As an avid reader and movie-watcher, I’ve had a variety of experiences with films that were adapted from novels. Some were good, some were bad, and some were really and truly terrible. The DUFF is in a whole new ballpark.
I found the trailer for The DUFF movie in Buzzfeed’s “21 Books to Read Before They Hit the Big Screen in 2015” list. It seemed like it would be a fun movie, so I decided to read the book. Perhaps my expectations were set incredibly low by the movie trailer, but the book surprised me by delving into serious issues like substance abuse and society’s preconceived ideas about sexuality.
Here’s the Goodreads synopsis of the novel:
“Seventeen-year-old Bianca Piper is cynical and loyal, and she doesn’t think she’s the prettiest of her friends by a long shot. She’s also way too smart to fall for the charms of man-slut and slimy school hottie Wesley Rush. In fact, Bianca hates him. And when he nicknames her “the Duff,” she throws her Coke in his face.
But things aren’t so great at home right now, and Bianca is desperate for a distraction. She ends up kissing Wesley. Worse, she likes it. Eager for escape, Bianca throws herself into a closeted enemies-with-benefits relationship with him.
Until it all goes horribly awry. It turns out Wesley isn’t such a bad listener, and his life is pretty screwed up, too. Suddenly Bianca realizes with absolute horror that she’s falling for the guy she thought she hated more than anyone.”
After finishing Kody Keplinger’s novel, I rewatched the movie trailer and I had some thoughts. Many of these thoughts weren’t immediately fully formed and I’ve been attempting to figure out why this particular movie adaptation is so disappointing — especially since I’ve only watched the trailer and haven’t seen the full film.
Of course, the superficial aspects of The DUFF jumped out first. For instance, any film that tries to assert Mae Whitman is ugly or fat is flat-out ridiculous (even if they go out of their way to say a DUFF doesn’t necessarily need to be fat or ugly). However, my disappointment goes deeper than the Hollywood Homely leading lady.
First off, let’s start with the trailer for The DUFF:
And the official movie synopsis for the film since it’s different than the novel synopsis:
“Bianca is a content high school senior whose world is shattered when she learns the student body knows her as ‘The DUFF’ (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) to her prettier, more popular friends. Now, despite the words of caution from her favorite teacher, she puts aside the potential distraction of her crush, Toby, and enlists Wesley, a slick but charming jock, to help reinvent herself. To save her senior year from turning into a total disaster, Bianca must find the confidence to overthrow the school’s ruthless label maker Madison and remind everyone that no matter what people look or act like, we are all someone’s DUFF.”
Ready? Let’s dive in.
The Unnecessary Makeover Trope
The DUFF is similar story-wise to The Ugly Duckling: a character who doesn’t feel as if they fit in must figure out who they are before finding the confidence and learning to love themselves.
In Hollywood rom-coms, the story generally employs a makeover at some point and The DUFF is no different. She’s All That and Grease are probably the most well-known examples of the Unnecessary Makeover, but the trope is used many times in Hollywood. Although the makeover is often used to show positive character development in these situations, it reinforces the (incorrect) assumption that only beautiful women get a happy ending.
The trailer for The DUFF depicts Wesley attempting to give Bianca a makeover. He tries to teach her how to dress herself, how to talk to boys, and generally how to be more desirable. Additionally, the trailer shows Bianca dressed up for what appears to be a school dance, which, if The DUFF follows teen rom-com conventions, will be the climax of the film.
However, the novel never features a makeover. This is because the problem isn’t that Bianca is unattractive, it’s that she doesn’t believe herself to be attractive. That’s a huge distinction and one that is important. Keplinger’s novel is about how Bianca sees herself and how that must change, not about her outward appearance.
Of course, that’s not to say The DUFF movie won’t feature an emotional makeover as well as a physical makeover for Bianca, but even placing them side by side reinforces the idea that a girl’s outward appearance is just as important as how she views herself.
Look, men have been tellings stories about women for literally as long as humans have told stories. Men even sometimes tell stories from the perspective of a woman. Some men get it wrong. Some men get it mostly right.
That being said, I doubt a man can write a story — never mind a whole screenplay — from the perspective of a girl who is told she is the “designated ugly fat friend.” There are certain aspects about being a woman that a man won’t be able to ever truly understand — not for any deficiency on their part, but because they’ll never have those experiences.
Additionally, since The DUFF is also directed by a man, it will feel lacking in that respect as well. As film-blogger Marya E. Gates has pointed out, male directors often don’t pick up on the small details of being a woman, such as the intimacy in female friendships.
Of course, from the trailer and movie synopsis, it doesn’t appear The DUFF will be a truly revolutionary character study. Instead, it looks more like She’s All That with the mentality of John Tucker Must Die and a message of self-love shoehorned in at the end.
If It’s About a Girl, It’s A Romance
The DUFF is, at it’s heart, a romance story between a high school girl and boy. However, the novel is about a girl attempting to reconcile how she sees herself in relation to how she sees her parents, her friends, and the boys she likes (or dislikes). The movie is about how a girl can become more appealing to boys and increase her own self-worth through the opinion of her classmates.
There is something intrinsically wrong about taking a story about a female character with well-rounded relationships and turning it into a movie that solely focuses on that female character’s romantic relationship. Not only is it insulting to assume we want to see another version of She’s All That (we don’t), but it’s boring. And it’s tiresome.
There’s a reason Comedy Central’s Broad City has received so much recognition: it’s one of the few (if not only) shows on television that’s central premise relies on the friendship between two women. It’s refreshing — and that’s truly pathetic.
So many movie adaptations of novels with female main characters either largely ignore their friendships with other girls or are only used to characterize the lead. (There are exceptions, of course, like The Princess Diaries.)
That being said, this is a problem across all forms of media and can be found in many young adult novels themselves. Keplinger’s novel even focuses more on Bianca’s relationship with Wesley than her friendship with her best friends, Casey and Jessica. The difference, though, is that it seems much less focus will be placed on those friendships in the movie than in the novel.
Promotes Girl-Hate and Competition Between Girls
The worst, most disappointing aspect of The DUFF film adaptation is the inclusion of Bella Thorne’s character Madison. Now, I don’t know a lot about Madison since she wasn’t in the book, but the trailers depict her as the mean girl rival to Bianca’s DUFF.
I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and guess that Madison is meant to be a physical representation of Bianca’s internal self-deprecating monologue. Since the film can’t have voiceover throughout the entire thing, they created a new character to show how Bianca is insecure in her DUFF-ness.
That’s kind of a neat writing trick, right? No, not really.
Even from the trailers it’s evident Madison is a lazy reiteration of the Mean Girl that likely won’t attempt to deconstruct to trope. Too often, female relationships — excluding friendships (most of the time) — in movies are, at best, competitive and, at worst, downright nasty. Madison and Bianca seem to fall on the latter end of that spectrum.
Now, I know I haven’t seen the full film of The DUFF, but I’ve seen enough of these teen rom-coms to guess that at some point Bianca and Madison will compete for Wesley’s attention. Bianca will win out because she’s our spunky heroine — and because she’s “not like other girls.” In this case, Madison represents the other girls.
The reason Madison’s cliched character is so egregious is that seeing girl-hate in movies reinforces the idea among real teenaged girls that it’s okay, that it’s normal. It’s completely normal to feel as if you’re constantly in competition with other girls to be the prettiest, or the smartest, or the funniest, or the quirkiest — which is a seriously fucked up mentality.
While Keplinger’s novel does include Bianca comparing herself to her friends, it doesn’t occur until after Wesley introduces her to the word DUFF. I took this as an example of how the world tends to force competition and comparison on young girls. However, the inclusion of Madison and Bianca’s competition in the movie suggests competition between girls is natural.
But it’s not. And even suggesting that it may be is harmful to any young girl watching this movie.
It doesn’t matter if you keep the same theme of “self-love” from the novel, if the main character only learns confidence through “overthrowing the school’s ruthless label maker” (another teenaged girl, by the way) then the message is still that her self-love is dependent on either other people’s opinions or the act of tearing down another girl rather than on her own view of herself.
All this being said, I’m still going to go see The DUFF and maybe I’ll even enjoy it, but these are the kinds of movie adaptations that give the young adult book genre a bad name.