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dolly parton and weaponized femininity

People probably know by now that I”ve recently rekindled my interest in Dolly Parton. I truly do enjoy her music (although, I tend to favour her more classic country songs rather than the pop country stuff). I think my perspective on Mrs. Parton changed after I learned that she wrote the song, “I will always love you,” made famous (to my generation at least) by Whitney Houston”s magnificent cover. After this point, I learned that Ms. Parton is a prolific song writer who is truly musically gifted.

I”m not trying to suggest that she wouldn”t have value as ‘just” a performer, but rather simply describing how Ms. Parton managed to single-handedly overcome my bias against country music (well, her and Patsy Cline). One day, then, I decided to explore some of her music (this was actually five or more years ago). I got my hands on her bluegrass compilation and fucking loved it. And I recently started listening to it again, with fresh I”ve-learned-a-lot-more-about-feminism ears and… I”m blown away.

Fortunately, in these more enlightened times, I”m no longer one of the only people who recognize Mrs. Parton”s ‘feminism,” or rather her radical stance on women”s rights and freedom. Now, I actually said I was going to make this a ‘Here”s why Dolly Parton is a feminist” thinkpiece, but I don”t actually care about that. I think endlessly debating whether or not some public figure is ‘feminist” is entirely pointless. But I do want to talk about how both her image as a public musician and her music itself has always been about uplifting women – regardless of how you want to label this. Basically, I want to talk about how I went from one of the people who passively laughed about Dolly Parton”s huge boobs, to enjoying her music, to really appreciating her empowerment of women.

The classic argument (although, I couldn”t find any examples – admittedly I didn”t look very hard but it is referenced by other thinkpieces about Mrs. Parton”s feminism) is that Dolly Parton is not a feminist because….. drum roll … of how she looks. Now. Mrs. Parton rose to fame during the height of 2nd wave feminism, so I can”t say that I”m entirely surprised by this general perception of her. That because she presents as an ultra femme and has openly discussed her many plastic surgeries (including the infamous breast augmentations), this means that somehow, she harms women. Lol.

As she infamously said: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!” (honestly, how can she not be a hero?)

I first really got an inkling about how… deeply avant garde Mrs. Parton”s feminism was when I really really listened to the song “To Daddy.” This was on the charts in the late 1970s (sung originally by Emmylou Harris). I was listening to the song for probably the millionth time when it suddenly struck me that the song was about (amongst other things, its deep and layered like that) emotional labour.

This is how the wikipedia article describes it:

In the song, related from the vantage point of a teenage girl, her mother seems to not care that her husband is neglectful and cold, concluding each verse with, “if she did, she never did say so to Daddy”.

Now, emotional labour, which recently came to the forefront when Lauren Chief Elk-Young Bear, Bardot Smitth, and Yeoshin Lourdes got the #giveyourmoneytowomen hashtag trending on twitter. At the end of the song, the mother ends up leaving her husband (after her kids are grown) in order to seek out the love that she”s been missing.

The interesting thing to me, is actually the chorus “she never did say so to Daddy”. Because, I think, without this, it would be just another song about a loveless marriage or whatever. But… the thing with this, is that the implication could be that maybe if the mother had ever said something, perhaps things might”ve changed. Except, when looking from the perspective of the imbalance of emotional labour, the burden is actually on the father. He either should”ve given the love and affection she needed or noticed that he wasn”t performing the requisite emotional labour. To me, the message is clear: if your partner isn”t performing the necessary emotional labour, you should leave and find it elsewhere. She is articulating a stance about women”s agency and right to actually be happy, rather than simply fulfilling her ‘womanly” duties.1

Seriously avant garde. 😛

One of the big, “omg, Dolly Parton is powerful” moments for me was reading how she said no to Elvis:

In 1974, her song, “I Will Always Love You”, written about her professional break from Wagoner, went to No. 1 on the country chart. Around the same time, Elvis Presley indicated that he wanted to cover the song. Parton was interested until Presley”s wily manager, Colonel Tom Parker, told her that it was standard procedure for the songwriter to sign over half of the publishing rights to any song recorded by Presley. Parton refused. That decision has been credited with helping to make her many millions of dollars in royalties from the song over the years.

I just. She was clearly invested in maintaining her autonomy and control over her own career. At this point in her career, she was gaining serious popularity in country music (but hadn”t yet tried to crossover to pop). And however famous she was, it wasn”t near the celebrity of Elvis at this point. She said no. And this very song would later be powefully covered by Whitney Houston and, yeah.

Then I found out that one of Mrs. Parton”s first hit was “Just because I”m a woman.” The wikipedia article says of the song:

The title song, in which a woman admonishes her boyfriend for passing judgment on her previous sexual encounters, even though he is guilty of the same behavior…was regarded as something of a daring statement to make at the time. It was written by Parton in response to her husband”s questioning (and subsequent reaction) if she”d ever been with a man before him.

I mean. Really. The year is 1968 and Mrs. Parton is pushing back against slut-shaming and people think that because she has breast implants that she isn”t empowering women?

Speaking of her looks, I think this is actually one of the other avant garde aspects to her ‘feminism”. I mean, she totally weaponized femininity long before that actually became a thing. And when you look at the quotes from her about her image… it”s pretty clear that she has been the person driving the bus on this account. More than anything, I can deeply appreciate just how unapologetic she is about this. And how she”s always been about it:

Another thing Parton, 68, has no qualms about owning is the plastic surgery she has had over the years. “Well, I never would have said I did it if I hadn”t got caught at it,” she says. “But I wasn”t gonna lie about it!”

“I”m not being the poster child for any of that, but people know you do it. If they ask me, I just say, ‘Yeah, whatever. And I ain”t done yet!””

It”s funny, though, because I do think that she”s a great poster child for body autonomy and confidence. And, at this point, she is considered the wealthiest country music star, so literally no one likely has the leverage to ‘force” her into maintaining a certain image.

I honestly think that (and this is another thing I really appreciate about Mrs. Parton) one of the things that 2nd wave feminists might”ve hated about her image was actually the impicit classism informing their judgements. From the same People article:

Legendary country singer and actress Dolly Parton is making no apologies for her “redneck” background.

“We were really redneck, roughneck, hillbilly people. And I”m proud of it,” she says in the October issue of Southern Living, on newsstands Sept. 19. “‘White trash!” I am…. But I”m proud of my hillbilly, white trash background. That keeps you humble; that keeps you good.”

And I mean… Her bright, garish appearance is deeply informed by her experience of being poor. And she knows it, from the above comment about her looking ‘cheap.” I think she”s been dealing with the covert classism of the attacks on her image for a long, long time. I also think that she absolutely understands what people really mean when they criticize her looks.

The fact that she maintains her roots with her poor childhood and how this informs her music is pretty clear from a number of her famous songs. But I also think that this is one of the things that has lead into people disliking her. It isn”t a secret that 2nd wave feminism was hostile to poor women (one of the classic criticisms that helped spur the 3rd wave).

Because… she never, ever apologizes for growing up poor. She also doesn”t uniformly see it as a ‘bad” thing2. On this level, I see some parallels for why mainstream culture has derided a lot of ‘gangster” rap, much of which speaks to a specific context and experience of class, race (and other things).

I think the reason why Mrs. Parton was never recognized for the empowering icon she is, is really because she was avant garde. Her type of ‘feminism” was so forward thinking and looking, that the feminists of her time couldn”t help but revile her3. I did grow up in the 80s and I remember how much she was considered a joke by everyone because of her breasts.

The thing with Mrs. Parton, is that she isn”t and has never pretended to be ‘respectful” in the ways that many feminists demand of their icons. For me… I really think that Mrs. Parton is a feminist icon for the rest of us… for people who”ve been just as ostracized and left out of the mainstream feminist movement.

An interesting celebrity to contrast Mrs. Parton with is Madonna, who also received a lot of criticism for her image but is nowadays recognized as a feminist icon by significantly more people than Dolly Parton. So why is Mrs. Parton an enduring joke but Madonna considered ‘genius”? I”ve heard so much more about Madonna”s impact on pop music but very little about Dolly Parton over the years.

I think part of it is that (while yes, I”m sure there is a level of professional persona with Mrs. Parton) Dolly Parton is a level genuine that many people (especially outside of the usual country music fans) don”t really understand and can”t grapple with, not from a celebrity. And this? Is honestly the number one reason why I think Mrs. Parton is a feminist icon. Because she has been, her entire musical career, unapologetically herself.

It is interesting to me the way that people will celebrate Madonna”s saviness of how she constantly changed her image with the times and created trends and whatever… But few people look at Dolly Parton and marvel at how she has managed to have a 40+ year career in music while maintaining a fairly consistent image and, it seems, being true to herself.


  1. And, sure, some people might say that she did this anyway because she stuck around to take care of the kids, but honestly? Because she leaves as soon as the kids don"t need her, to me this communicates that it was her choice. She loved her kids and so she raised them. And once that was finished, she left to seek her own happiness and fulfillment. 
  2. Indeed, perhaps one of the things I disagree with her one is her nostalgia and romanticizing over poverty, something which is an aspect of several of her songs. However, since she normally sticks to speaking about her own experiences, rather than preaching, this is relatively small quibble on my part. And tbh, of all the ways a celebrity can be 'problematic" this is really really mild because at least she was actually poor, rather than speaking about experiences that aren"t hers. 
  3. I actually still think that she"s avant garde or subversive enough that many feminists today don"t actually get it. A lot of the feminist think pieces will mention her song '9 to 5" as a feminist anthem in the 80s, which, yes. Some do, as I do, locate a feminist message in "Just Because I"m a Woman.” But... I don"t think I saw a single thinkpiece actually talking about her poverty and how it relates to her image (although, some at least do discuss her image in a postive light).