In the opening scene of Dumplin’, a young Willowdean “Will” Dickson cruises down a Texas road with her aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley). They're in a Pontiac Grand Prix, letting the breeze whip their hair about as they belt out the words to a Dolly Parton song. (Parton created the entire soundtrack.) For nearly 10 years beginning in undergrad, I drove a Grand Prix as well. I named her Sandy, and she was the most important space that I would occupy during my 20s. This is also true for teenage Will (Danielle Macdonald), who inherits the car after Lucy’s death.
A shared car brand was just the first of many things I would find in common with Will throughout Dumplin’, but the most obvious connection we share is that we are both fat girls. As such, I found myself watching this adaptation of Julie Murphy’s young adult novel of the same name through a completely different set of eyes. Director Anne Fletcher has made a film that is less about a fat girl than it is a story about a girl who just so happens to be fat. This is an important distinction, and one that highlights why the film is triggering, comforting, and inspiring to women in Will's shoes.
Growing up in a small Texas town, Will’s formative years were shaped by her Aunt Lucy. A confident, fat woman herself, Lucy taught her niece to love herself just as much as they both love Dolly Parton. Will’s mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) is a former beauty queen and local celebrity still deeply involved in the local pageant culture. She nicknamed her daughter Dumplin’ — a reference to her round shape — much to the teen’s chagrin. She asks her mother repeatedly not to call her by the moniker.
Rosie dedicates her time to shaping the annual Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant, unwilling to fill the maternal void left in her daughter’s life after the passing of Lucy. Tired of the monotonous, frenzied enthusiasm over the pageant from her mother and the rest of the town, Will decides to sign up as a contestant, knowing that her very body in the space will act as a form of protest.
For all of its empowerment, however, it’s impossible for even Dumplin’ to completely escape the more problematic and painful realities of being fat.
The real tension in Dumplin’ is the constant threat of fatphobia against Will as she puts herself in spaces where fat girls are normally rejected. From the local beauty pageant to the affectionate gaze of local hottie Bo (Luke Benward), Will casually defies the behaviours typically appointed to fat girls. With only a few exceptions, she does not hide, she does not sulk, she does not perform insincere friendliness or joy; she just minds her business and waits for the other shoe to drop from the rest of the world. This is what I related to the most. So much of the experience of being a fat girl is trying to accomplish your goals, express yourself, and live a peaceful life while everyone else demands an explanation, change, or defence of your body. Will's portrayal in Dumplin' marks a refreshing way of showing fat bodies that reflects a reality for many of us doing the work of loving ourselves.
Will’s desire to enter the pageant isn’t a quest to prove that her body is just as beautiful as her thin pageant sisters. It’s a cry for attention from her mother. She doubts that Bo is actually interested in her because she doesn’t think she’s pretty enough for a guy like him, not because she doubts that she has any beauty at all. As her mother, her pageant sisters, and her classmates try to grapple with her size, Will exists as a full person.
For all of its empowerment, however, it’s impossible for even Dumplin’ to completely escape the more problematic and painful realities of being fat. One of which is the fact that other (formerly) fat people, including those in your family, can be the biggest threat to your confidence. I shook my head when the big divide between Rosie and her sister Lucy was revealed: during one summer in high school, a once-fat Rosie lost all of her weight, and insists it’s the reason she was “more successful.” Carrying her own self-loathing from her teenage years also makes it impossible for Rosie to validate her daughter’s self-assurance. In turn, Will herself has a hard time embracing her fellow fat contestant, Millie (Maddie Baillio), because the latter is the “wrong” kind of fat.
Millie is naive, passive, and very invested in the institutions, like the Miss Teen Bluebell pageant, that intend to exclude and shame her. Imagine Hairspray’s Penny Pingleton in Tracy Turnblat’s body. That Will is resistant in finding common ground with Millie speaks to the diversity of experiences among fat people. You want the people closest to you to relate, but they rarely can, even if they’re also fat, because we are so much more than the numbers on the scale. And that’s what Dumplin’ gets right: Fatphobia insidiously ebbs and flows to impact the lives of fat women and girls, even the ones who aren’t drowning in low self-esteem.
Dumplin’ perfectly captures the dissonance of living in a body that is understood to be shameful, less valuable, undesirable, and in constant need of fixing by everyone else. This is what fat girls are up against. As others try to define us by our bodies, we simply miss our departed loved ones and crave solo karaoke in the driver seats of our Grands Prix.
Dumplin' is available on Netflix now