- Something I Liked: If Trina is actually Indian, she drinks coffee and is an animal person (very against the South Asian woman stereotype of drinking tea/chai and hating all animals.)
- A Question I Had: Is Trina Rothschild’s character in the films supposed to be Indian-American?
I asked myself about authentic representation of South Asians in the final film installment of the To All the Boys series when my friend sent me a screenshot of a random South Asian extra at Lara Jean’s father’s wedding. “Who is this cute Indian guy?” she captioned the image with. I scoffed at my poor friend’s ignorance of the books and wrote back, “maybe it’s Mr. Shah, they have an Indian neighbor.” Our conversation continued and she dropped a bomb on me—her theory was that this was Trina Rothschild’s brother, implying that Trina’s character is South Asian! I hadn’t realized that the actress playing the character, Sarayu Rao Blue, is indeed an Indian woman. Who was the ignorant one now?
Many people of color say how important it is for them to see others who look like themselves reflected on the big screen, right? Diversity matters, but not just for diversity’s sake. Moving past simply having a diverse cast is authentic representation, without which diverse casting choices fall flat. But seriously—how could I, Pakistani-American me, fail to observe something so obvious? There are a couple reasons why I didn’t notice—the way the film doesn’t state she is Indian and the way the film doesn’t place traces of authentic representation.
Just Tell Us She’s South Asian
The first issue is that the film never outright acknowledges the racial and cultural difference in Trina’s character in the books and films, which could easily lead the audience to assume she’s white in the films. In the books, Trina Rothschild is a white character, described as a very tan, attractive, and active divorcee who drinks coffee and has a special connection with dogs. In the films, all the viewer is left to piece together the character’s Indian heritage is her looks (I was fooled into thinking she was an incredibly tan white woman, however I also have low vision) and any knowledge they may have of the cast’s actors. As someone who watches very little television and film, I had no clue who the actress was and I didn’t bother to look up any of the actors before or after watching the films. If we take a step back and look at Lara Jean’s family, we wouldn’t know that this family is supposed to be half Korean and half white just by assessing the actresses’ appearances. Yes, they might look somewhat “Asian” and some of them somewhat bi-racial, but to all varying degrees. Upon looking into the heritage of the Asian actors in the film, they are from all over the world and have ethnic ties to several Asian countries (why weren’t they actually of Korean descent, is this something others have some issues with?)—and if we hadn’t been told they were half white and half Korean, it would be hard to determine what they were other than loosely “Asian-American.”
Why not extend this same level of courtesy to the viewers with the character of Trina? It would have been as simple as changing her last name, Trina Patel, or even having Kitty say, “what do you think about our hot Indian neighbor, Trina, for Daddy?” What painless, low investment solutions!
By the way, Trina’s character isn’t the only one who had been cast differently in the movies—the same goes with John Ambrose McClaren. In the first film, he was depicted as a blonde, white boy with straw-colored hair, just like in the book. However, the second film shows a completely different John Ambrose—one who looks black and biracial. Why couldn’t they also weave this into the film in some way? When John Ambrose and Lara Jean reconnect at Belleview, why not have something they bond over or reminisce about be the fact that they are biracial?
All in all, this issue of avoiding spelling out the obvious makes me ask myself, was Trina’s character supposed to be white in the film, or was she supposed to be Indian? After considering this issue for so long, I still cannot figure out what the purpose of casting an Indian actress was supposed to be if they never mention she’s Indian…other than claiming they have a diverse cast and perhaps gracing viewers’ eyes with naturally tanned skin rather than an orange spray tan. Frankly, those reasons aren’t good enough for me.
Show Us She’s South Asian
The second hiccup the film makes is that it fails to portray Trina as an South Asian-American woman in an authentic way. (This is assuming she’s supposed to be South Asian-American in the film, of course.) The major sticking point for me in the films which glossing over the fact that Trina is South Asian is at her and Dr. Covey’s wedding. Now I know myself, first-hand, that South Asian-Americans have a multitude of expressing, connecting with, or shunning their cultural heritage. Let’s assume Trina is a very Americanized woman and is very distant from her cultural roots—because, there are South Asian-Americans who really live their lives in that way. I’m not saying she needs a big fat Indian wedding—but I am saying that often people who are relatively disconnected with some of their cultural roots will meaningfully include something from their culture in a huge milestone event, such as a wedding, funeral, birth of a child, etc. I know this wedding is supposed to be really chill because Trina and Dan Covey don’t want to make a fuss about their second marriages, but still. Something as small as including a scene of the Song girls and Trina doing turmeric facemasks the night before the wedding, Trina wearing a piece of Indian heirloom jewelry or henna on her hands or a sari, or having a Bollywood song play during a scene on the dancefloor—the options are limitless and wouldn’t detract from the main storyline or take much time or effort to include at all. There are some interesting moments with South Asian wedding guests, however, but if we loop back to the first issue of us not knowing outright that Trina is Indian, we might just assume they are the Shah family or just random South Asians the Coveys know. Rewatching the wedding felt really fake to me as a desi woman and I didn’t believe for a second that Trina was supposed to be South Asian.
Other than the wedding, there are plenty of opportunities to sprinkle in some authentic representations of South Asian culture in their home or featuring Indian food at a family dinner and these would have literally been such easy details to incorporate. The thing that really sucks about this is that the films do a pretty good job of keeping the girls’ Korean heritage in view enough for it to feel like an authentic representation of East Asian characters. The films are nowhere near as developed as the books, but in the films it’s still clearly visible and engaged with in a way that enriches the story. If Trina’s character is truly meant to be recast as a South Asian woman, I don’t need much in the film to show me traces of her connection with her culture, but the complete lack of it makes this depiction feel completely inauthentic. As a matter of fact, if they had hinted at it, then I would have probably figured out she was supposed to be South Asian-American.
Missed Opportunity to Enrich the Film
The failure of the film to acknowledge and then represent the South Asian stepmom is a huge missed opportunity for the film. If Trina is Asian-American or biracial (if they kept her perplexing last name the same,) wouldn’t the Song girls, who have been starved of a non-white mother figure, have so much more to connect with their stepmom over? Even though she is not East Asian, she’s still Asian, right? (This also points to a complaint I have over the term “Asian” sometimes referring to only East Asians.) Broadening the film’s scope out to meaningfully including multiple Asian culture (which it never needed to do but decided to take upon itself through this casting choice) wouldn’t have been something superficial if the film actually committed to the casting choice it made.
The other elephant in the room is that the third book actually does broaden its scope beyond East Asian to include a South Asian character—Margot’s boyfriend from Scotland, Ravi, who is of Indian descent. Ravi visits and stays with the Covey family in the third book, and the third book is when we hear some of Margot’s wokeness about her Asian identity surfacing in college, which is further complicated by her experience of hyphenated Asian identities in two different countries. The most perplexing thing the third film does is the casting of Trina as South Asian with the addition of South Asian extras at the wedding—most notably the cute Indian boy who can clearly be seen standing near Margot and even dancing with her during the wedding. Hang on…is this the mysterious Indian boyfriend or is it Trina’s cousin, or is it both?! As a South Asian viewer specifically, I am at a loss as to what is going on here.
I wish the film had fully committed to Trina as an Indian character. Let’s just focus, fully focus, with some nice, authentic attention to detail on the one South Asian character in the film. The concern that including a little more of Trina’s cultural identity in the film would distract from the storyline isn’t valid—it would make the film more rich and actually help the film make a bit more sense, too.
So, what’s my verdict on the casting decision of Trina Rothschild? It’s hard to say whether or not having Sarayu Rao Blue (who did an incredible job in her role, not throwing shade on her) play Trina was a good move. Yes, it did introduce a more diverse look to the characters in the films, but it didn’t’ go further than an empty, naive gesture. I’m disappointed and confused, and barely even glad that they chose an Indian-American actress for the role. I guess it’s just not enough for me to see nonwhite faces and bodies on screens, it’s time to move beyond that. The To All the Boys trilogy is lauded as an awesome coming-of-age romantic comedy which puts women of color at its front-and-center and is changing the face of rom-com’s—however, the final book’s film adaptation fell brutally short at including an authentic, meaningful depiction of a South Asian woman.
And I guess I have to ask, but will not answer, where does the representation of Korean-American characters in the films fall on the spectrum of complex and authentic to naïve and empty?
Recommendation: Two shows I’ve recently watched that I think do a great job at authentic Asian representation are “Never Have I Ever” and “Kim’s Convenience.”
Acknowledgements; Thank you to my awesome friend, you know who you are, for presenting something infuriating enough to get this site started. I love you!!