How the recent Netflix film ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ called all my internalized ideas of race and romance into question.
Falling in love with Peter Kavinsky—right along with Lara Jean—shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. And not just because of his swoon-inducing smile, his ability to make a back-pocket spin in the middle of a cafeteria look downright sinful, or even his impressive emotional depth, either. Rather, I love him—as so many other grown-ass women now do—because I have spent my life falling in and out of love with Peter Kavinskys, just as I was trained to.
I should begin by saying that my now, maybe not-so-former infatuation with a seemingly never-ending list of white boys is my hidden shame. As a young black woman who came of age at a flashpoint in our nation’s relationship to and dialogue about race, it’s the dirty little secret I aimed to bury once I reached adulthood. I’d promised myself it would go the way of my heinous Aeropostale tee collection and my hot pink Samsung SEEK: matured past, grown out of.My maybe not-so-former infatuation with a seemingly never-ending list of white boys is my hidden shame. Click To Tweet
While I was never the type of girl to pour her feelings out onto the page like Lara Jean—for fear of making them tangible would make them too real, perhaps—I was the type of girl who daydreamed. Who imagined herself tangled in all sorts of intricate, decidedly un-Indiana romances with the kinds of boys that populated all of my favorite stories: the sensitive nerdy musician type a la Nick O’Leary (Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist), the bad boy with a troubled past in John Bender (The Breakfast Club) and especially the, “It’s your dream dad, not mine!” star jock and secret poet of Austin Ames (A Cinderella Story). These characters, or what I thought these characters embodied, helped me formulate what would become The Perfect Boy™.
The “White” following “Perfect” kind of just went without saying. (The “Boy” and not “Girl” or “Nonbinary Person,” on the other hand, was reiterated strongly and often.)
You should know that I’ve only ever dated people of color. Even in high school, my not-so-spectacular track record with almost-boyfriends is exclusively black. Somewhere deep, somewhere beyond the formula of book-and-movie boyfriends I’d concocted, I was still much more interested in finding kinship and solace and—I can’t believe I’m gonna say this about my high school “ex”, but here we go—passion with other people who looked like me than I was with finding my Kavinsky.
But the white boy thing was more than an embarrassing blip on the radar of my adolescence—my longing for these boys was the product of a sound indoctrination from years of white media consumption.
To All the Boys I Loved Before (both the book and the movie) subverted narratives in which the quirky white girl is the one deemed worthy enough to get the get The Perfect Boy™—girls like the one I was relegated to background roles and left romance-less by the end of the story—in so many of the right ways. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before created, for me, a rich world of beautiful, smart young women that neither relied on men to uplift them not validate them. But, you know, it was sort of a perfect bonus when that happened too.
Even now, weeks after its release, my inbox still occasionally pings with messages from friends watching it for the first time. Today, for instance, one of my closest friends couldn’t even wait for the credits to roll before she texted me. She said she’d tried to get away from her love of romances, but this managed to draw her right back in. There were moments throughout where she worried she’d have to turn it off, abandon it once it followed the same trajectory of so many of its predecessors.
“I just knew [Peter Kavinsky] had to do something to ruin things. I just knew there was no way they could end up together,” she said. “The happy ending just felt impossible.”
So many of us were waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the catch. The first time I watched it, I just knew that the inevitable breakdown seen was right around the corner. The part of the story where the young bookish girl, or so often the woman of color, has what seems like a light at the end of the tunnel, extinguished. Where she encounters some sort of embarrassment, some unearthed trauma that precludes her from a happy ending without also enduring great suffering.
The perceived impossibility of To All the Boys, I realize, is at the heart of why I loved it—why I found myself clicking replay before we’d even reached the brief mid-credits scene. The image of a young, smart, bookish woman of color falling in love without grief (related to the relationship) or shame on screen felt too big to assign a name. Felt too close to a dream not to hold tight to it, to close my eyes and will myself back to a world in which those things still seemed attainable.
Half of the story is the fact I didn’t grow up with images of young girls of color falling in love on screen at all, let alone with a heartthrob like Kavinsky. But the other half—perhaps the half that’s even more harrowing—is that I certainly didn’t see us falling in love separate from trauma, or rarer still, with another person of color.
I watched and read hundreds of stories in which the luckiest girls fell in love and rode off into the sunset—often in a cool Jeep!—with their Prince Charming. And that Prince Charming always looked like Peter Kavinsky. Peter Kavinsky—and by extension, Peter and Lara Jean’s fauxlationship—was everything, but it was also precisely what I’ve been implicitly taught to desire. In this way, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before did what so many of its genre forebears had done before it.
And the thing is, I’m not asking this movie to be some wild break from the genre. I don’t even really want that of this particular film. What I do want, though, is thousands of different narratives about what it looks like for girls from all backgrounds to fall in love. We deserve every iteration of story in which young women of color get to fall in love with a sweet, emotionally-adept, whatever-trope-suits-your-fancy partner.
So much of what makes To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before an unbelievably awe-inspiring, tweet-worthy movie, particularly for adults like me, is the element of unconscious wish fulfillment. Like, of course I’m not a teenage girl in a hyper white space, yearning for a story about a bookworm woman of color who falls in love—period, let alone with the “it” guy—anymore. And of course I’m no longer relying on these images to help me feel worthy of love and affection in the way I once was. But I’ve been sitting with that same yearning since then. That girl, the me who needed those things so desperately when she was a kid, never went away, she just evolved.
But even in that evolution, there are moments of deeply troubling considerations about what my love of Peter Kavinsky and this story might mean. Is it him, this particular character and this particular actor, or does my desire speak to something greater?
I’m 24 years old and settled into a community of black folks—friends and found family alike—that not only affirm, but uplift me. Everyday I am reminded of the beauty and brilliance of our people. And I am reminded of my own beauty and brilliance, by extension. This is a far cry from my hometown in suburban Indiana, from an upbringing that was largely populated by people and spaces that could do neither of those things. But that juxtaposition only serves to ground me more firmly in what I know to be true: one of my greatest gifts is that I was born to this black body, and can love other people who share it.
Yet, knowing those things doesn’t automatically undo the years of isolation and forced assimilation I endured to get here. Knowing those things doesn’t automatically help me unlearn the lies I internalized about myself and any potential partners who looked like me.One of my greatest gifts is that I was born to this black body, and can love other people who share it. Click To Tweet
What I’m saying is shaking this doesn’t happen for all of us overnight. I’m saying that the mechanisms of white supremacy are complex and, oftentimes, hidden in plain sight. If I spent a lifetime both abhorring and simultaneously craving the white male gaze, then it’s going to take some time—ruminating on my understandings of desire and shame and identity—to walk back the decades of deeply entrenched ideologies which taught me to aspire to finding my happy ever after in the arms of a white man.