At Last, a Movie That Truly Understands the Struggles (and Joys) of Being Plus-Sized
Dumplin’ isn’t a story about a fat girl losing weight to fit in. It’s not even a story about a fat girl learning to love herself. It’s just a great story. Sadly, that’s revolutionary when it comes to fat characters. Dolly Parton, whose words of wisdom and songs add heart and emotion to the film, inspired the soundtrack (and many scenes). Dolly’s the perfect soundtrack for this job, because she’s also had every cruel thing possible said about her own body.
This movie shows the subtle ways that fat people, especially fat women, are mistreated by society and even those who love them. We struggle with being maligned, as if being fat is a moral failing rather than a physical attribute. People laugh at us, bully us, and shut us out of opportunities. So what an incredible gift to see a film where I can relate to not one, not two, but three fat female characters. In a year where two separate films featured a plus-size woman who can only believe in herself after a traumatic brain injury (I Feel Pretty, Isn’t it Romantic), this movie is a delight.
It isn’t perfect, but it’s close.
Lucy (Hilliary Begley) is a confident fat woman who cherishes the people she loves and makes sure they know it. Her niece, Willowdean “Will” Dixon (Danielle McDonald) is a fat girl who wants the world to see her as a person first, fat second. This isn’t easy when her mother is a beauty queen played by Jennifer Aniston. She struggles with her own judgmental nature and that of others. And though she seems clueless, Will’s classmate Millie (Maddie Baillio) knows her worth and isn’t going to let anyone stop her from shining, no matter how hard they try.
Aunt Lucy gives Will the lasting gift of self-confidence, but Will knows other people won’t always see her value. Sometimes, she must shove it into them–in one satisfying instance, she does so with a knee to the groin of a boy who bullies Millie in the halls.
Millie is another wonderful character, utterly different from Will, but equally as strong. Initially, Will dismisses her as a “clueless” fat girl because Millie isn’t combative. She giggles when people tease her. But Millie is maybe my favorite character in the whole film, and the strongest. She meets cruelty with kindness.
Her unwavering kindness, optimism, and determination to have the experiences she wants regardless of what others think aren’t signs of weakness, they’re signs of her enviable strength. Her mother and Will both don’t want her to participate because they worry she’ll be hurt.
Instead, in the pageant, she stuns the crowd with her beauty, charm, and incredible voice. Her mother cries with pride as she (and we) realize that Millie has achieved her goal. Millie doesn’t conform to anyone’s standards–she raises the bar for everyone else instead.
Will’s victories are subtler. She struggles when people she loves don’t believe in her. She feels her mother, pageant-director Rose Dixon, is ashamed of having a fat daughter. When Bo, the handsome sweetheart at work, makes a move, she isn’t sure if she should trust it. Does he really like her, or is he playing a game? (Hint: he really likes her).
Even her best friend Ellen doesn’t understand that people really do view Will differently because she’s fat, which frustrates Will. Her frustration grows, and she angrily lashes out at Ellen when she assumes that because Ellen is slim, she cannot be her ally. “You’re not built for the revolution,” she says cruelly to Ellen.
Will’s jealous because Ellen is doing well in pageant rehearsals, and has a new thin friend who’s dismissive of her. I found this especially poignant because so often, thin people just cannot understand all the subtle put-downs and dismissive glances that are part of a fat person’s existence. Sometimes potential partners are just fetishizing us. Sometimes people really do think we’re disgusting, or smelly, or slobs. This is all real, while society tells us that fat people merely lack willpower.
Dumplin’ shows full awareness of the reality we face, and teaches us to rise above. In one memory, boys call Will a fat pig. Aunt Lucy tells her to pay no attention because “The world is full of people who are going to tell you who you are. But that’s for you to decide.”
So it’s a revelation to see Will realize that she pushes people away without giving them a chance to accept her. In a beautiful, well-acted moment, Will delivers a pageant answer about loyalty that also serves as an apology to Ellen. Ellen and Rose are both in tears, and Rose seems to realize how her desire to protect Will has hurt her.
Will intends to destroy the pageant to get back at her mother and make a statement for fat girls, but soon she realizes that’s not what’s needed. She creates a space for herself and others like her to participate in years to come, which is the real revolution. Will does get her own little mini-revolution when she Ellen compete in Health and Fitness together in their swimsuits, which they’ve decorated to read “Every body is a swimsuit body.” The audience roars with approval.
Dumplin’ showcases three different, fully realized fat female characters. I’m a 37-year-old fat woman and I’ve never seen myself so closely represented in anything in my life. I’m aware it’s an imperfect movie, but it’s still a well-told, funny and heartfelt story with great performances. Plus, the fat chick gets the hot guy at the end.