Blogging is narcissistic, but so is our obsession with the way we look.
Watching The D.U.F.F. brought me back to when I saw the musical, Grease for the first time. My parents took my sisters and me to see a live production of it in San Diego. I know I was in second grade because I wrote about it in a daily journal that my teacher made us keep at the time. And journal I did on that scratchy, jumbo-lined paper that we give kids to keep their handwriting from straying too much.
As a kid, I was crazy about musicals. My parents used to take us to see them pretty frequently, and I would always envision myself jumping up on stage and singing and dancing alongside the performers like it was no big deal. There I was, stamping my feet along with the cast of Alabama, tap dancing in heels in 42nd Street, zooming through the audience in my purple roller blades in Starlight Express.
Who is this girl? The cast would whisper to one another. She is amazing!
But Grease? It failed to inspire me. My imaginary self stayed seated. The singing and dancing was nice, but the story was just meh. In penmanship that really hasn’t improved much, I commented in my second grade journal that Grease wasn’t all I had hoped it would be. I didn’t like that Sandy had to change herself to be with Johnny. “Maybe this is a different Grease,” I suggested. My dad had built it up so much. He said I would love it.
Had I been a little older, I would have articulated this better. I would have asked what kind of concessions Johnny made to establish a healthy relationship with Sandy. He just acted like a douche all the time and in turn, landed himself this pretty, intelligent girl. Maybe that happens sometimes, but as a kid, I didn’t want to believe that I would ever be that girl.
And similarly, while I found The D.U.F.F. to be moderately entertaining, the storyline failed to inspire me. To be fair, I don’t really think the filmmakers’ goal is to inspire the audience, nor do I pretend to be among the film’s target demographic. But I still think that if I were in second grade, I would write in my journal, “Maybe this is a different D.U.F.F.”
In all fairness, I can say that The D.U.F.F. signals some kind of cultural improvement since our days of “Tell me more, tell me more, like does he have a car?” In the more modern example, the main character accepts herself as she is. No teased hair and slinky leggings for her. That’s nice. But she accepts herself as the “Designated Ugly Fat Friend.” Let me cushion this commentary by saying that I know nothing about movies and am in no position to critique one. It just makes me wonder.
And here is what I’m wondering.
Why did so many of my students, all high schoolers themselves, go see The D.U.F.F.? Why did so many of my students say they could relate to the story? Like most teen movies, The D.U.F.F. is at best a hyperbolic rendering of high school. It is not realistic. And my students know that. So why did they still identify with the characters?
And I am also wondering about how my students truly perceive themselves. Does the fact that so many said they could relate to the main character suggest that they consider themselves to be ugly and fat? How literally should I interpret their connection to the protagonist?
And why is it funny and acceptable to call people ugly and fat?
And of course, who decides what constitutes ugly and fat in the first place? I thought the main character, “The D.U.F.F.” herself, was actually quite pretty and not fat at all.
This feels like a worn out topic, but it also feels important to me because so many of my students consider themselves to fall short of our accepted standards of beauty. I have on more than one occasion wanted to talk to some of the particularly self-critical students about this, but I don’t know where to begin. This is partly because outside of an academic context, I wield no power among my students. I can’t convince them of anything if it doesn’t have to do with things like making sure their adjectives match in gender and number. And sometimes they’re even skeptical of that.
If it’s a mixed group of males and females, why does it take a masculine ending?
Spanish is sexist, I tell them.
I am also at a loss with my students because I admittedly haven’t made peace with the issue myself yet either. And that worries me because I don’t want to believe that the fifteen-year-olds I face each day have another fifteen years at least of self-criticism to look forward to. Maybe they exist in a more open-minded society, one that now features plus-sized models in Sports Illustrated, but it is not completely satisfying for me to represent the Sandy to their D.U.F.F.
I partially feel reassured looking back on my Grease experience. Young people are not idiots. I didn’t watch Grease and approve of Sandy’s wardrobe and personality makeover. However, simply recognizing that something is unrealistic does not mean that it does not make an impression on us.
So can we make a teen movie that’s about something else? Can it have to do with something other than the way people look? If anyone is on the fence about whether or not they are, in fact, the ugly fat friend, movies like The D.U.F.F. just might confirm their doubts.