The Bigger the Hair, The Closer to Dolly Parton

As the daughter of a former beauty queen and a relatively happy, fat, and confident woman, I was intrigued by the storyline of the Netflix original movie, Dumplin’, which debuted on December 7. Adapted from Julie Murphy’s best-selling 2015 young adult novel of the same name and directed by Anne Fletcher, Dumplin’ highlights the coming-of-age story of zaftig Texan, Willowdean “Will” Opal Dickson, played by Danielle Macdonald. Will mourns the loss of her beloved aunt Lucy, who instilled in Willowdean a deep love of Dolly Parton and loving one’s self enough not to let others define you.

This last lesson is especially formative for teen Willowdean as her mother Rosie Dickson, played by Jennifer Aniston, is a former Miss Teen Bluebonnet and the current director of the selfsame pageant. Texas, known for all things bigger and better, tends to treat pageantry as religion. While not all bygone beauty queens give their fat daughters inferiority complexes (thanks, Mom), Rosie does not validate who Willowdean is as she is, which is one of the central tensions in the plot. Willowdean resigns herself to not receiving much attention from her mother, who is not just organizing pageants but also “wiping old people’s butts” in the nursing home where she works while exercising obsessively and only keeping “rabbit food” around so as to begin her annual calorie-restriction pilgrimage to fit into her old pageant gown.

As a fat woman who understands what it is like to be compared to her mother’s standard beauty, Dumplin’ hits a nerve for anyone who has stood in the shadows of a parent’s glory and wished to see a hero who embraced themselves for who they already are. What is refreshing about the film is Willowdean is not a shrinking violet, wallowing in self-pity and over-eager attempts to be thinner, well-liked, or even funny, a practice and trope most fat people are all too familiar with in terms of being viewed as a “good fatty,” both in film and society at-large.

Seeing yourself in a movie as a human being navigating the world regardless of weight, is something more and more people of size are beginning to see these days. Thankfully, Dumplin’ does a savvy job of staying away from the pitfalls of Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, a modern-day retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac for the rom-com teen set. Sierra uncomfortably sidesteps consent issues and performs the woe-is-me, cringe-worthy stereotype of a moderately overweight character imitating Wayne and Garth in Wayne’s World, repetitively intoning, “I’m not worthy” until she believes what she and society say. Dumplin’ has a love interest, of course, and there is a very John Hughes’ ending I will not spoil, but part of me wishes Will could bask in her own beauty without needing a boy’s validation in the end.

Unfortunately, Dumplin’ also appears to perpetuate the problematic “magical Negro” stereotype director Spike Lee brought to light in 2001. When Will and her friends unknowingly visit a small-town drag club her late aunt Lucy used to frequent on Dolly Parton night, the white girls are helped by a benevolent black drag queen named Lee, played by Harold Perrineau, and his big-haired, glittery associates, who save the day by singing “Two Doors Down” and “Jolene,” crafting bedazzled gowns for the girls, teaching the girls how to strut and shake, and providing much-needed emotional support and encouragement. As much as the idea of drag-queen fairy godmothers appeals to me, I do wonder if screenplay writer Kristin Hahn carefully thought about the character Lee’s supporting role and representation.

As Julie Murphy tweeted in late November, Dumplin’ is “written, adapted, and directed by women.” This fact is a lucrative one as The New York Times reported earlier this week in “Movies Starring Women Earn More Than Male-Led Films, Study Finds.” The trend of portraying all types of bodies as the stars of the show is a hopeful one, though the real measure will be when fat women, especially women of color, are able to act in roles that focus on our lives and not just our size and worth to men.