The Dolly Moment

Why We Stan A Post-Racism Queen

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Dolly Parton is having a moment. After 60 years in public life, the sassy songbird in indelible drag is a reigning queen among pop culture’s most elite celebrity tier: the “unproblematic fave.” Those are celebrities who have transcended whatever domain first made them famous, have not disappointed their core fanbase, and manage to avoid a casual audience’s wrath. Rare in its own right, Dolly’s ascension is even more noteworthy because of what she is selling. Mediatized to our collective eyeteeth and insolent in our aesthetic preferences, we usually denigrate Dolly’s type of earnest sentimentality in the discourse. Yet over the past five years, it has become verboten to dislike her, much less to critique her. By tacit consensus, Dolly Parton is the one good thing in our empire’s twilight. 

The Dolly Parton Moment owes a lot to nostalgia. She has simply lived long enough, performed at a high level for enough years that we can spare the warm fuzzies she inspires in us. Nostalgia blunts the politics that produces all art, especially middlebrow art of the kind Parton creates. Even if you remember that 9 to 5 was part of a mainstreaming of big-tent working-woman feminism, you cannot feel the urgency of the time. The shoulder pads and Equal Rights Amendment and raucous debates on the Phil Donahue Show are artifacts now. There is no petition to sign, no march to attend and fight to be had about whether women belong in the workplace. Nostalgic celebrity is a neutered artist. We like that. 

To her extreme credit, we also just like Dolly because she is very likeable. The Dolly Parton Moment wraps her appeal in an artistic halo, beckoning to audiences once too sophisticated to appreciate her in public. Whether you grew up dismissive of her trashy drag or ashamed of liking “Islands in the Stream,” it is now safe to appreciate what has always been true: The woman can write her ass off. Her gift is one that is easy to overlook as mere folk. That is the category sophisticated people place art done by women, by and for poor or rural people, by people of color, created outside of a cultural institution, and that uses pastoral themes. Home. Love. Longing. Desire. Faith. Those sound basic and they are. Dolly’s creative genius is multifold and one of its top tiers is how deceptively easy her songwriting appears. Maybe anyone could write something like: “I don’t love you/and the grass is blue.” But anyone didn’t, and you didn’t either. Because you can’t. The woman has earned her nostalgic moment in the sun; the question is whether we have earned the rose-tinted glasses through which we see her.  

“No one is going to cancel Dolly Parton,” culture writer Anne Helen Petersen tells me.

Given how much content Dolly gives us, it is amazing that we haven’t indulged our impulse to find a reason to hate her. Now 75, Dolly has spent the past few years managing enough new content to rival superstars 50 years her junior. There were three Netflix movies in under two years. Her 2020 Christmas album, A Holly Dolly Christmas, is her 47th solo studio album. She has a new book entitled Songteller, a Super Bowl commercial, and a Time-Life compendium with an infomercial she hosts herself. Her Imagination Library, a book-gifting nonprofit she founded over 30 years ago,is pitch-perfect philanthropy for our political moment — a Horatio Alger origin story with a mission as straight-forward as a Dolly lyric. Mention her name even in passing and a stranger feels compelled to whisper conspiratorially, “You know, she gives away all those books…to kids.” The same discourse that uses “the one percent” colloquially treats Dollywood, the theme park in Dolly’s Smoky Mountain foothills, like a capitalist enterprise beyond reproach. There are no scathing exposés of gig labor working the Firechaser Express or running the food service at Splash Country water park. The only for-profit enterprise that comes close to Dollywood’s level of media shielding is Ben & Jerry’s, but they have paid a reputational cost for their untouchable status. As a boss, Dolly Parton does big business without paying the usual price for being filthy rich. With her foray into funding scientific research and refusal of a Medal of Freedom from then-President Trump, by the start of 2021 every knee was prepared to bend.  Dolly is, as one breathless news story describes her, “an actual angel.” 

Artwork of Dolly Parton holding a vaccine syringe is displayed on house float on February 02, 2021 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images)

Even for a woman who has helmed many reintroductions to the public over her career, angel status is a new level. Public relations magic cannot explain it all. Many celebrities do the right thing to garner adoration and attention. That is the job of a celebrity. Ascending to something higher, something unassailable as Dolly Parton has done over the past decade takes more than media savvy. It takes a willing political moment. If anything, becoming an emblem of a culture’s highest valued attributes, is resistant to public relations savvy. The artist doesn’t create totem status. The culture does.

I spent months mapping out how and why our political moment chose Dolly Parton to embody its contradictions and projections. I watched hundreds of hours of footage spanning Dolly from girl singer to drag icon to political figure. I’ve read every academic book ever written about her and enough of the popular books to predict the conclusions of the ones I did not get to. I’ve interviewed historians, film scholars, cultural critics, and country music stars. I’ve also listened to Dolly herself, reading her as a text. Across all that close study, one story emerges: Dolly is a celebrity among celebrities, an icon, and a national treasure because she has cobbled together a diverse, multiracial, pansexual audience for working-class feminist songcraft and queer camp subversiveness. That is the narrative hook of the wildly popular, Peabody Award–winning 2019 podcast Dolly Parton’s America.  That show cemented the taken-for-granted wisdom that Dolly’s diverse audience is the reason for her ascendance. By the transitive property of celebrity, diversity is good because Dolly is good.

We like that story as much as we like Dolly Parton. Rather, we like Dolly Parton because we like that story about who we are. The idea that Dolly is Dolly because of the strength of American diversity is one that pretends to be about how good Dolly is when it is really a story about how good we believe we are. In this story, the soul of America is a progressive teleology that will always, inevitably bend toward justice. America’s soul is immune to everyday evidence of its fallibility, and outright antagonistic to any suggestion that it is more myth than manifest destiny. Belief in the soul of America is as strong as another belief, with similar embodied metaphors. The soul is always at war with the nation’s racist bones. You know the racist bones. Those are the bones of which every good white American is fond of claiming not to have. If the racist bone exists, it is rendered as vestigial and unruly as a floating rib. There one minute but gone the next, and of no real consequence to the working of the body. 

All of my reading also revealed this: Dolly Parton is one of very few living texts that could survive projections of America’s soul without buckling beneath its contradictions. It is treasonous to do so but if one strips away all the adulation, they are left with an odd totem for our socio-political times. Dolly is a white Southern multi-millionaire boomer who produces self-consciously white music while wearing a stylized drag of a fallen Southern belle. Only a society that willfully believes itself “post-racist” could produce such a queen. Post-racist does not mean there is no more racism. It means that we believe there is an us after we rid ourselves of our errant racist bones, which we are certain will come to pass. We craft Dolly into an unproblematic fave because the most problematic part of The Dolly Parton Moment is us.  

When this nation is feeling its most troubled, it is always about race and always because it is being racist. The moment that seeded the ground for The Dolly Parton Moment is no different. We are in the second full year of visible social movements, from coast to coast. Even small-town America has seen its share of Black Lives Matter marches and pussy hats and LGBTQ pride parades. Nice society book clubs have felt compelled to adopt books that admonish white readers to “do the work” of becoming anti-racist. Driving by a small, rural Unitarian church about five miles from my North Carolina home in the fall of 2020, I watched as 50 or so senior citizens had a Black Lives Matter picnic on the church lawn. Until the 2020 presidential election, the evening news oscillated between political nihilism from the White House and police violence on the square. Even centrist politicians were, by 2020, using phrases like “white supremacy” and “institutionalized racism” in polite discourse. In times such as these, popular culture looks South for white escapism and validation.

In her 2003 book Reconstructing Dixie, film scholar Tara McPherson writes about the cyclical popular consumption of Southern imagery. Fictions about the South emerge when the nation requires a “symbolic battleground in national reactions to issues of race and racial (in)justices.” Once it travels to the imagined South, popular culture is keen on projecting its inner conflict onto a woman. Literature professor Katherine Henninger traces this preference for a feminized South through Zora Neale Hurston to Scarlett O’Hara, “from Mammy to NASCAR mom,” when she argues that images of “Southern woman … undergird dominant notions of southerness.” In any culture, a woman is a convenient scapegoat for societal angst. In the U.S., the Southern woman is suited for the task because white Southern womanhood is singularly responsible for producing the kind of South that mass culture wants to consume. 

A view of oak trees hung with spanish moss outside Oaklawn Manor, a 19th Century plantation home on the Bayou Teche, near Franklin, Louisiana, circa 1955. (Photo by Jack Zehrt/FPG/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

The plantations, the tea parties, the “bless your hearts,” the genteel traditions, the towheaded babies, and “Farmhouse” lifestyle chic are the unique province of Southern womanhood to the national consumer.  Sure, there are non-white women in the South, but they produce its problems, not the spectacle. Southern womanhood is afforded to, in order of importance of criteria, white women of a certain social class, with the proper disposition to marriage and motherhood who uses her womanhood in service to others. 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 nation consumes this kind of charming Southern violence as a digestif for the material violence of economic inequality and the social violence of police brutality and the routine violence of segregated neighborhoods. No matter how urgent racial conflict feels in the present national discourse, revisiting the South through film, television, music, symbols, and celebrities reinserts the slavery and Southern apartheid as a point of comparison. How bad can police brutality in Oregon be if the South once held people in chains? And if the South —the hotbed of racist bones in every body — can progress to charmed civility, then that must be our national impulse. For the cultural tourist, there is hope to be found among the Southern white minstrels. A bumbling racist who isn’t a threat to anyone sophisticated enough to see past the racism to a heart of gold is a workaday progressive fantasy. It is also a fantasy that retains the enjoyable aspects of racism — a racist slur here, a xenophobic epithet there — to go along with the other enjoyable symbols of Southern racism like plantations (for nice weddings!), and cotillions (for the fashions!), and Southern college Greek life (the tradition!). There is always an audience for the feel-good polite racism in a Southern accent. You hear the echoes of that consumptive desire when one declares that they “hate country music” but love Dolly Parton. The love-hate relationship with the musical form that made Dolly possible is a reflection of the push-pull of Southern culture for non-Southerners. They may hate country music but they have a ceaseless appetite for its white escapism — sonic, visual, and embodied.  

With that appetite at the ready, a Southern-womanhood Frankenstein, like the pastiche of the region’s white cultural iconography Dolly grafts onto her childhood poverty, is powerful stuff. And Dolly can really sell it. Her authenticity rings with the charm we demand of Southern womanhood. We let her performance disarm us because we come to her wanting to be disarmed. Dolly gives us that in a package that also calls out to the imperative that the soul of America prevail and, above all else, prevail without consequence. It is an inconvenient truth that no one gets as rich as Dolly Parton in this country without trading in some aspect of our worst impulses. It simply cannot be done, not even by Dolly Parton. 

As important as her songwriting is to her success, Dolly’s most important writing is the monomyth she stitched from Southern crises and American exceptionalism. She is a working class warrior who got rich, but no one hates her for it. She turned herself into a feminine ideal that trades in the most grotesque ideas of eugenic whiteness — pale skin, blonde hair, thin body, big breasts. Yet no one calls her out for being sizeist or ageist. And, she has remained Southern in affect and performance, while pursuing a non-Southern audience from the outset of her career. That she has held our interest so long and could still be relatively unblemished enough to ascend to an unproblematic fave in the sixth decade of her career is owed to Dolly’s craft — and to something more. Her performance of blondeness is a very particular thread of race and gender and class. How Dolly has gotten away with performing so many challenged identities while completely escaping critique resonates with audiences that consume the South precisely for the hope that whiteness still matters. As for the rest of us, well, we are here for the blonde ambitions.

When you think of “a blonde,” you aren’t thinking about Beyoncé or Jennifer Lopez no matter how blonde they are at the moment. It isn’t because their hair color is unnatural. Almost all of the world’s “blondes” get that way through chemical intervention. But a blonde is a body with a cultural history of purity, power, and inheritance. Dolly Parton could have chosen any kind of poor Southern woman to caricaturize, of any size or hair color or shape. She certainly is enthusiastic about body modification and performative gender. And the performance she chose is a blonde. When pop culture leverages “blonde”, it is always as an unmarked racial identity. Blonde is code for white. That code channels oppression and desire, beckoning us only to exclude most of us. Dolly massaged that dual power to infuse her ambition with enough charm to become famous, as she has wanted since she was a child. Watching her wield that power is seductive, and it doesn’t just work on cultural tourists and Southern purists. 

My own hero monomyth includes a Dolly Parton vignette. Family lore has it that my mother once found me standing too close to the family television when I was supposed to be doing my chores. “You were staring at Reba McEntire and Dolly Parton like you had seen a falling star,” my mother exclaims. My mother is more Black Moses than Dumb Blonde, maybe a little AC/DC if she is feeling multicultural. She cannot fathom what a little Black girl who belongs to her could see in a country music program. I do not remember the show or the moment, only its inherited memory from family retellings. But I can say with absolute certainty that, as much I have always enjoyed Reba McEntire, I was only staring at Dolly Rebecca Parton.  

This is where white people usually want me to explain why I am a genuine fan of Dolly Parton. Dolly’s are the only country concerts I would dare attend, out of fear for my safety. I have had cocktails backstage with one of her many “nieces and nephews,” the extended kinfolk who help manage many parts of her enterprise. I buy the music, stream it often, and will watch her in just about anything. I enjoy Dolly Parton. In that way, I am like millions of other people, but being a Dolly fan while Black, arguably an intellectual and an elite, causes many white people some concern. These people do not know the actual South, and it shows. The dirt roads between race and class and gender are different in Southern imaginaries. Black girls travel them to Dolly fandom and back all the time.

I am not the only Black woman with a Dolly Parton love story in my hero narrative, not by a long shot. Rissi Palmer is one of a handful of Black women country musicians to ever chart. A decade after moving to Nashville to become a star, Palmer left, disenchanted with the genre’s conservatism, sexism, and racism. Today she hosts a country music radio show for Apple Music Country, appointing her as a major gatekeeper for both traditional and “alternative” country, which is all the country music made by non-white artists. She is also a big sister to the Black women who still move to Nashville to become big stars. 

Palmer remembers as a little girl making a neighbor boy play Kenny Rogers to her Dolly Parton. “My pigtails would have a towel over it, like her blonde hair. I’d be swinging my hair. And we would make up songs.” As Palmer grew into a professional musician, she noticed something else about her childhood idol. “I started reading the inside of [album covers]. I knew she wasn’t just singing but she was writing.” Country music is the only paleo-conservative art form still allowed uncontested, unqualified space in popular culture. That conservatism is white, very white. And it is sexist, very sexist. For Palmer, Dolly’s writing credits signaled that Dolly had managed to subvert country music’s inherent conservatism to define her own artistic vision. Dolly was, in a word, ambitious. 

Ambition is not an easy thing for a girl to be. In the South, ambition for anything other than marriage and motherhood renders a girl illegible. That illegibility is compounded by poverty, the kind that is foundational to Dolly Parton’s origin story and deeply etched into the Appalachian culture. Monica Carol Miller, a literature professor who studies gender, race, and beauty in Southern literature, tells me that even among Southern culture, “Appalachia is special.” She means that mountain folk may be from the South, but because of poverty and isolation, white Appalachians are not heirs to the South’s cultural reproduction. For girls and women, that leaves very few paths out of the mountains, out of its poverty, and into middle classness. 

Young Dolly Parton had ambitions that outstripped the means available to her to achieve them. Dolly wanted to be not merely rich but famous. In her biographies and documentaries and countless interviews, Dolly is precise about that desire from a very young age. Fame is a special kind of ambition, especially for a girl.  That ambition drew Palmer and me across racial lines to a story about ambition that we hoped had some kernel of wisdom we could nurture in our own worlds. Unlike Dolly, being pretty was not going to work for us. It barely worked for Dolly Parton. Being pretty got her out of the foothills, but her genius with embodying country music’s most oppressive forces — gender and class — was possible because of her ability to leverage race and gender. That is what us sociologists would call the place where self meets society.

One cannot understand the scraps that Dolly had to use to build her image without understanding the strictures of white Southern womanhood and country music’s steadfast commitment to canonizing it. An old joke goes that a country song ain’t nothing but a white man trying to sing the blues. Despite the genre’s Indigenous (especially Mexican), African, and Irish roots, country music has been and still is packaged as the nation’s only authentic voice of the white working class. You cannot separate the genre from its gender politics. And because those gender politics emerge from the South, you cannot separate them from their racial politics. In the South, only white women can be women, and in country music a woman could only be a “girl singer.” The modifier is meant to make the woman legible only through her male partner. And, as Susan Rebecca White writes in her novel Bound South, “to be a woman you had to marry a man. Otherwise, you were a girl forever.” That was the trap for an ambitious girl with prodigious talent wrapped in a package comely enough that she had “leaving power.” That is what Dolly memoirist Sarah Smarsh calls the marginal power that attractiveness gives poor white women in her experiences of rural Appalachia. 

Despite the cultural denigration of ambitious girls, Dolly has never shown any ambivalence about her ambition. Other than her blonde hair, her ambition is the greatest constant in her career. Even when she was tethered to Porter Wagoner as a “girl singer,” chosen as much for her looks as her talent, Dolly speaks forthrightly about her songwriting skills. “I always could write,” she says in 1971 footage. In 1984, she casually tells an interviewer that  “I Will Always Love You” is “one of my best melodies.” The song was so good that Elvis tried to buy it. A far less powerful Dolly said no because Elvis’s management required half her publishing for the privilege of recording the song she wrote. This is an artist who is confident about her art. 

Dolly also had to be pretty confident that her art alone wasn’t going to matter much to her ambitions to become famous. A woman of Dolly’s circumstances survives by knowing how fragile men’s egos are and how dangerous men can become when their egos are bruised. Dolly describes her young self as “a right pretty thing” when Wagoner hired her in 1967, for what was then the No. 1 country television program.  She says this with the same affect she uses to describe her songwriting, with certainty and clarity. A woman so clear about her presentation to others, her position in the beauty hierarchy that defines women’s social value, would also know what that meant for her in country music. If she didn’t know, she’d have learned on her first day of work on The Porter Wagoner Show. Wagoner hired Dolly after his popular girl singer quit (or was politely fired) once she got married. Marriage signaled the end of a woman’s utility in public life, marking her transition to private life. 

If I am as ambitious as Dolly Parton, and I may well be, I might see that my first day on the job is possible because the girl singer who had the position before me had to choose between performing and marriage. I do not know if I solve the problem as creatively as Dolly does, but that is why legends are legends. The romantic version of this story is that Dolly Parton saw her husband, Carl Dean, at a Nashville laundromat shortly after she moved to town. Dean also saw her. He slowed down. She sped him up. They were married in a matter of months. Another way to read that story, the way I would have written it if my life were on the line, is that after arriving in Nashville and surveying the trap set for ambitious women, Dolly looked at the tools she had inherited. She was pretty and young. Robust and by all accounts, including her own, an agentic sexual being. She was a threat to the country audience who might see her as sexual competition, a threat to the sanctity of white Christian marriage on which the genre is built. But if she stays a girl singer, she is “safe” from competitive energy but also under-resourced for her ambitions. If she marries, she is safe from both predatory men and envious women. She will also be legible as a woman, with the agency one needs to become famous. Yet a traditional marriage would give her husband the power to limit her ambitions. In literature, this is where a woman usually discovers the many splendid pleasures of widowhood. A woman, once married, can be a woman. But widowed, she is free from the control of a man and the expectation from others that a man should control her. 

Dolly Parton married Carl Dean quietly in 1966 before record-label handlers could stop her. Then, Dolly the ambitious performer, promptly rendered her husband invisible. Carl Dean’s invisibility in public life is one of Dolly’s longest running gags. In her 2019 documentary, her bandmates, past and present, say they’ve never met Dean. Tabloids report on how fondness makes Dolly and Dean’s marriage “stand the test of time.” At the most practical level, Dolly’s savage manipulation of the marriage trap for Southern women in country music is nothing short of stealing from death.

She made herself a widow of a living husband. 

If country music is wed to the “pure mountain/country girl” trope to further its conservative traditionalism, then it is welded to the “sentimental country mother” archetype. A girl singer has to be a wife or a mother or she becomes a trollop, which may be fun but isn’t as profitable or shelf stable. Dolly solved the trollop problem by getting married — but Dolly has infamously never had children. In what I have come to think of as a Dolly power play, she inverts the motherhood trap by grasping at its root. Dolly has written an archival text of gothic motherhood in over hundreds of songs. Consider the NBC movie Coat of Many Colors, based on her song of the same name, in which her mother’s grief over a miscarriage anchors the story. In “Down from Dover,” she writes about a pregnant, unmarried woman whose family sends her to live on a farm with an elderly woman. Abandoned by her lover, the woman’s narrative ends with a stillborn baby. In her song “The Bridge,” the lyrics imply that a pregnant woman kills herself. Even in a genre where the tragic nature of Irish folk music makes for dark, violent imagery, pop songs with so many dead children and babies is notable. Dolly circumvents the sentimental version of country music’s white motherhood and replaces it with a gothic version that is as complicated and painful as actual motherhood can be. For a casual audience, or an audience who wants to give Dolly the benefit of the doubt, these morbid motherhood songs make her a kind of mother that satisfies the genre’s requirement for women. 

Despite being white and blonde, Dolly Parton mapped out a female ambition that I could understand. She identified the cultural traps which would limit her — men, marriage, and motherhood — and subverted each with charm and undeniable talent. She made ambition about achievement, rather than inheritance. All of this resonated with an ambitious little Black girl with nothing but talent to her credit. Dolly creates her hero myth from a place of stigma and difference — poverty and Appalachian culture — offering me a repertoire to triangulate the stigmatization of my blackness. Her ambition is so clear-eyed and confident that it risks gendering her as male, or at least masculine. While different in its violence, Dolly’s ambition made her “mannish” similar to the ways that racist sexism does the same to me because I am Black. Those kinds of differences make poor white Southerners and most Black Southerners similar in ways that repel and attract us to one another. The flavor of race and class in the South is invisible to mainstream popular culture because it only visits the South through brokers when driven by a crisis of faith in its cultural superiority. Those of the South live its contradictions, of which Dolly Parton expertly taps, subverts, and rewrites at will. She does all of this in a drag performance of the psychological horrors of my nightmares: blonde, striving white ladies. 

That’s the other thing about the actual South, white men might kill you, but white women could make you wish you were dead. When I was growing up, women who look like the less trashy version of Dolly Parton, with the blonde hair and troubled physiques, were terrors. They police who among us is marriageable by policing the interpersonal relationships of school, work, and public life. Their manners hurt. They do not control the beauty hierarchy that disciplines all Southern girls and women but they wield it, giving it vertebrae and thorns. These ladies represent a stratum of Southern society to which I could never aspire, should not even try to mimic for making a fool of myself for not knowing better. Dolly Parton turned that violent culture into a costume. In making the costume, Dolly borrows its politics as well as its look.  For all of our sophistication about race and racism, class and inequality, poverty and place, we accept Dolly’s drag performance of a type of Southern womanhood without naming what it is. It is grotesque, not for being ugly but for being so unquestionably beautiful. 

I cannot get over Palmer’s story about tying the towel over her delightfully wild and curly hair to effect blonde locks. It reminds me of Whoopi Goldberg’s poignant depiction of a little Black girl from her star-making one-woman show, Whoopi Goldberg: Direct From Broadway (1984), in which she drapes a t-shirt across her dark dreadlocks, pretending she has long blonde hair. Or like Pecola Breedlove, the little girl in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, who wants more than anything to be blonde and white like her cherished dolly. The desire to achieve a status that is conferred only by birth drives Pecola mad. As the quintessential country-music archetype, blonde and buxom was perhaps the only viable character for Dolly Parton to tap in her ambitious quest for fame. We who love her have made peace with the performance, first as a joke in her earlier career and now as the socially acceptable and progressive interpretation of it as drag. 

Dolly Parton during 1981 Carousel Ball Benefiting the Childrens Diabetes Foundation in Denver at Carousel Ball in Denver, Colorado, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Literature scholar Leigh Edwards, who has written extensively about Dolly Parton, gender, and feminism, argues that the transgressive nature of Dolly’s drag performance is contextual and “could sometimes reinforce stereotypes.” I read a lot about Dolly’s drag. It is arguably queer, radical, class concious, feminist, anti-feminist, futuristic, and provincial. What no one mentions is that the drag is successful because of the racial stereotypes it masks as a gender and class caricature. The stereotype that Dolly’s gender performance trades in most consistently, that works across all contexts and is rarely commented upon works because it is so white. From the pale skin to the blonde hair to the affect, Dolly’s drag is aggressively white. We call that “blonde” when we call it anything at all because we really need to love Dolly Parton.

I asked an historian, a musician, a cultural-studies scholar, a cultural critic, and a couple of literature professors if Dolly Parton is beautiful. Each of them was taken aback. “Of course she is,” the scholar said. “Well, she has to be, right?,” said the cultural critic after a long pause. “I mean, I don’t think she is conventionally beautiful in a kind of white Southern feminine way but … she is beautiful to me,” the literature professor offered. The historian opined, “There’s this luminous quality that she has that I think is one of the main reasons why people are so delighted with her. Oh, yeah, absolutely [she is beautiful].” Laughing a bit at how his fandom jumped out, the historian — of race and popular music, no less — reoriented his critical faculties. He added:

“The blonde thing matters. On top of everything else, Dolly is leveraging the blondeness discourse.”

There was the heart of the thing. Everyone rooted Dolly’s beauty in her blondeness. She is so bound to the cultural understanding of blonde hair as an unmarked racial identity, that I could not even imagine a similarly ambitious pop star without subconsciously filtering out anyone who wasn’t blonde. When I did so, I also filtered out anyone non-white and most anyone male. Blonde has that power. It filters for white without acknowledging whiteness. It also filters for gender, a very binary gender code. The blondeness of Dolly’s drag surfaces her class politics. But her blondeness also subsumes her race politics, of which there are many which are rarely spoken. 

2020 was the year when everyone’s latent racial politics became evident. I held my breath as the tweet floated across my screen: Dolly Parton comments on Black Lives Matter! We have seen skilled celebrities traverse these waters only to drown. Black Lives Matter is as fierce a lightning rod for bad-faith conservative outrage as anything since Reagan introduced “welfare queen” to the public lexicon in the 1980s. I am no longer a girl or even a tepid young woman with grand ambitions. 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. 

Dolly did not disappoint. She amped up her usual charm defense into a full-on charm offense. “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? No!”, she told Billboard magazine. There was a collective sigh of relief among her many fans, those “diverse” fans of which so much has been written. After I sighed my own sigh, I looked not at the first part of her statement, but at the last. It was the first time I can recall Dolly Parton describing herself as white. Not as poor and white, as she does throughout her career, including in her autobiography. Not cheap and white or some other class identity as modifier. Just “white.” Of the two statements, that  is the most politically radical. 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. Ever the artist of misperception, Dolly leaves unsaid what her core conservative country audience needs to never hear her say. But declaring herself white does even more meaningful work: In ways that her drag, her cultivated hyper-femininity, and her strategic deployment of her poor roots have never done, this statement is Dolly’s clearest ownership of what made possible her unlikely path from the Appalachian foothills to post-racism fave. Her artful deployment of whiteness-as-drag has shielded her, even as gender and class once limited her. That whiteness takes on a sonic nostalgia in her music and in her pop performance. All of that is mutually reinforced by her overtly blonde feminine drag. Even as we forgive her this truth, the truth remains. Dolly’s whiteness, the whiteness of country music, and the voids evident in it is as much a part of Dolly’s legacy as her prodigious songwriting and subversive drag. Knowing what we love does not diminish who we love, only how we choose to love them.  

We would rather not think about how much we forgive when we love the package that Dolly’s prodigious ambitions have used as a shield and a bridge. Yes, we love her uncritically, but not because thinking about how we love would ruin Dolly. It would ruin us for Dolly. For who we are today, and what we need from a fave, we would forgive Dolly anything for embodying enough contradictions to sustain those we project onto her.  After all, ours is a nation without a racist bone in its body. 

The essaying Big Read Team

Editing by Kera Bolonik
Fact-checking by Madeleine Baverstam
Research Assistance by Zari Taylor
Librarianship by Joanna Burke
Design by Lauren Garcia
With thanks to: Charles Hughes, Rissi Palmer, Anne Helen Petersen, Monica Carol Miller, Tara McPherson