Dumplin Film Storytelling Techniques

Dumplin is a 2018 young adult film based on the 2015 novel by Julie Murphy.

Willowdean (‘Dumplin’), the plus-size teenage daughter of a former beauty queen, signs up for her mom’s Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant as a protest that escalates when other contestants follow her footsteps, revolutionizing the pageant and their small Texas town.

IMDb description

At a deep, structural level, Dumplin shares similarities with Pixar’s Brave. I also see similarities in Little Miss Sunshine (2006) and Whip It! (2009).

STORYWORLD OF DUMPLIN

Like Whip It!, Dumplin is set in a small Texas town in which the tradition of beauty pageantry, and the attendant ideology, divide women into those who subscribe to Pageantry Values and those who do not. Stories set in the world of beauty pageantry create conflict ripe for exploring themes such as:

  • What it means to be a woman
  • How women with completely different views can learn to get along in this world as true allies

Since the world of beauty pageantry is a heterotopia, the audience is more likely to identify with the character who is coming into this subculture as an outsider.

CHARACTERS OF DUMPLIN

Dumplin and her mother

Women tend to be presented as those who’ve taken the red pill and those who’ve taken the blue*. These days, borrowing from the language of religion, we say ‘woke’ versus ‘not woke’. But this division has been around for as long as the feminist movement has been around. There’s a scene in Six Feet Under when Clare tries getting an office job for a while. She complains about the mandatory nylon hose, and complains to a non-woke female co-worker that it’s not fair women have to wear such torturous items. The co-worker says, “Well the men have to wear ties,” as if ties and hose are equal in the comfort department. This interaction served to illuminate two very different types of women, who must nonetheless learn to get along.

* I bet you’re thinking of The Matrix, but don’t forget the idea originated in children’s literature, with Lewis Carroll.

 

The feminine divide is at its most fraught between mothers and their daughters, in which case a generation gap is also manifest. For this reason, the storyworld of a beauty pageant is often peopled by a mother who is big into pageantry and a daughter who is decidedly not.

Occasionally, as in Little Miss Sunshine, participation in a beauty pageant is driven wholly by the daughter, with the bemused, fish-out-of-water family along for the ride. However, Little Miss Sunshine is an atypical inversion on the norm.

The ‘rebel daughter’ character in this set-up will have a best friend who shares her basic values but who will also function in the story as the ally who challenges the girl’s views, encouraging her to examine the exact nature of her rebellion, and refining it in to something more manageable for existing among polite society. In Dumplin, the character of Ellen performs this function, and for a good portion of the film the girls are estranged.

STORY STRUCTURE OF DUMPLIN

WEAKNESS/NEED

Julie Murphy draws on personal experience to create the character of Willowdean (aka Dumplin), who is about halfway there in terms of accepting her body as it is, but has yet to jump the final hurdle. That ‘final hurdle’ is revealed in the Self-revelation phase of the story, but at the beginning Murphy is good at setting Willowdean up as a fully-developed character:

Her psychological weakness is inevitable, after a childhood living in a society where her body is of an unacceptable size and shape. Willowdean does not have the confidence to live life to the fullest, with the ultimate test being ‘getting a hot boyfriend’.

Willowdean’s moral weakness is more pronounced in the book than on the screen, where saying this sort of thing out loud would seem even worse than putting it down on paper:

“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse.I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way”.

In the film, Willowdean acknowledges to her best friend that she feels like a bad person, but she doesn’t want to call another fat girl ‘stupid’. In the film, there is no BMI difference between Willowdean and Millie — instead, Willowdean despises her for being ‘stupid’.

It says something terrible about our culture that despising someone for being stupid is more relatable than transferring your own body issues onto someone else. I mean, it’s terrible that there is a hierarchy of terribleness in our fictional characters. It’s quite possible that in ten years time, even this modification for the screenplay — from very fat to stupid — will look horribly outdated. (Well, we live in hope.)

On the other hand, the audience is fully encouraged to criticise Willowdean for thinking these things, and it is later revealed that Millie’s apparent stupidity is actually something else: Enforced Christian politeness and a people-pleasing attitude which overrides her own sense of autonomy.

DESIRE

Willowdean’s outer desire is to join the beauty pageant to teach her mother a lesson — that her pageant stuff is stupid and she’s a fool for being so heavily involved, and for living in the past, when she peaked as crowned winner back in 1991.

Below that surface desire, Willowdean wants her mother to really see who she is, and to accept her for who she is without constantly asking her to change.

OPPONENT

Willowdean’s mother is her first opponent.

Society in general is another opposition, personified by groups of boys who point out her fatness in public, as if she didn’t already know.

Willowdean’s argument with her best friend goes into another aspect of fat politics — is a skinny (read: not fat) girl ever able to fully understand what it’s like to be fat? Can she ‘join the revolution’? I did like this storyline because it reminded me of my own high school experience. I do think that with sufficient listening and awareness that a skinny person can achieve a passable handle on fat politics. So I like how that relationship evolves, very much. I also like that Ellen seems, on the outside, to conform exactly to the dominant beauty ideal, yet as she explains to Willowdean in the car, she can never escape the constant criticism which is attendant with existing in a female body. Her boyfriend points out her pimples, for instance, and she goes numb. The closer a girl conforms to the beauty ideal, the more society picks on the tiniest imperfections.

PLAN

When Willowdean finds her dead aunt’s entry form into the 1991 beauty pageant which she never entered, Willowdean takes this opportunity to honour her memory (and help with her own grieving process) by entering it herself as the first fat girl to do so.

There are various barriers to this, of course:

  • Persuading her mother to sign her entry form
  • Coming up with a ‘talent’ when she doesn’t have any
  • Finding a suitable fashion style

The plan takes Willowdean and her assortment of fellow rebels (not yet friends) on a mythic journey to a bar, where Willowdean is introduced to people her dead auntie once knew. Drag queens perform the songs of Dolly Parton. Because Drag Queens are transgressive in their fashion choice, outside the cultural norm, one of the drag queens takes Willowdean under his wing and performs the narrative function of a fairy godmother dressing Cinderella for her ball.

Meanwhile, Willowdean is being actively pursued by the hot guy she works with at the fast food restaurant — a guy who looks a lot older than Willowdean in the film, by the way. He sucks on a lollipop stick in the way bad boys more commonly suck on a cigarette, giving him comical, inverse cowboy cred. We conclude this boy is right for Willowdean because he, too, refuses to conform to the norm. (At least, I think it’s a lollipop stick?)

BATTLE

The self-revelation and Battle phases of this story are inverted somewhat, or to put it another way, the Self-revelation occurs in parts, taking place across several scenes around the Battle.

In a beauty pageant story, the battle is probably the beauty competition itself (or in Whip It, the beauty competition was replaced by a roller derby comp.)

Dumplin shares this in common with Pixar’s Brave. In both stories, the young heroine gives an impassioned, didactic speech to a crowded room, showing that she has had her Self-revelation (most of it) before the Battle sequence has fully begun. In Dumplin, I’m talking about Willowdean’s onstage speech about loyalty, which she describes as the signifier of true friendship. (At its heart this is a “Who’s Your True Friends?” story.)

SELF-REVELATION

Here’s the important rule I’m noticing if you want to create a story in which the main character’s Self-revelation comes BEFORE the Battle. (Because for the audience, this is an unexpected inversion.)

The main character may well get her Self-revelation out of the way before she hits the Battle, newly steeled and ready to win (whatever winning means to her). But the Self-revelation phase still requires SOMEONE to realise something.

In Dumplin, as well as in Brave, and in Lady Bird, we have a mother and daughter who undergo what John Truby refers to as a ‘Double Reversal’. In effect, two characters each undergo their own Self-revelation, their journeys interlinked.

In each of these stories, mother and daughter learn to get on better. In Brave and in Dumplin, this is partly achieved by the daughter literally taking on the mother’s care role, caring for her own mother.

In Brave, Merida looks after her mother in bear form, feeding her with berries and guiding her in human etiquette. We see that same sequence in Dumplin when Willowdean’s mother is unable to zip up her own dress. (This is a classic unmasking, by the way.) Willowdean reassures her own mother, then goes to find her ‘suitable’ clothes. Dressed in a costume which serves to take the mother out of her cloistered, judgemental and highly circumscribed world, Willowdean mouths encouragement to her unconfident mother. Mother-daughter emotional support has thus been inverted.

The dressing-room scene also finishes off Willowdean’s Self-revelation sequence for the audience: Mother apologises for calling her Dumplin, but now Willowdean is fine with the moniker. “It’s just a word,” she says, signifying much more to the audience about her newfound body positive attitude.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Willowdean was always going to get the boy. We knew this from the beginning. Her self acceptance means that she’s now sufficiently confident to accept that a hot boy might genuinely want to date her. This is an old, conservative plot line but it’s still being used in 2018, straight out of fairytale princess narrative.

POP CULTURAL REFERENCES IN YOUNG ADULT STORIES

I’d like to say those two will be very happy together, but I hope he likes Dolly Parton. The problem for YA authors: Which pop cultural references can I use? If I use things I really like myself, I’ll be accused of being hopelessly out of date. But if I use contemporary references, I’ll be accused of being trendy, and trends change so rapidly anyhow.

A lot of YA authors get around this by creating a slightly eccentric interest for their main character which is deliberately and self-consciously retro. And for contemporary YA readers, who may not know someone like Dolly Parton, there will be a scene in which a peer asks who on earth that person is.

That way, the YA author gets to:

  1. Make use of a cultural reference known to them
  2. Avoid being accused of forced trendiness
  3. Know in advance that this is a real icon — Dolly Parton isn’t ever going to be forgotten in the way some of today’s artists will be
  4. Create an interesting eccentricity for their main character

It’s a win-win, really.

Dolly Parton turns 73 next month. Gotta say, that alone makes me feel old.

THE IDEOLOGY OF DUMPLIN

I sense two main schools of body acceptance feminism in this cultural moment.

  1. The first message is to embrace your body type by putting yourself out there. Activists demand to be noticed. Small, everyday actions such as taking a selfie of your culturally unacceptable body and uploading it to social media constitutes a small act of activism which, over the long term, with all body types doing this, will help to expand our cultural notion of physical diversity.
  2. The other form of activism, as explained by Beauty Redefined, is to move beyond the very notion that physical body is a meaningful way to gauge one’s self worth. While loving your body is important, the focus here is very much on what the body can do rather than what it looks like. Under these ideas, one would never set foot in a beauty pageant because there’s no avoiding the fact that the emphasis of such an institution is still very much on the body — no matter what that body looks like.

Dumplin belongs to the first school of body acceptance. Julie Murphy wrote this series specifically to provide models of fat girls confidently entering spaces where there are not traditionally accepted. This is achieved with flamboyance.

In the meantime, new limitations of the inverse kind have popped up. It almost seems like now, if a woman is physically large, she is required to be flamboyant. Flamboyance is no longer a choice. There is now comedy which parodies the very message Julie Murphy worked hard to create in Dumplin — that fat girls shouldn’t hide.

There are other problems, pointed out by others, regarding the ideology in Dumplin. I cover that in this post: The Ideology of Fatness in Children’s Stories.

One thing I’m confident saying — fat politics are changing so rapidlythat a book written three years ago will seem ideologically naive to a mainstream audience, if not outright offensive, even if its author is a self-described fat woman herself. In the week of Dumplin’s release on Netflix I have seen tweets to the effect of, “I don’t want anyone’s opinion on the Dumplin movie unless the reviewer is fat themselves”, which is a good indication that the politics of the body are some of the most important — and can be the most damaging — to a young adult audience.

I hope that some of Dumplin’s YA audience will see themselves in these characters, and that this story’s transition to screen opens up many more interesting discussions.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.