If you’re living with a teenage girl, or know one, or, like me, harbour an obsessive and abnormal predilection for formulaic teenage rom-coms, or any rom coms for that matter, you have likely seen one or more of the popular film franchise or series topping Netflix’s streaming ladder of late.
‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ (Parts 1, 2 and 3), ‘Never Have I Ever’ (two seasons), ‘The Kissing Booth’ (Parts 1, 2 and 3) are mega blockbuster Netflix stories which have amassed a mammoth fan-base, and for good reason.
‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ broke Hollywood convention when it cast an Asian female lead. ‘Never Have I Ever’ carved similar grounds, where our heroine leads a comedy-drama series as an Indian-American. And ‘The Kissing Booth’?
Well, I don’t think it paves any new grounds, but it’s accrued an incredibly large and loyal bunch of fans. (Probably something to do with the unfathomably good-looking Aussie star Jacob Elordi who plays the male love interest, albeit with little to no personality or charisma).
But despite the critical development around diversity and inclusion these stories have made, they remain problematic in perhaps the most harmful way: at the end of each movie, our strong female heroines make bad romantic decisions.
They all choose the rather dull, boring jock to be their boyfriends. And I’m not sure that sends the right message to young girls in 2021.
In ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’, (2018) Lara Jean Covey is a Korean American teenager who makes a deal with the high school heartthrob, Peter Kavinsky, to pretend-date in order to make his ex-girlfriend jealous. This is literally the kind of self-inflicting, emotionally wounding behaviour you do not want your daughters to do.
They eventually realise they actually do like each other (erm, why? They have nothing in common) and decide to date for real by the end of the film.
In Part 2, ‘To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You’ (2020) Lara Jean encounters a new romantic problem (one so few of us actually face in real life) where she finds herself the romantic interest of two boys simultaneously: her boyfriend, Peter Kavinsky, who seems to be more interested in playing football and is always checking himself out in a passing window or reflection, and John Ambrose, a childhood friend who she reunites with at the retirement home they both volunteer.
John is kind, sweet-natured, a talented musician, and, most importantly, considerate of others (something that her boyfriend Peter seems to completely lack.)
In one scene, when a bunch of their friends gather in a treehouse with pizza, Peter has a dig at John for once having a stutter.
“Does anyone want the last slice?” Lara Jean asks her friends, like a normal, decent human being would.
“Too slow,” Peter chuckles, taking the last piece of pizza and shoving it into his mouth. This is telling, because earlier in the movie, John had asked our heroine about her new boyfriend.
“Is he… is he still like he was in middle school?” he asked.
“What does that mean?” Lara Jean says.
“I mean like, okay, at parties and stuff, he would always take the last slice of pizza.”
Clearly, he has not evolved into a polite, decent, considerate human being.
So Lara Jean has to choose between John and Peter. If you were the mother of these daughters, or a friend, or anyone who cares for a young woman’s wellbeing and health, you’d have no qualms in nudging her towards the former, and getting her to stay clear of a selfish man like the latter.
Yet in the end, Lara Jean still chooses Peter.
In the final to the trilogy, ‘To All the Boys Always and Forever’, released in January this year, our characters are about to head off to college, and our heroine is stuck between two incredibly hard choices — UC Berkeley or NYU. Peter’s got a scholarship to Stanford, (as all jocks in teen rom coms do) so staying in the west coast seems like the ‘good girlfriend’ thing to do. Yet a quick trip to New York City alters something in Lara Jean and she realises the city is her true calling.
She decides to end things with Peter, thinking long-distance is really rather impossible and unnecessary. But love prevails in the end — in the final moments of the film, Peter asks for one more chance, and she caves. They will ‘try to make it work’. These kids are eighteen and already deciding who they’re ‘meant to be with for the rest of our lives.’
Support female-led journalism and join Women’s Agenda Extra today where you’ll gain access to a free 6-month subscription to digital library Scribd, with access to more than 2 million eBooks, audiobooks, podcasts, mag titles, sheet music and much more.
Our heroine in ‘The Kissing Booth’ has to make a similar wretched decision in Part 3, between going to UC Berkeley or Harvard — east coast to be with her boyfriend, Noah Flynn, or west coast to be with her best friend, Lee — who also happens to be Noah’s little brother.
Beyond the several problematic issues that spring out of the entire trilogy of films (eg. Noah is violent, smashing his fist into a boy’s face within the first ten minutes of the first film and telling our heroine, Elle, that wearing a short skirt is ‘asking for it’), what I find most egregiously misleading and irritating is how casually and effortless all these teenagers seem to have the choice of attending these Ivy League — Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford.
In reality, these colleges are extremely hard to get into, and often serve only the most privileged and wealthy youths of America.
Physical aggression is also still a marker for how we value boys and men, and the girls leading these stories still seem to be drawn to men who know how to exert bodily violence. In ‘He’s All That’ (Yes, I am a genuine teen-rom-com-cult-follower) our ‘loser-turned-Prom-King’ male lead wins over a million fans and our heroine, played by Tik-Tok star Addison Rae, by winning a punch-up with her ex-boyfriend at a pool party.
Except for Mindy Kaling’s ‘Never Have I Ever’, these movies all are based on YA novels that have collectively sold more than 3 million copies worldwide. Teenagers like these stories. They sell.
What else sells? Harmful stories that show vulnerable, smart, undervalued girls choosing really bad boyfriends.
Throughout the two seasons of ‘Never Have I Ever’, our heroine, Devi, is belittled, ignored, used and manipulated by the high school jock, Paxton Hall-Yoshida. She has the chance to date someone kinder, more thoughtful, more generous and sweet, but it seems in 2021, physical attractiveness remains the most important measure of desirability when it comes to choosing our partners.
The end of season two took an extremely disappointing turn when Devi chooses Paxton to be her boyfriend, stripping away any sense of jubilant triumph I felt at the end of season one, when she kisses the kinder, more thoughtful, more generous and sweet boy in her class. I thought, finally, a show that teaches young girls how to make the right decisions when it comes to choosing a generous and giving partner.
But then they went and twisted it. It’s time we ask for stories where our female characters show us the kind of real-life decision making skills that will improve our lives, not diminish it – we need heroines who choose male partners who see the true value of them.