Real fat representation: Dumplin', why we need to watch it, and how we can do better
It's been widely acknowledged for a number of years now that fat representation is a thing that's far too absent from the media, especially from the big screen. We expect a skinny white cis female protagonist in a film, and if actresses don't quite fit that, then they either have to change, or are skipped over in the face of the next girl in line.
Dumplin' is Netflix's most recent attempt at fat inclusivity. I kept back from watching it for a few weeks, assuming that it'd be a disappointment. After the airing of the incredibly problematic Sierra Burgess (where the only reason she's 'lucky' enough to get a guy is because he falls for her personality over IM rather than seeing her in person), and Insatiable (a 2018-release where the main plotline surrounds a fat girl getting thin to get popular) my hopes for Dumplin' were pretty non-existent.
But, it came through.
The film's all about a fat teen called Willowdean living with her ex-pageant star mum and Aunt Lucy who's plus size just like Willowdean. Sharing a love for Dolly Parton, Aunt Lucy effectively raises Willowdean and her best friend Elle, but dies during their teens. Suffering with the loss of Lucy, Willowdean and Elle join this year's pageant to rebel against her mum's ideas of what pageant beauty is.
This is the first time I've seen a film where the fat girl is the main character and she's not just there for comedic value. I'm absolutely not saying that this is the first film to have done so, but it's the first I've seen and I'm here for it. I'm sick of producers casting a fat 'main' character, only to use her to show how much 'better' her skinny best friend. And this was different. Yes, Elle's pretty, but at no point does she steal the show.
One of the most important things in the film, I think, is that Aunt Lucy's impact as a plus-size role model for Willowdean is highlighted. She teaches Willowdean to love herself and be proud and not hide away because of her size. She inspires Willowdean's love for Dolly Parton (honestly the music in this film was just fab) and stresses to her that life isn't all about a number on the scales.
Equally important is that Willowdean's not the only plus size character. As well as Lucy, we have Millie, who joins the beauty pageant (something she's always wanted to do) because Willowdean joining made her realise that it was possible. This is one of the key reasons why I think the film itself is so important: it tells you to give a big F U to the people that say you can't do things because of your size, and it's why I think it's so important to include plus-size influencers in all industries.
Things aren't plain sailing for Willowdean, and a whole host important issues surrounding fat representation and body positivity are tackled in the film, including:
- Millie joins the running group for girls in the pageant looking to drop a few pounds, and WD pulls her up on it, telling her that she doesn't have to change at all, and that this is not what joining the pageant's about.
- WD's mum can't fit into the dress she wears every year to reveal the pageant winner. There was no talk of 'letting herself go' or of how terrible this was: instead, WD hooks her up with a new, absolutely stunning dress to go ahead with.
- no one tells WD she's not fat, because it's not true. At one point, Elle tells WD that she's 'never thought of you as fat', but I just don't think it's the same at all. Fat or thin or any kind of physical description isn't what comes to mind when I think of any friend of mine, and whilst the statement's not the best thing, it's the only time this idea is alluded to in the film.
- at no point is WD's size used as the butt of a joke for viewers. There are no 'funny' scenes of her tripping in pageant heels, or trying on a whole host of dresses that don't fit.
- Elle calls WD out when she tries to poke fun at the people that enjoy pageants. She's reminded that it's not okay to be mean to someone because they're different to you.
- Bo (aka WD's crush) tells her he likes her with no 'buts', and he doesn't fetishise her either. Even when Willowdean confronts him about liking her even with her body, he lets her know he likes her, and isn't problematic about it.
- Millie wins the pageant because her skills are incredible. There's no 'pity' vote for her. She's the best in every round of talent, and keeps the judges on their toes. She deserved to win, and overcomes a whole lot of bullying to get to where she's always wanted to be.
And now we come to where we can do better. Yes, Dumplin's an important film to watch even if just to put our money where our mouths are: we're calling for fat representation, so let's engage with it. But, Dumplin' is guilty of white washing. Yes, there was a minor character who was a POC, but the rest of the cast? Part of the whole importance of having fat characters in films is so that we can all see people who look like us on the screen, and that's why we need more diversity in all areas. Yes, it's a step forward for Netflix's films, but I'm not sure it's far enough. We need more fat characters, and ones that are members of other minority groups too. Let's hope 2018 is the year that Netflix nails it, and we see a POC fat main character, or a disabled fat main character, and let's give them the same level of respect in terms of production and script writing that Willowdean was given.