Debunking The Duff: An insult to self-esteem above all
The Duff, a recent film based on the novel by Josh A. Cagan, describes the high school experience of an average girl with popular friends. Bianca Piper’s world is shattered when football star Wesley Rush informs her she is the “Duff.” This acronym, standing for Designated Ugly Fat Friend, is bestowed on the person in a social group who is less popular or attractive than the others in the group. Wesley tells Bianca being the "Duff" doesn’t necessarily mean she is ugly or fat, but merely more accessible. People exploit the "Duff" to get access to her more desirable friends. For a movie that’s widely viewed by high school girls, the general premise raises some issues. Bianca, neither ugly nor overweight, is displayed next to 26 year old actresses who are supposed to represent the ideal high school senior. Is the average teenage girl who is not 5’8” nor fully developed the "Duff?" This movie reflects the insecurities of young girls, yet does little to alleviate them.
The film opens as a typical teen movie with a voice-over of the main character describing different labels while three girls walk in slow motion down a hallway. The main character, Bianca, explains that many stereotypes still exist in high school—the nerd, the mean girl, the jock. She is accompanied by her two best friends, Jess and Casey. Here is the first comparison between the girls. As the three walk down the hallway, the camera focuses on Jess and Casey’s high heels, short skirts and long legs. A group of boys stands near the lockers, commenting on “what they would do” if given the chance to go out with either of these girls. The camera then pans to Bianca, who is juxtaposed with her two friends as significantly shorter, sporting worn sandals and overalls. The boys conclude, “Jess has the hottest ass,” “Casey has the hottest rack” and “Bianca has the hottest friends.” Here, Bianca’s value is deemed by how she adds up next to her clique. What does this opening tell us about the premise of the movie? Immediately we are persuaded to believe the boys are justified in their inference due to the ogre-like way Bianca is represented. She clearly does not add up to these standards and, therefore, is not worthy of attention. Coming from a book written by a male author, it is clear this idea exists outside the boundaries of high school. Comparing women to each other based on what constitutes “normal” is a widely accepted practice.
Bianca becomes aware of this perception at a party one night when her neighbor and former friend Wesley Rush reveals her role as Jess and Casey’s "Duff." He explains that every group of friends, male or female, has a designated member that makes the others look better. Outraged, Bianca discontinues her friendship with Jess and Casey and enlists Wes’s help. While necessary to the plot movement, Bianca’s reaction does little to mend the issues raised by Wes’s proposition. She blames her friends for their “superior” appearances and places her trust in the very person who made her feel insecure. Bianca’s desire to please Wes and other people who view her as inadequate advocates the idea that women must improve themselves if they are to be respected. The first step on Bianca’s journey to self-improvement begins at the mall—Wes has taken her shopping for a new bra. Within the derogatory script writing (phrases such as “uni-boob” are tossed around) lies unrealistic expectations for young women. Many girls who watch this movie are most likely pre- or mid-puberty. While the actresses playing Jess, Casey, and other desirable female roles are well into their twenties and fully developed, the targeted audience has probably only just started wearing bras two or three years prior. For Wes to insist Bianca stands no chance of escaping Duff-ness unless her breasts are presented in a certain way only reinforces these insecurities. This rhetoric suggests women are first valued by their bodies, no boy will talk to a girl if she does not meet these standards.
Bianca’s experience reinforces societal expectations for women. While in the end Bianca preaches an “own your Duff-ness” outlook, she does so with the support of her new boyfriend, Wesley. Yes, the same boy who told her she had “uniboob.” Does Bianca’s newfound confidence come from within, or from the approval of her new boyfriend? Bianca accepts herself once she attains what must be every teenage girl’s dream: dating the star football player. The movie outwardly pushes a “love yourself” message while subtly implying “only if others love you.” It reiterates not only that girls must hold themselves to high standards, but that it is acceptable for others to do the same.
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