This movie is just as bad as it looks.
Let’s just get this clear at the outset: New film The DUFF is based on the premise that every group of female friends has a “Designated Ugly Fat Friend” whose sole purpose for being in the group is to act as a gateway to her prettier companions. Yep, this is a real movie, produced by CBS Films and for some reason co-starring Allison Janney. Why, Allison Janney, why?!
Based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, The DUFF revolves around Bianca, a high school senior played by Mae Whitman, who finds out that she is one of these DUFFs. Bianca is a star writer for the school paper and excellent student, but her world falls apart when school jock Wesley (it seems like they always named Wesley), explains that it’s her lot in life to give guys intel on her prettier friends, but she’ll never be dateable herself.
What follows is a whirlwind of exactly what you’d expect. Bianca desperately implores Wesley to fix her and he’s quick to lament her shortcomings: her posture sucks, she has a “uniboob.” He manages to rectify all these things with a trip to the mall. She gets a new bra and tries on new clothes and Wesley ends the excursion by pointing out how happy she looks.
Don’t worry! The film also hastily adds that men can be DUFFs, so don’t go thinking that this isn’t about equality.
I wish this film was bad enough to be funny. Instead, The DUFF is just a poorly made film based on a misogynistic premise. The main idea here is that girls, unconsciously or not, pick their friends based on how it will make them look to men. In the world of The DUFF, that situation isn’t hard to believe. The film makes no effort to construct a real friendship between the three main girls—Jess, Bianca, and Casey—before it tears them apart. During any time we do spend with them, Bianca seems to have nothing in common with Jess and Casey, so why should we care when they break up? If you manage to make it through the opening scenes without scream-crying and fleeing the theater, you will quickly notice how absurd it is that Mae Whitman is cast as a character described as “fat” and “ugly.” If teen girls flock to theaters to see that Mae Whitman—very traditionally attractive Mae Whiteman—as the universal representation of “undateable,” then what are we saying to girls who are above a size six?
The film’s final strike is its inability to resolve any issues or land on any kind of moral. I like silly teen movies as much as any other pop-culture consumer and so I wanted to give this film the benefit of the doubt. The only healthy way to end it would have been to dismantle the idea of the DUFF entirely, to tell teen girls that a DUFF isn’t a real thing, and that friendships are built on more than the potential for romantic relationships. Instead, the script wraps up with some hybrid clichés of both “Labels are meaningless!” and “Own the label!” Bianca tells us that “It's not about getting the guy.” But when a guy finally kisses her, it’s “the best night of her life.” Whatever this film was trying to say, it gets lost when she’s riding off into the sunset with her new boyfriend (you guessed it: Wesley), rather than loving herself.
Basically, this film is worse than worthless. It’s hurtful. Blech.
Whether girls leave the theater proudly saying that they are or aren’t a DUFF, it doesn’t matter. What matters is now they’re going to start using the term “DUFF” in their everyday conversation. They’re going to accuse a classmate of having the same traits as Bianca. They’re going to wonder whether their friends only keep them around because they’re actually ugly. They’re going to question their own self-worth. This film is helping spread a misogynist construct into social circles where it most likely had never before existed.
The most curious part of The DUFF, however, doesn’t appear on screen at all. It’s the fine print: “based on the novel by Kody Keplinger.” Keplinger, who wrote the novel during her senior year of high school and published it at age nineteen, crafted the story out of her own experience. Her bio begins by saying that she had always felt like the “ugly girl” in high school and goes on to say that it was conversations about this with her friends that inspired the novel. A teen girl publishing a novel based on unconventional body image is laudable on it’s own. Bringing it to the big screen could provides an opportunity for change that most young girls could never achieve. So what does it say when a teen girl given this opportunity chooses a route that continues to belittle the very demographic she intends to represent?
Speculation aside, the consequences of the film are already finding their place in pop culture. Just recently, Kylie Jenner was spotted wearing a shirt with the slogan “I’m somebody’s DUFF”—a key line from the film. I am already dreading seeing these shirts for years to come. Thanks for nothing, The DUFF.
Related Reading: 10 Films I Love About Queer Women of Color.