Let me ask a pretty simple question; what qualities do you want in your romantic partner? Respectful? Communicative? Attractive? Funny? Let me tell you what. You are going to forget about all of that when I tell you, yes YOU, can date a manipulative, mindless, unethical, bland and tasteless pile of moldy leftover pizza crusts and wretched poetry that was assembled into a ghastly homunculi of a high school student. Oh yeah… and they’re “hawt.”
Now before you wonder if I mixed up my fruit roll-up with LSD tablets, let me just clarify that I have been watching Netflix movies en masse again. For whatever reason, this brandy and cosmic brownie fueled trip to the movies saw me queuing up one teen rom-com after the other. However, this self-destructive binge revealed something to me familiar throughout the worlds of “Tall Girl” and “The Kissing Booth”: the boys. To show what I’m talking about, let’s look at one of these gems.
I saw “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” when it arrived at its streaming home in 2018 (I’m not even gonna look at the *shiver* sequel). It was a moderate success, drumming up some online popularity and a decent critical reception. Let me be upfront: it wasn’t complete rubbish. Don’t get me wrong, the film adaptation of Jenny Han’s popular coming-of-age novel won’t win anything but a participation ribbon for acting, screenwriting and score, but that is arguably its worst sin. It’s dull, rote and unimaginative, but is hardly painful in isolation. That is what I thought however, until you line all of “these” movies up and see the hot-guy-sized shadow on the wall. Arts editor Katy Smith wrote an incredible comparison of Lady Bird and Pretty in Pink just a short time ago, which you should all go read. However, behind every young woman in a coming-of-age flick, there is a stack of photocopied male characters scribbled out by a Netflix scriptwriter.
With “All the Boys,” this template is Peter Kavinsky, portrayed by the successful and upcoming Noah Centineo. In this little walnut of a tale, the protagonist, Lara Jean Covey, finds out that a collection of secretive letters dedicated to her past “loves” have all been handed out to their appropriate muses. Lara Jean finds herself helping out Peter (a recipient of one letter), posing as his girlfriend in order to make his ex jealous. As expected, shenanigans ensue, and the two high schoolers end up falling for each other faster than I could yawn at each contrivance. But what is more troubling than a very silly plot or cringy performances is the character development. Lara Jean, like protagonists of similar films, is the subject of the classic “coming of age” formula, and while not breaking ground in any grand capacity, functions as a dynamic character. However, Peter does not function. He exists, and little more. The “charming” characteristics that the movie wants us to associate with him, such as his pop culture references and—I guess you would call it a smirk—merely serve as wallpaper. He and all the male love interests in this genre of film are the tofu of film. They are helpful for establishing the vices of others but lack enough intrigue for their own to be more than bullet points. Not every movie falls into these trappings, but the increasing bout of formulaic “nothings,” and the frequently positive critical response, suggests that the public is eating it up.
Then why is it problematic to have simple characters? The idea of generic character types stretching between films isn’t inherently new, nor is it offensive, except maybe to the dwindling vestige of originality. However, placement is important, and that is where the portrayal of male characters in teenage romantic comedies can be dangerous. While the audience of these movies is typically not made up of young men, the repetitious assault of poor characters not only provides pitiful role models but creates an expectation. At its simplest, a romantic relationship needs people, warts and all. So when you introduce the man, woman or whomever the protagonist eventually falls in love with as an impressionable archetype, we start to appear in the real world. It creates unrealistic expectations. We begin to feel that if our relationship doesn’t mirror Laura Jean’s and Peter’s, it isn’t normal or healthy. Developing teenagers need to see their cinematic proxy do more than interact with a brick.
As a concluding note, I want to be clear that I understand the pendulum swings both ways. Female, LGBTQ+ and characters of color have of course been sidelined and stereotyped beyond recognition on a much larger scale than that of “the boy” in a high school drama. My intention here is not to overshadow that long-fought injustice, but rather use an often flippantly dismissed part of culture as a tool. Relationships are so vital to art and the human experience, and film is just one of those art forms that we interact with on a daily basis. We learn from film by projecting, so regardless of whether it’s a love interest, friend or even enemy, humanity is a necessary ingredient in those fictional folks on our screens. Love wholly and fully, for people are whole and full.