‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’ is an Ode to Erotica

In To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean Covey tries to hide her love for erotica behind irony but her real feelings are obvious.

Early in the Netflix original movie based on Jenny Han’s young adult book series, high school student Covey tells her friend she finished another “book.” Her friend asks if it was “another bodice ripper,” and calls her a “little perv.” Covey denies being titillated by romance novels and insists she reads them for “camp.”

Okay, boo boo. Nobody believes you read those books as a self-aware joke. And no one should believe you because nobody reads those books ironically. Women read romance novels because they’re are socially acceptable porn for women.

Covey is a high school girl who reads erotica. And that’s great.

There’s a longstanding stigma against women enjoying porn. Women aren’t supposed to masturbate or have active sexual fantasies. Anyway, porn is often problematic. And even when it’s not problematic, porn is a product of the patriarchy. The cultural baggage makes it difficult to enjoy as a woman or non-straight white man. We have to ask who made the porn and for whom. And whether the performers consented because all too often the porn was made by straight men, for straight men and consent wasn’t freely given.

As an outlet for desire and inspiration for fantasy, erotica has fewer complications than porn. And the stories are generally better. And stories are sexy.

Throughout To All The Boys, Covey’s romantic decisions are inspired by romance novels and her active imagination. Her imagination is key, for that’s where she harbors a healthy appreciation for love and lovemaking.

She’s also afraid to act on her desires, preferring to experience them through these fictional characters. That’s the conceit of the movie. Since it’s a romantic comedy, she eventually gets over her fears and kisses the boy. But her fears of intimacy aren’t portrayed as a sex negative doubling down of her as a “good girl.” They’re just normal, teenage fears of being embarrassed.

Throughout the movie, she writes love letters to former crushes. She hatches a plan to fake a relationship that inevitably produces real feelings. But she’s not passive in her love story. It’s her letters, her writing, that are a key factor in her quest to get the boy.

Covey is a fully drawn and relatable character. She’s not overly sexualized or a virgin. People like her because she’s living her truth as much as any real high schooler can, which is refreshing for a female lead in a rom-com. She’s a whole person, not a cliché.