Back in the summer of 2011, I read Kody Keplinger’s debut YA novel, The D.U.F.F.: Designated Ugly Fat Friend, and I loved it’s authenticity as a contemporary young adult read about a teen, who winds up using kisses and sex with Wesley Rush, the guy who nicknamed her “the Duff,” for a distraction from her home life. It’s a strategy that works out great until it doesn’t, until she realizes that Wesley is a pretty good listener with a screwed up life, until she realizes that she’s falling for the guy she thought she hated more than anyone. Like a lot of readers, I also loved that the main character, Bianca Piper, wasn’t the typical, skinny girl that one so often sees in fiction, young adult and otherwise, but now that Variety.com has announced that Mae Whitman, the actress from ‘Parenthood’ and ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ may star in the movie adaptation of ‘The DUFF,’ I’m not sure what to think.
Don’t get me wrong; I think that Whitman is a great, expressive actress, who has the personality to pull off everything it takes to play Bianca. I’m also positive that not only with the studio not change their mind about the type of actress – or Mae Whitman if it’s confirmed – that they envision for the role, but also the author isn’t in a position to criticize or ask for changes to the cast. Whitman’s performance as Mary Elizabeth in the film adaptation of ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ alone suggests that we can expect great things from her if she is, indeed, chosen for the role. My main concern, and that of other people in the Twitterverse, is that she doesn’t embody a person with the kind of body type that we’d expect Bianca to have. While Whitman isn’t one of skinniest actresses in Hollywood, she’s nothing like what I would associate with someone called the designated ugly fat friend. Could she wear a fat suit in the movie? Maybe…but for some reason, I doubt that will happen. Instead, if Whitman or anyone else around her body size ends up in the role, it will send a very different message to the one I got while reading Keplinger’s novel several years ago. It will say to young teen girls that someone Whitman’s size represents the type of figure that we, as a society, define as a “fat” teen. For me, this is especially troubling because, in North America, we already have a severely body-conscious society. (We know this without a shadow of a doubt when the concept of “thigh gap” has become so ubiquitous on the web that even people like Stephen Colbert are talking about it.) Now, I’m not going to try to argue that having Whitman play the role of Bianca will lead to teens developing self-esteem issues because that would be a shoddy, slippery slope-style argument, but there is an undeniable co-relation between people seeing women, like Whitman, constantly being called fat in the media, and girls and young women developing unhealthy body images.
One of my other problems with considering Whitman for this role is what it will say to overweight teens. Whether they’re slightly overweight or struggling with obesity, I imagine that a book the The D.U.F.F. will have felt like a breath of fresh air when they saw their bodies represented, possibly for the first time, in the pages of a YA novel as someone who could be desirable. So what does it say when teens realize that bodies like their own aren’t translated onto the big screen? Does it mean that as moviegoers, they would be expected to either suspend their disbelief when someone like Whitman is not only referred to as fat and ugly (though not exact quotation, it means the same thing), but doesn’t consider herself to be even remotely close to the prettiest one among her friends? Should they always have to suspend their disbelief or should Hollywood at least attempt to find a teen that matches the kind of body type that most readers would’ve imagined for Bianca?
While in many ways (as you can see from the above argument), I’m uncomfortable with the idea of someone like Whitman getting to play fat for the movie going audience of ‘The DUFF,’ I’m also a little torn. I mean, on the one hand, I’d rather someone who is at least legitimately curvy if not out right overweight was selected for the role. However, I realize that by using someone like Whitman for the role, there could be another layer of meaning displayed on-screen, which would be relevant for a large selection of today’s teens. Could it be possible that Bianca, like many other teen girls, has some form – even a mild one – of body dismorphia? I know many young people look at themselves in the mirror and don’t like what they see, overhear their moms comment disparagingly about their own bodies, and internalize negative comments from their peers that they’re fat or unattractive, so if some or all of these things might happen, couldn’t it be possible to consider that Bianca’s interpretation of her body might be skewed in ways that she won’t realize until she’s older? All of these situations can affect many teens, so it’s worth keeping it in mind.
While Bianca may be suffering with a form of dismorphia, I’d prefer that they selected an actress who was more true to character represented in the novel because in a world where most actresses in TV and movies and most models in magazines and on the internet weigh 23% less than the average woman, it would be a breath of fresh air to see a young women of average or above average weight and size being portrayed as desirable. That said, my word isn’t the only one worth hearing on this topic, so please let me know what you think about Mae Whitman being considered for the role of Bianca Piper in the film version of ‘The Duff” in the comments section below.