As we write, country music legend Dolly Parton is midway through a 60-date US and Canadian tour for her 43rd studio album, Pure & Simple. Parton was born into a ‘dirt poor’ family in rural Tennessee. Today, 70 years old, she is worth approximately $500 million dollars (earning $19 million in the past year). She is a singer-songwriter, actor, producer, businesswoman, philanthropist, and Miley Cyrus’s godmother. But despite of all of her achievements, the questions persist: Is Dolly Parton a feminist? Is there a feminist case for liking Dolly? For the two women writing this article, the answer to both questions is, undoubtedly, yes.
The case against Parton seems to rest purely on surface readings. Her hair, her makeup, her ultra-feminine persona, her famously inflated breasts – these might seem at first glance to be antithetical to feminist principles. But Dolly is a subversive feminist role model whose practical feminism speaks to everyday women in real-life situations. Even if you disregard her charity work, her unfailing kindness to bewildered journalists, and the onstage demeanour that has made her one of the most beloved performers of the last 50 years, Parton’s contribution to popular culture in the form of her film roles and music demonstrates a commitment to women and women’s issues that cannot, and should not, be ignored. Her female characters aren’t feminist superheroes who break the mould; instead, they are women who work within existing structures and use them to their own advantage. ‘I’m just playing a variation of Dolly’, Parton has said of her film roles, a statement that applies equally to her music and her public persona. The real, private Dolly Parton is not available for public consumption – only variations of Dolly are.
Parton, in all of her variations, represents a version of feminism that doesn’t need to be named as such (and she has, indeed, refused the label ‘feminist’). It’s feminism by demonstration: you can survive, and thrive, as a woman in a man’s world without compromising your principles, if you’re smart about it. A feminism that ignores or rejects Parton is a feminism that fails to speak for the common woman. Two variations of Dolly in film show her far-reaching feminist influence: 1980’s 9 to 5 (also starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin) and 1984’s Rhinestone (also starring Sylvester Stallone).
9 to 5 was Dolly’s first film – a comedy/farce that centres on three working women – Judy (Jane Fonda), Violet (Lily Tomlin), and Doralee (Parton) – who join forces to overcome their ‘sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot’ boss (Dabney Coleman). It was an immediate hit, both critically and commercially, and set a precedent for Parton as both film star and cinematic songwriter (she wrote the title song ‘9 to 5’ on set, clicking her long acrylic fingernails together to simulate the sound of a typewriter for its percussion, and it went on to become one of her biggest hits of the 80s).
The film was a women’s film from start to finish. Patricia Resnick wrote the script based on Jane Fonda’s idea, (which was based in turn on a real-life working women’s association called Nine To Five and run by one of Fonda’s friends) and Fonda chose her co-stars personally. The film remains an important (if overlooked) pop culture feminist text, despite its cartoonish plot, because it explicitly pushes back against the idea that women are their own worst enemies. Instead it shows women working together, for and with one another, demonstrating how different kinds of women – broadly illustrated by Violet, Judy, and Doralee as the career-woman, the conservative, and the ‘tart’ respectively – can forge strong, supportive relationships on both personal and professional levels and effect real change in their lives.
Parton has always appeared in films as she does in real life: a figure of exaggerated femininity. 9 to 5 is no different; Parton is all giant boobs, huge platinum wigs, fringed Western-style dresses and a big smile, adding up to the best form of subversion by-the-book. On screen, she occupies a vital space: that of the ‘real-life feminine woman’. We say ‘real-life’ because Parton represents a feminism that doesn’t confine itself to the academy or to theory; that can’t blow off the concerns of working in an ordinary job for, say, radical feminist campaigning. Parton doesn’t condone the patriarchy but she moves through its murky waters like a bright, silver-blonde fish – looking for the clear currents, ducking the predators – and subverting the status quo in her own way.
In 9 to 5, Parton is not only the most physically feminine-presenting character, she is also the most traditionally womanly, playing the same charming, generous, witty Southern Belle as she does in her everyday life. She is gentle and courteous to her piggish boss, deflecting his advances firmly but politely, until she finds out that he’s been lying about having an affair with her. Then, incensed, she hog-ties him with a phone cord and gags him with the silk scarf he bought her, telling him, ‘I’m gonna get that gun of mine, and I’m gonna change you from a rooster to a hen in one shot!’
It’s funny, but it’s also exciting. Femininity is rewarded by society, so Parton’s exaggerated form of it seems to be the logical conclusion of pandering to what men want from women. But instead of making her a sex symbol, (she has never occupied that particular pedestal) Parton’s appearance, particularly in 9 to 5, operates as a shield and a distraction, lulling the boss into a sense of complacency that allows her to exact not only revenge, but also positive change for her workplace and co-workers. And in one of the best on-screen examples of pink-collar validation, her character, a personal assistant and secretary, demonstrates the value of emotional labour. After all, most of her job is simply caring for her boss’s ego – but Doralee’s talents are not downplayed, even next to Violet’s hard-nosed career-woman ambition. Doralee is just as vital a part of the plan, the film, and, we’d argue, society in general, as anyone else.
Both 9 to 5 and Dolly’s next film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982) were critical and commercial successes, earning Parton a Golden Globe nomination for each. But the 1984 comedy Rhinestone, in which she starred alongside an up-and-coming Sylvester Stallone, was almost universally panned, losing $6 million at the box office. Regardless, a slew of recent reviews (Rolling Stone , Filmnerds , Punchnerds  and others) indicate that the film is attracting a new generation of viewers. In a reversal of the classic Pygmalion plot, nightclub singer Jake (Parton) bets club manager Freddie (Ron Leibman) that she can do a better job than him at turning any ‘hopeless amateur’ into a successful country singer – even typical New York cabbie Nick Martinelli (Stallone). If Jake wins, Freddie will cancel her contract. If she loses, she’ll have to work the contract out, plus another five years.
The scenario parallels some of Parton’s own experience in the music business. Ten years earlier, she had ended her seven-year business partnership with Porter Wagoner, an association that kick-started her career. By 1974 Dolly had wanted to strike out on her own. She wrote the song ‘I Will Always Love You’ and played it for Porter when she asked to be released from their contract. Porter agreed – on the proviso that he got to produce the song, which went on to become one of the most successful in pop music history. Despite their agreement, in 1979 Wagoner sued Dolly for $3 million dollars for breach of contract, eventually settling out of court.
This event is obliquely echoed in Rhinestone’s preoccupation with honour, and giving and keeping your word. Freddie adds a caveat to the original bet: if Jake loses, she’ll have to go to bed with him. This is a plot point that would normally have us switching off the movie in disgust, but Rhinestone does something different, and it rests in Jake’s pragmatic reaction to the situation. ‘Oh, blow it out’, Dolly says, with her trademark drawl, rolling her eyes and beginning to walk away. But Freddie presses the case and in the end Jake agrees to the terms – because she is so confident in her ability to win that she doesn’t see the caveat as a real threat. It’s difficult to not read this self-confidence as anything other than admirable and empowered.
The film problematises any simplistic reading of the moral or ethical dimensions of a woman using sex as a bargaining chip. Jake is operating in a world that not only expects, but requires, her to use her body as a commodity, whether as an object to be looked at onstage, clad in a tight, sparkly dress, or as part of a financial bargain. Jake’s situation is reflective of the real conditions of women’s lives in the music industry in the 1980s, and her response is reflective of these realities too. Dolly has spoken in interviews about the phenomenon of the ‘casting couch’, saying that while she’s never gone to bed with anyone to get ahead, nor used her body as a weapon, that, ‘I often used it as a tool. I developed fast and by the time I was 15 or 16, I realised the effect it had on men’. Dolly, like Jake, is a pragmatist. She sees the world the way it is, not the way she wants it to be, and she’ll use any tools at her disposal – but within her own code of honour.
Throughout the film Jake remains in control over her own body and decisions, adhering to her own principles and morality. This is best evidenced by Jake’s response to Nick after he finds out the full terms of the bet. In the face of Nick’s outrage, Jake scornfully replies, ‘Well, I did what I had to do. I’d like to see what youda done!’ When Nick protests that he wouldn’t sleep with Freddie, Jake comes back with, ‘Well, I don’t know about you, but where I’m from, people honour their word no matter what!’ In being prepared to fulfil the terms of the bet, Jake maintains the high moral ground – higher than Nick, whose possessive, wounded masculinity she treats with scorn, and higher than Freddie, whose farcical attempts at seduction in the face of Jake’s dignity have the effect of degrading him, rather than her.
Dolly’s approach to feminism can, we think, be summed up by another of Jake’s lines to Nick: ‘Listen up, bright eyes’ she says, ‘I didn’t pick you, I got stuck with you. But I tried to make the best of a bad situation’. And ‘making the best of a bad situation’ could also apply to Dolly’s approach to the film overall. Stallone had considerable control over the script of Rhinestone, (to which many critics attribute the film’s shortcomings) however, Dolly maintained control of the film’s music, composing fourteen songs for the soundtrack and earning two number one hits, plus a Grammy nomination for Best Female Country Vocal Performance. And while Stallone has publicly regretted his involvement in the film, Dolly has maintained that she is proud of what they made, and that some of the songs on the soundtrack are her best. This isn’t a simple matter of saving face; it is part of Dolly’s ethos. To denigrate a film that so many people worked on would be unkind.
At the end of Rhinestone, it is kindness that causes Jake to call the bet off, despite the risks to herself and her career. Jake realises that she’s been selfish in using Nick as a pawn, and, worse, that in setting him up for failure and humiliation, she has been cruel. Even in 9 to 5, Doralee, Violet, and Lily aren’t vindictive to their sexist boss. Only in fantasy do they enact bloody revenge. In real life, they don’t even deliver him to a well-deserved comeuppance but instead let him take the credit for their innovations in the workplace. (The promotion he ‘earns’ as a result turns out to be a punishment anyway).
Dolly, and the variations of Dolly that she presents through film, television, music, and public appearances, demonstrates how women can succeed in a man’s world without sacrificing their principles – even those principles which may be devalued under patriarchy. Jake’s kindness, Doralee’s emotional labour, Dolly’s extreme femininity, other women, are not hindrances. Instead they are boons, and sometimes tools to be used against a system that is always stacked against women. The realities of that system for everyday women are not denied. But Dolly sees the world for what it is, and makes the best of a bad situation by using what she’s got.