Besides Barbie, Dolly Parton was one of the first grossly unrealistic images of womanhood I came across. I was around eight when I saw her on the cover of my mums’s Dolly Parton Favorites album and oh how deeply I loved her. Her big hair took up almost the entire front cover and her Tennessee-Mountain-cleavage was caked in rhinestones. Even by that stage I knew some of her songs by heart. I wouldn’t hear a bad word about her and I sung ‘Coat of Many Colours’ from beginning to end to many a family pet. I felt a kinship with her, not only because we were both ‘country gals’, but like Dolly I also grew up religious (my mum was an evangelical Christian) and we also didn’t have a lot of money.
One of the first movies I saw at the cinemas was 9 to 5, a film that dealt categorically with women’s sexual harassment in the workplace. I remember leaving the cinema as a pre-teen, inspired by sisterhood, by women taking back their power, by the struggle for equality, things I’d had little exposure to. Later, as a teenager in the 90s, I listened to the song ‘Just Because I’m a Woman’, the lyrics of which go, ‘Yes I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand, my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman’. The song was written in 1968: it was an anti-slut shaming anthem long before the phrase ‘slut-shaming’ was ever coined.
As a teenager I looked up to Dolly; a young woman who had risen from rural poverty to success in the male dominated industry. She worked hard to get a career doing what she loved – Dolly can’t read a note of music and yet has written over three thousand songs. One of my favorite Dolly tunes, ‘You Know that I Love You’, is about following your career while putting a relationship on the backburner. Dolly always put her career and her art first: she didn’t have children, her husband of 45 years had no control over her career, she was proactive about her finances and investing in things she believed in – but a woman simply being able to put her own needs and desires before others was equally powerful to me.
In my twenties, when the beauty industry revealed itself as a devil on my shoulder, when I often found myself in a rage at all the attention I got for my looks, at all the fathomless hours, energy and money I spent trying to ‘fix’ and ‘perfect’ my appearance, I wondered if I could still see Dolly as a symbol of female empowerment even as she was a walking advertisement for the oppressive standards of a multibillion dollar industry that profits on women feeling bad about themselves.
In some ways, I liked to believe that Dolly, with her trashy OTT look, had appropriated the male gaze for herself – the boobs, the big blonde hair, the tiny waist and stilettos – she was like a caricature of women’s sexual exploitation! Sometimes it seemed the exploitation was more for her own enjoyment than anyone else’s: ‘Walk a mile in my shoes and you’ll never walk again,’ she once said. And famously: ‘I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb… and I also know that I’m not blonde.’ Her affection for cosmetic surgery and other ‘modifications’, and her openness in talking about them, seemed to come from a place of celebration, of flaunting and show, not self-loathing.
Often when I spent time worrying about my looks, dieting and exercising, angst-ing over getting dressed, I wondered, was it coming from a place of pride and self-appreciation or from a feeling of inadequacy, of dissatisfaction with my body? It wasn’t hard to feel crap about myself in my twenties, especially when I spent more than a nano-second looking at mainstream media, which taught me that ageing is a sin, fat an abomination.
I have memories of watching Dolly in interviews and feeling furious by the constant quizzing about her breasts, her waist size, her hair. ‘Get to the good stuff,’ I remember thinking. Dolly was funny and smart – why waste an interview asking about her goddamn dress size? But Dolly realised early on the value of her sexual currency. Oprah once asked her, ‘Do you think you would have gotten the level of fame you have if you didn’t look like this?’ Dolly laughed, replying, ‘of course not!’
Like many successful women, Dolly realised something about being female in our economic system: as far as capitalism is concerned, without sexual currency, you’re unmarketable, unable to compete. For women in a patriarchal world, there are narrow definitions for what your life and role in the world can be, particularly outside motherhood. Being beautiful is a valuable commodity, ‘hot or not’ equates to worthy or worthless. On some level, Dolly plays with this: she shows how powerful this message is, but she also kind of makes fun of it.
It’s a confusing edge for a women to be on. In some ways, she personifies the struggle many women have with ‘empowerment’ versus feminism. Are we ‘empowered’ by being able to take naked selfies of ourselves and buy another pair of Jimmy Choos? Often we’re given the message that sexism no longer exists: choosing to ‘be empowered’ means no longer ‘being oppressed’. Of course, this myth has come about for the simple fact that feminism threatens capitalism: if feminism was to have its way, capitalism would suffer. Sexism, allows capitalism to keep ticking along, much like racism does. ‘Empowerment’, with all its ironic overtones, is just another way that capitalism distracts people, leaving us with the vague feeling that something isn’t right.
Feminism (as apart from the ‘empowerment movement’) is a form of advocacy based on the realisation that systemic oppression of women exists. It’s the realisation that it is harmful, or at least holding women back in some way. Dolly has never officially recognised this, but she likes to play along with the extreme and ridiculous ideas of ‘the female’ that the system manufactures. Almost mockingly, she puts forth her authenticity and simplicity and couples it with her outright assertions of fakeness – we all know the boobs are flase, the hair is a wig, and the rhinestones are $2 shop variety. It’s all an illusion.
It bothers me when I hear the condescending way other women regard Dolly Parton, like she’s some kind of joke. It irks me because I feel like you can’t look at Dolly Parton without thinking about class. Feminism will always look different for non-middle-class women. The fear of social ostracism is greater if you’ve been ostracised economically. For those women perceived as ‘uneducated’ and those who haven’t had the economic privileges of being middle class, it’s possible that in many instances your looks are seen as your only bargaining power.
One thing I learnt from watching Dolly over the years is that with women’s oppression, you can never win. Women are always the losers. Adopt the binds of oppression – peroxide your hair or get cosmetic surgery – and you are judged as stupid or exploited. Don’t and you are socially ostracised or excluded.
As with any convincing form of oppression, you internalise the lies; feel false and confused and blame yourself. And then you realise, as I did in my mid-thirties, that you’re a perfectly good human. It’s hard navigating the journey of self-love or acceptance, dodging the messaging the world throws at you. Maybe Dolly sums it up well when she says, ‘It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.’
This is part of a series responding to our recent Pitch Page query about the feminist politics of Dolly Parton, a topic that received an unusual amount of interest. Read the other two responses:
(Note, we’re thinking about running a series about the music and politics of Beyoncé before the end of the year. Head over to our Pitch Page if you’ve a burning opinion on the subject.)