Dumplin' is a film about body acceptance, not just in the personal sense, but within societal expectations, "positive" as well as negative. In the Netflix movie, seemingly confident self-proclaimed fat girl Willowdean (Danielle Macdonald) — Will to her friends and Dumplin' to her beauty-queen mother (played by Jennifer Aniston) — hits a wall of insecurities when local cutie Bo (Luke Benward) takes an interest in her. But is Dumplin' based on a true story? Yes and no. Julie Murphy, who wrote the 2015 book that the Dec. 7 release adapts, based Willowdean on what she herself longed to see in YA fiction, though Willowdean isn't based on any one person.
In an interview with Writer Mag, Murphy said, "Growing up, I was always thirsty for heroines like Willowdean. As a fat girl and now a fat woman, I’m always excited to see heroines I can relate to, but I’m all too familiar with the disappointment of being misrepresented." She wanted to write a book where the solution wasn't the protagonist "fixing" her looks or body, but truly accepting herself as she is.
Despite appearing confident to others about who she is and what she looks like, Will finds herself freaked out about being seen in a subjective way she hadn't considered as much before. She decides to lean in hard by volunteering to be seen by the most objectifying gaze around — the town's main event, her mother's crowning achievement, the Miss Teen Blue Bonnet Pageant. In the movie, Willowdean is inspired to enter the pageant when she discovers that her dear, departed aunt and hero had considered doing so in her youth, in addition to her insecurities about Bo.
That her crisis is set off by a potential crush in the book is sort of ironic, considering the first scene Murphy wrote about Will "was this chubby girl in a red and white uniform making out with a boy in the back of a fast-food restaurant," as she told Amy's Smart Girls. "The next thing I wrote was this moment where’s she’s catcalled by an old man and she’s explaining this to her mother later on in the evening and her mom’s like, 'That’s kind of sweet.' And she’s like, 'No, it’s not.'"
The sad truth of being a woman alive in the world right now means no matter what you look like or how you feel about it, if you have a body, it will be judged. Dumplin' confronts this problem head-on, without also slandering beauty queens. Murphy also told Smart Girls that she knows many people who participated in pageants and feels conflicted towards them — she wants to support a woman's right to participate, but believes pageants as they currently exist lack accessibility to all women, and that judging appearance before all else is inherently problematic.
Murphy is aware that humans, real or fictional, aren't relatable if they're just ideals or voice boxes for an author's direct opinion. She wrote Willowdean as a flawed human and super Dolly Parton fan, something a lot of us can relate to. Speaking to Book Stop Corner, she noted that "Willowdean isn't fearless, but what I love most about her is her ability to recognize her fears and push past them. If you ask me, that's way more brave than being fearless." Recognizing the struggles we're all going through and reflecting it on page and screen is what makes a fictional character feel as real as ourselves.