Kody Keplinger, 23, has turned an insulting acronym into a sassy and smart cliché-buster. The Kentucky-bred author’s 2010 YA novel The DUFF (short for “designated ugly fat friend”) turned sappy conventions surrounding regular-looking female characters—they’re just so darn nice!—on their head.
Keplinger, who was just 17 when she wrote the novel, aimed to explode the homely-angel teen movie clichés with a 3D female character who kicks back at the idea that if she isn’t conventionally “pretty” then she has to be impossibly sweet. Her heroine, Bianca, (a.k.a. “the DUFF”), is sarcastic, edgy and all-too-human.
And now Bianca is making her big-screen debut. The film adaptation of Keplinger’s novel, also called The DUFF, opens tonight. We asked Keplinger, who nows lives in New York, about what lies at the heart of the cruel acronym, how she wrote a novel at just 17 and what advice she has for DUFFs the world round.
Congratulations on the movie! What’s it like for you to see your story on the screen?
It’s such a bizarre feeling. I had always wanted Mae Whitman to play the character of Bianca. Back in 2010, before the book had even come out, I did a blog post where I listed the people I imagined as I was writing the characters, and Mae Whitman was on that list. To actually see her in the film as Bianca is just mind-blowing; it’s so surreal.
Do you feel the film does the book justice?
I love the movie. The movie and the book are different though. The book is a little more R-rated. It deals a little more with sexuality. But the message of the book is this idea that everyone feels like the DUFF—that was my main concern. I knew I would be OK with the film as long as it got that message right, and it does.
You first heard the term DUFF as a high school student, right? You were 17?
Yes. I was a senior. I heard a girl at my table talking about a guy referring to her friend as the DUFF.
Your first thought was…?
I laughed and then I thought, That’s really mean. And then I thought… that’s me.
When I told my friends about it—they hadn’t heard the word—I told them that I thought I was the DUFF, and they were like, ‘No, I am!’ Everybody I’ve ever talked to has said, ‘I’m the DUFF’ or ‘I was the DUFF.’ I think that’s really interesting. No one thinks they have a DUFF, or says ‘Oh, I know one.’ Everybody thinks it’s them. I thought that was such an interesting thing and that was the inspiration for the story in a lot of ways.
Why do you think everyone feels that way? What does that say to you about how most people feel about themselves?
That we all have insecurity. The DUFF is not just about looks. It’s about many things. Everybody has been a DUFF before. There is always someone prettier or smarter or richer or more talented or cooler. We’re always aware of that, and I think everyone has been in that position before and the really unifying thing is not that we’re all insecure—even though I think we all do have insecurities—it’s realizing that you’re never going to be the best at everything.
The reality of life is that you can be the prettiest girl in the room and still not be the object of affection for the person you want to be.
Totally! I kind of played with that in my third book, A Midsummer’s Nightmare, which is a crossover with The DUFF. There’s a part in it where the main character is kind of flirting with the love interest of the DUFF, Wesley, and she sees Bianca and she’s like, ‘I don’t get it. Why is he in love with her and not me?’ So here’s the pretty girl feeling like a DUFF at that moment. I enjoy in my writing playing with both sides of that coin because I do think it’s something that everyone has experience with. And again, it’s not always about looks. It could be about not feeling like you’re the smartest. Like you’re not the coolest. There’s so many different layers to it. It’s not just about being ugly or fat; in fact, that’s never really been how I viewed it.
How on earth did you have the discipline to write a novel at 17?
I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are drawing pictures and making up stories about the people in my pictures that I had drawn. I’ve always loved to write, and as I got older that’s how I had fun. I didn’t have the Internet or cable at home; after I did my homework, I would write. I had already written one novel manuscript prior to The DUFF. It was terrible! But it was great practice.
With The DUFF, I was looking for a new project to work on. It actually started as a joke among me and my friends that I would write a book called The DUFF, but unlike a lot of ’90s teen movies she wouldn’t take out her ponytail and remove her glasses and be a model, and she wasn’t going to be this sweet angel so that the moral of the story would be ‘Oh, we should have spent more time with her because she was really great. It doesn’t matter what she looks like.’
I wanted her to be a little edgy and snarky and kind of mean sometimes and not always a great person. I wanted her to be more layered.
I really admire your decision to make a fully realized female character who’s imperfect. A lot of the genre just puts glasses on a supermodel and calls it a transformation.
And she’s always such a nice, sweet person. Here’s the thing: Bianca and I are very different people. I think I am nicer than her and I am more upbeat than she is. But I’ve felt like the DUFF, and I certainly wasn’t always the nicest person. I had a sarcastic side. I could be judgmental at times, and my friends were the same way. Not every girl who’s insecure is also the sweetest person. A lot of the time, their insecurity makes them a little bit saucy.
Also, you know women have more choices in the world. It’s not just a toss-up between being pretty or nice. You can be a whole bunch of things at once!
Exactly. That was the other thing in the book. Bianca has two best friends who are beautiful. And in so many ’80s and ’90s movies, the best friends would be mean. They would be frenemies, and I didn’t want that. I wanted her friends to be good people.
What do you want people to take away from The DUFF?
The idea of the DUFF for me has always been that if we can identify with this—if it’s something that we can all relate to—if everyone is the DUFF—then it can’t be a weapon. It can’t be a word used to hurt us. It can be a word we reclaim, because if everyone has felt that way then how is it an insult? That was kind of my intention in a lot of ways in writing it and it’s something I think the movie gets across really beautifully. I love seeing ‘I’m somebody’s DUFF’ T-shirts on celebrities. If someone like Kylie Jenner, who is beautiful and famous, can wear a shirt that says that, then we’ve all been someone’s DUFF, so how can that be an insult? This is what I hope people take away from this. If we reclaim the word, it can’t hurt us anymore.
How do you advise people who don’t feel that way, though? Who haven’t gotten that message, but instead really do feel less-than?
It’s tricky. Even though I wrote the book when I was a teen it’s something I struggled with really up until the last couple of years. For me, my way of getting over it was finding something I loved that made me feel good. For me, that was fashion. I love finding clothes that fit my body in a way I like so I feel better about my body and what I look like. I started having fun with it. And I love the body positive message that’s out there with plus-size models. It’s something I’ve embraced and that’s helped me. It’s not to say that it’s going to help everyone, but part of it is finding something you really love and that makes you feel really good about yourself and embracing it and using that as gateway into confidence.