The most recent YA-novel-turned movie Dumplin', streaming now on Netflix, is a movie with many different takeaways: that beauty standards are completely arbitrary and need to be completely dismantled; that mother-daughter relationships are some of the most challenging — and most rewarding — to navigate; that female friendships can be even more redeeming and validating than romantic relationships; that Dolly Parton might be the single greatest living country music star; and that, of course, that it's possible to be fat and happy and confident in your body, all at the same time.
Willowdean Dickson, played by Danielle Macdonald, is a self-proclaimed fat girl who doesn't want to lose weight or go on a diet. Her existence isn't revolutionary, but her presence on screen — as the main character and as the love interest — is.
"Nothing about it felt revolutionary to me, because it’s a reality that I’ve lived with my whole life," author Julie Murphy tells Bustle in a phone interview. "It’s a really wonderful reminder when the trailer goes out or when readers find the book for the first time that this isn’t the norm. This is definitely not the norm. And it can be really validating for people to read the book or see the movie and feel really seen by that."
The movie and book both center on Willowdean — called Dumplin' by her mother — whose aunt, Lucy, died about six months before the start of the story. Now that she's gone, Willowdean doesn't feel like anyone really understands what it means to be exist in her body — especially not her mother, played by Jennifer Aniston, a thin woman and former beauty queen who now organizes the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant in their hometown of Clover City, Texas.
While looking through Lucy's belongings, Willowdean discovers something shocking: A piece of paper that indicates she her late aunt wanted to enter the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet festival, but never did. It's then that Willowdean makes a choice that will change the course of her life: She's going to enter the pageant, and she's going to smash the social conventions that kept Lucy from entering in the first place. With the help of her best friend, Ellen, two other pageant "misfits," and a group of ultra-supportive drag queens, Willowdean turns the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet pageant on its head — and in the process, forges a stronger relationship with her mom, her best friends, the guy she's dating, and herself.
"And it can be really validating for people to read the book or see the movie and feel really seen by that."
Dumplin' is the latest film in a string of YA book-to-movie adaptations that feature main characters with marginalizations. In 2018 alone, the following movies hit theaters or Netflix: Becky Albertalli's Love, Simon, about a gay teen who falls in love with an anonymous classmate on the internet; Jenny Han's To All The Boys I've Loved Before, about a Korean-American teenager who falls in love after a serious of madcap circumstances; and Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, about a black teenager who witnesses the shooting death of her unarmed friend, Khalil, at the hands of a white police officer.
Along with Dumplin', these books and movies have redefined what it means to be a teen protagonist. But the road to better representation in books and movies hasn't been easy.
For years, the young adult community has lobbied for better diversity in books through official channels, like the organizations We Need Diverse Books and People of Color in Publishing, and through a series of so-called Twitter "takedowns" that haven't always been well-received. (In a widely criticized story for Vulture, author Kat Rosenfield wrote that "many members of YA Book Twitter have become culture cops.")
Murphy — along with authors Amy Spalding, Lily Anderson, Renée Watson, and Isabel Quintero — has led the push for fat characters in YA, and has been an active member of the wider community's fight for better representation of race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender, class, and more. "Those things don’t look or feel good when they’re happening," she tells Bustle. "So that means that there’s been a lot of high tension things in the last few years when books have come out and they’ve been really harmful representations. I think anything worth doing doesn’t always feel good, because growing pains and becoming a better version of yourself never feels good."
If the four movies above are any indication, things are improving — in publishing and in Hollywood. "We’re starting to see the fruit of that labor," Murphy says. "We’re only at the very beginning of it. Even though we have this incredible amount of diversity, [the industry is] still so white and so able-bodied and so thin. I feel like we’re at the cusp of possibility here. That said, I think most revolutions start with young people. It is no surprise to me that if there’s going to any sort of wave for better representation in media and entertainment, that it would start with children’s literature."
Julie Murphy isn't planning on stopping her quest to bring better fat representation to YA. Earlier this year, she released the sequel to Dumplin', titled Puddin'. It follows two characters you'll recognize from the first book and movie: Millie Michalchuk, the fat girl (perhaps "pageant misfit-turned-first-runner-up" instead) who placed second in the Clover City pageant, and Callie Reyes, who navigates her Mexican-American identity and insecurities as a popular girl.
"It is no surprise to me that if there’s going to any sort of wave for better representation in media and entertainment, that it would start with children’s literature."
Both books are about love — self-love, friend love, romantic love, the love we give to ourselves and the love we give to others, and the love we need to be our best, most confident, most happy selves. And both books are also about destroying the systems that keep people from believing they're deserving the same love as everyone else. The movie cuts to the heart of all these themes, too.
"For me, the movie is all about how we lift each other up. It’s up to us to break this cycle of the patriarchy continuously telling us this is how we value you, this is how we measure your worth, and not only that, but you should perpetuate that onto other women," Murphy says.
"It’s up to us to break the cycle," she adds. "Because I can tell you a bunch of dudes are not about to do it for us."
Dumplin' is now streaming on Netflix.