This review contains some minor spoilers for the new Netflix film, Dumplin’
2018 hasn’t been a fantastic year for fat media. Insatiable gave us a thin actress in a fat suit, and a storyline saying she could only be popular and get revenge once she lost weight from being physically incapable of eating. Sierra Burgess Is A Loser told us that in order for fat girls to get the guy, they have to catfish, cyberbully, kiss without consent and be homophobic. Dietland featured extremely problematic scenes of violence against a sex worker. Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty told us that an (objectively thin) woman can only be self-confident once she’s had a brain-damaging injury. Even Rebel Wilson’s upcoming satirical rom-com Isn’t It Romantic has been sullied pre-release by Wilson claiming to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy, conveniently forgetting about and then deliberately downplaying the roles that women of colour had played in the past. It began to feel like the fat community couldn’t have any media of their own without espousing unhealthy behaviours or stepping on other marginalised communities.
So, when I saw the trailer for Dumplin’, the story of a Texas teenager who defies her beauty queen mother by entering the local pageant, based on the novel by Julie Murphy I remained cautious yet hopeful. Could this be a film which actually gave us a wholesome fat protagonist, to whom we could relate without oppressing other minorities?
The answer is… for the most part, yes.
I won’t lie and say that I didn’t cry throughout the majority of watching Dumplin’. From the moment Willowdean Dixon (the eponymous Dumplin’ as her mother, played to perfection by Jennifer Aniston, likes to nickname her) pulls back from a passionate embrace with her love interest, Bo, because his hand gets too close to her back fat, I was gone – proclaiming through sniffly tears to my somewhat bewildered boyfriend that but for a change in cultural heritage and location, “Willowdean is ME!”
“These are scenes most people who remember their teens are familiar with, but especially those who were considered to be outside of conventional beauty standards.”
Danielle Macdonald plays Willowdean wonderfully, with just the right amount of fragile bravado that any fat person who has tried to hold their head up high in the face of body-shaming will recognise. As a character, Willowdean is familiar to us. She has a skinny best friend in Ellen, who loves Dolly Parton (whose music forms the philosophical soundtrack to the whole film, as well as the literal) as much as she does. Early on, before too much dialogue has even been uttered, viewers are prompted to note the differences in the two girls when they are seen drifting by on pool floats; Ellen’s a watermelon and Willowdean’s a donut. It’s not subtle but, this being a teen movie, it’s also not scary to us, because we know Willowdean will be a winner in the end. And that’s what we are here for.
In fact, establishing a few somewhat cliché tropes is kind of fundamental to the setup of Willowdean as the hero of this film. She has a crush on the hot guy from work but plays down any signs that he might like her back, because she thinks he’s too good-looking to ever pay attention to her. She is teased at school for being fat. When visiting another town’s pageant with her mother and Ellen, Willowdean is ignored by another woman who assumes the slim and pretty Ellen is Rosie’s actual daughter. These are scenes most people who remember their teens are familiar with, but especially those who were considered to be outside of conventional beauty standards.
Far from sinking into the background of her own story, though, Willowdean attempts to be strong and defiant. After running from Bo’s embrace, she relates the story to Ellen. She recalls the gamut of emotions she went through, including “I hated myself for being that girl”, the one who cared so much about her weight that she sabotaged her own happy moment. In a moment which holds significance, Ellen tries to relate to Willowdean’s experience in this scene by saying she also hates when her boyfriend touches her tummy – and Willowdean’s sad gaze says what all fat people think in situations like this: “You can’t relate.”
“Willowdean represents the fat girl we want to be, and the fat girl we have been in the past.”
Willowdean is set up to be a character who is intelligent and insightful – she is intent on pushing back at society’s expectation that fat people should want to lose weight, or should be sad and depressed that they are overweight. She is not going to fade into the background, which is why she decides to enter the pageant, as an act of protest towards her mother, and the society which dictates that we must all look a certain way.
But of course, very few of us are lucky enough to exist in the sort of vacuum which makes us impervious to the way society sees us. Willowdean is vulnerable – she is derisive towards another chubby girl, Millie, an earnest, Christian girl who laughs along with the taunts and doesn’t stick up for herself. She is hurt and upset when Ellen decides she wants to enter the pageant un-ironically. We see the defences Willowdean has built up around herself, and we see how they are so easily penetrated when she feels alone. Simultaneously, Willowdean represents the fat girl we want to be, and the fat girl we have been in the past.
Dumplin’ is, of course, not without its flaws. Willowdean’s journey is relatable and funny and emotional, but in laying out the story of teen fatness, there are a few missteps which are hard to ignore. The character of Hannah Perez, played by non-binary actor Bex Taylor-Klaus, is portrayed as a somewhat butch, militant feminist who is little more than a series of soundbites about destroying the patriarchy. And Willowdean’s personal turning point comes thanks to the only significant actor of colour in the cast, Harold Perrineau – a straight actor who plays gay drag queen Lee, who provides her much needed confidence boosts and makeovers in the second act. While the character serves an important purpose, I personally would have liked to see Hannah’s character fleshed out a little more, and a queer character played by a queer actor, so that Lee didn’t feel quite as much like the gay fairy godmother stereotype of many rom-coms past.
These missteps are frustrating, mostly because otherwise, the film is fantastic. My hope is that Willowdean herself can be a character that young fat teens can relate to, in the way that I see so much of my own teen self in her. Jennifer Aniston is truly transcendent – the comedy timing and inflection that we remember from Friends is put to brilliant use here. And I defy anyone to watch Dumplin’ and not want to love and protect Millie and wish only good things for her forever.
Overall, Dumplin’ is a wonderful end to a year where fat actors and characters have been so misused – I hope that 2019 brings even more content like this, and we can include and represent other marginalised communities without having to reduce them to caricatures at the same time.