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  • enny Han's novel adaptation fall short on its 'what's beautiful' investigation

    By caruk guruk Saturday June 2022, 23:49 EDT

    The show would have been more appealing had it made a point about how one doesn’t need to be pretty to have a pure heart

    The first time we see “Belly” or Isabella in the new Amazon Prime screen adaptation of Jenny Han's eponymous novel, The Summer I Turned Pretty, she is no subject of a makeover, she’s just a couple of summers old. Belly is the only girl among four cute kids who get along refreshingly well – this includes Belly’s own brother Steven and the dazzling Fisher brothers happy, cherubic Jeremiah and the skulky, stoic Conrad. The teasing is good-natured. The boys are considerate and kind, affecting no sort of conforming emulation of interests and skills in an only girl. But that’s probably also because Belly is surrounded by strong women role models, her opinionated author mother Laurel and her best friend the arty, feminine Susannah. If Han’s other hit To The Boys I Loved Before explored the legacy that interesting mothers left behind, “Summer” explores their present influence. Belly looks forward to every June to August because she looks forward to being with her tribe in a house by the beach, with a pool for night swims and a big screen for cosy movie nights. But this summer is different, treated at least by the cosmetic properties of puberty.

    In fact, the show is careful about framing typically gendered coming-of-age tropes. A debutante ball is an “opportunity to network”, a challenge for a self-assured Belly, touted as “a feral alley cat” by her own mother, Laurel, to glow up into a graceful swan, the last wish for a perfect summer for a beloved, ailing second mother, Susannah. The debutantes of the season aren’t catty till you give them a reason to be. In the first big show of camaraderie, the ladies pass each other a hip flask at high tea, when introductory speeches are being made about a history of elegance, and the productive potential of the ball. Still, the girls listen attentively, full of school spirit. It’s not just ladies' choice for partners, but also before the main dance, there’s an indulgent BTS-inspired performance by their chosen escorts, enthusiastically cheered on by the thirsty debs and amused relatives.

    In a surprising moment, Belly’s best friend, Hurricane Taylor, who we’re told is the more popular one, confronts Belly about how she never gets to feel like a main character in their friendship, always the wingwoman, never the matched. Even Belly’s competition, the tormented other woman, Nicole, who is at the receiving end of situationship stunted by Belly’s arrival, delivers an assessment to our protagonist, “You’re kind of a f**kgirl,” to which Belly agrees. There are shopping montages but they are loving, fun and realistic. At fifteen, who takes you shopping, if not your mom? But the real transformation is produced by nature and Belly’s gifted genes. Attractiveness, Belly finds, is both an indictment of character and a catalyst for self-assertion.

    While Susannah feels she’s ready for the ball, Laurel and the boys judge her girliness and speak for her saying “it’s not you.” At Belly’s first party, big bro Steven is adamant that she leave immediately, in a crush-crushing fight, Conrad suggests that Belly go look in the mirror some more. The result of all this nagging is righteous exasperation. In one of the more profound sequences in the show, before a dialogue may devolve into platitude, Belly observes, “Girls aren’t supposed to know if we’re pretty or not. We’re supposed to wait for other people to tell us before we’re allowed to feel it about ourselves.”

    Though played by Lola Tung, who is convincing as an amicable, giggly but sensible teenager, perhaps there’s no easy way of picturising a young woman in bloom. It’s at once an outing that might be corny, slightly voyeuristic, and pedantic. Is that why “Summer” breaks away into a disingenuous relationship with its own hypothesis? Attractiveness does turn into vanity as dress after new dress is borrowed, gifted and sharpened as a tool to make Conrad notice. Prettiness is also a feature of the other women characters who then use it to “catch and release.” Beauty is also work. This is most evident in Steven’s arc, where matching with boo involves a more conventional brush with elitism and racism.

    Belly is in the privileged position of being the girl next door but a newbie in town. For every chance that she rejects the confines of this trope, as in being defined by a man’s perspective, or being the supportive and nurturing one, always being one peg of a love triangle, “Summer” absurdly reinforces other ones – of first love, The One and spring break summers. The love triangle is reversed. A common way to increase the stakes of a love triangle is to cinch it with siblings but here, there are no threats of relationships breaking, or any hatred aroused by love. The drama then feels anodyne. The speed with which trials are smoothed over is recognisable from the third part of To All The Boys franchise. That ‘the boys know we know’ doesn’t seem like a big reveal, as much as a plot reluctance to tell it sooner. The cancer is a backdrop, shown much less than how often we’re reminded of Laurel and Susannah’s good ol’ days; the summer and the fourth of July are phoney rituals.

    The chosen family is also framed as an exclusive club. Belly’s specialness to Susannah and the Fisher boys can feel overplayed. She gets off easy after breaking so many hearts, or faces little to no consequences after getting drunk and ruining Susannah’s prized Fourth of July event. This will make her out to be a Mary Sue. The show would have been more appealing had it made a point about how one doesn’t need to be pretty in order to have a pure heart. “We’re all pretty in our own way,” is concluded without even investigating what’s not pretty.

    Eisha Nair is an independent writer-illustrator based in Mumbai. She has written on history, art, culture, education, and film for various publications. When not pursuing call to cultural critique, she is busy drawing comics.

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