In the opening scene of Dumplin’, Netflix’s new adaptation of Julie Murphy’s 2015 novel, the audience gets a glimpse into the childhood of Willowdean Dickson (Danielle Macdonald). As she waits for her aunt Lucy (Hillary Begley) outside a donut shop, a sweet smile on her chubby face, a couple of boys begin taunting her—making “oinking” sounds and calling her a pig. By the time Lucy comes outside, Willowdean is visibly crushed and on the verge of tears. “Pay them no mind, Willowdean,” Lucy tells her, “The world is filled with people who are going to try to tell you who you are, but that’s for you to decide. You hear me?” Lucy’s words of encouragement immediately restore her smile.
In many ways, Dumplin’ is a story about what an affirming childhood can do for a fat child’s self-esteem. Most parents want to protect their children from trauma, but in doing so, too many end up echoing the very value judgments about weight that are used to disparage their children in the first place. In turn, these children internalize the lie that they’re unworthy even before the rest of the world reinforces it. Lucy, however, raises Willowdean to see herself as worthy—to be free-spirited and confident in spite of the messages she receives to the contrary.
Willowdean’s mother, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), is not only thin and conventionally beautiful, but her title of Miss Teen Bluebonnet 1991 has made her a local celebrity. She’s now the pageant’s director and invests in its organization to the detriment of her relationship with her daughter. Willowdean is left longing to have a connection with Rosie, but, in many ways, their fractured relationship saves her from internalizing her mother’s fatphobia. Rosie’s allegiance to rigid Western beauty standards creates an immutable barrier between herself and her daughter: Rosie constantly polices what she eats; refuses to stop calling her daughter “Dumplin,’” though Willowdean expresses her aversion to it time and again; and subtly distances herself from her daughter because she’s ashamed of her. Rosie is not capable of seeing Willowdean as a full person because she considers fat bodies unworthy of love.
In Rosie’s absence, Lucy becomes a maternal figure who constantly validates and affirms Willowdean, building a foundation that protects her from her own mother’s rejection. The juxtaposition in Rosie and Lucy’s parenting styles magnifies the tremendous responsibility that comes with raising children at the margins of society. For children who are exposed to the indiscriminate nature of oppression from an early age, homes either become a refuge from violence or an extension of it. Willowdean is confident and self-assured because Lucy intentionally empowers her through guidance and words of encouragement, but more importantly, by modeling body positivity. Lucy is a fat woman, and unlike Rosie, she does not participate in diet culture and defies the stereotype that fat women are unhappy or otherwise dissatisfied with their appearance. And while that doesn’t necessarily make Willowdean immune to the difficulties of navigating a fatphobic world, it certainly makes it a lot more manageable.
Most of the film takes place in the aftermath of Lucy’s death, but her spirit continues to guide Willowdean through difficult times. Towards the beginning of the film, Rosie drops Willowdean off at school and calls her Dumplin’ loud enough for a few school bullies to hear. As she walks through the halls, one of the bullies loudly makes fun of her. She initially ignores him, seemingly caught between the opposing forces of feeling insecure and shying away, and standing up for herself the way her aunt would’ve wanted her to. But when he begins taunting another fat girl named Millie (Maddie Baillio), she walks over to him and knees him in the groin.
In the next scene, her mother scolds her for getting suspended for “indecent violence.” “It’s your fault,” says Willowdean, “I was just defending myself against a bully calling me that hideous nickname you’ve been calling me my whole life…We know this is about so much more than just a nickname. You’ll never come out and say it, but I know you can’t stand that your daughter looks like this.” Rosie responds, “Listen, I just want you to have opportunities, alright? It is harder for big girls.” Willowdean then protests, and Rosie reminds her that she shouldn’t speak that way to her mother. “For the record, we both know who raised me,” she retorts, “And she never once made me feel bad about myself.”
But even confident people have moments of self-doubt. Willowdean’s insecurities come to the surface when Bo (Luke Benward), her good-looking, kind, and charming coworker, begins pursuing her. She can’t understand why someone like him is genuinely interested in dating a fat girl. And her concerns are valid: For plus-size women, dating is often muddied by fatphobia. Many men insist on either fetishizing their bodies or keeping their relationship hidden from friends and family. Though she’s hesitant at first, Willowdean agrees to watch a meteor shower with Bo. He eventually works up the courage to kiss her and she reciprocates, but when he begins caressing her back, her insecurities become too much to bear. She awkwardly ends the date, leaving him confused about her response. When he eventually confronts her, she dumbfoundedly responds, “How are you missing this? Do you know what it would be like to be with me?”
But Willowdean and Bo’s love story is a significant departure from how these kinds of relationships are ordinarily navigated on screen. In fact, Dumplin’ purposely defies the tired trope, seen in movies and TV shows like Pitch Perfect and Insatiable, that fat girls and women are self-loathing and on a lifelong quest to be thin. Though Willowdean is initially uncomfortable dating Bo, she never considers dieting or losing weight. Beyond that, society teaches fat women to settle, to accept the kind of love that is available to them regardless of its quality. They’re taught that life begins when their weight-loss journey ends and that only thin women are worthy of good love. Dumplin’, however, ends when Willowdean decides to reclaim the boldness that she inherited from her aunt. She spontaneously initiates a romantic reconciliation with Bo, and of course, he reciprocates.
That’s the lesson Danielle Macdonald, the actress who plays Willowdean, hopes every viewer takes from Dumplin’: “I hope that people can see you can have self-doubt, you can feel insecure at times, but also be [a] person that knows their worth—and be witty and confident. You don’t have to be entirely one thing,” she told Teen Vogue in a recent interview.“[By] watching this movie, [people] can hopefully relate to all of these characters and realize, ‘Oh wow, we all have these moments. We all go through this.’ We aren’t all as different as we think we are, we’re all just going through it together and that’s really comforting.”
Dumplin’ is a beautiful illustration of what good parenting can do for fat children. Willowdean’s ability to not only cope with but actively challenge systems that discriminate against fat girls is not coincidental. She’s able to do so because she was raised by a person who insisted on making her feel worthy of all things good. Fatphobic parenting denies children the right to a healthy, affirmative childhood. It denies them safety in their own homes. And, like Willowdean, all children deserve to find solace and empowerment in the people who love them.