Me and Dolly

We’ve all read the myriad articles on the accomplishments and the failings of self-professed feminist celebrities, and even I, a pop-culture obsessed feminist, roll my eyes at yet another article discussing the merits of the politics of celebrities. The provocation of whether or not Dolly Parton is a feminist is less interesting to me than the idea that she embodies a certain type of female influence not owned by those more affluent or academic. What’s interesting to me is not whether or not she calls herself a feminist, but how she is an example of the ways in which many working-class people I know are empowered women whose lives are examples of the merits of feminism, even if they do not express it in the ways currently popular in contemporary discourse.

Growing up in the suburbs with parents who do not identify as feminists, I too used to shrug off the term. This wasn’t a reaction to the idea of independence or equality, if anything I was fiercely for both, just like my parents. My mother was raised by her mother (a widower), and moved to Melbourne from the country to study when she was 18. She worked in childcare before she became a stay-at-home mum (which, in her case, also meant working 3–4 days a week in the local supermarket, because my Dad’s fluctuating income was not enough to support a growing family). Mum always stressed to me that giving up a career was her choice, that nothing made her happier than being at home with her children, but that it was not a fate I had to follow.

My mother fiercely resents the idea that staying at home and raising children is some kind of career failure. Over the years, she taught me:

– sometimes we have to take jobs we do not like to make ends meet

– we can’t always get what we want

– life is complex

– strength and weakness make up a woman in equal measure

My mother does not call herself a feminist.

My dad taught me to:

– always stand up to bullies

– do things myself

– conduct my first car service myself so I could understand my car and how to identify problems

My dad, like my mum, moved from the country when he was young. His mother lived through the Second World War, and as the oldest child of her immigrant family, left school early to work and help provide for that family. My dad shunned the idea of me dating as a teenager, not for puritanical purposes, but because it was better for me not to have my developing identity shaped by a boy. Now he rails about how the government needs to implement paid parental leave to enable both parents to have the opportunities to work and support their families. He does not call himself a feminist.

Dolly Parton has a very different history to me. She grew up in the Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, one of twelve children in an incredibly poor family. ‘I think my childhood made me everything I am today,’ she has said. ‘I would trade nothing for being brought up in the Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve never been ashamed of my people no matter how poor or dirty we might have been. I’ve always loved being from where I am, and having the folks that I’ve had.’ Her third studio album, In The Good Old Days (when times were bad), covers much of her memories of this time.

Parton’s career was launched by Porter Wagoner, a variety-show host whose program Parton sang on weekly, often in duet with Wagoner himself. When Parton outgrew the show, he fought to keep her there, and only let her leave on the proviso he could produceI Will Always Love You’, which she wrote about him. Ultimately, he still sued her for $3 million. They later settled out of court, and she was by his side when he died. Is this submissiveness? Is it grace and kindness? Is it acknowledging the complexities of human relationships? Or is Parton an oppressed woman?


What is feminism now?

What is feminism, or what does it look like today? In Meanjin, Eleanor Robertson articulates many of my past and present concerns with popular feminist discourse:

Liberal feminism has cemented itself as the dominant intellectual mode in this new wave, so much so that its fundamental analysis of social relations, or lack thereof, is now almost synonymous with feminism itself.

She goes on to quote XOJane writer Jia Tolentino, who discusses the commodification of pop stars’ politics:

Pop stars preach female solidarity while reproductive rights roll back all over the country; we have politicized and vindicated every possible manifestation of female narcissism without getting any legislative movement towards mandatory paid parental leave. Feminism is proliferating essentially as merchandise; we can buy anything that suits us and nothing that we really need.

That Dolly Parton has not been particularly outspoken about her feminism could be because she’s too busy to do so. She runs a music empire, performs, records and tours, and also founded a library charity, which promotes literacy in impoverished communities. Of this she’s echoed that often-touted sentiment that reading and writing are portals to a world outside your own, a means of accessing different options and futures. Parton also owns and operates DollyWood, a theme park that employs around 3,000 people.

In the Guardian, Harry Phibbs noted that on the soundtrack for Nine to Five:

Parton does not get into the dispute between advocates of capitalism and socialism over whether women offering ‘service and devotion’ but denied a ‘fair promotion’ are best off relying on a competitive labour market or legislative protection. But nonetheless, Nine to Five is surely an anthem for those who do not wish to passively accept the situation.

This is not to patronise the working classes, or suggest they are incapable of grasping such concepts, but rather that the dismissal of their attitudes is dangerous and ignorant, given that they understand the dynamics and discriminations of the labour market too.

Country music speaks to cultural and physical isolation too. It is no coincidence that country music is more popular in outer suburbs and rural areas – the genre’s themes (and Dolly’s own story of escaping the poverty and obscurity of rural Tennessee) speak to the longing to escape the monotony that is inherent in many people’s lives. The amount of times I’ve heard people, myself and my family included, say something along the lines of ‘Well we’d all like to be living in the city writing wouldn’t we, but some of us have to go and do real jobs.’ This sentiment is expressed widely in country music. Parton’s In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad) muses over that much-paraded idea of how it’s both terrible but ‘character building’ to suffer under difficult circumstances: ‘no amount of money could buy from me the memories that I have of them/no amount of money could pay me to go back and live through it again’. And of course, Nine to Five. While one of her most famous tracks it covers the resigned yet defiant attitude toward a vague idea of an exploitative boss.

Dolly’s audiences, I would argue, are people who don’t wish to discuss the intricacies of celebrities’ contradictory or imperfect politics. My parents never had the time or space to care about whether or not Dolly Parton was a feminist. Feminism, to them, and to me as a teen, was patronising at best, offensive at worst. To be spoken down to when you are financially burdened, busy with a job you hate, or simply don’t wish to argue with well-meaning people is a fate the majority of people will not tolerate; they’d rather get on with their lives.

How do you navigate living life among the people you come from, your class, without proselytising for equality and ostracising them entirely as a result? Not wanting to ignore discrimination is a concern of course, but so is creating discourse so intense and inaccessible that women who would otherwise embrace feminist concepts refuse to identify as feminists, and men in the community struggle with the concept altogether, despite loving the music of women like Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and The Dixie Chicks.

When asked about sexism Parton has said:

Personally I think women have been accepted a lot over the years. It has more to do with your attitude, your personality and your talent. I never had those problems. It served me well, being a girl, and being brought up in a family of men. Six brothers, my dad, close to all my uncles. So I know men, I love men, I understand men. Women have got a long way to go, but I really think we’ve made a lot of great strides since Jane Fonda starred in 9 to 5. I felt I was part of a whole new movement, especially in the work-place. Women still don’t get as much credit, or equal pay, but there are a lot of wonderful women out there doing a lot of wonderful things.

Lord, if I have not heard this exact same phrase from working-class women over, and over again. The acknowledgement of a problem but unwillingness to engage in anger is seen as weakness or ignorance by some feminists, but so what if there’s a bit of a pay gap, I can hear many of those working-class women say – there’s much worse things going on in the world, let’s march on. Unless you are providing solutions for these women to engage in that will be of benefit to their immediate communities, you’re going to struggle to get them fired up about such issues.


On country music

Many men in country music sing about themes like providing for their woman or chivalry, ideas I consider oppressive. I hate the idea of a man providing for me. But financial stability is a matter of extreme importance for many people. To roll your eyes at these notions of ‘good men’ is to ignore the realities of many women’s lives or desires.

It’s funny to me that more women aren’t fans of country music given the proliferation of ‘kill all men’ earrings I see adorning the ears of Melbourne feminists. Brandy Clark is popular right now and is noted for her song about wanting to kill her ex, while the Dixie Chicks had a huge hit with ‘Goodbye Earl’, a song about murdering an abusive husband – as did Martina MacBride with ‘Independence Day’ and Miranda Lambert with ‘Gunpowder and Lead’. Then there’s Loretta Lynn’s ‘The Pill’, which is all about taking back reproductive control; the track went unplayed by radio stations for years.

Parton’s most commonly touted ‘feminist anthem’ is 9 to 5, but also powerful is ‘Just Because I’m A Woman’:

Yes I’ve made my mistakes, but listen and understand, my mistakes are no worse than yours just because I’m a woman

Of course there are issues with the politics of country music. I’m not saying country music is feminist. Rather, I’m saying that country music and Dolly illuminate a section of society that popular feminist discourse tends to neglect, and without whom advancement will be difficult.

Reducing a celebrity – whose influence is impossible to quantify – to an academic question of whether they are or aren’t feminist is to oversimplify what feminism could look like.

What do you care if Dolly Parton is a feminist? What good does it do women currently struggling in jobs they loathe to hear she is a feminist? Dolly Parton is a single woman who made a better life for herself and generated a large amount of capital in doing so. Does Dolly Parton, as an entity, benefit the cause of feminism, whether she identifies as a feminist or not? Does it do us, as women, any good to still ask this of famous women, or are we just doing this ad nauseum for fear of not knowing what to do next?


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.)


Image: still from 9 to 5.

Rebecca Varcoe

Rebecca Varcoe is a writer and events producer from Melbourne. She edits the humor publication Funny Ha Ha.

More by Rebecca Varcoe ›

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