I saw Dumplin’ on Netflix last weekend thanks to Sarah Gailey, and I’m glad since I might never have gotten around to it otherwise.
If you don’t know about Dumplin’, it’s about a fat girl named Willowdean (Danielle MacDonald) who is the daughter of a former beauty queen (Rosie, played by Jennifer Aniston) who is still deeply embedded in the pageant circuit and culture. As you can imagine, mother and daughter have some conflicting interests. Willowdean was much closer to her Aunt Lucy (Hilliary Begley), a beautiful and vivacious fat woman who instilled in her an absolute love of Dolly Parton… and who had recently died. In an act of grief and defiance, Willowdean decides to enter this year’s beauty pageant, along with her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), and two girls who also definitely don’t fit the pageant scene: defiantly queer Hannah (Bex Taylor-Klaus), and Millie (Maddie Baillio) who is extremely earnest about everything and also a fat girl.
So basically I’m going to spoil everything about this movie, so just go and watch it because it’s really fucking good.
Any movie that involves fat characters, especially fat female characters, is one I approach with caution. I’ve been burned way too many times by narratives that hinge on a girl “becoming” beautiful by losing weight. Or by the fat girl being the thin girl’s accessory. Or by the fat girl being the butt of the jokes instead of the one who makes them. Add that the whole thing centers around a beauty pageant and I would have been wary about picking it up on my own.
But the thing about Dumplin’ is that it’s one of those movies that constantly defies the expectations that have been drilled into us as an audience. For example, I spent the whole movie expecting Willowdean’s love interest Bo (Luke Benward), who is a traditional white teen guy hottie, to turn on her and be using her to score points, or because he expects her to be easy, or any of the horrible stuff that normally happens to fat girl characters. And it never happens. Bo’s earnest, and good, and… well, getting in to my own feelings as a fat person, there’s an amazing scene where Willowdean asks him why the hell he would want to be with her considering how she looks. Which is one of those moments where the movie got just too fucking real. I’ve had that conversation before. I’ve felt the disbelief that even when someone says they like you for your whole self, you think that can’t possibly be true. Willowdean’s someone that’s grown up in the same fat-hating culture as the rest of us (and it’s on display in the movie in horrible, familiar ways), with the added fun of having an image-conscious, incredibly thin mother.
(A mother who eagerly blames Aunt Lucy’s death on the fact that she was fat in an argument I felt like a punch in the gut.)
The movie does that with a lot of choices, taking the unexpected route that steps around cheap inter-character drama rather than following the familiar tropes. It’s also a massive meditation on friendship, and the strength of bonds between girls. We see Willowdean and her friend Ellen grow up together, solid friends into their teens. Ellen decides to participate in the pageant earnestly, and not as a way to try to destroy it. She and Willowdean get in a pretty nasty argument about things, where Willowdean basically calls out Ellen for being thing and says that people who look like Ellen (beautiful in a conventional sense) don’t have a place in the revolution.
The easy and expected route would be for them to be at odds for the rest of the movie. Instead, Willowdean apologizes and says she misses Ellen. And Ellen accepts the apology but says she’s still too mad to talk immediately… and Willowdean respects it. Then later, they’re back to being arm and arm, facing the world together. Like holy fucking shit, give me some more friendship like that. Give me teen girls having each other’s backs, because it’s them against the world. Give me teen girls that know they have different experiences of the world and use that difference to be even closer. I’m tearing up just thinking about it, because it was beautiful.
The sort of open heart that the film has about teen girls/young women being complex people with deep inner lives really does extend outside of Ellen and Willowdean. Millie is an actual precious cinnamon roll in human form, yet she is also without a doubt the most absolutely determined and implacable character on screen. Hannah’s a fucking adorable baby queer trapped in a small town, who goes from doing everything with full, angry irony to finding her own balance of earnest participation and still absolutely being herself. Watching Hannah and Millie become friends in the background is a fucking amazing story on its own. (And I would also totally ship it.)
And even the rest of the girls in the pageant aren’t reduced to caricature even if we don’t know their stories. It’s another moment where the film could have taken the expected route, making a bunch of teenage pageant participants into raging, catty bitches, and sidesteps that. They’re welcoming, and they believe in what they’re doing. Hell, there’s a scene where Willowdean shows her talent (a magic trick) in front of everyone and I wanted to die of transmitted embarrassment because she does so badly… which is the point because at that point, she’s not taking things seriously and hasn’t practiced. But the scene is actually a thousand times more uncomfortable not because the girls in the audience are being nasty, but because they convey that they really want her to do better, and that’s so much worse.
The movie does critique pageant culture for the way it excludes fat girls and is often used to make them feel worse about themselves. The scene where Willowdean signs up for the pageant, where the women in charge make it very clear that she does not belong here with tone and expression, is exactly what you’d expect. Yet the critique comes from a place of love rather than misogyny, which is where a lot of criticism of pageants loses its way. It’s possible to criticize fat-shaming and promotion of eating disorders without denigrating the idea that some people might find embracing that branch of femininity, with its sparkling dresses, empowering.
Ultimately, Dumplin’ embraces the beauty pageant as a place that allows Millie particularly to realize her potential by singing her heart out and looking goddamn fabulous in a dress. It touches on how important events like that can be in fairly small towns–so big in a girl’s life that even twenty-some years later, it’s the biggest accomplishment that Rosie’s ever had and it’s made her dedicate herself to shepherding other girls that way. And it presents its own vision of the world as it should be, with Millie placing in the pageant to thunderous applause because she goddamn well deserves it.
Which curiously, circles back around to Aunt Lucy, whose presence never leaves the film. Rosie has hit the stage of grief where she wants to get rid of Lucy’s old possessions; Willowdean isn’t quite there yet, which is another point of friction. And she wants to find a broach of Lucy’s that looks like a bee, something she always wore. Willowdean joins the pageant on a half-formed whim when she finds some paperwork among the boxes that shows Aunt Lucy was going to do the pageant the same year Rosie did… and mysteriously dropped out. The natural assumption in that moment is that Lucy didn’t make it into the pageant because of her weight… and so Willowdean decides to do it herself, to complete her lost aunt’s dream and to also get a kind of revenge, since Willowdean believes the pageant is bullshit and wants to prove it.
What we eventually come to find is that Lucy dropped out of the pageant not because she was forced out, but because the family couldn’t afford even one suitable dress, and so she dropped out and made one for Rosie herself–the one Rosie still wears every year. And in the end, Willowdean finds her own meaning in the pageant by embracing it to the point that she gets herself disqualified by doing an unapproved and incredible magic performance. Which sure seems like something that would have made Lucy proud, while still being very Willowdean. And Rosie finds she can no longer fit into her teen pageant dress… but she goes on stage (in a borrowed dress) wearing Lucy’s broach. Both of them are letting go, and changing, and still keeping the person they loved in their life in a positive way.
All this, and you get Dolly Parton drag queens too. And a ton of great Dolly Parton songs. Maybe I should have mentioned that earlier. I just have a lot of feelings, okay?