Alyssa Wend ‘24
It’s a trend we’ve all witnessed in young adult content: the main character girl falls in love with a seemingly unattainable boy, whether he’s her best friend’s brother or Mr. Popular at their school. The first book or movie typically follows the forming of their relationship when — oh no — they have to fake-date to throw off some other generic guy or hide their relationship from everyone else.
Then, the sequel creates conflict between the couple while introducing what I call “the sequel guy”: gorgeous, romantic, and conveniently already interested in the main character even though this is the first time we’ve seen or heard of him. The audience undergoes the grueling experience of watching the main character slowly become interested in the perfect new guy, while knowing that in most cases she’ll kiss him just to end up with the original man.
The main character repeatedly choosing her toxic relationship with a white guy instead of the second love interest is damaging to the representation of POC in the media.
This is a repeated pattern in both young adult books and movies, but only in Netflix adaptations does an additional piece of the pattern appear: the sequel guy is almost always a person of color.
While representation in the media is much needed, how characters of color are portrayed and what roles they play is also important. The main character repeatedly choosing her usually toxic relationship with a white guy instead of the second love interest is damaging to the representation of POC in the media.
Adding onto this damage, even when Netflix does choose to cast actors of color in their hit movies, the actors chosen for these roles have suspiciously Eurocentric features. I mean, in The Kissing Booth 2, you can’t tell me that Noah, played by Jacob Elordi, and Marco, played by Taylor Zakhar Perez, don’t look eerily similar.
The irony with the main character constantly going back to her original white love interest is that they… suck. In The Kissing Booth 2, Noah disregards how Elle, played by Joey King, may feel about his close friendship with Chloe, played by Maisie Richardson-Sellers. Furthermore, he continues on to pressure Elle into applying to Harvard instead of her original dream school just to be closer to him.
Also, Noah’s main character trait in the first film is having extreme anger issues, but this fact is magically forgotten in the sequel with no explanation. Maybe this is to make him more likable in comparison to the new guy? But I will never forget him slamming his hand on his car and yelling at Elle for her to go with him — unsurprisingly, this unnerving moment was not really addressed in the first film either.
In To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, Peter Kavinsky, played by Noah Centineo, shows similar manipulative tendencies when John Ambrose, played by Jordan Fisher, shows up. While Peter had valid concerns regarding the fact that Lara Jean, played by Lana Condor, never told John that she and Peter were dating, Peter never fails to surprise me by how horribly he goes about confronting these issues. Not only does he ‘mark his territory’ over Lara Jean, but he also brings up John’s old insecurities to gain the social upper hand.
With all the problems in these toxic relationships, there is no clear reason why the main character constantly goes back to her first boyfriend. Each of these protagonists initially gives the sequel guy a chance, but always insist in the end that they only feel friendship for them. While this is a valid way to feel about someone, you have to wonder: when this is the plotline that defines countless movies, what is this telling the audience?
The lesson learned becomes, “don’t worry about all the toxic things your white boyfriend does in your relationship. Choose him over the perfectly nice new love interest who isn’t a horrible person and who you liked for most of this new movie.”
That isn’t to say that these main characters don’t have their own issues — Elle constantly pushes the boundary of how bad of a character you can be — but the target audience of these movies are often young and female, people who are meant to relate to or put themselves in the place of the main character.
What needs to be further acknowledged is that both Netflix’s Kissing Booth 2 and To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You are book to movie adaptations that mostly follow the plot of the original works. Yet, the choice of casting often perpetuates the romantic rejection of characters of color. This is damaging to an audience of POCs, as in this limited representation, these characters are only seen as not being good enough.
In both books, the second love interests, Marco (named Levi in the book) in the Kissing Booth 2 and John in To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, are white. In the movies, both of these characters are played by actors of color. Even in non-book adaptations where they have more liberty over the storyline such as Tall Girl 2, Netflix chooses to follow the same pattern of casting a POC as the sequel guy.
Netflix is deliberate in making these casting decisions. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before ended with an additional scene introducing John Ambrose, here played by Jordan Burtchett — a white actor, at Lara Jean’s door with the letter written to him and flowers. Given this reveal, fans were surprised when, a year later, trailers instead showed John Ambrose played by Jordan Fisher, a multi-racial actor known for his past roles on Disney Channel.
Netflix never officially revealed the reason behind this recast, but emphasized the amount of effort they put into this decision. I loved Fisher as John. His charming performance brought life to the movie and Fisher showed more main character level acting than the actual main character, Peter Kavinsky.
Unfortunately, given his rejection by Lara Jean, Fisher only appeared in one movie. With this on-screen rejection, the potential of his great character went out the window.
This pattern begs the question: if Netflix continually recasts characters in book-to-movie adaptations with actors of color, why not cast them as main characters? After all, the decision to bring more actors of color into hit Netflix movies while not pushing them to the sidelines is long overdue.
Image Source: Parade