“You know, there’s a lot of shows out there that focus on young people that focus on pain,” Dash & Lily star Midori Francis told Refinery29 recently over Zoom video. “But I’m so proud to be a part of this little spark of joy. I hope that people come with us and are there to fall in love along with us.”
There are a lot of moments in Dash & Lily — Netflix’s eight-episode adaptation of David Levithan and Rachel Cohn’s 2010 YA novel of the same name — that will likely make viewers fall head over heels. There’s the time Francis’ Lily dances her way through a late-night Jewish punk show (“I had to go find somebody to fully work out my body after that” she laughed). There’s the scene of Lily’s love interest Dash (Euphoria’s Austin Abrams) tearing through the Macy’s flagship store with an elf hot on his heels. But, no snippet in Dash & Lily will grab you quite like the second Lily rips into her middle school bully, Edgar Thibaud (Glenn McCuen), in fifth episode “Edgar & Sofia.”
It’s a revelation that forces already emotional viewers to think about all the ways racism, sexism, and insecurity can leave painful fingerprints on our lives from adolescence. It’s also hiding a lot of insight into Francis’ own journey as a biracial, Japanese-American woman.
“Edgar & Sofia” reaches its peak when Lily shows up to a slam poetry night that she’s invited to by Thibaud. On stage, Lily reveals that Thibaud’s cruelty during a tweenage dance “changed everything” for her, leaving her afraid to put herself out there and make friends. One woman in the crowd screams, “Maybe he liked you.” Lily is rightly infuriated and responds, “No! I’m tired of boys pulling our pigtails and getting called cute … I wish I could have stood up to all the bullies who made me feel too weird, too different, too Asian.” The entire room is silenced into awe-struck contemplation.
“When I first read that, I was like, ‘This is the speech that every woman who’s ever been teased by anyone, male or female, wants to give,’” Francis said of the monologue, which she credits to episode writer Lauren Moon. Still, the more Francis read the scene, the more it started to mean to her.
“As I was doing it, I started to be like, ‘Yeah! Why do we think that?,’” Francis admitted. “As Lily started to process, ‘Why do we think it’s cute? Why do we think it’s acceptable for boys to tease us as a form of their love? Or hurt us?’ — I processed it.”
As Francis came to understand this central moment for Lily, she wanted to infuse more of her own experience into it. That is how we get TV Lily — who was initially a white character in the Dash & Lily book — directly saying Thibaud made her feel “too Asian” to be accepted. ”For me, a big part of being bullied growing up — because I was. Or teased — was the way I looked. Especially at that time, when there was no representation. If you don’t fit that kind of Eurocentric mold, you’re not attractive,” Francis recalled.
“I talked to our showrunner, Joe Tracz, about it. I was like, ‘Hey, what do you think about this speech being the time where we bring it up?’” she continued. Tracz was instantly invested in the idea. “So that was such a special cap for that speech for me. Because me, as Midori, if I was going to stick up to any of my bullies, that would be a part of it,” she said.
Francis didn’t stop sticking up for her culture — or perspective — with her big “Edgar & Sofia” moment. “It turns out that Joe was so receptive to everything. He honestly kind of diverted to me whenever he felt he didn’t know [something],” Francis said. “He was able to have talks with the set designer and the directors. Together, we were able to make [my input] a reality.”
This production decision is how Dash & Lily ended up with subtle important nods to Japanese-American culture, like the fact that no one wears shoes inside the home of Lily’s grandpa, Arthur (James Saito). “I have an aunt who worked in the industry in the ‘80s and this just couldn’t have happened back then,” Francis said. “There were times when I felt a bit of sadness. Like, ‘Why do I get to be the one who gets to have this positive experience? How messed up is it for all these years, people who look like me couldn’t have it?’ And then there was also so much relief and joy and gratitude that I was paired with someone like Joe who really cared.”
That's why, when Francis considers the message of Lily’s “Edgar & Sofia” speech — and all of her hard work behind the scenes — it’s a hopeful wish. “Lily at the start of the series is a person who likes board games, who likes her family, who doesn’t like her classmates, who doesn’t like going out,” Francis says. “What I want them to take away from this is that No. 1: Be cool with who you are. Accept that, first and foremost. But, maybe, instead of just accepting the limitations that you place on yourself, of likes and dislikes, or ‘I’m this type of person and I’m not this type of person,’ maybe suspend that judgement for a second.
“Say, ‘What if?’ ‘What if I went to the punk show? What if I give someone a chance?’”