So this is the dramedy about a fat girl in small-town Texas who, fed up with her former-beauty-queen mother, decides to enter the local pageant that her mother runs. Just to piss her off. And to throw a spanner in the works of the feminine-beauty-industrial complex. And to protest our society’s shallow focus on women’s physical appearances and the narrow range of acceptability therein. (The girl has ambition.) Dumplin’ — this is the former-beauty-queen mom’s rather horrible nickname for her fat daughter — is a movie about how girls and women come in all different shapes and sizes, not just out of a Barbie-doll mold, and with all different personalities and interests, far from just one wannabe-supermodel package. And about how — obviously, and yet you’d hardly know it from our popular discourse — that is absolutely fine, and that all these various girls and women are still real girls and women.
Dumplin’ is far from a perfect movie, but it’s a lovely one anyway — hey, kinda like its heroine! — one that warmly embraces a wide(ish) range of girls-and-women-as-people, one that doesn’t reduce its large heroine to nothing more than her size: she’s simply a cool, funny, confused, perplexed, messed-up human being who still has a lot of growing up to do (which is okay; she’s still in high school). But perhaps the most amazing thing about Dumplin’ in this regard is that there is more than one fat girl in this movie.
*record scratch* Wait, what?!
Occasionally we get a movie about a fat girl and how she totally matters too even though she’s not a size 0. And I’m not even talking about the movies in which the girl or woman is Hollywood-fat, like, a size 6 instead of a 0. (Looking at you, every Bridget Jones movie, and every movie that has considered Janeane Garofalo or Amy Schumer fat.) But almost always — I cannot think of many exceptions off the top of my head — the fat or “fat” girl or woman is the only one to be found, as if she were a bizarre anomaly, a freak who dares to walk out among all the “normal” people even though she’s, you know, a monster.
Why, ‘Dumplin’’ suggests, it’s almost as if fat girls are individuals with their own tastes and desires, not collective fatty-fat-fat tastes and desires!
But in Dumplin’, Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald), the beauty queen’s daughter, is joined in her pageant protest by Millie (Maddie Baillio), who is also proper-fat-not-merely-not-rail-thin. Except Millie doesn’t want to protest, she actually just straight-up wants to compete in the pageant; it’s been her dream since she was little. Millie is sweet and kind, even to those who are mean to her. She’s completely unlike the snarky, defiant Willowdean. Why — Dumplin’ seems to suggest — it’s almost as if fat people aren’t only actually real people, just like thin people, but fat people aren’t even all alike! As if fat people, even fat girls and women, are also individuals with their own tastes and desires, not merely some sort of collective fatty-fat-fat tastes and desires!
This should not feel so damn radical. But it is radical.
The real triumph will come when we get a movie about a girl or woman who is fat and it’s not even a thing at all. You know, a size-blind rom-com in which no one talks about the heroine’s weight at all, including the heroine herself. That’s not this movie: Willowdean talks about her fatness a lot, and is very aware of how the world judges her on that... even, sometimes, when it isn’t judging her on that. Willowdean’s weight may not be all that she is, but it is very much one of the focuses of this story. Still: baby steps.
(Oh, and yes, I’m using the word fat. Not a euphemism like curvy or plus-sized. Fat. Willowdean is fat. It’s a descriptive word like tall or blonde, and there’s nothing shameful about it. Willowdean owns it. Millie owns it. It’s fine.)
I wish I could have seen something akin to this movie when I was a fat teen, and felt ugly and outcast, insecure and uncertain. The delightful Danielle Macdonald (who made a terrific debut in last year’s Patti Cake$) is amazing as Willowdean; she’s unguarded and vulnerable in a way that movies often don’t ask of women no matter what size they are; movies want girls and women to be victims, and she’s anything but. I love that via Millie and her genuine embrace of the pageant and her okayness with being judged on her appearance, the film broaches the notion that we need to expand our definition of beautiful to include fat girls and women. I like that the movie acknowledges that this isn’t some impossible fantasy that only fat girls dream of, but actual reality that plenty of people — even some who aren’t fat! — already live. As with Willowdean’s adorable burger-joint coworker Bo (Luke Benward): he is the very definition of Hollywood-handsome — tall, slim, blond — and he likes Willowdean. As in “is attracted to her.” As in “really wants to kiss her.”
‘Dumplin’’ understands the incredible support that girls get from their friendships, as Willowdean gets from hers with her best friend.
I love that Dumplin’ — a far more female-friendly movie than director Anne Fletcher (Hot Pursuit, The Proposal) usually gives us — really understands the incredible support that girls and women get from their friendships, as Willowdean gets from hers with her best friend, Ellen (Odeya Rush). (Their affinity is based on a shared love of Dolly Parton; many terrific Parton songs are featured herein.) I love that Willowdean’s mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), isn’t the mean, catty stereotype she so easily could have been, and is instead a harried single mom and a woman also suffering under the burdens of expectations hurled at women. I love the lesson that Willowdean learns and takes to heart: “Figure out who you are, and then do it on purpose.” (Though, to be fair, this is the wisdom of Dolly Parton that someone reminds her of. It’s still good stuff.)
All of this said, there are no girls or women of color in this movie. Which is set in the American South. And the only black man, played by Harold Perrineau who-deserves-better, is a magic Negro who shows Willowdean the path to self-acceptance. This is... not great. Our movies can do better than this. It’s not that difficult.
But still: baby steps.
‘Dumplin’’ is streaming globally on Netflix.
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