Dolly Parton: The Feminist Icon Who Rejects That Label
Few things bring folks together like the music of Dolly Parton. At first glance, her concert-going fanbase may seem to be composed of people who’d otherwise not socialize with each other. The country singer not only resonates with church-going women, but has a massive fanbase in the LGBTQ+ community as well, especially among drag queens. But maybe it’s a lead-by-example scenario: Dolly herself seems to be full of contradictions.
Or, at least, that’s part of Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad’s thesis on the country star’s cultural legacy, something the host examines in his new podcast from WNYC, Dolly Parton’s America. One of those contradictions? The way pop culture — and society as a whole — perceives Dolly. On one hand, she’s a musical genius. In an interview with NPR, Abumrad noted that, "Some of the greatest songs in pop music, they're falling out of her head… She may have written ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Jolene’ on the same night."
At the same time, pop culture has made her into a kind of caricature — often through jokes about her (self-described) flamboyant appearance. This second perception has followed her since the early stages of her career: Dolly, a blond, folksy singer from the South, also had to contend with being one of the few women in Nashville to hit it big in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Regardless of the labels or appearances she wanted to — or did — claim, folks were going to have their own entrenched perceptions to foist upon her.
Not That Kind of Feminist
In reference to Dolly’s post-first album big break on The Porter Wagoner Show, Abumrad said that she was "sort of a decorative aspect of the male show…so she perhaps had to [play] the male game for awhile… [But, as she would say, that’s] what made her comfortable. It’s just how she wanted to look." All of this is to say that, while she couldn’t exactly wrangle the sorts of ingrained notions and stereotypes that bubbled up around her, Dolly, through her confidence, kindness and vibrancy, has always felt in control of her career, of herself.
Left Out by Those “Privileged Enough to Theorize”
In October 2019, Twitter user Rachel (@harl0tt) wrote an incredible, discerning thread after listening to Dolly Parton’s America, tweeting, "I am not shocked or angry Dolly vehemently rejects feminism. Here’s why." Several tweets in length, Rachel’s thread explains the context in which Dolly Parton experienced feminism as it was back in the ‘60s and ‘70s — the ways the label became tainted for decades by the second-wave elements that A) equated feminism with hating men, and B) left out a huge swath of the woman-identified population.