The representation problem on the YA screen.
By Iris Chen
There is a red Jeep Wrangler in The Summer I Turned Pretty and there are beautiful teenagers who drive it. The fact that some of these teenagers are Asian does little to resuscitate the pool games, bonfires, and other YA summer story tropes that have already been beaten dead. In the Amazon Prime series—adapted from the equally successful book series by Jenny Han—Belly, a half-Korean high schooler on vacation in the white, wealthy beach town of Cousins, glows up, falls in love with two brothers, and caps off her summer of firsts with a debutante ball. In addition to a narrative that refuses to excite, the show’s progressive facade unsuccessfully conceals its failure to respond to minorities’ interests and thoughtfully challenge America’s conservative origins. Once again, Diversity affirms its timeworn marketability. In its wake, one finds the white world’s strategic dependence on Representation for moral legitimacy.
The Summer I Turned Pretty rarely strays from the font and formula of the YA summer romance; no evident harm is found in this predictability. One might even argue, as David Foster Wallace did, that there is an undeniable brand of guilty pleasure found in watching manufactured, feel-good TV. It is orderly, foreseeable, and comforting.
However, people do not see Han’s work as mere YA fiction; race is the raison d’etre of her work. “An Asian-American Teen Idol Onscreen, Finally,” she declares in the title of her New York Times op-ed about To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. “I wanted Asian girls to see my face … I wanted them to see what is possible.” At other times, she denies a focus on diversity, insisting: “I don’t go into writing a story thinking, ‘This is going to be for representation.’ It’s ultimately, how do I make this a really great story?” But her failure to become a really great storyteller means that the only component of the show that excites or disorients is its racial representation.
Neglect on the level of representation takes a psychological toll. As James Baldwin once said, “It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” This place only shrinks when one considers what Hanna Pitkin argues in The Concept of Representation: Representation determines who we do or do not perceive to be part of the political process. It makes the represented “present again.”
The refusal of The Summer I Turned Pretty to engage with race in any meaningful way is disappointing. In its most pointed scene of racial tension Belly’s brother Steven works the poker room of a country club while its members espouse the most routine of racial hacks: “One of the partners at my firm, Chinese guy, all his kids got into the Ivies. I think those people were born with textbooks.”
After, Steven sulks in the kitchen where his older coworker consoles him. “Oh, man, fuck those guys,” he says. “Don’t waste your time trying to earn their respect. You never will. Take their money.” So Steven takes the money. Then he loses it after playing poker with white Exeter boys.
The scene’s perfunctory Ivy League namedrop and lazy moral resolution make it more or less a throwaway sequence, but it raises an important question: Is entertainment responsible for contending with racial questions? If it is, do the Jenny Hans of the world get to make their obvious point that race is not the most interesting thing about themselves and move on, or do the white club members with all their money get the final say? If media is a suggestion of how reality should be, what happens to the busboy who sublimates and represses his own ethnic identity in order to pocket the white man’s blood money? Who does he become? Because in either of the two racial attitudes that the show models as possibilities—the employee’s separationist brand of “fuck him” or the debutante ball’s assimilationist brand of respectability politics—the power and will of the white world remains untouched.
By placing Asian faces in white spaces, Jenny Han diversifies her show; by keeping the world they enter intact, she fails to surpass a superficial understanding of diversity. The show suggests that minorities can partake in the privileged American life only if their presence does not disrupt the power that such privilege entails. Belly and her family only have this kind of summer, called “everything good” and “everything magical,” because they are in the good graces of a white, wealthy family. The diversity is skin-deep. It is one that has been wiped of the experiences that people of color endure and the perspectives that are then produced. It is, ultimately, a diversity that continues to defer to the white standard of civility, beauty, intelligence, and taste; of what is right and wrong, moral and immoral; of all that constitutes humanity, no less.
The possibility of handling race with nuance ends with the fact that you can be Asian, take your ponytail out, remove your glasses, put on some makeup, and meet the adoration of not one, but two white boys. Diversity does not matter, the show argues, because the white paradise has room for everyone. It functionally suggests that racial diversity doesn’t offer anything interesting nor complex to add to the white utopia. Utopias do not need to be amended; they cannot be changed. In turn, the quality of racial representation suffers. When Asian characters lack substance, Asian commodities are ushered to the forefront without context. In The Summer I Turned Pretty there is the birthday miyeok-guk; in To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, the girls dress up in hanboks.
A truer embrace of diversity needs to reckon with the fact that we absorb culture; it lives within our bodies. But instead of creating the space to draw out these cultural singularities and contend with white saviorism, progressives create language rules. They implement strategies to salve—but not solve—basic economic and social issues. Yet anyone who has been in Steven’s position before will agree that money is not enough to Band-Aid the somatic trauma of a non-white experience in a very white world.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is an apogee of Jenny Han’s role as author of the tale and guardian of the fans. Her characters, Belly, Conrad, and Jeremiah, have lived through three books and eleven years. They inhabit their vertices on a love triangle made classic by a generation of Jenny Han novels that came before.
There is, however, one character who is new: Shayla, the it girl whose reputation precedes her and her striped, leg-of-mutton dresses.
She is played by Minnie Mills, CC ’24, a neuroscience major and a model to boot. The Summer I Turned Pretty was her first Hollywood gig, an opportunity she only got after placing her acting ambitions on a long hiatus.
“In this industry,” Mills explained, “it’s very hard to find a space … people don’t test Asian actors unless it’s essential to the story. They do it for tokenized diversity, and Asian actors don’t fall into that … Asian actors are most often cast when the story is specifically Asian, and written where it cannot be any other way.” So Mills, who is half-Korean, swallowed her Hepburn dreams for the rest of high school.
When the entire industry went online during Covid, her first callback came, then her first role: not Belly but blank-slate Shayla whom the producers created, in large part, based on the Minnie Mills whom they saw.
Mills came to the U.S. from London when she was 13 for school. “I was just beginning to find myself and grow up and mature,” she said. But to find oneself at a place like Phillips Academy Andover means assimilation. While she speaks with her original British accent in the show, she tells me that “if you talk to any of my high school friends [at Andover], they’re used to hearing me speak in an American accent because I wanted to make other people more comfortable.” But while changing her accent was simple, she could not change the fact that she is Asian.
And amid white students—especially those who are legacy or varsity athletes—“it’s hard to feel like you’re equal and you’re as worthy,” Mills noted. “For a lot of my friends, a lot of people who are on financial aid or students of color, it’s presented as if you are given this opportunity, and it can be taken away as easily. There’s no room for error.” A similar reality exists at Columbia: the implicit perception that some students are more suited to the opportunity, and others have to prove themselves.
Students are usually told to “be yourself”; that acceptance will follow. However, being oneself feels like inappropriate advice when, like Mills, so many of us have morphed and molted to rise within respectable, white institutions. Who we are becomes a function of whom our environments have told us to become.
Being oneself is a particularly difficult prescription to apply in the entertainment industry when, as Mills noted, “there is still this pan-Asian kind of representation where we are just so eager to see Asian faces in any shape or form that we are treating Asian identities as exchangeable.” Growing up, she recalls her childhood desperation to “consume any media with somebody who looked like me.” She and her sister would sit together on weekends and watch Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior again and again.
When Asian faces feature in only 5% of all that is shown on the screen, “anything is better than nothing” reigns. But one has to question if it really is when what follows are dragon ladies, tiger moms, Koreans played by Chinese or Vietnamese actresses. In more dangerous cases, Black men are slotted into aggressively familiar tropes of the sexual aggressor, impoverished gangster, victim of violence, associations which correlate to the shortened lifespans of Black men in America. Identification, in these cases, means self-mutilation, self-alienation. It is quite literally fatal.
Not every person of color may hunger for representation in the same way; in fact, the myopic grasp toward media representation within the Asian American community is often a syndrome of the upper middle class. But their concerns have drifted into the mainstream because they emerge from an undeniable fact that representation is somatic. There’s a feeling of humiliation when people like yourself are laughed at on screen; shame and emptiness when we are not there at all. And there is the sentiment that Mills and so many others share: When those authentic, real, versions of ourselves are on the screen, identification is more than just an interlude of joy or belonging. Rather, there is a susurrating sense of validation born of the fact that these versions of your own memories, histories, and experiences now matter to the people around you. They matter enough to be showcased on a big screen. To have hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on its production. For people to take time out of their day to watch.
Unconsciously or not, film teaches us what is or isn’t desirable. “It was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to walk, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve,” writes Susan Sontag. “Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive.”
“At the end of the day, this is a very escapist, fun kind of show,” Mills noted. “We [the cast] had a lot of conversations about that, especially … about that piece of the story. We’re not sure if we’re trying to go The Escapist route, or trying to actually address it.” The ambiguity achieved by attempting both—feigning diversity without meaningful pronouncement—means The Summer I Turned Pretty buys into escapism by encouraging all groups to partake in its fantasy, when in most cases it is neither feasible nor desirable.
Teenagers are impressionable; by settling for escapism, summer after summer, don’t we deny our future a complexity that only art can instill? Don’t we tell an emerging generation of color that the world has no space for them—that their hourly country club wages exist only to be taken away by the arbitrary strictures of poker or life? That racism is simply the hand one is dealt? Do we not have an impetus to think bigger?
The Summer I Turned Pretty directs its audience into a shallow furrow of “diverse” existence, perhaps in the image of YA’s fundamental inability to engage with issues in complex and meaningful ways. Yet the film’s peers prove that representation can be authentically and genuinely handled. The Hate U Give, for example, is a coming-of-age story rather than a ploy for diversity.
Ultimately, anyone who has glanced at the playful lines of a Miró or scrutinized the scenes of a Bosch triptych, felt the compassion within a Varda documentary or analyzed the complex narratives of a Paul Thomas Anderson film—anyone who has let Didion’s rhythms seep into the lines of their own writing—feels the immutable joys that great art can bring. There is instinct at play.
The risks in a chance are high but what that chance may bring is invaluable. One’s life becomes polyphonic. The spirits of these artists come back again and again as another person comes across their work for the first time and embellishes it with a new interpretation that only they could give, sourced from the folds of their lived experience. To deny someone this magnitude of life feels cruel. But it is the price of our negligence.
“One thing I just loved about Shay,” Mills said, “is that she doesn’t put up with any shit.” We could all take a few notes.