For much of the ‘90s and early aughts, I watched television and movies like it was a fat-girl scavenger hunt. I picked apart whatever I was watching, desperate to spot a body that looked like mine. I’d hit rewind if I saw a chubby leg or slightly larger waistline in the background of a scene, and become jittery and excited if a plus-size actress had a speaking role. In the rare event they were given the privilege of an actual arc, I glommed onto that character, obsessed. There was Roseanne in Roseanne, a working-class mom. Kathy Najimy in Sister Act, a roly-poly nun. Camryn Manheim in The Practice, a shrewd attorney in boxy blazers. Rosie O’Donnell in A League of Their Own, a swarthy jock.
I had little interest in what they were actually doing, but that didn’t really matter. What mattered is that the mom, the nun, the jock, and the lawyer all looked like me — and at the time, I took what I could get. I may have been the only 12-year-old Camryn Manheim mega-fan, but she also had the same broad shoulders I did and the plus-size business-bitch wardrobe I aspired to.
Of course, when it came to characters that were actually my age, options were even fewer, and so I imagined fat-girl roles where there were none. I was so eager to find a storyline to relate to that when a character was awkward or ever-so-slightly chubby, I forced her into the fat-girl category. Ashleigh Aston Moore as Chrissy in Now and Then comes to mind, her baby fat forever the subject of her torment. Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse also felt familiar — her character wore the kind of high-waisted, ill-fitting pants that young fat girls were very familiar with, having bought theirs off a rack in a dark corner at Sears. That, combined with terrible posture, a vaguely threatening romantic interest, and a mother who hated her appearance made her feel like an honorary fat girl, despite the fact that she absolutely was not.
What I wouldn’t have done for a movie like Dumplin’, the new Netflix mother-daughter comedy starring Jennifer Aniston and Danielle MacDonald, and their strained relationship on the periphery of Texas pageant life.
I’ll start by saying this: I didn’t totally love the movie. The tale of an unlikely group of would-be pageant queens was too treacly for my tastes, with far too many feel-good affirmations and tearful gazes. It was cute, sure. A “why not” kind of watch. But it matters to me, nonetheless.
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Here’s why: Seeing an honest-to-god certified fat girl on screen — and a loud, joyful, no-fucks-given teenage one, at that — will always matter to me. The title character’s role — her name is Willowdean, but her mother semi-cruelly calls her Dumplin’ — is played perfectly by Danielle MacDonald (you can also catch her killing it as the lead in 2017’s Patti Cakes). She begins and ends the film exuding confidence. Sure, she falters, but we mostly get to see a fat character that is, for all intents and purposes, happy with herself. She overcomes hurdles, looks amazing in her clothing, and in the end gets the guy, all while existing in a body that she rarely second-guesses, refuses to let anyone else cut down, and doesn’t have to change to get what she wants.
Most importantly, though, she’s on screen for most of the movie, which means her body is, too.
It’s not just about Willowdean, though. The other characters are also instrumental in restructuring the usual narratives we see about fat women in television or film. For example, Willowdean’s deceased and plus-size Aunt Lucy (played mostly in flashbacks by Hilliary Begley) is spoken of with the utmost regard, described by everyone who knew her as beautiful and vivacious. By contrast, Jennifer Aniston, who plays Willowdean’s mom — insecure, preoccupied with thinness, and sad, completely emotionally removed from the joy and satisfaction that her fat daughter seems to derive from life. It’s not often that Aniston expertly portrays anything less than the ideal, classic, girl-who-has-it-all kind of beauty. In fact, Aniston embodied exactly that on Friends during the same years that I was scouring movies and TV for fat characters. To watch her character fade to the background, haggard and exhausted from a lifetime of body image and self-esteem issues felt like a message.
Instead, it’s Aunt Lucy in all of her pomp and glamour that Willowdean idolizes. Willowdean is able to derive her own confidence as a fat girl because of the fat girls that came before her. There’s also a band of merry drag queens that help usher Willowdean and her outcast friends to pageant greatness, some of whom are plus-size and all of whom share a belief in embracing yourself exactly as you are. Willowdean even gets her very own fat girl foil, Millie Michalchuck, played by Maddie Baillio (of Hairspray fame). Unlike Willowdean, who is full of savage side-eyes, swears, and cynicism, Millie is pure, doe-eyed enthusiasm — smiling and shrugging her shoulders at whatever bullshit comes her way, a happy fat girl in a world that says she shouldn’t be.
That’s right — different kinds of fat people in one movie. 13-year-old me is shitting herself, and 33-year-old me feels like I can somehow 100 percent relate to all of them.
Some might find it peculiar that the only real interest I have in Dumplin’ are the fat bodies I saw on screen, bodies that I didn’t even have to go on a scavenger hunt to find. After all, aren’t we supposed to be more than our bodies? The answer is: of course. But when you’ve been searching your whole life to find a body that looks like yours (even settling for a middle-aged nun during your teenage years), it’s hard not to feel like seeing one front-and-center is enough.
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