Love them or hate them, holiday rom-coms are a beloved pastime for many Americans come December. The genre provides temporary solace from the stresses of winter and a chance to fully embrace the heartwarming, and a little cheesy, atmosphere the holidays bring. Besides predictable plot twists and improbable happy endings, one of the criticisms of this genre has been the lack of diversity in these movies, with household favorites like Love Actually and The Holiday featuring predominantly white actors. But this year, there are signs that the genre may be changing. Lifetime recently premiered its first Chinese American Christmas rom-com called A Sugar & Spice Holiday, and last month, Netflix released its series Dash and Lily which stars a bi-racial Japanese American female lead.
Nancy Yuen, an associate professor at Biola University and the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism, believes the rise of Asian American leads in holiday rom-coms is part of a larger trend of Asian American-led rom-coms in general, beginning with the staggering box office success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018 followed by the mainstream success of Netflix’s Always Be My Maybe, which starred Ali Wong and Randall Park.
“Overall, the holiday rom-com is on the rise so this is just an intersection of the two trends,” Yuen explains over email. “Furthermore, there have been critiques over the last several years of how homogenous Holiday movies can be, so Hollywood is finally listening.”
As an unapologetic fan of cheesy rom-coms and practically anything related to the holidays, it was no surprise that I decided to binge watch Netflix’s Dash and Lily shortly after its release on November 10. Based on a book titled Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, the show centers around two New York teenagers who anonymously exchange messages and dares with each other through a bright red notebook. On the surface, it’s a sweet love story complete with lively dialogue and charming chemistry between the two leads. But the show is also packed with nods to Lily’s Japanese American identity, from references to the trials and tribulations of making mochi to a scene where Lily’s family visits a temple together on New Year’s Eve. There are also LGBTQ characters, notably Lily’s supportive older brother Langston (played by Troy Iwata, who is Japanese and Jewish).
As someone who isn’t of Japanese descent but is from a mixed Asian family, I found myself relating deeply to the character Lily in more ways than one. There were the obvious similarities – a love of classic novels, experiences dealing with social anxiety. But there were also the ones that were reflective of a similar Asian American experience we both shared.
One scene that really struck me while watching the show is from an episode titled “Sofia & Edgar,” written by Lauren Moon. At some point during the episode, Lily takes the stage of a slam poetry reading and chooses to confront her childhood bully. She boldly declares to the audience, “I wish I could’ve stood up to all of the bullies who made me feel too weird, too different – too Asian.”
In an interview with Midori Francis, the half-Japanese actress who plays Lily, Francis explains that the “too Asian” line was something she asked showrunner Joe Tracz if she could add in.
“Every Asian kid who grew up on a playground in America, specifically one where there were mostly white kids – everyone knows that experience,” Francis says over a phone interview. “I was like, if we’re building this story where Lily was bullied and made to feel different, it would just be extremely dishonest to not include the fact that she’s Asian because that is integral to probably why she was picked on in some sense – or, at least she would feel that way.”
While the character of Lily in the original book was not Asian American, Francis says the decision to cast an Asian American lead was an intentional one by Dash and Lily showrunner Joe Tracz. The show went to great lengths to ensure the Asian actors who played Lily’s family members were all of Japanese descent.
Francis and I also discussed Lily’s quirky and endearing personality that shines on screen. In a media landscape where Asian and Asian American women have been subjected to stereotypes of being too “submissive” or “docile,” Lily presents an example of an Asian American woman who steps outside of her comfort zone and asserts her own narrative.
“Lily is just so fleshed out and her interests are clear, her dislikes are clear, her worldview at the age of 17 is very clear,” Francis says. “She’s just very much a real person that we get to know and love. So even if she was a shy girl, I think it would have gone beyond that stereotype simply because the writers did the work to make sure she was well-rounded.”
Francis admits she was well-aware that it was “highly unusual” for an Asian American to be cast in a holiday rom-com like Dash and Lily. The 26-year-old actress recounts the impact that films like Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before have had on the industry before stressing the importance of representation for Asian Americans and other marginalized groups.
Yuen shares a similar sentiment, offering a perspective about why it has taken so long for Asian American representation to come to holiday rom-coms and why this is a conversation worth having.
“So often, Asian Americans are seen through a lens of foreignness and otherness. So it is no surprise that Asian Americans (and other BIPOC) have been excluded from a genre that feels very ‘American’ even if it does not capture the full breadth of U.S. cultures,” Yuen says. “No genre should exclude any groups – particularly one that has grown in popularity over the years. Asian Americans and other BIPOC can only elevate and expand the holiday movie genre beyond snowball fights and mistletoe kisses.”