Fat representation is always difficult to navigate because, well, existing as a fat person is difficult to navigate. There’s practicing acceptance while wishing you fit in straight sizes. There’s loved ones telling you you look beautiful while making snide remarks about other fat people. There’s strangers thinking they have free range to comment on your health just based on your weight.
You can’t make the focus be on weight because that’s reducing the character to just their size but you can’t ignore it and just pretend like the weight doesn’t matter. It’s really no wonder so many shows and movies that focus on fat representation get it so wrong especially when coupled with the general disdain for fat people even from people who think they really are accepting.
Netflix was 0/2 in 2018 with Insatiable and Sierra Burgess is a Loser, both being, to put it quite frankly, actively harmful by treating fat bodies as obstacles to be overcome in order to get what you really want. This was of course among other problems which included homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and glorifying of bullying.
But despite the rough start, Netflix had one last chance to get fat representation right in 2018 and boy did they deliver.
Dumplin’, an adaptation of Julie Murphy’s novel of the same name, is the story of Willowdean Opal Dickson (Danielle MacDonald), the fat teenage daughter of a former Texas beauty queen and current beauty pageant director (Jennifer Aniston). The movie follows her as she decides to compete in the beauty pageant her mom runs and turn things on their head.
A common saying of 2018 has been “irony is out and sincerity is in” and this movie feels like the culmination of that. Willowdean starts off cynical and sad. It’s 6 months after the death of her beloved Dolly Parton loving Aunt Lucy (Hillary Begley), the one person she felt truly understood her. Pageant season is starting up which means her mom, the bestower of her hated nickname Dumplin’, is focused on one thing. Her best friend has a boyfriend and the cute boy at work can’t possibly like her fat self right?
But going through Lucy’s things Willowdean finds a teen Lucy’s incomplete application for the pageant and decides she’s going to enter. Alongside her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), fellow fat girl Millie (Maddie Baillio), and queer-coded non-conforming feminist Hannah (Bex-Taylor Klaus), Willowdean gives her Texas town a pageant the likes of which they’ve never seen before. And she does it all while learning about herself and who she can be.
I adored every minute of Dumplin’ and cried through a fair amount of it, particularly the mother-daughter moments because MacDonald and Aniston are fantastic opposite each other. There are several threads giving you a full view of a life of a teenager. Mother-daughter, friend-best friend, friend-new friends, boy-girl and of course, girl-herself, and all of these relationships explored in Dumplin’. This could have easily felt too crowded and over-stuffed, and at times it did feel a bit rushed, but all the threads are woven together beautifully and tied into a bow of Dolly-isms like “find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
The stunning soundtrack, done by Dolly Parton herself and featuring the Golden Globe nominated “Girl in the Movies,” really ties the movie together and immerses you in Willowdean’s life. Dolly is the queen of keeping your head up and carrying on while being fabulous and that’s something that keeps Willowdean going through everything.
Dumplin’ is such a sincerely nice movie, there isn’t even a mean girl to love to hate. Bekah (Dove Cameron), the ideal beauty pageant contestant you’d expect to fill that role, just wants to live her life and do the pageant. She doesn’t want to take down the competition. Sometimes it feels like media is in a race to see who can be the edgiest and give the hottest take on a topic which is a large part of why both Insatiable and Sierra Burgess failed to capture audiences.
Fat bodies aren’t something to have a take on or to surround with edginess to justify centering them. Dumplin’ gets that and it’s refreshing. Dumplin’ feels a lot like the spiritual successor of Netflix’s summer YA adaptation hit To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before and I really think if you liked the latter you’ll like Dumplin’ too.
And once you’ve watched Dumplin’ go ahead and read the companion story Puddin’ featuring Millie and hope Netflix decides to make that movie too.