I've seen a lot of praise for Julie Murphy's Dumplin'
-- praise specifically lauding the fat acceptance aspect of it -- even extending beyond the field of children's literature. One such piece is "Five Pieces of Brilliant Plus Size Media"
by (or edited by, I'm not sure) Bethany Rutter. I love that the piece mentions podcast "Bad Fat Broads," which is amazing -- fat positive, funny, snarky, intersectional, and sharp as a tack.
But this piece -- and other praises of Dumplin'
that I've seen -- talk about the book as if it's entirely fat positive. It's not. The main character's dearly beloved late aunt died of fatness. Really, of fatness. She died of deathfat. Watching tv. Alone. The book doesn't imply that Aunt Lucy was unloveable, but it absolutely uses her to embody the equation of fatness with tragedy. If you're deathfat, you'll die, you'll die alone, you'll die watching tv, and your low income family won't be able to afford a coffin to fit you in. Plain tragedy.
In addition to Aunt Lucy, there's another secondary character, Millie, who waddles :
“Millie is that girl, the one I am ashamed to admit that I’ve spent my whole life looking at and thinking, Things could be worse.
I’m fat, but Millie’s the type of fat that requires elastic waist pants because they don’t make pants with buttons and zippers in her size. Her eyes are to close together and her nose pinches up at the end. She wears puppies and kittens and not in an ironic way” .
In Millie, fatness is pathetic. The phrase "Millie’s the type of fat that..." specifically calls her a "type." Stereotype, archetype, not a full human. Readers are expected to recognize the type. Millie's the icky "type" of fat, present for contrast, present so that Will, the protagonist, can be fat in a different way -- a way that readers can like or feel fine about.
Why do we need to throw some fat characters to the wolves in order to offer a loveable fat protagonist? Is it a plea to the wolves? Is it bargaining? If we offer Aunt Lucy and Millie as sacrifice, can we be allowed to love the fat protagonist?
For Will, the protagonist, Dumplin'
s message is mostly fat positive. But even for her, there's this sentence: “For the first time in my life, I feel tiny. I feel small. And not in the shrinking flower kind of way. This feeling: it empowers me” . Why is power be symbolized as smallness? Why employ the equation of smallness with power? How does this not reinscribe hegemonic fatphobia?
Do pick up Dumplin'
. Do read it. Do give it to teens. But this is a great chance to have analytical conversations about literary portrayal of fatness. Dissect it. We can praise and relish exciting aspects of fat positivity without ignoring hegemonic, fatphobic aspects from the same source. We must.