The romantic comedy lead is a type of role that has changed a lot over the years.
The “bad boy” had his day in rom-coms, dangling a cigarette from between his lips and daring the lady lead to see past his hard exterior. The “overworked businessman” also had a moment. He was all about his work until a woman came along and showed him how to live a fuller life. Then, of course, there was the “neurotic writer/poet/filmmaker” whose art suffered until he found his muse…and all of those people seem like terrible boyfriends.
Now, Netflix’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before (based on the book by Jenny Han) has given the romantic comedy genre a new boy type to play with, one who appeals to Gen Z but is also desirable to anyone with eyes and feelings. The type insofar is just called Peter Kavinsky. And he’s the perfect boyfriend.
On the surface Peter has a lot in common with the standard teen rom-com leading man: he’s popular at school, he plays sports, and he even has (had) the requisite beautiful and mean-spirited girlfriend. He is precisely what the world tells girls they should want — a hot, cool guy with a car — but To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before twists the stereotype by making those trappings of desirability secondary to Peter’s true appeal. Far from being what girls are supposed to want, Peter Kavinsky is what they deserve — a kind, empathetic person who loves wholly and does the work required to keep a relationship going.
Because of the “fake boyfriend” premise of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, the romance between Lara Jean and Peter starts out as a fabrication that must be maintained. Since Lara Jean has never had a boyfriend before, the full weight of making their relationship look real falls on Peter’s more experienced shoulders. And, to be blunt, he lifts that shit like Atlas.
Every upcoming romantic comedy should take a look at the fan reaction to Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship and think — really think — about what makes them so appealing in this year 2018.
Once their relationship contract is signed (in an adorably PG-rated demonstration of respecting each other’s boundaries), he starts driving Lara Jean to school every day. He charms her little sister Kitty over the course of a single conversation and makes sure she feels accommodated in Lara Jean’s new relationship. He makes Lara Jean his phone background, tells her she’s pretty all the time, writes her special notes during the school day, and actually listens to her problems while remaining emotionally honest about his feelings.
Peter immediately demonstrates mastery over the habits of attention and affection that form the core of a healthy romance, and what’s remarkable about that is that he, as far as the story goes, woke up like this. His ability to put his emotions in words and perform actions that let his partner know he cares is the kind of PHD-level leading man stuff that’s usually reserved for the third act of most romantic movies, if not the very last scene.
While Lara Jean undergoes a significant emotional journey from a place of fear and fantasy towards love, Peter doesn’t really change that much over the course of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before. His arc doesn’t hedge on Lara Jean working to change some fundamental part of him. He’s dope at the beginning of the movie — his first scene involves him deescalating his girlfriend’s bullying — and he stays dope the whole time with almost no assembly required.
Every upcoming romantic comedy should take a look at the fan reaction to Peter and Lara Jean’s relationship and think — really think — about what makes them so appealing in this year 2018. Is it wishful thinking to hope that Gen Z rom-com leads take up the banner of Peter Kavinsky and earn their desirability by always being nice to girls? Is it delusional to think that women leads in the future can be more like Lara Jean, more concerned with figuring out her own feelings than fixing whatever’s standing in the way of her boyfriend’s emotional growth?
It shouldn’t be hard. It should be as easy as falling in love with a fake boyfriend who drives across town to stock up on Yakult for the ski trip. Swoon.