2018 has been a banner year for Fat Stories. It started out with AMC’s Dietland, which was a feminist revenge dark drama starring a fat actress named Joy Nash. NBC’s This is Us continues to tell the tale of Kate Pearson, played by fat actress Chrissy Metz, and actually allowed her to *gasp* fall in love, get married and get pregnant, ALL without having to lose the extra weight.
Then there was Netflix’s Insatiable, played by… well, no fat people at all. We all know how THAT turned out.
Suffice it to say when I heard about Dumplin‘, also from Netflix, I was a little gun shy. Fool me once and all that. Sure, it had Jennifer Aniston and featured Dolly Parton’s music, but I had already been burned thanks to Alyssa Milano.
What, oh what, to expect?
I knew within five minutes that I loved it. I knew within about a half-hour it was going on the list of my favorite movies ever. By the time it ended, I knew with all certainty this is the movie I had been waiting my whole life to see, and I’m not the only one. It was brilliant, and I kick myself that I didn’t know about the book ahead of time. Every fat girl should see it with every single person who loves her. It’s that important.
Let me count the ways.
1.) It is a fat story told from the fat perspective.
As we talked about in several blogs before, a fat story without the fat perspective is simply someone ELSE’S view of what our life is like, and most of the time it’s all negative. It’s viewed through the prism of a cautionary tale, where they think our misery of being different drives our narrative. They miss out on all the details that are so important to the story. They miss out on the people we have championing us, who build us up on the regular. They also miss out on the micro-aggressions of those who can smile to our face, but we know that they don’t really mean it, which we encounter OH SO MUCH MORE than teen boys calling us fat.
The author of the book, Julie Murphy, actually IS a fat woman. (She’s also featured in a cameo at the end, which is AWESOME.) She knows our lives are so much better and so much fuller than the “woe is me I’m totally fat” garbage we normally get shoved down our throats. That authenticity is the firm foundation on which the rest of the story is built, demonstrating yet again that if we really want to see diverse characters on the screen, we need diverse writers behind the scenes.
I am totally available. Just sayin’.
2.) Representation matters.
Not only is the story written by a fat person and starring a fat person, the fat character isn’t a token one, some lone fat person in a sea of the impossibly thin. Instead, Will belongs to a diverse cast with OTHER fat people.
Given that two in three people are considered overweight and one in three people are considered obese, it is far more realistic to have a cast of characters at many stages of fat than it is to have everyone be pencil thin. In Dumplin‘, there are four notable fat characters, two girls and two adults who are the influencers of those girls. And each one has their own level of confidence and self-esteem because of their weight. It tells a much fuller tale than we’re normally given, and in doing so it allows the audience to see themselves in those characters no matter where they happen to fall themselves.
3.) The correct emphasis on change.
I read a review of Dumplin‘ that was written by someone so enthralled by the idea that the fat characters didn’t have to lose weight in order to tell the story, which seemed like such a revelation. It made me smile – considering I’ve been writing those types of stories since 2007. I’ve even published, oh, 21 of them, and I’m in the company of other authors who have done the same. They’re there if you look, but you have to refer back to #1 – you need to find the fat authors who are telling them.
As someone who has been overweight my entire life, I realized that life doesn’t wait around for me to change to start. It starts and I change. That’s how it works for ALL of us, even those of us are already mostly “perfect,” which are the stories we normally see. Fat or thin, NONE of us wait to be perfect to start, or else we wouldn’t have done one damned thing.
If you view it through that prism, it’s not surprising that not a one of our fat characters in Dumplin’ ever even tried to lose weight, even a little bit, even when signed up for a bathing-suit baring beauty pageant. It was a six-week time period, you guys. Nobody Will’s size or Millie’s size would have managed the kind of perfection you all expect from fat folks in that time. It would have been a fool’s errand and has dick to do with the story being told.
The topic of weight loss and food was barely broached at all. None were interested in it. They were too busy living their lives to worry about shedding their “fat suits” in order to start. Will, Millie, Lucy and Candee Disch (yes, she’s a Drag Queen and YASSSS, she’s fabulous,) ALL decided to take a chance on life without cowing to some antiquated notion that they needed to change first in order to do it.
Well, that’s not true. Change was needed, but it wasn’t on the scale. It that internal change that makes every OTHER change possible. Like, performing on a stage or kissing the boy you like or even, yes, losing weight if that’s the goal you want to undertake.
In fact, the emphasis on that internal change, one driven by Dolly herself, was so important that it was put in front of the train where it belonged. Will didn’t need hunky Bo to love her in order for her to love herself. There’s a BRILLIANT scene where he does tell her how beautiful he thinks she is, but realizes HIMSELF that it doesn’t matter what he says. It only matters how she sees herself. She had to work all that shit through in order to be ready for him.
THAT is romance, my people.
4.) Millie Michalchuk
The movie is named Dumplin’, about Dumplin’, but I think Millie done stole the show, y’all. Played by the incomparable Maddie Baillio, Millie Michalchuk is a fat character unlike any you’ve ever seen. She’s nobody’s sad sack. She’s lit up from the inside out, this force of happiness and positivity that is FEARLESS when it comes to shining that special light. She had wanted to participate in the beauty local beauty pageant since she was a child, but her mother denied her permission allowing her to do it, perhaps thinking she was setting her daughter up for humiliation and failure, pitted side by side with all the other girls who better fit the “beauty pageant” mold. As far as Millie’s concerned, there is no mold. She delivers a line so fucking important and powerful I want it TATTOOED on my eyelids.
Millie is MY GIRL, y’all. Seriously. I want to be her when I grow up.
You want a representation of body positivity on screen, look no farther. The mic has officially been dropped.
(And you’ll note she’s the one who has MORE than one guy chatting her up at the pool. Just sayin’. You teach others how to treat you, and if you think that you’re acceptable as is, you might be surprise who agrees.)
5.) Willowdean Dixon
As played by Danielle Macdonald, Willowdean Dixon (AKA Dumplin’) shatters the one-dimensional molds of most fat characters. There’s a reason why the limits are so narrow around what we’ve been shown, and it all boils down to what the audience expects. You’re either brimming with confidence or you’re a hopeless, insecure sad sack. There are usually no in-betweens.
I’ve run up against this a time or two with some of my own readers, who don’t understand how one can be insecure enough to accept abusive treatment from those closest to her, but strong enough to pursue her own vision of happiness at the same time. I’ll tell you how: it’s called being human.
For the first time in a long time, a fat character is allowed to be just that.
We treat fat like it cancels out all the rest of who we are, which is a dizzying array of complexities and mistakes, triumphs and failures. Nobody gets it completely right all the time, any more than they’re completely wrong all the time. Life isn’t some tightrope where we only get a few approved moves. I’m reminded of that game on Whose Line is it Anyway, where the comedians are given two phrases that they can say, however they want to say them, but always in response to whatever is being said to them. Some folks seem to think that’s how we operate as humans. We like to keep things neat, I guess, where if we keep people in these limited roles, we always know what to expect.
Surprise people at your own peril. They’ll let you know it just doesn’t fit into their idea of you.
But that’s exactly what it is, their idea of you. I recently read that the opinions others hold of us is formed rather quickly. They pretty much figure out who they think we are in the space of a few minutes. After that, they process every new piece of information to validate that original opinion, even if it’s wrong.
Willowdean embodies this. She’s known by several names, which is the first way the storytellers dismantle this troubling phenomenon. Is she Dumplin’? Is she Willowdean? Is she Will? It kind of depends on the situation and her company, doesn’t it? But isn’t that true of everybody? And how much more would we know about someone if we stopped deciding who they were FOR them?
6.) Jennifer Aniston
It’s no secret that I am totally #TeamJennifer. I have been since the 90s. I was #TeamRachel on Friends, FFS. I would have been bummed as shit if she had Alyssa Milano’d me by playing a role in a troublesome show with an even more troublesome fat narrative.
But it’s Jennifer. She’s got our backs. This is especially important because she’s not just acting in this movie, she produced it.
Seriously, you guys… there’s so much awesome feminine power going on with this whole movie I can barely stand it. Everywhere you look, #girlpower.
In addition to producing it, Jen is literally the star of the show, but you wouldn’t know it to watch. She plays Rosie Dixon, Will’s beauty queen Mama, the tough-as-nails director who protects her award-winning pageant however she can. Everything has to be *perfect.* It regularly drives Will bananas, who proves the perfect spoil to Mama Perfect’s plans.
In another actress’s hands, Rosie Dixon might have been a two-dimensional character. But Jen is a master at work. She plays the part with such nuance it makes her limited time on screen even more impactful. She’s more than the unwitting antagonist. She herself is on her own heroine’s journey, because here’s the rub: she loves her imperfect daughter. Despite Will’s insistence that Rosie is ashamed of her, Jen plays the part as a true mom. When she introduces her daughter, there’s pride there. She doesn’t see a fat person… instead she sees her fears, which are honestly addressed in a painful scene between Will and Rosie.
It is through Rosie that the audience of our allies and those who love us get to see themselves and grow with us (if they weren’t already there with us before.) In that way, Rosie’s character, and Jen’s consummate portrayal of it, are paradigm-shifting.
7.) Aunt Lucy
Aunt Lucy was a character that we barely got to see, because she dies six months before any of the events in the movie take place. But her presence is felt everywhere.
Aunt Lucy was The Voice of Identity for Will in the same way my dad was The Voice of Identity for me. These are the people who, when we were kids, allowed us, encouraged us and supported us to be the unique individuals we are. There’s no shaming, just an unconditional love that sees past all our “flaws” and allows us to soar as high as we dare.
It is truly her voice from beyond that drives the narrative of the story. And the person we have to thank for that?
8.) Anne Fletcher
If you don’t know this name, you might want to jot it down and keep track of it. In an industry where female directors are often in short supply, Anne has six feature film credits under her belt since 2006, including 27 Dresses and The Proposal (my favorite aside from Dumplin‘.) In her very capable hands, Dumplin‘ is more than just another “chick flick.” It’s a rich tapestry of girlfriends, mothers and daughters and self-discovery as a girl in our superficially driven culture. She took a movie about fictional characters and made it feel like a love letter to me personally, because so many of Will’s challenges were my own. I had an Aunt Lucy whose voice was silenced right when I needed him the most. I ended up floundering a bit, but a best friend and the LGBT community would save me and reinforce me. In the end I found my voice and my own happy ending, even love more than once. To see that on the screen was… well, I still tear up when I think about it. I’ve never felt so seen.
This is why I say this is the movie I’ve waited my whole life to see. I wanted to be the one who wrote it, but you know what? I can’t even hate. (But I do reserve the right to envy. Hard.)
It is her sensitivity to and understanding of the source material that makes Anne a fierce ally. I literally tracked her down to thank her personally for this. The love she has for the material is sewn throughout the entire movie. You feel it, like a great big hug. I don’t think you can fake that kind of respect, which is necessary when you tell a tale that pulls no punches.
Technically speaking I loved several of the things she used to tell the tale, and I’ll be unpacking this movie for a long time to learn about filmmaking as a result. Suffice it to say that
if when I DO get to tell my fat story, I know now who I want at the helm.
9.) Harold Perrineau
My bestie and I watch movies together every single week. It’s kind of our thing. We do it even though we live over a thousand miles apart, thanks to modern technology, but the truth is we used to do it when we were teenagers, too. We started mere blocks apart, watching movies at the same time while we were on the phone. Then, when I had to move away, we’d steal time with expensive long-distance phone calls.
We always want to share these things, and we find a way.
Needless to say that after we saw the trailer for Dumplin‘, it SHOT to the top of our weekend viewing plans.
It was the bestie who noticed Harold Perrineau before I did.
“Hey, that’s the guy from Lost,” he said.
It’s been more than a minute since I’ve seen Lost, so I didn’t immediately recognize the guy under the drag queen getup for the character of Lee. I HAD, however, recently seen The Best Man Holiday, where Harold plays Merch. Still, I didn’t recognize him until much later, when he was in full male wardrobe and zero makeup.
I find this astonishing, because normally my eagle eye for faces (which served me well working as a celebrity photographer’s assistant,) is marveled by all who witness it in action. How had I missed this??
I lost it all thanks to Harold’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Lee, the Drag Queen who ultimately becomes Lucy’s (and Dolly’s) voice in the movie.
Lee’s love for Will is instant. She takes her under her wing to teach her a few things about finding herself in the middle of all the noise that comes from living. Again, it reached right into my own past with all the beautiful LGBT folks who have done likewise for me. I have always felt at home going to gay bars, the reason for this is NOBODY understands what it’s like to be unabashedly proud of who you are like someone who doesn’t fit into the narrow cisgender/hetero norms that dominate and drive our culture like they do. They could probably pass for “normal” if they wanted to, but they know more than anyone who uncomfortable it is to fit yourself into the narrow little boxes imposed upon you by others. Conformity is a lie we live for the comfort of others, never ourselves.
Who better to teach us how to be ourselves without fear or excuse or compromise?
I can only think of one other….
10.) Dolly Parton
Another character who was there but wasn’t was Dolly Parton herself. That increases the awesomeness of this movie about, oh, 150%. I love Dolly. I grew up on Dolly. And I’m happy to say that this love endures with every awesome thing I found out about her. She is worth every ounce of idol worship thrown at her from the characters in this movie. And her wisdom guides them (and us) towards that spotlight where we finally get to shine. Anne’s use of the music was GENIUS, including how she ends the movie with one of my favorite DP songs of all time: Two Doors Down. This song was released in 1977, and I remember falling in love with it that first year I explored music on my own. The reason being? It’s a great story song.
The song basically tells of someone who can hear a party going on down the hall. Everyone’s having a good time and the listener feels alone and miserable because nobody seems to notice she’s there. The listener then decides to dry her tears of self-pity and go to the party uninvited, where she’s welcomed into the happy scene. She meets someone and they mosey on back to her place. “We’re having our own party just two doors down.”
This song is literally the message of the movie. Don’t wait for an invitation to belong. Just show up and see what happens.
I’m literally crying right now at how freaking perfect it all is.
IT’S JUST PERFECT, Y’ALL.
If you haven’t seen Dumplin’, I really cannot recommend it highly enough. This is the movie I’ve been waiting for, and I know I’m not alone.
It’s time to dry those useless tears and get ourselves together and join the party.
Our tribe is waiting. Our time is now.
Thank you, Julie, Jen, Anne, Dolly and EVERYONE involved with Dumplin‘. You’ve made this fat girl feel valued, validated and totally seen. Thanks for welcoming me to the party.