After a year of disappointing “body positive” films on Netflix, they finally got one right: Dumplin’.
Earlier this year, Netflix gave us Insatiable, which was an abhorrent dumpster fire of self-loathing and fat suits. They gave us Sierra Burgess Is A Loser, which was great up until what was supposed to be the big romantic overture at the end when Noah Centineo’s character told Sierra that she might not be “everyone’s type” but he liked her anyway. Oh, how brave of him to like her despite her fatness.
And now, finally, we’re treated to Dumplin’, a pageant movie centered around the themes of body positivity and self-love. The main character Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) is a plus-sized, Dolly Parton-obsessed teenager grieving the loss of her aunt Lucy. When she finds a half-filled pageant application among Lucy’s things, Willowdean chooses to enter a local pageant, partly inspired by her late aunt and partly as a way to garner attention from her ex-beauty queen mother (Jennifer Aniston).
Willowdean knows she’s fat and seems relatively unbothered by it, save for her desire to gain her mother’s acceptance. It’s only when it becomes obvious that her co-worker Bo harbors a crush, that we see a truly shaken Willowdean. When Bo tries to profess his love for her, Willowdean tells him, “you and I, we don’t work together in the real world,” showing how deeply she has internalized societal beauty standards.
Watching this exchange, I was initially worried that Dumplin’ was heading into Sierra Burgess territory — just another plus-size love story trying to be revolutionary when it really only reinforces how being plus-sized isn’t actually good enough to get the guy.
But unlike the male lead in Sierra Burgess, Bo is unrelenting in his affection. He doesn’t waver or try to qualify his love for her. Rather, Bo simply says, “Willowdean Dickson, I think you’re beautiful. To hell with anyone else who’s ever made you feel less than that.”
I mean, swoon.
After a year of missteps, it’s a relief to finally see a truly fat-positive love story on Netflix. Fat girls are so often relegated to the sidelines of the movie screen, appearing only as a punchline. As we’ve seen on Netflix, they’re slowly starting to take their rightful position on center stage and yet, we still so rarely see onscreen romance involving a plus-sized lead, and almost never does a plus-sized person warrant genuine romantic pursuit. Instead, movies have continued to perpetuate a false and dangerous narrative: that the object of someone’s affection couldn’t possibly be someone overweight.
That’s why Dumplin’ feels so groundbreaking. It’s important to see a protagonist who is considered both fat and worthy of love – her fatness isn’t treated as an obstacle to overcome, or as a caveat to the reasons why the male lead falls for her. Willowdean doesn’t need to lose weight to get the guy as Patty had to in Insatiable. She isn’t loved despite her weight, as Sierra Burgess is. She is fat and she is just as fierce, confident, and lovable as any other romantic female lead.
Willowdean is truly, in the words of Dolly Parton, “a diamond in a rhinestone world,” and it’s so refreshing that Dumplin’ gave her a romantic lead who treats her as such.
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Photo Credit: Dumplin’ / Netflix