Photo courtesy of Netflix
In early December, Julie Murphy's young adult novel Dumplin' debuted on Netflix as a soul-stirring film adaptation that doubles as a gorgeous love letter to Dolly Parton. With both a fat protagonist, fat supporting characters, devout Texas Christians getting along with benevolent drag queens, and a strongly implied queer crush, Dumplin' upends expectations for a teen movie.Dumplin’ is a stark departure from Netflix's other teen rom-coms this year that bookended the time between the final days of summer and back to school season. The first, To All The Boys I Loved Before, became an instantly beloved adaptation of the Jenny Han novel and the second, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, was an unsteadier reimagining of Cyrano de Bergerac in which its titular character catfishes the boy of her dreams. The pair share much in common: both are set in high schools, focusing on teen love (and heartbreak); both center female characters and their friendships; and, of course, both star Noah Centineo as their swoon-worthy romantic interest. But there's another trait To All The Boys and Sierra Burgess share in a long tradition of teen romantic comedies that came before them: Both storylines would fall apart if everyone just told the truth.
The plots of both films are built around a grand lie, which slowly unravels until the characters are exposed. But what messages are we internalizing about formative romantic relationships when the formula for teen rom-coms is to lie your way into relationships?Dumplin', in its clear-eyed mission to stage a revolution at a beauty pageant, offers an inspiring alternative. Although not a rom-com, per se, Dumplin' does prominently feature a romantic storyline in its heartfelt coming-of-age tale. In it, Willowdean, a self-loving fat girl, arouses the interest of local hunk Bo but struggles with the increased visibility such a high-profile significant other would bring. She's self-loving, but not indestructible. And she certainly isn't immune to the slings and arrows of small-town high school gossip.Instead of lying her way into anyone's heart, though, Willowdean pursues a fierce journey toward the truth about herself—along the way leaning on the support of Dolly Parton music, the regulars at her neighborhood drag bar, her friends, and the memory of her deceased aunt.So why can't we begin more romantic comedies—teen rom-coms, especially—from a place of truth-telling? It's not like the awkward, raw, vulnerable truth isn't funny; it's literally one of the tenets of the genre that "comedy tells the truth."Dumplin', with a date proposed by Bo that leads to kissing under the stars, spares us the excruciating and predictable will-they-or-won't-they played up by its predecessors. This coupling isn't totally without conflict—Willowdean experiences a flash of insecurity when Bo's hands wander down her body and find soft rolls. She quickly puts a stop to the evening, processes it with her best friend, and decides the scrutiny of being with such a conventionally hot guy would be too overwhelming. Willowdean isn't exactly tactful about it and words fail her more than once, but she manages to get her point across to Bo. Then, he's mostly forgotten about—save a few twinges of jealousy when another girl enters the picture—while the story focuses back on Willowdean.
Of the other two films, Sierra Burgess' catfishing storyline raised the most questions about whether its messages were harmful. And, like in most storytelling, there are parts of both movies that worked. Both Lara Jean and Sierra learn the consequences of privileging their own fantasies above the truth—not direct consequences, mind you, like losing their romantic prospects for good. Both girls walk away with the guy in the end. But both are emotionally punished in their own ways. Lara Jean, for example, inadvertently devastates her sister Margo when an old crush on her ex-boyfriend is revealed while Sierra crosses a line in pursuit of revenge that alienates even her closest friends.But overall, the formula for rom-coms seems to be Person A likes Person B; Person B may or may not like them back; Person A lies about their whole inner life until Person B inexplicably falls for it.Media made for teens by adults loves to frame teenage relationships as monstrously confusing, and they can be. But it isn't some unavoidable fate to be exploited for laughs. One would think that young people have a much greater capacity for truth than the movies made about their lives give them credit for. Teen relationships are depicted as confusing because we've built a culture, especially in heterosexual romance, of lying to get what you want; lying about what you want, lying about how much you want it, lying about what and how much you feel, and lying about caring. It could be much less fraught if everyone was honest, empathetic, and equipped to process their own feelings. In other words, it could be less confusing if everyone told the truth. It's here that Dumplin' triumphs.
Protagonists in all three of these films are, without question, doing the best that they can. The instinct to lie is cultivated over time through many tiny heartbreaks by which they get further and further away from themselves because they've been hurt. Coupled with the failure to receive adequate comfort in the face of a loss, lying can feel much less painful than telling the truth. But Willowdean keeps those defenses at bay long enough to find meaningful, nurturing support systems. She has the agency to choose her own community, to continue asking for help, and to remain persistent in her search for her people. This is the honest effort behind finding love. And in the end, she finds the confidence to face her romantic desires bravely."Did you win?" Bo asks, as Willowdean makes her way back to him after an emotional showing at the pageant. "No," she replies. "I got disqualified."Bo smiles and draws her in for a kiss. "That's my girl."