There’s a scene towards the end of “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” that deals with slut-shaming, where Lara Jean confronts the realities of sexism after a video of her kissing her not-boyfriend boyfriend Peter Kavinsky surfaces online. The problem was fixed haphazardly and had it not been a plot device to bridge the gap between the existing conflicts in the movie, it could’ve driven home a genuine message. This is where Michelle Quach’s “Not Here to Be Liked” comes into focus.
In “Not Here to Be Liked,” managing editor Eliza Quan pens a manifesto in a fit of rage after she loses the editor-in-chief position to former jock Len DiMartile. The manifesto inspires a feminist movement at her high school, and Eliza begins to question what feminism means to her as she navigates friendship and love, along with being the voice of change.
After being warned about an “unlikeable female character,” we meet Eliza, the hopeful editor-in-chief who works hard to achieve what she wants. Quach successfully avoids shaping the Chinese American teen into the “nerdy Asian girl” trope, creating instead a young protagonist who is intelligent in a stubborn, youthful kind of way. Eliza harbors a lot of internalized misogyny despite claiming to be a feminist. She suffers from “I’m Not Like Other Girls” syndrome as she judges other girls for engaging in traditionally feminine behavior such as wearing makeup and dating boys. After different girls worm their way into her life once her manifesto goes viral, Eliza struggles with the values she believes in as a young, misguided teenager, confronting the pre-conceived ideas she has about being a “good feminist.” As Eliza begins to challenge her own beliefs, questioning how she really feels about dating and falling in love, Quach sends us spiraling back to when we were her age and also discovering the world for the first time.
While this young adult novel is a story about love and the pubescent relationship between Eliza and Len, there’s more to “Not Here to Be Liked” than the messy chaotic drama that seeps out from their teen romance. As we learn more about Eliza and the other girls from the book, we start to see the different ways feminism could be manifested. Quach tells real, authentic stories about what it means to be an Asian American girl, conflating their existence with the idea that their personalities don’t have to fall perfectly on a line in order to have their stories told. Serena Hwangbo, their school’s junior-class president, may seem like a walking stereotype of a popular high school girl with her flirty personality and dating history, but she is vulnerable and bold in her discovery of feminist ideology — a character whose story goes beyond an archetype. The strong female characters in “Not Here to Be Liked” are complex, even unlikeable at times, and remarkably human, proving that there isn’t one right way to be Asian.
Even though the novel tries to offer an intricate take on intersectional feminism, race was barely discussed throughout the story. Quach is smart in her attempt to deliver insightful dialogue about sexism but falls short of providing the cultural nuances needed to advocate for solidarity between different groups of people. Eliza’s friend Winona Wilson best embodies this by taking the form of the token Black friend who prioritizes the managing editor’s problems over her own. It’s similar in “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” with Lucas Krapf, Lara Jean’s former crush turned token gay Black friend. In both cases, neither character had a real opportunity to let their own personalities shine through and by leaning on these kinds of stereotypes, Quach weakens the message she wants to send about feminism.
Despite its apparent flaws, “Not Here to Be Liked” offers a new take on the concept of unlikability and what that looks like when you’re not white. Eliza Quan represents change, growth, and above all, what it’s like to be young and trying to navigate a world that may not always be looking out for you. The novel is a breath of fresh air in its quest to portray an array of character personalities — a small win when Hollywood is determined to portray only a metronome of nice, nerdy Asian girls or bad, bitchy ones.
“Not Here to Be Liked” by Michelle Quach, published by Harper Children’s, is available at your local independent bookseller starting on September 14, 2021.