From Jacob Black to John Ambrose: The Racism of YA Love Triangles
I don’t think I’m breaking new ground here when I say that Netflix’s Tall Girl film franchise isn’t very good. The unnecessary and much-maligned sequel, which was released in February, reminded me of one recurring cliché in modern YA films that we all criticize and yet the industry refuses to remedy. Besides rewarding “nice guy” behavior and hurting our eardrums with over-the-top Swedish accents, Tall Girl 2 is guilty of what most teen books and movies have been doing since Twilight: creating a love triangle with a girl, her main white love interest, and a side love interest that is there to be the “exotic”, “different”, and often genuinely perfect option but who has no real chance of getting the girl. Why? Because they’re a person of color, of course.
In the grand scheme of film history, this trope is nothing new, though its origins are slightly different. When movies were solely shot in black-and-white, filmmakers had to make sure that audience members could tell characters apart. And since everyone was white, the best they could do was differentiate people by hair color. Think of a film like Sabrina (1954) where Audrey Hepburn has to choose between Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. The two men are night and day in every way: grumpy and charismatic, young and old, brown-haired and blonde.
Granted, Hepburn’s character chooses Bogart in the end, thus subverting audience expectations. But this trope of pitting two men with different colored hair against each other in their quest to win the girl has manifested and transformed itself into a million different ways since then, especially in teen media. See: the blonde bully and the dark-haired protagonist (and vice versa), the dumb blonde and the more sensitive, down-to-earth dark-haired character, the beautiful blonde and the dark-haired ugly duckling. The stereotypes we carry about hair color are a conversation all its own.
But since then, film, television, and books have become obsessed with taking the dark vs. light boy battle to the next level. Most of us still remember the Jacob vs. Edward fights at school but I doubt we all thought critically about the implications of Bella repeatedly choosing Edward.
I’ll be the first to say that neither option was good for Bella and that the girl should’ve just worked more on her own confidence and self-esteem before adding a supernatural boy-toy to the mix. Both boys are controlling, manipulative, and entitled. They treat her like an object that rightfully belongs to them rather than a person with free will.
But it’s also no accident that Jacob and other people of color in the Twilight series are constantly shown to be the broodier, darker, more dangerous, and “exotic” characters. Jacob is an option for Bella, at times even supportive and accommodating, but is only ever treated as a lesser stand-in for Edward. He’s never taken seriously, only taken for granted.
Fast-forward to the present day where some of the most egregious examples of this trope over the past few years have included teen movies like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, The Kissing Booth, and Tall Girl—in every one of their sequels.
The sequel film, as we now know, marks the point when the teen girl is getting a little too comfortable with her white boyfriend to the point of dissatisfaction. He’s distant or disinterested, boring or static, too much of the same, disappointing as a partner, and she needs a bit of excitement in her life.
Cut to: a gorgeous, kind, racially ambiguous boy of color who shares her interests and is perfect for her except in the most obvious way. After all, what does our main character deserve more than to actually enjoy herself with a boy while the plot incites toxic but entertaining conflict for the rest of us to enjoy? It’s a pattern that is confusing as it is degrading and dangerous.
However, I will defend To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before: P.S. I Still Love You for a second by reminding us all that in the original book, John Ambrose is white. His entrance into the book series, only to later amicably separate from Lara Jean, is controversial given how perfect he was for her—but it isn’t racially motivated. With Jordan Fisher in the role in the film adaptation, however, it sure feels that way.
The funny thing is that re-casting John Ambrose as a mixed Black boy must’ve seemed like a nod to diversity at the time. These days, who really wants to throw it back to the 90s and early 2000s and see two basic white boys hashing it out over a girl? But when John emerges as the loser to Noah Centineo’s Peter (who is white despite his own racial ambiguity at times), it speaks volumes about racism, colorism, and what boys of color deserve in their own journeys finding love.
In the film, both Lara Jean and John are passionate about literature and art. They share a natural chemistry that rivals the one she shares with Peter, who is made to look like an uncultured, emotionally unavailable Neanderthal.
The same holds true for The Kissing Booth 2, though here it’s an even bigger offense. Our protagonist Elle, just like Lara Jean, begins the movie feeling distant from her white boyfriend Noah, and it’s obvious that the feeling is mutual. So what do they do instead of communicating? Elle gets to know a local Latino boy named Marco and Noah starts spending all of his time with his new college friend Chloe, who rather conveniently happens to be Black.
Both of the film’s secondary BIPOC love interests are charismatic, charming, fun to be around, and much better suited to their respective white leads than they are for each other. But instead of actually allowing that chemistry to continue, Marcos and Chloe are used to fuel conflict between the white leads, made into villains, taken advantage of, and ultimately cast aside. In Chloe’s case, she’s even utilized to encourage the white leads to get back together. They have no real purpose or interests of their own outside of how they serve the white-led story.
When Tall Girl 2 came along, I knew it wasn’t going to be a cinematic masterpiece and that it would continue to rely heavily on warped ideas of privilege, oppression, and identity. But I audibly groaned when Tommy Torres appeared on screen and started flirting with the film’s white lead, Jodi. I literally thought to myself, This? Again?
Played by Afro-Latino actor Jan Luis Castellanos, Tommy feels like an inconsequential stand-in for Jodi’s white boyfriend from the moment he says his first line. You know he won’t end up with her because he feels artificially engineered to be too perfect for her. He shares her passion for theater, is genuinely nice, and shares chemistry with her, not to mention a dance routine and a kiss. But at the end of the movie, despite everything they shared and the deep, emotional connections they make, she rejects him and goes back to her boyfriend Dunkleman—surprise, surprise.
In the case of The Kissing Booth and Tall Girl 2, one could argue that these boys of color are better off not getting involved with these white girls that really aren’t all that interesting anyway, who barely have a personality. That these love triangles are supposed to explore the idea of “maybe the grass isn’t greener on the other side” and “opposites attract”, to embrace the imperfect, flawed relationships that the main leads share. It may not fit the main character’s fantasy but it’s supposedly more real, right? That’s what we should be looking for, not the person who only appears our perfect match.
But to me, all it says is that boys of color will never be enough. In the same way that BIPOC have to work twice as hard as their white counterparts in the workplace, young boys of color also have to prove themselves twice as much as their white peers to prove that they’re worthy of winning the girl. And still, white mediocrity gets rewarded while BIPOC excellence is dismissed, ignored, and minimized.
When characters like John Ambrose, Marco, and Tommy, all of whom are notably Black and/or Latino, check all the boxes and are nevertheless deemed less desirable than their white peers, what does that say to real-life boys of color? What are they internalizing about their own worth? What do they come away believing they deserve? Not to mention that the three boys are light-skinned BIPOC—what message does that send to those with darker skin, who are even more victimized by colorism, racism, and outdated ideas of desirability based on white European beauty standards?
Filmmakers need to understand that we don’t want diversity in media if it only ends up like this. What good does it do for BIPOC to be seen, to be offered up as an option of desire, to be seen as the better alternative, if we still aren’t chosen? We shouldn’t have to convince ourselves or anyone else that we are just as deserving of love as our white peers, that we’re worthy of being chosen. The stories we’re told should already believe it.