As a former Jenny Han addict, I knew I had to drop everything and watch The Summer I Turned Pretty the moment it dropped on Hulu. For the uninitiated, the book–adapted series follows the story of Isabella “Belly” Conklin, a 15–year–old whose family stays in a summer home at the Hamptons–esque Cousins Beach every year, courtesy of her mom’s well–off best friend Susannah and Susannah’s two teenage sons.
As the title suggests, this is the summer everything is meant to change for Belly. It's meant to be a summer of rebirth and transformation—a summer where she blossoms and becomes someone she previously wasn’t. With her braces finally taken off and a glasses–free face, Belly notes that this is the summer that she’ll take full advantage of Cousins and act upon her long–standing crush on Susannah’s elder son, Conrad.
From the second the title card dropped, I knew the this series would be exact type of coming–of–age romance that I wanted to see. TSITP didn’t skimp on any of my teenage summer fantasies: pool water–soaked hair, long walks on the beach, dances at the country club, and of course, love triangles.
I binged the show with warmth, maintaining an air of wistfulness and nostalgia for the kind of summer I never got to experience. This kind of media is very particular in its draw: teen escapist romance in a setting with rich, care–free, and attractive people who are all the same age. As someone who grew up on romantic comedies and teen wish–fulfillment stories and read about people my age that led vastly different lives, I wonder if there was always a part of me that believed in the plausibility of certain tropes.
The main characters in coming of age romantic media are always overwhelmingly regular people after all. Like most teenagers, Belly’s “quirks” are that she’s nice, fun, and makes a lot of decisions without fully thinking them over—a girl after my own heart.
This is by design, of course. Authors want the every–woman romance protagonist that readers can relate to. When I first flipped through The Summer I Turned Pretty all those summers ago—where the only summer breeze in sight came from an over–worked tabletop fan—I saw myself in Belly, which I’m sure was intentional. It made me invested in the world Han had built and in the other characters: the brothers Conrad and Jeremiah, one brooding and distant and the other charismatic and flirty. While rewatching the show, I once again felt the feelings that the book evoked—even at 20 years old.
But there was a line around halfway through the season that gave me pause in the midst of TSITP's teenage summer fantasy.
It’s Belly’s 16th birthday and she’s with Jeremiah on the way to pick up her best friend, Taylor, from back home. Belly is excited to see her friend again, but she laments the person she becomes around Taylor, stating that she “feels like a supporting character in [Taylor’s] story."
And taking into account Belly's more relaxed personality, it's unsurprising that she feels that way. Taylor is known as “Hurricane Taylor." She's someone who knows and goes for what she wants. And Belly is decidedly not that type of person.
I believe this is the main character’s burden. Belly takes change in stride (somewhat)—but change is something that happens to her, not something that she initiates. Conrad and Jeremiah’s interest in her stems from her existence as a suddenly attractive teenager in their vicinity. All of her dilemmas in the show stem from various things occurring to her or around her by happenstance, rather than through character–driven growth. The only thing Belly seems to start on her own is the debutante ball (a TV addition to the book), yet even that opportunity was something that Susannah dropped on her lap, not something she sought out on her own. At the end of the day, her entire plot line is formed around passivity.
As someone who has historically waited around for things to happen to me instead of pushing through that extra mile towards favorable change, I wonder if seeing myself in Belly means waiting around for a fantasy–esque story too. I wonder if embracing the individual roles we all have as the so–called "main characters" of our lives means embracing an interesting but passive life as well—a life full of twists and turns that we cannot choose.
But I propose a different definition: the real world doesn’t pause and play and rewind like fiction does. The real world needs players to set things into motion. Lounging around and waiting for things out of my control to set events into motion, is the fictional main character’s burden—not mine.
And I intend to keep it that way.