Lana Condor and Noah Centineo in To All the Boys: Always and Forever; Jenny Han, Christopher Briney, Gavin Casalegno, and Lola Tung in The Summer I Turned Pretty (Photos: Netflix/Prime Video, Primetimer graphic)
When it comes to teen romance, Jenny Han is a force to be reckoned with. Her first onscreen success — Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before adaptation — played a pivotal role in reviving the romantic comedy genre back in 2018. Last year, Han took her storytelling prowess to television with another heartfelt book-to-screen adaptation: Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty.
The teen drama follows Isabel “Belly” Conklin (Lola Tung), a 16-year-old girl who has spent every summer at Cousins Beach. Unlike the first season, which introduced a debutante ball not present in the original novels, Season 2 caters more to book fans and remains fairly faithful to the source material, give or take a few changes. It matures in tandem with the characters, tackling heavier themes as everyone grapples with the weight of Susannah’s (Rachel Blanchard) death.
The romance is just as enthralling — if not more — than before, as the love triangle between Belly and the two brothers, Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno) brims with emotional turmoil. While Tung and Briney’s electric chemistry gives them an unfair advantage, Season 2 makes a strong case for empathizing with Jeremiah, whose feelings for Belly are explored in greater depth. Still, with Taylor Swift’s vocals as the former couple’s backdrop, it’s hard not to root for Conrad, even amidst the angst.
But Season 2 raises an issue: Here’s a show that is so thoughtfully crafted and emotionally resonant, yet there’s a huge problem that stems from the showrunner herself — a lack of diversity. The Summer I Turned Pretty, like much of Han’s work, suffers by continuing to place Asian characters in predominantly white spaces and whitewashing their stories.
Take the To All The Boys movies: They make up another sweet rom-com trilogy that was part of a new wave of Asian representation in the genre, alongside Crazy Rich Asians and Always Be My Maybe. Han even spoke about pushing back against Hollywood executives who wanted to change the lead to a white woman. But just seeing an Asian person on screen isn’t enough, especially when these characters are often only shown in relation to whiteness. Lara Jean (Lana Condor) has an Asian mother who is deceased, and the childhood love interests she speaks about in the first movie are mostly white (sans one, who is briefly mentioned but never shown). In P.S. I Still Love You, Jordan Fisher took over as John Ambrose, but his character’s purpose within the love triangle is just to confirm that Peter (Noah Centineo) is Lara Jean’s perfect match.
Lara Jean and Kitty’s (Anna Cathcart) connection to their Asian heritage only becomes somewhat prominent in Always and Forever, after the siblings travel to Korea. However, the significance of Lara Jean’s trip to the motherland is relatively minimal, as it’s only briefly spoken about at the beginning of the film. The rest of the third movie primarily revolves around Lara Jean’s concerns about college and her relationship with Peter, which overshadow any lingering questions about her identity.
On the other hand, Kitty’s trip to Korea takes on a more impactful role as it serves as the foundation for her spinoff series. XO, Kitty explored the youngest Covey sister’s own coming-of-age story in Seoul, which was a welcome development. The show didn’t feature any white love interests, though the protagonist had to physically move to Asia in order for this to happen. And unfortunately, XO, Kitty still falls under the trap of westernizing K-Dramas and Korean culture in order to appeal to white audiences.
Surprisingly, Season 1 of The Summer I Turned Pretty managed to include conversations about class and race. Belly’s brother Steven (Sean Kaufman), in particular, had a meaningful storyline that involved facing racist microaggressions at work and grappling with financial insecurities within a predominantly white environment. His beautiful love story with Shayla (Minnie Mills) was a lovely depiction of two Asian characters in a healthy relationship, which was a refreshing break from watching Belly bounce between two white boys. It was also a departure from Han’s previous M.O. (Season 1 was released prior to XO, Kitty), making Shayla’s absence in Season 2 all the more disappointing.
In April 2023, Mills took to social media to bid a heartfelt goodbye to Shayla, highlighting how her character didn’t need validation from a white partner. The Korean British-American actor wrote:
“In an industry — and especially genre — where women of color are constantly defined by white men, and Asian characters are often portrayed as meek and invisible until seen by a white counterpart, Shayla was unapologetically herself. She took up space, she was confident, kind and compassionate: a fully fleshed, powerful woman all on her own. She didn’t need to prove that to anyone, she did not need a white boy to deem her worthy, she didn’t have to grapple with her identity in order to be beautiful or the ‘it’ girl. Being Asian was simply part of who she was, not an obstacle to who she wanted to be.”
It’s possible that Shayla’s absence boiled down to narrative decisions. Shayla mentioned in Season 1 that she was in Cousins for the summer, so maybe the writers felt it was unrealistic to continue her story. However, it’s worth noting that Season 2 managed to bring back Cameron (David Aiono), whose relationship with Belly ran its course in the previous season, as well as add two new characters, Skye (Elsie Fisher) and Julia (Kyra Sedgwick), who play the Fisher brothers’ cousin and aunt, respectively. The exclusion of Shayla looks almost intentional.
During the first episode of Season 2, Steven briefly mentions that Shayla broke up with him, which sets the stage for the older Conklin sibling to pursue Belly’s best friend, Taylor (Rain Spencer). Yet the immediate introduction of a Steven/Taylor relationship feels incredibly forced. Although there were some hints to a potential romance in Season 1, their storyline feels out of place and tonally separate from the rest of the season. Considerable attention is instead devoted to Belly’s journey with the house and her complicated love triangle, and Han does build those narratives well. It’s just disheartening that it appears to be at the expense of another strong Asian character, as if there isn’t enough room for both characters and their respective arcs to co-exist.
This approach echoes the work of Mindy Kaling, who has also faced criticism for consistently pairing her protagonists of color with white love interests. Each of her shows follow a similar romantic formula: a dorky, Indian-American girl falling in love with a nerdy, B.J. Novak-esque professional/academic rival. In The Mindy Project, almost all of Mindy’s (Kaling) boyfriends are white, and she ultimately ends up with fellow OB/GYN Danny (Chris Messina); in Never Have I Ever, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) has a couple relationships with men of color, only to return to Ben (Jaren Lewison); and in Sex Lives of College Girls, Bela (Amrit Kaur) pursues a relationship with The Catullan’s editor, Eric (Mekki Leeper).
It’s important to recognize that Kaling’s projects do offer a bit more cultural nuance than Han’s — in Never Have I Ever, Devi’s Indian-American identity is interwoven into the show’s fabric. Similarly, Bela in SLOCG challenges stereotypes of traditional Indian women as a sexually liberated character, which is a step forward for South Asian representation. Both of these Kaling shows also boast incredibly diverse casts, which is especially significant given the stark lack of diversity in The Summer I Turned Pretty’s second season. If you were to replace every person of color with a white actor, the latter show’s essence would remain virtually unchanged.
Instead, The Summer I Turned Pretty holds a facade of progressiveness, appearing to spotlight Asians only to then treat their race like a commodity. In the original book covers, Belly is depicted as a white girl; in the series, she’s half-Korean and half-white. “When I was approaching the adaptation, I wanted to really reflect the moment that we’re living in,” Han told CinemaBlend. “I think the diversity of characters is a piece of that, so it felt like a really great opportunity to showcase different kinds of talent. We get to have like an Asian American family on the show.”
Yet Belly’s identity is limited to a couple throwaway lines in the first season, to practically non-existent in the second. Being Asian becomes a selling point, a shallow attempt at diversity while maintaining a kind of sun-soaked nostalgia reminiscent of the traditional teen shows from the early aughts that could (and did) get away with having predominantly white casts. Now, it just feels dated and boring.
This isn’t to say that every piece of Asian media needs to carry a grand message about representation, and Han certainly doesn’t need to be the captain of those conversations. As others have written, it would be unreasonable to hold her (or Kaling) to the impossible standard of representing an entire community, and then unfairly target them if they fail to meet it. But that doesn’t mean race should be treated as an afterthought. In The Summer I Turned Pretty, there’s a clear obsession with whiteness and white validation that has become impossible to ignore, and it taints the rest of an otherwise charming series. TV has progressed beyond the point of people of color — specifically women of color — needing to cater towards the white gaze. It’s time Jenny Han did too.
New episodes of The Summer I Turned Pretty Season 2 drop every Friday on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Dianna Shen is a TV Writer at Primetimer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine and Decider, among other outlets.