When Dolly Parton played at the Glastonbury Festival last month she won rave reviews. However, the media focus was not just on her exquisite singing (or alleged miming) and fabulous costumes, but also turned to feminism.
Lily Allen discussed feminism with Dolly in an interview for The Radio Times, Krissi Murison and myself debated whether Dolly is a feminist with Jenni Murray on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, and articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph, and The Times also honed in on the subject. Seeing Dolly Parton as valuable for feminism is, in itself, nothing new; in 1987 she was named one of Ms. magazine’s women of the year, and Gloria Steinem wrote in praise of Parton’s business acumen and philanthropy. But given that it is not something that the star herself explicitly encourages – she tends to deflect questions about feminism by joking “I was the first woman to burn her bra. It took the fire department four days to put out the fire”.
Many of Dolly’s songs are feminist in that they articulate the realities of women’s lives, including the oppression of women. Just Because I’m A Woman criticises sexual double standards, Blackie Kentucky tells the story of an abused woman who commits suicide, and Mommie, Aint’ That Daddy and Daddy’s Moonshine Still witness the damage caused by alcoholism, with women driven to prostitution and despair. She has written of a woman forced into a mental institution because her lover wants her out of the way, and of a pregnant teenager who is rejected by her family and goes on to have a stillborn baby. She wrote these songs in the late sixties and early seventies, during the advance of second wave feminism. Her 1980 hit 9 to 5 remains the anthem for justice for working women.
More recently, the tenor of feminism in her lyrics has changed. It is more in tune with the new age, noughties strand of feminism tells us women that we’d “Better Get To Livin’” even if we are “overweight, underpaid, underappreciated”. Other songs are gently subversive. Travelin’ Thru, from the soundtrack to Transamerica, is about Christianity and transgender experience. Even Jolene, when you think about it, is less about a woman’s jealous insecurity that she might lose her husband to Jolene, than a song of praise to the gorgeous redhead; the focus is all on her, not him.
Dollywood, the amusement park in east Tennessee co-owned by Dolly Parton is the only theme park in the world, to my knowledge, that is themed around a woman (there are plenty themed around men, real and fictional). She is a savvy businesswoman. Not many singers would have turned down Elvis’s request to sing one their songs (I Will Always Love You) because he wanted too big a cut of the royalties. And she has used her money to revitalise an impoverished area of Tennessee, and to encourage literacy through her international Imagination Library reading scheme. All of this with outrageous wigs and wit.
But what about the ‘Backwoods Barbie’ image? Feminisms faced some flack on Twitter for embracing a star who has had so much cosmetic surgery. Ben Macintyre, in a favourable article in The Times, wrote that “the Dolly look is itself a deflation of sexism, a standing joke about male chauvinist expectations. She may look like a male fantasy of female sexual availability (frozen in about 1968), but her image is entirely owned and controlled by her.” Really? Does any artist who looks like a male fantasy of female sexual availability but who “controls” their image, therefore deflate sexism? Does Rihanna? Does Miley Cyrus (who happens to be Dolly Parton’s goddaughter)? To argue this is to tread close to the headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion: ‘Women now empowered by anything a woman does.’
It is doubtful that anyone can control their image, even stars with some say over their self-presentation, like Parton. Her persona, even before the cosmetic surgery, made her the target of sexism in music journalism and beyond. Scientists named Dolly the sheep, the first animal to be cloned from an adult cell (a mammary gland) after Dolly Parton; how crass!
What Parton can and does do is to challenge some of the sexist stereotyping that accompanies her look. A repeated motif in her songs is that you should look beyond a woman’s appearance, and not underestimate her (Dumb Blonde, Backwoods Barbie, and 9 to 5: The Musical: “You only see tits, but get this: there’s a heart under there..well, ol’ Double-D Doralee’s gonna stick it to you”). It is also important to recognise where her look came from. In her autobiography she says that she took on this image because looking “like a hooker” meant that the local men would not harass her; looking feminine commanded respect. In that context, the cosmetic surgery and the emphasis on bust, hair and nails, has a different meaning.
Of course, creating feminist heroines always involves looking at them with a selective eye. In Dolly Parton’s case this may mean choosing to ignore the early songs that promote co-dependence, the idiosyncratic retelling of American history in her Dixie Stampede Dinner Attraction (worth seeing for the racing pigs alone!), and her being less pluralist with religion than she is with sexuality.
I think there’s another reason why Dolly Parton has been claimed as a feminist. She fills a vacuum that might once have been filled by Maya Angelou, or Germaine Greer. There are now no active, internationally recognized feminists with the charisma, empathy, and sparkle of Dolly Parton. Perhaps this is why we must turn to popular culture for our icons, to Dolly and to Oprah. Dolly Parton: a radical in rhinestones.
Helen Morales is author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood (Chicago University Press, 2014)