There’s a gentle yearning in her voice, as it floats above the barest guitar. She launches into a loving tribute to womanly stoicism, devotion to home and family, building a portrait of the kind of woman who ‘didn’t mind just staying home’. As the list of unremarkable sacrifices grows, we’re reassured she doesn’t mind: ‘If she did, she never did say so to Daddy.’ After a few repetitions, a sentimental ache takes hold. It will take a while, a few plays, to hear that uneasy qualification hiding easily in the opening words, as if just slipped in to help it scan.
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.
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.
There’s a chilling scene near the beginning of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 classic, Farenheit 451, where Guy Montag discovers that his wife has overdosed on sleeping pills. When the nonplussed emergency technicians arrive they pump Mildred’s stomach using enormous machines, give her a blood transfusion and then leave matter-of-factly: all in a day’s work in the twenty-fourth century.
I have an awful lot to show for the Master of Creative Writing, Editing and Publishing that I finished at the University of Melbourne in 2014. Truly I do. I have tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt, a rather small but tasteful gold-embossed certificate, and a relentless niggling feeling of having wasted both my time and money.