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How The Jenny Han Cinematic Universe Unpacks Toxic Relationships

Disclaimer: This article is based exclusively on Jenny Han’s film and television adaptations.

After watching the teaser trailer for the anticipated second season of Jenny Han’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, I could already smell the dramatic storyline that it entailed. I remember having mixed feelings about the first season, feelings that gave me the need to lecture my little sister about how Belly’s relationship choices were not the healthiest and how Cam Cameron deserves better. These feelings led me to want to further analyze the Jenny Han cinematic universe as a whole.

Jenny Han is a young adult fiction writer who primarily writes teen romance stories in the style of the problematic high school drama that we all loved to hear about but never be a part of. And in 2018, the beginning of the To All The Boys I Loved Before film trilogy, based on Han’s best-seller book series of the same name, was released on Netflix. The series tells the love story of Lara Jean Song Covey and Peter Kavinsky and how a middle school love letter led to a real high school relationship. After watching the first film, I, along with the rest of the world, fell head over heels for Peter Kavinsky, but my support for him loosened as the trilogy was completed– especially with the release of the third film.

In summary, in the first film, Peter chooses Lara Jean and in the second film Lara Jean chooses Peter, but in the third film, Lara Jean and Peter have to choose their future. The final film begins with L.J.’s fantasy for the future which follows her and Peter’s plan of attending Stanford University together. While Peter was already signed to play lacrosse as a Cardinal, L.J. was still waiting for her acceptance. L.J. ultimately receives a rejection from Peter’s dream school and decides to compromise for University of California Berkeley seeing that it is only an hour from Stanford. But after attending her senior trip to New York City and exploring NYU’s campus, she is left at another fork in the road and understands that she now has to choose between 39 miles and 2,940 miles. When L.J. finally confesses that her true dream school lies in the East, Peter loses all hope and lets the fear of losing her consume him. At the end of prom night, L.J. takes Peter up to her room to give him a box of memorabilia, but Peter sees it as a final goodbye present. As a result, Peter confronts L.J. about the goodbye gift and her choice to ‘leave him’ for NYU.


I want to be with you.

That's all I've ever wanted.


Then why aren't you going to Berkeley?


'Cause I fell in love with New York.


But that doesn't change

the way I feel about you.

We could still make this work.




I'm not gonna wait for this to end

in three or six months or however long we last.


No, please don't do this.


Let's just end it now.


Peter. I love you.


Not enough, apparently.

Looking back on this film series, and especially this scene, I had marked Peter Kavinsky with red flags and was disappointed that the film romanticized a toxic relationship. Throughout the film series, Peter and LJ are referred to as the ‘perfect’ couple, by LJ’s best friend Christine and especially Kitty, LJ’s little sister. Throughout the film series, Peter is always the one leading the relationship, while LJ is mostly in the dark. The second film especially dives into this, but never highlights it as an issue. In the second film LJ struggles with confusion and anxiety of how a ‘real girlfriend’ should act. She compares herself to Peter’s first, previous long-time girlfriend Gen and tries to emulate everything she was so she can fit into the Peter Kavinsky girlfriend mold. With this, LJ creates a revengeful Gen in her head, leading to skepticism and mistrust within her relationship with Peter. Additionally, she finds out that Peter was not telling the truth regarding his relationship with Gen which leads to their first break up. But in the end they choose to get back together. And even after Peter’s manipulative confrontation of the third film, Lara chooses Peter as her ‘always and forever’ and the relationship continues to be idealized by Kitty in her spin-off series, XO Kitty. But after rewatching it now, I completely forgot about the personal trauma that builds up to this toxic scene.

To provide perspective, before L.J. and Peter became fake and/or real boyfriend and girlfriend, both lovers experienced loss in their home life. L.J. lost her mother and Peter’s father chose a new family over him. According to TalkSpace, people can engage in toxic behaviors when they are coping with some underlying problem, such as a history of trauma, unhealthy familial relationships, or addiction. In addition to L.J. and Peter’s future, the final film explores Peter’s relationship with his father, who decides he wants to be a part of Peter’s life. At first, I saw this additional storyline as a realization for Peter, that he needs to let go but also be there for the people he loves. However, this storyline also contributes to why Peter is so controlling over where Lara Jean chooses to go to college. Earlier in the film, after Peter and L.J. run into Peter’s father at the bowling alley, Peter confesses how he feels about his father saying, “There is nothing worse than not feeling chosen.” This confession foreshadows his reaction to ‘not being chosen’ by L.J., making him doubtful rather than supportive of her choice to move across the country to attend her dream school.

With Peter’s past familial relationship history, he saw himself as unworthy and unwanted and used L.J. to fill in the gap his father had left. In addition to revealing his insecurity of not feeling chosen, Peter revealed to L.J. his contradicting feelings of hate and missing his father. As demonstrated by the scenes of Peter interacting with his father, hate is the feeling that Peter allows to be stronger— not because he hates his father more than he misses him but because he wants his father to realize that he is missed. Peter’s dismissive actions towards his father are meant to hurt his father and make him realize how he hurt his son. While this technique does make Peter’s father feel hurt, it leaves a lot of confusion of what Peter wants. Peter’s passive nature with his father is reflected in his prom night ultimatum with L.J.

By providing the storyline between Peter and his father, Han allowed us to see the roots to Peter’s final toxic decisions. While this does not make the romanticization of Peter and L.J.’s relationship right, it does make it, sadly, realistic.

Jenny Han’s second best-seller book series turned TV show, The Summer I Turned Pretty, contains even more problematic storylines which form multiple love triangles– and even some love squares. The series follows Belly Conklin who is suddenly recognized as a ‘pretty’ girl by her childhood, male friends, brothers Conrad and Jeremiah Fisher. Over the course of a summer, Belly dates a boy named Cameron, kisses Jeremiah, but chooses Conrad.The only person in her sights who has been cold and distant to Belly all summer. I was very disappointed that Belly started her dating record with ‘Cam’ Cameron, the respectful, kind old classmate who spoke to her in Latin, made her sandwiches, and took her to a drive-in movie, and ended up choosing the Fisher brother who ignored her all summer. As an older sister, I did not want my sister to watch this show and hop-on the Team Conrad bandwagon and idealize Belly as a role model. I want my sister to be able to recognize what she deserves, rather than chase a love that is not reciprocated. Belly is noncommittal and is responsible for a majority of the show's relationship drama, but this isn’t because she wants to create drama. She’s simply trying to find the person who is right for her. But the issue is, she allows a childhood crush cloud her vision of who that person could be.

The teen rom-coms of today play a major role in developing how young people think they should navigate the dating world and model it. And while the inclusion of toxic relationships provide a realistic look at relationship possibilities, the romanticization of them can be detrimental to how they view themselves and their expectations of how they should be treated in a relationship.


Editors: Katie M., Leila W.

Image source: Unsplash


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