‘The Half of It’ Breaks Barriers by Telling an Intersectional Story
By Anika Raju
Netflix film The Half of It premiered on May 1, 2020 and presents a major milestone in the representation of Asian Americans in mainstream media. Set in the small, fictional town of Squahamish, the film follows Ellie Chu, played by Leah Lewis, who is asked by football jock Paul to ghostwrite love letters to his crush. Ellie confronts the challenges of high school while also navigating her Asian American and LGBTQ+ identity.
Representation of the LGBTQ+ and Asian American communities in mainstream media is limited, making this film all the more significant. The Half of It highlights the intersectionality of Ellie’s identity and provides representation for LGBTQ+ Asian American youth. On what this film means for representation, Leah Lewis told Elle:
“I’d grown up never really seeing films like this, where there’s an Asian-American lead or an Asian lead. It centers solely around just her life, and also [touches on] the LGBTQ experience. It’s an absolute privilege and an honor, something I never would have expected.”
The film articulates the immigrant experience through its own take on the “American dream,” with issues like language access and education at the forefront. Ellie and her parents settle in the railroad town of Squahamish with the hope that her father’s PhD in engineering will grant him a position as an engineer at the railroad station. Years later, however, he is still the station manager, as Western education and proficiency in English are valued more than a PhD from China. The film offers a glimmer of hope, however, when Ellie leaves Squahamish to attend her dream college. By juxtaposing Ellie’s experiences with her father’s, the film conveys the burden that first-generation immigrants and their children carry to overcome systemic barriers and achieve success.
The Half of It touches on additional elements of the experiences of immigrants and Asian Americans. Following the death of her mother, Ellie grows up in a single-parent household with a limited-English proficient father, meaning that she must assume many responsibilities that her peers do not. At home, she speaks Mandarin with her father, eats traditional Chinese dishes, and drinks Yakults. Outside of the home, it is obvious that Ellie and her father are the only people of color in Squahamish; the folks in town know Ellie as the “Chinese girl,” and her peers from school yell, “Chugga chugga Chu Chu” whenever they pass her. By featuring these experiences, The Half of It captures the isolation and bullying that can come with having a marginalized identity.
The film further conveys the experiences of having a marginalized identity by breaking away from heteronormative tropes in the romcom genre. Ellie’s story does not culminate in a perfect ending in which she ends up with who she wants. In fact, one of Ellie’s first lines in the film’s opening sequence is, “In case you haven’t guessed, this is not a love story. Or not one where anyone gets what they want.”
The Half of It explores love through its platonic relationships, one of which is the friendship between Ellie and Paul — a purely platonic relationship that nonetheless encapsulates what it means to love someone. The film also explores love between Ellie and her father, who is still grieving Ellie’s late mother. But most remarkably, the film follows Ellie’s path to love herself. Leah Lewis elaborated on the film’s categorization as a “love story” in an interview with Teen Vogue:
“Most people think a love story has an equation, and that’s usually boy meets girl, girl meets boy, or girl meets girl. It’s a self-love story because these characters don’t really end up with each other, but at the very end, they end up with something. For me, that’s even more valuable than just finding your other half; it’s finding a part of yourself along the way. It is a love story, it’s just not a ‘romance’ story.”
Behind-the-camera representation is just as important as the story told in front of the camera. Alice Wu, a queer, Asian-American woman wrote and directed this film — another reason this film is groundbreaking.
The Half of It was Wu’s first film after a years-long hiatus following Saving Face. On the creation of the film, Wu told Variety she hoped to “take characters who are almost never the main characters, but more a side character or even an extra and show the specificity and textures of people you don’t usually see.”
The Half of It does exactly what Wu set out to do. Authentically weaving the intersectional experiences of Ellie Chu, The Half of It shows the specificity and textures of non-traditional characters and helps to make their experiences mainstream.
Anika Raju is the Programs and Executive Assistant at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.
This blog is part of our “Milestones and Missed Cues” blog series. Stay tuned for another blog highlighting representation in the Asian American community in the past year!
To combat misperceptions about our incredibly multifaceted community, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC advocates for fair and equal representation of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) behind and in front of the camera. Historically, AAPIs have been depicted in one-dimensional and often dehumanizing ways, but we have seen significant strides in recent years. We are delighted to introduce our blog series entitled, “Milestones and Missed Cues,” which examines movies and television shows featuring AAPI characters by asking a few important questions: Does the movie or show move the perception of AAPIs in a positive direction? Does the movie or show challenge the notion of what it means to be a “mainstream” movie instead of an “ethnic” movie? How do media platforms and outlets discuss the movie or show? How do social media users talk about the movie or show?