Still making waves from its June release to Amazon Prime Video, The Summer I Turned Pretty checked off all the boxes for a quintessential summer drama: first love and subsequent first heartbreak, a messy love triangle, and that coming-of-age magic that captures the hearts of every high schooler. The series follows fifteen-year-old Belly (Lola Tung) and her rollercoaster of emotions as she tries to resolve her feelings for two brothers, Jeremiah and Conrad (Gavin Casalegno and Christopher Briney, respectively). The series’ casting decisions were met with a surge of controversy: while Tung is half-Asian, both Casalegno and Briney are white. As a result, a sentiment echoed by many in response to the cast release ran along the lines of “…of course it’s a white guy.” The big and small screens are no stranger to white-man/Asian-woman couples, from Lane Kim and Dave Rygalski in Gilmore Girls to Lara Jean and Peter Kavinsky in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018). Such tropes, however, hold problematic implications for the overall perception of Asian identity.
Asian characters were first introduced into American cinema in the twentieth century and only took on more prominent roles towards the 1990s, with the release of The Joy Luck Club (1993). In these early films, the casting of an Asian—almost exclusively East Asian—woman with a white man directly resulted from an attempt to appeal to Hollywood’s core audience: white men. The fetishization of Asian women lies at the intersection of sexism and racism: whether it is explicitly called out as “yellow fever” or disguised as “preferences,” Asian women have historically been viewed as ‘exotic’ objects of sexual and aesthetic desire in the white male gaze. Such hypersexualization is dehumanizing: as Asian women are no longer viewed as real, individual people, they become frequent victims of offensive humor, bigotry, and in the worst cases, physical violence.
Asian men, on the other hand, have been portrayed by the media as romantically undesirable and awkward, often used as the funny sidekick or the butt of the joke due to a lack of social awareness or nerdy and unkempt appearance. Some advances have been made in reimagining this stereotype— with the casting of Simu Liu in Shang-Chi, for example— but the old overarching depiction still sticks. Conversely, white male characters are written to be the charismatic and conventionally beautiful “knights in shining armor” that come in at the climax to save the girl. Today, these stereotypes might be less obviously relayed in film and television, but there is no denying their underlying presence and historical significance.
In recent years, the motives behind this particular biracial casting choice have evolved to be more complex. Asian women in America have become increasingly accused of solely desiring relationships with white men and having “wasian” children, in equal parts due to the perception of Asian women as “white-worshiping,” and the way in which Western beauty standards greatly favor the appearance of “wasian” kids. As a result, the female character in heterosexual romances is often reduced to being very one-dimensional, her personality and storyline built entirely on a quest to resolve her feelings for the white boy. Whether directly proven or implied, such casting choices affirm racist stereotypes of both Asian men and women.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is especially problematic because its casting choices have been touted as progressive moves toward representation. Commenting on her decision to cast Tung as Belly, Jenny Han, author of the original book series and showrunner, claimed that the show’s portrayal of an Asian American family was a showcase of diversity, reflective of present American society. Yet by depicting a half-Asian woman oscillating between two white love interests as the peak of diversity, the series diminishes Belly’s character to her minority appearance and plot purpose in the romantic storyline. While there are surely genuine parallels of such relationships to be found in reality, these are not a representation of all Asian American dating experiences. Therefore, it is not that Han is wrong in branding The Summer I Turned Pretty as an Asian American romance: it simply should not be championed as the Asian American romance.
On a broader scale, such a move stagnates the progress that has already been made. If viewers are forced to be satisfied and complacent with this degree of representation, there is little reason or incentive for creators to push harder for more encompassing inclusion of the diverse range of Asian experiences. Interracial relationships of all types and involving all identities of people exist, and deserve to be given equal celebration and appreciation. Media and popular culture play a key role in both forming and reinforcing stereotypes: if we want to overturn them, we have to expect more from film and television.
The Asian American experience is multifaceted and nuanced. It deserves to be captured by media and popular culture not just in its entirety, but as an independent experience, and Asian characters deserve to exist without being defined in relation to whiteness. Progress has been made with films like Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and Always Be My Maybe (2019), but there is a long way to go until Asian couples are portrayed in every context, including a typical high school romance. If creators want to appeal to Asian American audiences, their focus should be turned to showcasing the uniqueness of culture and relationships, rather than constantly using Asian women and white men as their “token” interracial relationship to attach their productions to a counterfeit label of diversity.