Why We Stan A Post-Racism Queen. A new essay on my new project, essaying. Live now. If you are an OG tressiemc.com subscriber - you got this delivered to your inbox along with a free Substack subscription as a thank you.
I have been in meetings recently where an ice breaker is 'what did you want to be when you grew up?' I have struggled to answer, I look back on my white southern girlhood and I can find no yearning to be something. This essay helped clarify why. Me wanting to be something was vulgar and I couldn't survive being vulgar. So I waited and watched and then, when no one was looking, I ran.
OMG this was the best thing I've ever read about Dolly Parton. And I have a couple of things to say about blondeness and Southern White womanhood.
Just before we started our Zoom session with my mom on Christmas day, I said to my wife, “I think I’m going to wear a hat so she doesn’t give me grief about how dark my hair is.” And then Mom asked me why I was wearing a hat, and I said, “I did it so you wouldn’t give me grief about how dark my hair is.”
My mom I-nevered, at which my sister rolled her eyes because she has seen the aforementioned grief being given.
As girls, my sister and I were both blonde enough to be called towheads. My sister remains (naturally) blonde. But my hair has darkened every year of my life, and by the time I was 45 or so, I wasn’t really blonde anymore (now I’m 57).
My mom was always nudging me to get it highlighted, even when it was still what you might call dark blonde. I did it for a while. But it was a pain in the ass and I hated spending that much time sitting still at the hairdresser’s.
Once, I had it done when I was home in Tennessee, and afterwards my dad said, “Oh, yes, that’s much more like your natural color.” !!!! Obviously my natural color when I was 5, or 25, was no longer my natural color.
To be fair, I can’t remember if that was before or after he was diagnosed with dementia. But here’s the thing. A lot of people who were blonde as children are not adults. Or not, as in my case, as middle-aged adults.
So in this way, blondeness signifies youth, even to the point of childishness, which is why so many more women than men lighten their hair. Childish qualities are valued in women. The stereotype of the dumb blonde supports this -- dumbness is a kind of innocence.
And of course, this also comports with why blondeness maps on to extreme Whiteness: because in a culture that relentlessly associates Blackness with criminality, Whiteness, its opposite, must be innocent.
Of course, there’s lots of evidence that Black children, both boys and girls, are often read as older than they are by White people.
I wonder if the pitch of her voice also contributes to the perception of innocence that shields Dolly? And her small stature? IIRC, the “girl singer” she replaced on Porter Wagoner’s show was a deep alto.
Also, can I just say that she looks surprisingly butch in the childhood photo?
Thanks so much for this beautiful essay, which is as entertaining as it is insightful.
I was completely delighted to see you back in my inbox, with an essay about Dolly no less! I have been drawn to Dolly the past few years and consider myself a newer but genuine fan, and have never been able to really explain the sudden and intense fascination. Is it her artistry? Her charm and effusiveness? Her philanthropy? I'm still not sure, but there are so many layers to her, her performance, and her fandom that I read just about every piece that examines her life and legacy that I can. I'm so happy that you have contributed your thoughts and analysis, and I just want to thank you for being so generous with us.
This was fascinating! I've been thinking a lot about Dolly especially when she said she didn't want the medal of freedom from Biden because it would be 'doing politics' (https://www.today.com/popculture/dolly-parton-turned-down-presidential-medal-freedom-twice-t207752). As a progressive it struck me as a no brainer but I was reminded of her other audience by this line, "Ever the artist of misperception, Dolly leaves unsaid what her core conservative country audience needs to never hear her say." Also didn't even know she was married, an invisible living husband has blown my mind.
Thank you! As an academic struggling to write in way that satisfies me aesthetically in the places I feel pressure to publish, this inspires me to write more for myself.
So happy that this newsletter is back!!
I loved reading this. The work and writing has power in it (not sure that is the right word -- probably not...). And it feels necessary with white media figures holding up Parton as "Christlike." Not in the sense of taking anyone down, but in the work of understanding what is really going on in those perceptions and larger narratives.
One part that showed me my own blind spot was "Especially so given that she does not say that she believes that Black lives matter or that she supports the movement in any concrete way." I had to read, and re-read, and re-re-read that paragraph and Parton's quote. I was so stuck to the white liberal narrative that her quote was enthusiastic support of BLM that I could not see what she actually said and all its possible interpretations. But I got there.
I'm still thinking about that statement and how different white conservatives have reacted to it, dissected it, and even analyzed it according to different camps of thought. But I keep coming back to:
"Just 'white.' Of the two statements, that is the most politically radical."
And I'm thinking about what that means in terms of white identity politics and what seems like its entry into wide public media and discourse.
As I was reading this great essay, I started thinking about Loretta Lynn as Dolly's tragic counterpart -- the poor girl married at 13 to a man who then promoted her as the girl singer.
I loved this essay dearly - as I do so much of your work. I will confess to one disappointment. You so beautifully dissect every component of Dolly's identity - race, gender, class, sexual identity, marital status, regionalism/accent - and yet there is no discussion of her faith. While I know Dolly is more "spiritual" than institutional in her faith - it does appear to be formative for her, and she certain ascribes many of her own motivations and actions to it. I wish it had been brought into the piece - if only to further complicate your analysis about what we need from her, or her likability, or... As a progressive Christian, constantly looking (and often failing) to find role models in my faith, I struggle with the erasure of her Christian identity - not just here, but in so much that is written about her. I see a similar trend with Fred Rogers - in both cases a marginalization or erasure of a faith that is, for both of these cultural icons, central to their own narratives. I am open to hearing why this wasn't the place for that discussion...and thanks for the otherwise tremendously powerful piece.
As someone said on Twitter, I'm totally saving this for an end-of-day treat. Thank you so much for sharing this with us OGs :)
Thank you so much. What a great surprise to begin the day. Thank you.
Hi Dr. Cottom. Man, this beautiful essay really resonated with me, a sixty year old Black woman who secretly wanted to be a white girl until I was about ten years old. I grew up in the SF Bay Area and watched as men of all races turned themselves into Dolly Parton and Marilyn Monroe (Norma Jean is another American “Blond” icon you can write about ANYDAY), and in doing so, reveal their own tether to the desire to be the all American Girl. Only one survived even though, they are both American legends. Thanks for this homage to Dolly Parton. She belongs to all of us.
I'm not finished yet but I don't have to be to say that this is truly outstanding writing. Would be lovely published in print as a little chapbook.
I'm so excited to read even more of your work, thank you for the free Substack subscription <3 <3 <3
"I have found the radical [mostly Black] feminist and anti-capitalist narratives I need to make sense of myself. I had outgrown needing a blonde avatar to translate myself to my self. Still, I wanted Dolly to pull through this moment, as unscathed as her wigs are unruffled. I needed this one good thing."
Thank you for this necessary read. This particularly stuck out to me, after 2020TM and the following necessary realizations/breaking up with whiteness, particularly in the context of fandoms. Especially since it makes finding 'narratives I need to make sense of myself' so normal, when the narratives that are just thrown about lately really wanna chip away at us via whatever way race/gender/class can be used to do so.
It also might be the weed + whiskey combo that accompanied the read but her invisible living husband and how it tied up loose ends without sacrificing a meaningful partnership might've been my favorite thing. #genius
“To achieve those ends, white Southern womanhood is armed with charm. And charm is decidedly a weapon, one without which a proper Southern woman could not do her job. Her job is two-fold. She reproduces Southern culture and she makes non-southerners feel good about the violence necessary to do so.”
The fact that here in Charleston, SC, a television show aptly named “Southern Charm” embodies all of this and more makes the post racial lie even more glaring.
As always, excellent writing and observations/research that are unwavering in their lack of varnish. Brava.