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Sierra Burgess is a Dumplin’
Netflix original films can be a bit hit and miss, but Dumplin’, released in December 2018, is undeniably a hit. While it is arguably Netflix’s second attempt at a film promoting female body-positivity after Sierra Burgess is a Loser, released September 2018, was significantly more a miss, it stands as an important film in its own right.
Sierra Burgess has a classic rom-com structure with a modern twist, when mean girl Veronica (Kristine Froseth) gives Sierra’s (Shannon Purser’s) number to Jamey (Noah Centineo) in lieu of her own. The ensuing relationship between Sierra and Jamey sparks an unexpected friendship between Veronica and Sierra, as well as enough drama to rival every iconic episode of Catfish ever, but the main focus is always on Sierra and Jamey.
In contrast, Dumplin’ is primarily about Willowdean’s (played by Danielle Macdonald) relationships with the other female characters in the film, from her mother and childhood best friend to the other girls she meets entering the beauty pageant. Willowdean decides to enter her well-meaning but unhelpful mother’s (Jennifer Anniston) beauty pageant, hoping to challenge the traditional standard for beauty that the pageant sets. In doing so, she encourages other girls from the town who don’t fit the typical ‘pageant mould’ to enter, and after a rocky start (and with the help of a group of drag queens), they make it through without a drop of pig’s blood being thrown on them (spoiler alert?).
Female solidarity is very much at the heart of Dumplin’, as it manages to include a love interest for Willowdean (Bo, played by Luke Benward), without falling into the trope of her needing validation from him in order to feel confident, as well as avoiding a stereotypical main female character who just “gets on with guys better” in order to make her seem different from other girls. Instead, Willowdean’s strongest relationship is with Ellen, who she has been best friends with since they bonded over a mutual love for Dolly Parton at a young age, and their reconciliation takes precedence over Willowdean and Bo getting together.
Body confidence is where these films overlap most, and both end with a strong message on loving yourself and valuing friendships, but the two main characters are incredibly different for two films that sound so similar. Sierra is far less likeable than Willowdean, as she lacks the vulnerability Danielle Macdonald brings to the character. Sierra consistently appears unfazed by any bullying she experiences, and while this helps establish her as a strong female character, it also makes it difficult for the audience to sympathise with her and her struggles. Sierra does have moments that audiences can find relatable or engage with, such as her opening line where she tells herself she is a “magnificent beast” in the bathroom mirror, literally jumping away from her phone when she gets a phone call, and moments of stressed pacing while she and Jamey texts each other. However, these are cancelled out by more questionable lines that she has, like calling her mum out for “obsessing over looks” when her mum points out that she has toothpaste smeared from the corner of her mouth to her cheekbone, or calling Veronica “Moronica”; though she doesn’t say it to her face, it still feels unnecessarily cruel when Veronica has been previously shown to be sensitive about her intelligence.
Willowdean has her own faults, as any good character must, but they are much easier for the audience to accept because the root of them is so clear. Willowdean both wants her mother’s approval and tries to not need her mother’s approval so much that she ends up taking some wrong turns in what is clearly a difficult situation for her, and while navigating this she is also trying to deal with the death of her Aunt Lucy, who was more of a mother figure to her than her actual mother. While Willowdean must accept the consequences of her actions, and as such has an interesting character development, Sierra ultimately gets everything she wants in spite of her problematic actions. Her final apology to all the people she has ‘wronged’ throughout the film is delivered first to her father rather than her mother, in spite of her mother being the one who has consistently tried to build her confidence. Willowdean and her mother’s relationship is far more realistically portrayed, as her mother clearly struggles to do what is best for Willowdean, and in turn, Willowdean on some level tries to be the daughter her mother wants.
Dumplin’ has also become one of very few films that accurately and positively represents the LGBTQ community, as the group of drag queens that help Willowdean and her friends build their confidence are easily the best characters in the film. Lee and Candee are endlessly supportive, tailoring the advice they give and the outfits they make to the personality of the girl they’re helping, and attending the pageant to encourage them. They act as a link between Willowdean and her Aunt Lucy, creating one of the more poignant and sombre moments of the film as Lee explains how Lucy helped him accept himself, mirroring the impact Lucy had on Willowdean and her self-esteem. In turn, Lee and Candee are also a source of some of the lighter, more comedic parts of the film, and that same balance of humorous and heartfelt is maintained perfectly throughout the film.
Following the current surge in body positive messages and general self-love affirmations slowly entering into society, it would be nice if we didn’t have to work ‘9 to 5’ to find a rom-com featuring a plus-sized protagonist without the storyline being focused on weight. But for now – Dumplin’, Shantay you stay.