In the span of just a few weeks, the entire internet has fallen in love with Netflix's teen rom-com To All the Boys I've Loved Before. The story follows Lara Jean Song Covey (played by Lana Condor), a shy high schooler who writes love letters to her crushes then seals them away. Her world is rocked when someone mails her letters to her crushes and suddenly she has five viable suitors knocking on her door.
One of the reasons the movie is so celebrated is it's diversity. Lara Jean is mixed race, her mother is Korean and father is white, and the film nods to a lot of her Korean culture. One of her love interests even drives across town to buy Lara Jean her favorite Korean Yogurt Smoothie.
Since many production companies still shy away from Asian leads (several actually wanted to whitewash this film), the movie is being applauded by fans and critics across the board. But with any film thrust into the pop culture stratosphere, criticisms quickly rolled in, including fans who wondered why all of Lara Jean's viable love interests were white. To be fair, one of her crushes was black but he turned out to be gay and the two quickly became platonic friends once her letters came out.
The Cut asked Condor about her thoughts on the critique and the 21-year-old opened up about her own interracial relationship—and with it a big can of worms.
"We tried to stay really close to the book and they weren’t written that way," she began. "If Jenny [Han, the writer of the book of the same title] was telling a different story, we would tell it." Later in the interview, she adds, "I think it would also have been strange if they just randomly made one of the characters Asian just because."
That's not exactly true: they did change some characters from the book. As NextShark points out, Han’s novel does not specify the race of any of her crushes. The names of the boys her letters are mailed to are Josh Sanderson, Peter Kavinsky, John Ambrose McClaren, Kenny Donati, and Lucas Krapf, which all do sound pretty Caucasian. But Lucas Krapf was actually renamed Lucas James in the film, who they then cast a black actor for.
Condor goes on, "I will say this: My boyfriend in real life is Cuban but he is very light-skinned. There are times when people online will say, 'Of course she’s with a white guy.' Oh, so Asian people can only love Asian people? I can only be with my race?"
"You are being racist unknowingly and continuing to put us in a box that we don’t need to be in. It’s really unfair. People should be able to love who they want to love. It’s offensive to me—you’re continuing to promote tribalism. So I can’t be with who I want to be with? These are probably the same people who have an issue with the LGBT community. It’s the same thing—you telling me who I can love is unfair."
Whew. Comparing Instagram comments about dating a white guy to LGBT people's uphill battle to love freely is quite a reach.
Obviously, Condor should be able to love who she wants to love - and she can. With only 17% of all marriages having interracial partners, many Americans may still feel pressured into marrying people of their own race or ethnicity. But Condor's comments don't address that, and are instead a dismissal of TATBILB simply having one non-white leading man while simultaneously defending her own interracial relationship from criticism.
That's not the problem here per se, just the lack of representation. Hollywood has a narrow definition of what an interracial relationship looks like and they usually only show couples with one white partner, as if whiteness is mandatory for a couple to be palatable for public consumption. Especially considering how Asian men are treated in Hollywood, some would think it's the responsibility of the underrepresented to prop up one another and give each other a platform.
John Chu, the Chinese-American director of this month's box office hit Crazy Rich Asians agrees.
"Beauty is sort of set by the media," Chu told The Undefeated. "When someone like Leonardo DiCaprio has a very specific look, before him, was that look really desired? No. Then all of a sudden Leonardo DiCaprio becomes the guy and anyone at any high school that kind of looks like him becomes popular. Anyone who kind of looks like Kim Kardashian is suddenly so beautiful. It redefines what beauty is. It’s our responsibility to expand that idea and show these amazing Asian men in the light, prop them up so they can be as stylish, fit or gentlemanly as any old classic Hollywood movie star or modern action star. [It’s] important because it literally affects people who are in high school, grade school, college—because people see that as beauty.”
Not without irony, in To All the Boys I've Loved Before, Peter and Lara Jean watch Sixteen Candles and point out how racist Long Duck Dong's character is. Asian men have long been reduced to sidekicks, jokes, and sexless for decades in American cinema. To this day, Asian men are the least desirable group on dating apps. The critique is reasonable, and it would've been nice for To All the Boys to challenge that notion.
Condor does acknowledge that later in the interview, "Of course, there’s a demand for Asian male romantic leads. And Jenny says it too. There are so many stories to tell and we are just scratching the surface. We’re proud of our story and the movie we made. All of us feel like we’re a part of something really special. I’m not going to let anyone ruin that. It’s baby steps."
So who is Lana Condor fighting for? By dismissing the idea of an Asian male love interest but advocating for her right to date a white boy without comment, it seems like Condor is missing the point of the critiques. And comparing her interracial relationship to LGBT discrimination is simply unfair. At the end of the day, Lana, you can love who you want to love without fear. You won't have to worry about holding hands with your boyfriend. Your sexual orientation is protected under the law in every state. And you're certainly going to be able to get that wedding cake.