When I sat down to read The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) by Kody Keplinger I was prepared to be enraged. In fact, I was planning on being enraged because rage keeps me young (this is supported by the evidence that I was recently carded while trying to buy beer and the drinking age here is 16. So I’m supported by science).
And yet here we are, and I’m about to seriously praise a book called The DUFF. You have to hear me out, because when I saw the title I was offended too.
This is what I thought when I saw the title: “Great, I bet this book is about an ‘average’ girl who thinks she’s fat because she’s a size eight and somehow is going to end up with a ‘hot’ guy after she goes through a makeover routine and her bitchy friends will learn their place. Haha, I’m so glad that YA books are tackling the actual issues of body size image in teenagers, in a way that has nothing to do with a girl learning she’s pretty through the attention of a man. FKLJFLJS:KFJ:Jhjd:KFDJS.”
I stand corrected though, because while the book DOES feature an average looking girl with two traditionally attractive friends and ends up involved with a traditionally attractive guy, there’s attention to real issues facing young women.
Here’s a few issues that The DUFF tackles, and does so in a way that I respect:
-using casual sex as a coping mechanism for depression
-slut shaming being common and representitive of internalized misogyny
-the fact that feeling ugly is more of a matter of self-perception than physical appearance
-importance of platonic friendship
-calling out ignoring platonic friendship for romantic relationships as shitty behavior
-ocassional thow-ins of blatant feminism that are kind of awkward but I support that they’re in here
-divorce between two people, not because on of them is the ‘bad guy’ but because people change and may no longer be satisfied in a marriage
-divorce ending in a positive relationship between two people that doesn’t end with the “they got back together” fairy tale trope but supportive behavior
-friendship between girls who have different interests and appearances but have a strong bond
Even ONE of these being handled respectfully by a YA book is rare and just look at this list! I’m in shock, I’m still in shock.
Let’s talk about ugly as self-perception. A lot of times in YA books, an average girl finally realizes she’s attractive because she recieves attention from a male gaze. This is a really slimy way of increasing a girl’s self-confidence not only because it implies that worth depends on the male gaze (vomit) but also because it tends to focus on girls who are already ‘average’ on the traditionally attractive scale. What about girls who aren’t traditionally attractive?
The Duff doesn’t follow this. The main character, who does feel like the ‘ugly’ one of her friends, realizes through TALKING TO HER FRIENDS (not a man!!!) that they all feel like the ‘ugly’ one. Her friend who is tall feels ugly because she’s so tall (while the MC feels like she’s beautiful being tall), as an example. And this is completely true. A lot of our insecurities are viewed as enviable by other people.
The heart of the issue is that anyone can feel unattractive and that envying a girl that you think is more attractive than you is a waste of energy because she’s envying someone else. The book addresses the fact that all women are torn down by misogynistic culture. Actual quote from the book “It was just one of those titles that fed off of an inner fear every girl must have from time to time. Slut, bitch, prude, tease, ditz. They were all the same. Every girl felt like one of these sexist labels described her at some point.”
Not to mention that the MC begins the book as an awful slut shamer. She goes around calling girls whores if they act in a more sexual way than her. But by the end of the book (okay, with a little help from a male character, but props to giving a male character a line that shows women who have sex aren’t whores. In fact, he has less internal misogny than the MC, which is interesting) Bianca realizes how awful this point of view is. She wants women to support each other because all the labels, shown in the quote, are sexist, from the prude end of the spectrum to whore.
I feel like I had this internal awakening, a little later when I was at University, and the pride I felt for Bianca in that moment was palpable. I wanted to give her a high five. She broke out of the stupid thinking we’re fed from society, and that isn’t easy. I love that it is shown as character growth.
But I have to say, I think my favorite issue in this book is the use of sex as a coping mechanism. There are a lot of books in YA literature that address self-mutilation, drinking, and drugs, but I haven’t read one that tackled sex so earnestly. Don’t get me, or the book, wrong. Sex between teenagers isn’t always dysfunctional. But we do need to address that casual sex, especially a lot of it, CAN be a sympton of depression. Again, I want to stress that it doesn’t have to be, but it CAN be.
Bianca’s sex reflects this. She does it to get away from her troubles at home and begins a cycle of sex and shame that is common in these situations. She needs the high, but is overrun by guilt afterwards, leading right back into her needing the high. There’s not a lot of romanticising her behavior during this phase of the book.
It’s so important to highlight the way sex factors in as a behavior of depression so YES! THANK YOU!
The DUFF isn’t a perfect book. I wish that it had a cast that wasn’t just heterosexual, “attractive” white people. But what it gets right, it gets right, and I won’t tear a book down for making steps in the right direction. So thank you for defying all of my expectations.
I give it a “YES GIRL YES” on the “how well does the main character react to sexism” scale.
(P.S. Don’t see the movie because it undermines every single thing that the book does right and instead DOES make it into a romcom where the main character doesn’t have self-destructive behavior etc etc)