| Arts & Culture
Movies Who Deserves Love In the Nineties Rom-Com?
Somewhere between the one-dimensional BIPOC sidekick and the final, showstopping kiss, I forgot that I was consuming love stories built on exclusion.
The first time I watched the 1999 cult classic 10 Things I Hate About You with someone other than myself, I was fifteen years old and at a friend’s house. It was my first real hangout after moving to a new school, and I believed that this party would cement my spot in the social group. All of us girls had piled onto the couch with a heap of organic snacks. My new friend—Grace was her name—navigated the sleek remote control with ease. She scrolled through every cable channel and streaming service in search of something the group could agree on. Whenever we seemed to narrow in on a choice, she didn’t hesitate to purchase a movie or an entire subscription with her father’s autosaved credit card information, only for us to move on once someone tossed out another suggestion.
All day, I had been reminded of how much I stood out. I walked through Grace’s front door to find a curated foyer the size of my whole house. I immediately noticed the differences between the outfit I’d assembled from Ross Dress For Less and my friends’ uniforms of sundresses and Golden Goose sneakers. On the party bus Grace’s parents had rented for the day, my friends encouraged me to dance to the music, smiling at one another secretly when I did. By the time we made it to our dinner reservation at the lakeside restaurant, my pressed hair had frizzed up to meet the early autumn Texas humidity. Now, at the end of the day—the lone Black body tucked on the couch between blonder, thinner white ones—I was more aware of my isolation than ever.
I was unsettled by how much I wanted to be like them—polished, thin, white, loved. So, when I saw the movie poster with Julia Stiles sitting on the plush love seat, Heath Ledger lounging behind her with a matching expression of earnest yet tactful disinterest, I knew it was my time to shine. I would prove that I was more like them than they could ever imagine—by my knowledge of the content that glorified them as objects of desire, by my enthusiasm for a white male lead that matched their own romantic interests. I took a steadying breath and made my suggestion proudly. While some girls agreed, most of them looked puzzled. I delivered the best synopsis of Shakespeare’s modernized The Taming of the Shrew I could muster. By proving my expertise in the classic white-led rom-com—and by extension the glorification of white love as the only kind of love—I felt the satisfaction of belonging, the triumph of an earned social currency that I could not name. I did not yet realize that this clawing need for acceptance was not the superpower I thought it was.
My mother’s sister introduced me to my first ’90’s rom-com when I was twelve. My aunt is ten years younger than my mother and thirteen years older than me, so I toddled after her more like a younger sister than a baby niece. I listened to the Brandy Norwood–filled playlists on her iPod touch, read Bunnicula and Stargirl from her personal library, and watched the same cheesy rom-coms she did. So, while my friends were still stuck on late 2010s Disney and Nickelodeon, I was watching Clueless on repeat. Through ’90’s rom-coms, my aunt had unwittingly exposed me to a library of cultural references that became my gateway to assimilation. Their overwhelming whiteness became a point of comfort for me, beginning with 1995’s Clueless .
In many ways, Clueless was the beginning of the ’90’s teen rom-com boom. Writer-director Amy Heckerling borrowed from John Hughes’s legacy—teen films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off , The Breakfast Club , Pretty in Pink , and Sixteen Candles —and applied it to Jane Austen’s Emma . Through unique characterization, culturally specific dialogue, and engaging storytelling, Heckerling’s adaptation translated the pressures of Regency-era social class to the lives of ’90’s teens in Beverly Hills. Much like critic Janet Maslin wrote of John Hughes’s work, Heckerling’s world-building “ treats teen-age concerns like dating, fashion and popularity as if they were matters of state.”
By proving my expertise in the classic white-led rom-com—and by extension the glorification of white love as the only kind of love—I felt the satisfaction of belonging.
Cher Horowitz, played by Alicia Silverstone, is a wealthy valley girl obsessed with maintaining her place at the top of the social ladder. Her subjects are organized into cliques that range from audio/visual TV-station geeks to the “slackers” who spend their time smoking weed on grassy knolls. “Sometimes they come to class and say bonehead things and we all laugh, of course, but no respectable girl actually dates them,” Cher tells a doe-eyed Ty, the Harriet of the retelling. Like Austen’s Emma, Cher’s p rivilege and ignorance are obvious, but that doesn’t stop us from loving her. The most significant success of Clueless is its ability to make the teenage-girl experience relatable not only to teenage girls, but universally—the center of a cultural conversation rather than the butt of some white male film critic’s joke.
Clueless laid the foundation for other teen rom-coms to adapt classic literature into contemporary film. From 10 Things I Hate About You ’s source material, The Taming of the Shrew , to the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night in 2006’s She’s the Man , filmmakers repurposed social classes as high school cliques, layered timely slang with age-old literary language, and reshaped characterization to match the social issues of the day—turning, for example, the recalcitrant shrew into a ruthless proponent of third-wave feminism.
But for all their attempts to subvert traditional film values and incorporate modernity ( and at times, urbanity, like Julia Stiles’s infamous 10 Things table dance to the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” or the fact that Usher Raymond virtually narrates 1999’s She’s All That ), all of the top-billed ’90’s rom-coms were still mostly white, mostly straight, mostly misogynistic, and mostly isolated from the realities of socioeconomic inequality. For me, this was almost the basis of their appeal: escapism. Their predictable plots, curated fashion sense, and incredible distance from my circumstances as a lower income Black Gen Zer offered a recipe for a comforting but dangerous obsession.
Somewhere between the one-dimensional BIPOC sidekick and the final, showstopping kiss, I forgot that I was consuming love stories built on exclusion. Somewhere b etween pinching my waist to compare it to Julia Stiles’s and standing in front of my mirror, practicing what I’d look like when someone fell in love with me, my definition of mutual attraction became framed by whiteness and privilege. The equation was simple: the closer my proximity to it, the more probable the possibility of finding romantic love.
For the entirety of my adolescent life, I was the only Black girl. I was the lone Black girl in my neighborhood, at school, at work. The only difference was that in the public schools I attended in central Texas, many of my white peers were in a similar socioeconomic situation to my own. When I made the switch to a classical private school, I became the Only Black Girl. I was made more aware of my non-whiteness and poorness in that space than any I’d encountered in my life. I thought I had trained myself to understand, emulate, and infiltrate this world of whiteness. But among the beautiful, white, and rich, I became invisible for all of the ways I was not like them. My hair, nose, and ass were too big; I lived forty minutes outside of the three-mile radius that all of my peers lived within; I worked on the weekends; my mother was putting herself in debt to send me to school. I was never asked to dances or to parties or out on dates. I had no romantic prospects. I internalized this circumstantial social rejection, sure, but I was not delusional. I knew that my Blackness posed a direct challenge to attraction, the pursuit of attraction, or even being noticed in the first place. I started to believe that I was fulfilling the role that was promised to me by the rom-coms: the cookie-cutter supporting POC with no storyline of their own. Gabrielle Union plays the token Black friend in both 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That . In both movies she is comfortably one-dimensional, a pawn manipulated to accelerate or decelerate the progress of the white protagonists. In 10 Things her character, Chastity, does not develop at all. Vice critic Vanessa Willoughby describes her as a “conduit for Bianca to learn how to be a better person.” In both roles, she is just visible enough to offset the monotony of whiteness on-screen, but she stays invisible enough to merely support the arc of the “quirky” white girl.
Unlike her, I was clamoring to be noticed. At another friend’s birthday party, I remember the inevitable turn of the conversation toward romantic interests: the boys we thought were cute, which ones we thought might like us. I always shrugged the questions off, shook my head with a hopefully contained, demur smile, and waited for the next person to answer. This time, Lucy stopped me.“That’s not true. I know Ben thinks you’re cute.”
I was stunned. I knew that this did not amount to romantic affection. I was aware of the limits of my identity, of how far I was from the Chers and Biancas around me. Yet I always nurtured the smallest hope that the music would swell for me too. In all honesty, I was not remotely interested in Ben; I was interested in his interest in me. The social power that white men hold as dictators of desirability weighed heavy on me. I clung to Ben’s—and any white man’s—interest, because if he liked me, then maybe that meant I met the blueprint for desirability.
In many of the newer generation of teenage rom-coms, this is the hang-up. With little prior opportunities for representation in the cultural domain, writers and creators of color like Jenny Han and Mindy Kaling are making space for teen love stories with people of color at the center. But the power of representation can be clouded by the power of white male choice. In Jenny Han’s Netflix trilogy adapted from her New York Times– best-selling YA series, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before , Lara Jean Song Covey ultimately has her choice of white male love interests. Lara Jean, who is South Korean American, reminds us of this racial difference at every step of the narrative. She doesn’t just highlight that the popular boy has gone for her quiet, nerdy, recluse self but that he has defied the odds by doing so. In the first book, at the pivotal moment where Lara Jean realizes she is interested in the love interest, Peter Kavinsky, she thinks, “I’ve always known Peter was out of my reach. I’ve always known he didn’t belong to me. But tonight he said he liked me . . . I like him back. Of course I do. What girl wouldn’t fall for Peter Kavinsky?” Lara Jean’s confession is intended to be liberatory; after years of being ignored, the golden white boy finally likes her back. He chose her , giving her a confidence and social currency she wouldn’t have had otherwise.
After years of seeing women of color represented as the foils to the “perfect” allure of the white woman, it is not unreasonable to want a narrative in which the white guy chooses the woman of color. But such storytelling can also reinforce the idea that white men hold the power to dictate our self-worth. How can I believe that my existence is enough to warrant love when love so often hinges on the approval of whiteness?
It wasn’t until I’d been kissed by a white boy myself that I realized I had been giving them too much credit. I was not just hungry for their approval; I was envious that white women always got to set the standard of desirability. Just like Grace’s birthday party all those years ago, I was desperate for the soundness that white womanhood granted, for the stable belief that they deserved to be wanted. The end of every revered rom-com is marked by a final kiss. It is a symbol of reconciliation. Everything is as it should be. The sun breaks through the clouds, and a quirky upbeat song leads the credits over the characters’ embrace. Cue the happily ever after.
It wasn’t until I’d been kissed by a white boy myself that I realized I had been giving them too much credit.
But, when he kissed me, the music did not swell. There were no epiphanies. My self-worth did not triple in size by virtue of him being white and a man. In fact, I was thrilled by the opportunity to reject him. His wanting me did not translate to suddenly having whiteness’s levels of privilege and choice, but it did speak to the power of my choice.
I had become so tired of measuring myself against white girls, so worn down from filtering my experience to gauge white acceptance and attraction, that I completely disregarded my personal value: my own distinctly human ability to choose. My near-biblical study of white rom-coms annihilated my sense of self so thoroughly that I was suddenly staring up at a white man who wanted me, unsure if I had the faculties to decide if I wanted him at all.
This, above all, is what I have gleaned from the final on-screen kiss: It is the pivotal point of decision-making that either confirms or disproves audience expectation. Me, I am still deciding what I want and how much to reveal. If whiteness has taken too much of my emotional identity to ever get back. Maybe the beginning of healing is the absence of an on-screen kiss; a black screen, a beat of silence, and a truth held close to my chest. Here I am with my eyes closed. Here I am, listening to myself for the first time.