Written by Kristin Hahn and directed by Anne Fletcher, Dumplin’ is a coming of age story which centres around the life of Willowdean Dixon (Danielle Macdonald), a teenage girl from a small Texas town who idolises Dolly Parton. After her aunt’s sudden passing, she is left to live with just her mother Rosie (Jennifer Aniston) who she feels doesn’t understand her. The film is based on the novel of the same name by author Julie Murphy.
The story begins when Willowdean is going through her aunt Lucy’s things and finds an application for the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant that Rosie had won as a teenager. Until this moment, Willowdean always assumed that her mother was the only one interested in being a pageant girl, but now wonders if Lucy never entered because she felt unwelcome given her larger figure. Not only did Rosie win the competition herself many years ago, but she is now the face of the organisation running the annual event. In honor of Aunt Lucy’s memory, Willowdean decides to enter the pageant knowing her mother wouldn’t approve. According to Willowdean and her best friend Ellen (Odeya Rush), joining the pageant is like “a protest in heels.” The girls are not entering to win, but merely to make a statement. What starts out as a plan to erupt the pageant from the inside ends up being so much more.
While there may have been many other films and television shows such as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Miss Congeniality,” and “Toddlers in Tiaras” that mutually capture the ludicrous nature of making young girls compete with one another based on their looks and femininity, Dumplin’ dives deeper into the subject. The film captures how these pageants impact our idea of beauty and the role of women in society as a whole. Pageants similar to the Miss Teen Bluebonnet are still taking place all across the world today. According to ABC News, there are over 5,000 pageants that take place in the U.S alone every year and over 250,000 children who fall victim to participating in these competitions. All these events are doing is only holding developing girls back from reaching their full potential and escaping the patriarchy.
Throughout the film, Rosie discusses the importance of tradition in the community and the pageant. What she doesn’t realize is how much these “traditions” negatively affect the people around her. She is so self-obsessed and focused on abiding by an outdated list of rules that she neglects to see all of the people her actions are hurting. One thing the movie’s script does particularly well is not shaming the pageant girls. While it is clear that the competitive nature of women is wrong and needs to be addressed, it is also important not to shame those who fall victim to this institution. It is clear that the girls who participate in the pageant and are genuinely interested in winning have been conditioned to believe their purpose as a woman is to be a certain shape and beat out others.
In the small town of Clover City, Texas, where the film takes place, there are very few people who attend college and are financially well off. Often at these pageants, scholarships are awarded to the winners. Given this incentive, it makes sense that young girls would enter as an opportunity to afford college or help out their family financially. But what if instead of using monetary prizes as a way to force girls into modelling bikinis, our communities put this money towards creating more scholarship opportunities for achievements that are far less dehumanising?
Unlike most popular Hollywood classics, Dumplin’ has no true antagonist except the pageant itself. Dumplin’ exemplifies that there is always more than one side to a story because when watching we are giving insight into not only Willowdean’s motives but Rosie’s and the other pageant girls as well. By the conclusion of the film, Willowdean ultimately realizes that the other girls aren’t her competition just because they look different and Rosie finally learns to let go of tradition. Maybe it’s time for us all to do the same.
Dumplin’ is available to stream on Netflix.
by Blair Krassen