#GeekGirlTalk: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

Who We Are Vaguely and in Terms Only of the Media We Seek Out Most Often:

Teal (roman type!)
Literally any teen TV show, YA, women’s and feminist media, everything Star Trek

Hanna (italics, baby!)
Reality TV, memoirs, romance novels, anything British, any podcast ever

Welcome to #GeekGirlTalk, a (biased, subjective, opinionated) conversation about the pop culture we’re currently loving, hating, and obsessing over. For February, and to kick off a 2020 full of #GeekGirlTalk, we’re reflecting on To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and the special place teen rom coms hold in our hearts. 

I, like everyone else in the world, fell in love with To All the Boys when it premiered on Netflix in the summer of 2018. For whatever reason, I hadn’t read the books, so I went in with almost no preconceptions. I’m not the biggest of movie fans, so it’s notable that that summer I watched it twice back-to-back and have returned to it several times in the past year and a half.

Hanna, we can get into the sequel (if we must), but first, I want to try and articulate why I think of this movie as such a triumph of its genre. To start, I must admit that I am very, extremely in favor of the Fake Boyfriend trope. It’s definitely my favorite romance trope and also maybe my favorite fiction trope in general. Not only do I think that it reliably adds the tension and drama we’re all seeking in our love stories, but I also find that it more consistently centers actual emotional closeness than other common tropes can or, at least, do. One of my biggest pet peeves about stories with romantic plots is how much so many of them rely on readers just believing in the emotional closeness of the characters without its development actually being reflected in the text. Now that I think about it, in my mind I tend to frame the Fake Boyfriend (and all of its more tangential iterations) as the opposite of the Soul Mate in terms of romance fiction. And, honestly, I think that while obviously the average person is not actually getting into that many fake-romantic-partner situations over the course of their life, the relationship-building that accompanies the trope is wildly more applicable to our real lives than the kind of situational drama that comes with finding (and then losing and then reuniting with) a quote unquote Soul Mate. I know we generally agree on most of this, Hanna, but I’d really love to hear what you think in re: the Fake Boyfriend potentially being the best romance trope out there. I also want to acknowledge that Fake Boyfriend stories can depend heavily on heteronormativity in way that erases the experiences of and/or is inaccessible to queer folks, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on that piece of things as well.

Lara Jean writing out a contract for her fake relationship with Peter AKA a woman taking her wants and needs and boundaries seriously! Our hero! [Image Description: Lara Jean sits at a picnic table with her blue pen poised over a notebook. She’s wearing an all-pink outfit and her hair is in a ponytail.] Source: IndieWire

I think that’s exactly it—the Fake Boyfriend trope is so satisfying because it allows for the central characters to form a believably complex, well-developed relationship without the author (or movie-maker, etc.) relying on the reader (or viewer, etc.—you get it) to suspend their disbelief that these characters are Soul Mates after two days of knowing each other. In that way, I think that the Fake Boyfriend is such a wonderful antidote to insta-love. For me, at least, I don’t want characters to just tell me that they have a crush, that they’re attracted to each other, that they’re in love—I want to see how it develops over time and what makes their particular connection specific to them. That, for me, is the best part of any rom com.

For me, there’s also something about the way that the Fake Boyfriend trope explores the boundary between fantasy and reality, acting and being. Maybe it’s the way that it creates a space for a real relationship to form within the safety of fantasy, of a pretend reality that the characters are creating together. As someone who, for the entirety of my adolescence, felt so much safer reading, watching, and wondering about romantic relationships rather than actually having them, the Fake Boyfriend trope appeals to the part of me that recognizes the importance of fantasy as a way to safely encourage exploration, self-knowledge, and confidence.

Like you said, though, the Fake Boyfriend trope isn’t accessible to everyone. Though there are a million ways to queer the trope (and I would love any rom com that did exactly that!), in some ways, the trope itself feels like it’s about two characters pretending to be in a relationship that is deemed normative—or, at least, more normative than the reality of their situation. For instance, even though Lara Jean and Peter are considered to be an odd couple, it’s more normative for them to pretend to be dating than to explain to their entire high school that she writes passionate letters to her crushes that she never intends to send and that he is trying to make his popular ex-girlfriend jealous. I wonder how the same trope would play out for a non-het couple.

Exactly! That’s the second thing I want to highlight about To All the Boys: The story not only centers but also actively legitimizes Lara Jean’s internal life. In many ways, it’s a story first about a girl and her vibrant fantasy life and then about her new romantic relationship. I find that our romance media tends to idealize girls and women who find themselves in intense romantic dynamics despite having bigger and more important priorities in general. For Lara Jean, taking her feelings and her needs and her wants seriously is a priority in itself. I think this is an invaluable message, especially in our stories about femmes and young people. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest that we don’t have a problem with overvaluing romantic love in general, but I do think that we also undervalue (at best, ignoring and at worst, belittling) emotional intensity and emotional self-awareness, particularly as it shows up for women and queer people. With that context in mind, I think of To All the Boys as a study in the trueness of that facet of our internal lives and an example of how it can coexist with and enhance our relationships with other people. 

The first scene of the movie is literally a materialization of Lara Jean’s fantasy! [Image Description: Lara Jean walking through a field of grass and tossing her long black hair over her shoulder with her hand. She’s wearing a long dark red dress.] Source: Tumblr

Okay, this is probably obvious from everything I said before, but I COULDN’T AGREE WITH YOU MORE. The thing that I find so interesting about To All the Boys is that, even though I love it and I’m rooting for Lara Jean’s relationship with Peter, I don’t even really care about Peter at all. (Maybe some of this is my reaction to the second movie leaking through….) He’s perfectly fine and fills the Fake-Boyfriend-Turned-Actual-Boyfriend role well enough, but what is so interesting and relatable and fun about the movie is just how much time it spends on Lara Jean’s internal romantic/fantasy/emotional life. I think that it’s telling that the emotional pinnacle of each of Lara Jean’s crushes up until the letters get out is the act of writing the letters themselves. Her relationship “to all the boys she’s loved before” has existed mainly through small moments that become larger, more significant, and more intense primarily in her mind. And what’s refreshing is that this is never meant to be seen as delusional or silly. The intensity of Lara Jean’s internal emotional life is what’s important, not her interactions with the boys themselves. 

Like you said, Teal, I loved that romance doesn’t enter into Lara Jean’s life because of a Soul Mate. Peter is cute and funny and they have a connection, but he isn’t the beginning of her romantic world—she’s been creating one all along.

Despite my earlier hinting, I don’t think this is ultimately the place to dive into the second To All the Boys movie, though its release is definitely why the series has been on our minds. (I’ve even finally started reading the book!) Let’s get into it together, though. What did y’all think of P.S. I Still Love You? I think I speak for us both when I say that we’re beyond eager to know your thoughts. We’ll be chatting about it on Twitter @TealChristensen and @HuppTwoThree, so tell us: Team Peter, Team John Ambrose, or Team Stormy?

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Teal Christensen
“Rock On!”

Teal Christensen

Teal is a recently-graduated English literature student with more unfinalized future plans than favorite songs from Hamilton. Her main hobbies are reading books, thinking about books, and talking about books.

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