Does ‘The Summer I Turned Pretty’ Focus Too Much on Looks and Not Enough on Substance?

Adolescence and puberty can be a scary thing. One minute you are just a kid running around the park doing cartwheels, the very next you suddenly have emotions like love and anger swirling around you that you never experienced before.

Another factor involved with becoming a teenager is the sudden stress of one’s appearance. Examples of this stress are abundant. Should you wear Converse or sandals to school? Should you sneak some of your mom’s lipstick on before you leave the house? Looking in the mirror becomes a task of solving the mystery of who the person is looking back at you. 

That struggle of all the emotions listed above is exemplified in Amazon Prime’s new series “The Summer I Turned Pretty,” with the first season released on June 17. The seven-episode series, which is based on the book series by Jenny Han, focuses on Isabel (Lola Tung), also known as “Belly,” and how she prepares to spend the summer with her mom Laurel (Jackie Chung) and her older brother Steven (Sean Kaufman) at the Fisher family’s beach house in Cousins. Belly has spent every summer of her life in Cousins, but this summer as a 16-year-old makes everything feel different. A huge part of that change is Belly suddenly gaining the attention of the Fisher boys, Conrad (Christopher Briney) and Jeremiah (Gavin Casalegno), who formerly viewed her as just a sister to them. The series displays what it’s like to grow up, have a crush and just be a 16-year-old trying to figure out both what they want out of the summer to come and who they want to be.

Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

The show is absolutely a stunner to watch. With the beautiful beach landscape and a soundtrack filled with Taylor Swift, the backdrop is perfect for any Gen Z or millennial. Along with the environment, the performances by the cast, specifically Lola Tung as “Belly,” show that young actors can take the wheel and create content that has a deep and relatable tone, while also being binge-worthy at the same time. 

But here’s the problem, as much as anyone can get sucked into a rom-com television series, there needs to be a protagonist with the right values in mind. And unfortunately, the values of Belly are too focused on her looks and not enough on her accomplishments as a girl turning into a young woman.

The audience never really learns about the accomplishments Belly has made over the past 16 years — unless you include learning how to be a debutante or understanding what infinity means by Conrad drawing it in the form of maple syrup on her pancakes. What has Belly done at school? What are her hobbies besides developing crushes on boys? If these questions were answered, the viewer would have a more fully-formed understanding of Belly and appreciate her more as the protagonist. Yes, at the age of 16 boys may be the only focus for a young girl, but that doesn’t mean the show cannot showcase parts of her life besides wearing tight clothes and kissing more boys. A rom-com series can still include all the heart-eye emojis and swoons if there is more dimension to its characters.

Another cause of concern arises in the fact that if young girls are watching this show, they may feel pressure to look as attractive as Belly. The pressure will result in negative self-esteem if these young viewers feel they can’t live up to Belly’s beauty standards. 

Luckily, not all of the plot points of “The Summer I Turned Pretty” fall flat. The best relationship brought forward from the series is that of Laurel and Susannah (Rachel Blanchard), Conrad and Jeremiah’s mom. Throughout the seven episodes, the viewer falls in love with this friendship, which started when the duo met in college. Even though they couldn’t be more different from one another  — Laurel living in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Susannah residing in Boston  — they strengthen their bond each summer and come together for the ultimate vacation. Through laughter, tears and the frequent Long Island iced tea consumed, Laurel and Susannah carry both the gravity and depth of the series.

Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video.

Upon the release of the series, fans of the books immediately jumped to Twitter to share their reactions. As with any book adaptation, there are nerves about whether it will please those that cling so tightly to the book. But #TheSummerITurnedPretty was trending on social media and fans fell head-over-heels with the cast and the music. Author Jenny Han, who served as the series’ creator, co-showrunner and executive producer, said to Time Magazine that even though there were changes from the pages to the television screen, including the debutante ball, that she was “thinking a lot about the visual representations of coming of age and how many different cultures celebrate the moment.” So far, fans have nothing but applause for Han’s work.

Fans are so pleased with season one that they are counting down the days until season two is out, which Prime Video gave the green light for even before the first season hit the streaming service. 

Despite “The Summer I Turned Pretty” overall valuing looks above individual accomplishments, the best line in the series is said by Belly, where I can give her more credit than I do before: “Girls aren’t supposed to know if we are pretty or not. We’re supposed to wait for other people to tell us before we’re allowed to feel it about ourselves. But isn’t that bullshit? Because we are all beautiful in our own ways.” 

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a sucker for rom-coms and “The Summer I Turned Pretty” fits my type of mold to a tee. But, I always strive to find the writing that sweeps me off my feet with detail, personality and intensity — which is what was lacking in season one. But don’t fret, I will be on the edge of my seat along with the entire internet eagerly waiting for season two.

“The Summer I Turned Pretty” is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.

By Megan Forrester

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