IN JULIE MURPHY’S 2015 young adult novel Dumplin’, a self-described “cashier, Dolly Parton enthusiast, and resident fat girl” named Willowdean does not want to be called “Dumplin” anymore — not by her beauty queen mother Rosie, and definitely not at school, where bullies like Patrick Thomas are poised to make her time in high school a living hell. Patrick possesses a Trumpian ability to “give someone a nickname and make it stick.” Such daily mischaracterizations, both personal and societal, propel the plot of Murphy’s best-selling second novel, which Netflix recently adapted into a full-length movie starring the enchanting Danielle Macdonald and the perfectly fine Jennifer Aniston. In the book and the movie, we witness the insidious ways in which the norms of the beauty pageant leak off the stage and into the malls, high schools, and homes of Clover City, Texas.
Both the challenges and the triumphs of Willowdean’s sophomore year are made more difficult by the recent loss of her aunt Lucy, the girl’s role model and “compass.” Not only did Lucy introduce her niece to Ellen, who became Willowdean’s best friend, but she also introduced her to the music of Dolly Parton. As a morbidly obese woman, Lucy found inspiration in Parton’s music. After Lucy’s death, Willowdean’s mother, Rosie, clears out Lucy’s bedroom to make room to work on the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Beauty Pageant. Willowdean finds this repurposing of her aunt’s room painful, shouting at her mother: “You won’t be happy until every bit of her is gone and you’ve filled this room with all the things she wasn’t,” before hauling Lucy’s box of Dolly Parton memorabilia into her own bedroom.
In the box, Willowdean finds something that surprises her: Lucy’s partially completed entry form for the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Beauty Pageant. This sets Willowdean on a path to finish what Lucy started by entering the pageant herself. This pageant-as-protest approach causes a rift between Willowdean and best friend Ellen, and Willowdean is forced to navigate both the pageant and her new romance with handsome co-worker Bo all on her own. Her journey leads Willowdean to make new friends with a crew of misfit girls, venture to one of Lucy’s old haunts to watch a Dolly Parton drag show, and dive into a relationship with too-good-to-be-true Bo.
Whereas the book foregrounds the romance between Willowdean and Bo, the film adaptation focuses on the fraught relationship between Willowdean and her mother following Lucy’s death. With Bo’s role in the story dramatically reduced, the film becomes a radically female production. The three main characters are all women; a woman (Anne Fletcher) directed the movie, another (Kristin Hahn) wrote the screenplay, another (Emma E. Hickox) edited the film, and yet another (Dolly Parton) created the music. Unsurprisingly, given this genealogy, the film lovingly evokes the changing relationship between two women after the loss of a female family member.
Though Aunt Lucy is already dead when the story begins, her memory continues to affect Willowdean’s behavior throughout both the book and the movie. When speaking about Lucy’s funeral, Willowdean says: “I guess they all expected to see her folded into a casket like some kind of cautionary tale.” In some ways, the aunt does serve as the story’s stereotypical warning against obesity: a woman too fat to live her life, too fat to leave her house, too fat for a coffin after dying too young. That is certainly how Willowdean’s mom views her sister.
Willowdean sees something else in her aunt’s story, however. Yes, Lucy is a cautionary figure but less because of her weight than because of how the weight controlled what she was allowed to do and where she was allowed to exist. Willowdean reflects on Lucy’s life, saying: “There are so many things that Lucy never did. Not because she couldn’t, but because she told herself she couldn’t, and no one made her believe otherwise.” This message is also the driving force in Murphy’s novel: Dumplin’ depicts an overweight teen girl as the protagonist, not the sidekick, in a love story.
Willowdean’s romance begins at a greasy fast food restaurant, where she works alongside a dreamy private school boy named Bo. All the girls have a crush on Bo, but Bo has his eyes on Willowdean. Later, they watch a meteor shower and share their first kiss. Everything should have been perfect — was perfect — until Bo puts his hand on Willowdean’s fat back. Suddenly full of self-loathing, Willowdean pulls away and leaves. Without her Aunt Lucy there to help, these cracks in Willowdean’s self-confidence begin to grow.
Though this inner struggle isn’t fully explored in the film, Murphy’s descriptions of Willowdean’s growing ambivalence toward her own body are one of the strengths of the novel. By adding such nuances, Murphy avoids the common pitfalls that accompany tales with a fat protagonist. Murphy’s heroine doesn’t float through her life magically untouched by our culture’s fatphobia. She isn’t a typical sassy, badass female character. Furthermore, Willowdean doesn’t always need to be fighting: Murphy doesn’t punish her character at every turn, focusing solely on the pain our culture inflicts on overweight women. Though Willowdean doesn’t necessarily love her body, her main desire isn’t to lose weight.
As a result, Murphy’s fat protagonist comes across as a breath of fresh air. Willowdean isn’t seeking to enact revenge, like the heroine in Netflix’s new show Insatiable. She isn’t overweight as a symptom of emotional trauma, like the protagonist in Sapphire’s 1996 novel, Push. She doesn’t realize that she just needs to love herself more, like the main character of I Feel Pretty (2018), nor does her body serve to teach a man that real beauty is on the inside, as in the 2001 rom-com Shallow Hal. In fact, the novel is well aware of how overweight girls are stereotyped in the media. At one point, Willowdean notes: “I hate seeing fat girls on TV or in movies, because the only way the world seems to be okay with putting a fat person on camera is if they’re miserable with themselves or if they’re the jolly best friend. Well, I’m neither of those things.” Dumplin’ — both as novel and film — takes a big step toward remedying these common mischaracterizations.
Throughout the novel, Murphy highlights the oft-unnoticed ways a person’s weight can exclude them from certain places, cultures, and experiences. Clothes powerfully measure these systems of exclusion: Willowdean notes that she can’t shop at the mall because most of the clothes won’t fit her. She’s surprised she even has to explain to Ellen why she doesn’t want to work at Sweet Sixteen, a clothing store that doesn’t carry a size above 12. Still, Willowdean is not the most socially excluded person in her town. When she sees a classmate bigger than her, she thinks: “I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size.” Rosie slips into this way of thinking, too. Throughout the book, Rosie dreams of fitting into the dress she wore when she was crowned Miss Teen Blue Bell. And, while cleaning out Lucy’s room, she decides to donate her sister’s old clothes because “[y]ou know how hard it is for women of size to find clothing.” Fitting into clothes becomes a metaphor for fitting in to society.
Dumplin’ exposes the ways our world fails to accommodate all body types. Supposedly, public places can pinch certain bodies like a too-tight dress, always reminding overweight people that the space wasn’t designed for them. In one particularly painful scene, Lucy misses her trip to Dollywood after the airline requires her to buy two tickets because the seats in the plane were designed for smaller bodies.
Both film and novel move from noting the way we police female bodies to exploring the ways we police women’s thoughts about their bodies. Dumplin’ is about a girl who not only feels bad about her body, but also feels bad about feeling bad about her body. Rosie subtly bullies Willowdean about her weight throughout the story, while at the same time refusing to acknowledge the discontent such teasing naturally produces. When Willowdean sighs in exasperation at her mother’s goading, Rosie tells her that “[t]here is nothing less attractive than a discontent young woman.”
Rosie’s refusal to accept Willowdean’s expressions of unhappiness offer a subtle comment on the phenomenon of “body positivity,” a concept explored by Amanda Mull in a June 2018 article entitled “Body Positivity is a Scam.” According to Mull, “body positivity makes it incumbent on people with nonconforming bodies to change their own self-perception without requiring anyone with any power to question what created the phenomenon in the first place.” As Rosie’s behavior shows, advocating body positivity may inadvertently involve praising a stigmatized person’s ability to cover up the damage society has inflicted on their sense of self-worth. When Willowdean performs body positivity, she is sparing her mother from dealing with the consequences of her fat-shaming. Yes, loving yourself when society degrades you is an important and radical act, but simply applauding those who smile more and sigh less is not. As Mull puts it: “Nothing has changed in how most people feel about themselves; instead, it’s simply become very gauche to articulate any of those negative feelings.”
In Dumplin’, Murphy offers an alternative way to understand body positivity, fat bodies, and the word fat itself. Willowdean admires the fact that that Bo “didn’t flinch when I called myself fat.” She goes on to note how “[t]he word fat makes people uncomfortable. But when you see me, the first thing you notice is my body. And my body is fat. […] I’m fat. It’s not a cuss word. It’s not an insult. At least it’s not when I say it.”
Throughout the book, Murphy questions common assumptions about beauty and allure, keying in on how people can find different looks attractive. For example, when describing a boy, Willowdean says: “he’s kind of hot if you can get past the unibrow. Or if you think unibrows are hot.” Murphy’s persistent “or ifs” subtly assert the arbitrary nature of beauty standards. Given that the book centers on a beauty pageant, questioning beauty standards might seem obvious at first blush, but the questions deepen in satisfying ways in the hands of this thoughtful writer.
A story featuring a fat teen girl as protagonist shouldn’t be so rare given the demographics of our country. If one were to learn about love in the United States from books and television alone, it would be easy to assume that romance belongs solely to the thin and beautiful. Dumplin’ highlights the existence of other love stories, and in doing so demonstrates that there are more people worth listening to and loving. Why aren’t we seeing more fat female protagonists in our popular culture? It’s a question so obvious that it can easily go unasked. Dumplin’ continues the important work of asking such questions.
Sadie Shorr-Parks teaches writing at Shepherd University. Her nonfiction has recently appeared in Sierra Nevada Review, Appalachian Heritage, and Witness magazine, where her essay “Attic Bats, Modern Love” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.