, Rachel from Crazy Rich Asians. It was such a breath of fresh air to have a protagonist who doesn’t exist for the sole purpose of representing whatever group or issue the film seeks to represent, who carries her identity without being reduced to it. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before is a young love story at its core, just that the heroine happens to be Asian. What’s the big deal?
That’s when I realized what really bothered me about quite a few pieces of theater and film with PoC or LGBTQ+ protagonists I’ve seen lately. It is incredibly important that we have art engaging political and social conversations, such as those about race and sexuality, as that is one of the most crucial responsibilities of the arts. However, artists and creatives shouldn’t forget to make sure that their creations can exist as free-standing, independent pieces of work, rather than as puzzle pieces that are only meaningful when considered in the context of the “bigger picture.” Characters should not be relegated to representing an identity, and stories should not be reduced to supporting a viewpoint. Real people and real-life stories are full of complexity and contradictions, so creating characters and stories that serve a message or a cause, or worse, that pander to the public’s need for diversity and representation, betrays a fundamental purpose of creating art — to reflect life.
On top of that, representation comes in many flavors. One of those is for books, movies and plays to have characters of marginalized groups without focusing on the marginalization itself. Even though we know America today is still far from being post-racial or really, post-anything, being stuck in a place where we repeat the same ideas over and over again in arts and liberal media is not the way to real progress. That is not to say there shouldn’t be films that discuss racial discrimination, gender inequality, and LGBTQ+ rights. Make movies about the terrifying truth behind conversion therapy. Write songs about hate crimes and racial profiling. Put on theater about sexual assault and rape culture. Do all of that, but also make a teenage movie in which a boy falls in love with a boy and no one bats an eyelash. Make art that’s not just about what the world is or has been, but rather what we’d like it to be, because the “progressive” can only become the norm when we make it so.
I wish Love, Simon wasn’t about coming out. I wish Simon and Bram fell in love over shared love for music, books, or, I don’t know, pizza, rather than over both having something to hide from the world. I wish the younger kids who watched what’s arguably the first gay rom-com could’ve seen a love story that just happens to be about two boys. And above all, I wish one day I would put on a rom-com on Netflix and, no matter the gender, race or sexuality of the protagonist, not even a flicker of surprise can be found in the back of my mind.
Andrea Yang is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Five Minutes ‘Til Places runs alternate Mondays this semester.