Once in a 1977 interview with Rolling Stone, Dolly Parton, the beloved Queen of Country, said that she never felt like she belonged growing up. “I was just different,” she said from her room at a $16-a-night Holiday Inn. Parton, who grew up dirt-poor in a small house with 11 sibling used her experiences as an outsider—coupled with a relentless drive—to write over 3,000 songs over the span of her career, cementing her status as one of America’s most enduring singer-songwriters. In the process, she became an icon, particularly for those who stood on the periphery.
Among her legion of fans is Willowdean Dickson (or Will, played by Danielle MacDonald), the smart, thoughtful protagonist of Dumplin’, the much-praised Netflix adaptation of Julie Murphy’s novel, released at the tail end of 2018. Dumplin’ follows Will, a self-proclaimed fat girl, and her beauty pageant-obsessed mother Rosie Dickson (Jennifer Aniston), who live in the equally pageant-obsessed small Texas town of Clover City.
In their own ways, both Will and Rosie live in the past, trying to deal with the loss of Lucy, Will’s beloved aunt and Rosie’s sister. That is, until Will decides to confront the normative beauty standards that her mom subscribes to, by signing up for Rosie’s beloved Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant.
In many ways, Dumplin’, directed by Anne Fletcher, is a thoughtful, fresh film. It’s a fun, glittery take on a coming-of-age story that seems to want to promote body positivity and self-love. It’s a tribute to Dolly Parton (she penned six original new songs for the soundtrack) as much as it is to the complex inner lives of young women. But it also reminds us of the standards that we now expect of rom coms—and how many of last year’s rom coms fell short of meeting those standards.
MacDonald plays Will as witty, fun and relatable, with a droll sense of humour in place of a defense mechanism. She’s the ideal modern heroine, caring more about being a loyal friend and honouring herself (and her aunt Lucy) than chasing after a guy. The guy in Dumplin’ is Bo Larson (Luke Benward), who understandably chases after Will.
But with her aunt Lucy gone, there’s no filter between Will and her judgmental, nit-picking mother. Rosie doesn’t see Will as pageant material and leaves her riddled with self-doubt, which gets in the way of her relationship with Bo. Frankly, Rosie is kind of an asshole, and she would be insufferable if Aniston didn’t play the single mother with a side of heart and pluck.
Dumplin’ relies too much on clichés and positions a worthwhile heroine’s own body as her main obstacle.
From here on, the majority of the film follows Will as she strives to overcome the dismissal and body-shaming that she experiences from her mother and community. She makes new friends who tick the cliché boxes of Hollywood’s version of high school outsiders, learns how to be a worthy diva by Lee and Candee (tokenized drag queens whose stories we unfortunately never get to hear: they exist solely to cheer on Will and her friends) and at the end—spoiler alert—gets the guy.
With its stellar cast and original Dolly soundtrack, the film could have been a contender for the best rom com this year, but Dumplin’ relies too much on clichés and positions a worthwhile heroine’s own body as her main obstacle (“I’m not the Joan of Arc of fat girls”, Will says at one point). What does Will want to do after she graduates from high school, I am left to wonder?! But while Dumplin’ made up for its clichés with its emphasis on self-love and sisterhood, the dubious woman-versus-her-own-body plot construct was tackled, or rather exploited, throughout another Netflix rom com released in 2018, the egregious Sierra Burgess Is A Loser.
In that film, in order to “catch the guy” (played by dude-of-the-moment, Noah Centineo) Sierra Burgess (Shannon Purser) catfishes an unsuspecting Jamey, by pretending to be Veronica, Sierra’s bully and the stand-in character for the “hot, popular” girl. The idea that a guy like Jamey could fall in love with Sierra is just too absurd, the film contends, but not as absurd as the creepy plot that ensues, in which Sierra pretends to be deaf, with the help of Veronica tricks Jamey into kissing her (ugh), and embarks on a number of other desperate measures to fool Jamey into believing that she is in fact Veronica and not at all Sierra, because how could he fall in love with her otherwise? The film attempts to perform self-acceptance but fails miserably.
A revamp of the genre for 2019 will need to break up with its flawed history and broaden its definition.
In another 2018 film, Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, lead character Renee Bennet’s entire story arch is tied up in the insecurity she feels about her average, medium-sized body. Her problems apparently vanish when by some spell she starts seeing herself as a runaway model, proportions and facial features changed, only to be crippled with insecurity when the spell breaks and she sees herself again as her true self.
We need stories that challenge normative beauty standards, and we need stories that show how different women deal with a society that can tragically place beauty as the highest female virtue. But rom coms that tackled these issues this year showed us that we still have a long way to go. Whenever we were offered a fresh, exciting, new kind of heroine, it seems almost inevitable that the character’s primary obstacle was not breaking the glass ceiling, losing love, finding love, navigating friendships, or trying to achieve their dreams. No, rather the primary obstacle was her own body.
Can you imagine Julia Roberts dealing with that kind of patronizing plot construct in Notting Hill? Or Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail? Or Jennifer Lopez? Kate Hudson? I’d love to see a rom com where a character played by Amy Schumer tries to lose a guy in ten days, instead of trying to lose ten pounds. Meanwhile, other releases this year proved how much audiences crave new rom com narratives. That included the hyper-successful Crazy Rich Asians, a film that featured an all-Asian cast, a compelling protagonist, and had a scene between lead character Rachel Chu and her mother that warmed my cold heart and brought tears to my eyes, maybe for the first time while watching a rom com.
If the glory days of romantic films were in the nineties and early 2000’s, when Hollywood overwhelmingly featured thin, white, able-bodied, straight leads, a revamp of the genre for 2019 will need to break up with its flawed history and broaden its definition. If rom coms provide a commentary on the rules of modern love, and who gets to find and keep it, we need more leads who show the wide diversity of those experiences — and aren’t tokenized in the process. Wouldn’t that open up whole new possibilities for stories that we haven’t heard before, outsiders, insiders and all? Shouldn’t we expect richer plotlines and even better representation? I think Dolly would approve.