Once upon a time in the 7th grade, brace yourselves… I was dork. Gawky, insecure, socially and physically awkward. The boys routinely called me “ugly” and made fun everything from my penchant for mismatched slouch socks and M.C. Hammer pants, to my hair that was suffering from a rather tragic home perm. The perm earned me the title of “Microphone Head” from a boy in my orchestra class who sang into my hair as if it were… well, a microphone. He would sneak up behind me as I was putting rosen on my bow and sing “You can’t touch this! DA NA NA NA You can’t touch this!” Because of the Hammer Pants… as I mentioned. I was unpopular. Uncool. I sat alone at lunch and wished I was popular and could sit at the “cool table.” And of course, no case of pathetic dorkdom is complete without an unrequited crush. I had a huge crush on a boy who had a girlfriend (which, in the 7th grade, means they held hands a lot and hung out by each others lockers). So, at my very first dance, I dedicated Mariah Carey’s Cant Let Go to him to reveal my undying love. Which he danced to with his girlfriend, and then promptly dedicated I Hate Everything About You by Ugly Kid Joe back to me. Everyone was laughing. The DJ, who was some middle-aged stoned dude the school probably threw $50 to play CD’s for us kids, was even laughing. I hid under the bleachers until my mom came to pick me up. This all took place at the tender age of 12. Looking back I can chuckle now, because I must admit, I was pretty weird. I mean, I brought my creepy porcelain doll collection to writing class as part of a presentation on Victorian fashion. Of course they hated me. The Ugly Kid Joe song was a bit harsh though. Ass.
It wasn’t until several years later in college when I discovered Welcome to the Dollhouse. Written and directed by Todd Solondz, Welcome to the Dollhouse is a dark comedy about an endearing loner named Dawn Wiener as she navigates the minefields of life in junior high. Nicknamed “Wiener Dog” by her classmates, she’s also known as “Lesbo” and “Stupid.” Dawn spends much of the movie being made fun of mercilessly by her classmates, humiliated by her teacher, and neglected by her parents. In the very first scene, we see Dawn enduring one of the more painful rituals: Finding a place to sit in the lunch room. At each table, she’s turned away or sneered at. “Can I sit here?” She asks the glaring goth girl who’s also sitting alone, “Someone barfed there during third period.” she’s informed. When she finally musters the courage to ask “Why do you hate me?” The goth girl blankly replies “You’re ugly.” This film isn’t heartwarming or happy, yet it is deeply funny. Like, laughing your Ben & Jerry’s out your nose funny. Dawn’s endurance and painful earnestness made me cringe, moan, and die laughing as I was reminded of the naive middle schooler I used to be. And in many ways, still am. What’s incredibly comforting about Welcome to the Dollhouse is its brutal realism that has so much more to offer than uplifting portrayals of life in junior high.
Dawn doesn’t “win” in the end. She doesn’t “get the guy.” She doesn’t have some rich aunt come into town and give her a make over so everyone can see the beauty beneath the thick glasses, buck teeth and bad hair. No one learns a “lesson” in the end that is tied up with high fives and a hug. She just endures. And endures. And endures. Like we all did. And then the film just kind of… ends… and you are left to wonder, “Did it ever get better for her?” We have no idea. I can only guess that it did. It did for me. Eventually, the gawky melted away, the perm grew out, and I found my confidence and self worth.
In my heart though, Dawn is iconic in so many ways. From her tragic fashion sense that most 20 somethings emulate to be “ironic” (*cough* posers *cough*) to her pathetic “Special People Club” that boasted two members (herself, and her only friend Ralphie who was bullied just as much as she was), Dawn Wiener is the matron saint for pariahs, the freaks, the geeks, and all of us who ever felt like we just didn’t fit in no matter how hard we tried. Welcome to the Dollhouse helped me make peace with my painful middle school years because for the first time, I was actually able to laugh at it. I laugh because yes, it does get better. If you happen to watch this film, and I highly suggest you do, and you don’t make a mental list of everyone who made your life a living hell… then chances are you made someone life a living hell. I hate you. Kidding. Sort of.
So, I am here to give my inner Dawn Wiener, and all the Dawn Wieners out there, a big huge hug and to say:
Dear Wiener Dog,
It gets better. You will make it. Just keep your chin up and don’t change for anyone.