Like me, Dolly Parton never considered sex dirty. I more or less know why I’m not neurotic about sex: I was raised in Manhattan by bohemians and slept with a lot of nice men. I didn’t know how Dolly, who was raised one of twelve children by poor, intensely religious laborers in the Smokey Mountains, got that way until I read her terrific autobiography, Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business. In the book, she explains how three forces guide her life: God, music and sex — not always in that order. As a teenager, she hung out alone in an abandoned church. There she found condom wrappers, a cracked piano and, ultimately, this revelation: "I had come to know that it was all right for me to be a sexual being. I knew that was one of the things God meant for me to be."
I’ve always admired Dolly Parton. I love her absurdly expressive voice, her profoundly moving lyrics ("There’s snow in the tropics, there’s ice on the sun/ It’s hot in the Arctic and crying is fun/ And I’m happy now and I’m glad we’re through/ And the sky is green and the grass is blue"), and what she calls her "town tramp" style — long nails, huge hair, ludicrously proportioned body.
Fans of her songwriting have long struggled to reconcile the purity and elegance of songs like "Coat of Many Colors" with all the plastic surgery. At best, her airbrushed look is greeted with bemusement. Naturally pretty, gray-haired Emmylou Harris describes her first encounter with Dolly this way: "Here was a woman with a voice to be reckoned with, even if she did wear a wig." That about sums up the conventional take on Dolly: she may be a white-trash caricature, but can she write! I find this attitude (which Emmylou fortunately outgrew) exceedingly lame. Dolly’s trashiness is a big part of what I love about her. She doesn’t just wear a wig; she wears a wig really, really well. She’s turned being the town tramp into an art form.
My husband’s best friend, Michelle, grew up in a musical family in rural Texas and says the first album she ever owned showed "Dolly wearing a very country, red patterned shirt with a matching bandana holding her hair back and big white hoop earrings, and of course the hair everywhere." Michelle liked how enthusiastically and unapologetically into sex Dolly was: "I think that her sense of freedom to dress and be as sexy as she wants is as liberating as any other feminist movement for those of us to whom the whole don’t-shave-don’t-wear-makeup approach doesn’t appeal."
For me, too, it’s partly aesthetic. Like Dolly, I’m curvy, bleach my hair and like high heels. Maybe it’s because my mother’s from the South, but I’ve never seen a disconnect between believing in equal pay for equal work and putting on lipstick before I leave the house. But it wasn’t until I read Dolly’s book, with all its anecdotes about being so horny in church she could barely sit still, that I realized what I most related to about her: she’s a slut. More to the point, she’s better at being a slut than anyone else on the planet.
Fact is, if you’re a little easy, you have a role to play, whether you’re in New York, Hollywood or the Smokey Mountains. Teenagers typically play it poorly — going to third base with louts, then feeling bad about it. The heroines of 1930s cinema played it superbly — tossing off filthy one-liners and being, in essence, tremendously good sports. On the spectrum of sluttiness, I like to think I’m midlevel — not as accomplished as Barbara Stanwyck, but light years beyond Hilary Duff. Yet Dolly Parton is the undisputed Grandmaster. I worship at her skin-tight white leather pants with the rhinestones on them.
How can you not take as your guru someone who says, "I hope people realize that there is a brain underneath the hair and a heart underneath the boobs"? Especially because she says "hope," not "insist." If all they see is her boobs, she doesn’t much care. She knows she’s in
charge either way. And make no mistake; Dolly is shrewd. When Elvis wanted to record "I Will Always Love You," she turned him down because she didn’t want to give him half the publishing rights. She’s since made millions in royalties off the song. And you know she rejected the Colonel’s offer with a big, frosted-lipstick smile.
You almost never see Dolly without a smile. She happily tells the familiar jokes about how big her boobs are, like the one about how if she tried jogging, she’d give herself two black eyes. I heard that joke as an adolescent — in Mad magazine, or someplace like it — and I was embarrassed for her. I never knew she originated it, or at least spread it cheerily. She likes grab-ass, too. In the book, she talks about playfully groping her husband in public, only to one time sneak up and mistakenly grab the balls of an unsuspecting stranger.
Given how randy she is, perhaps it’s inevitable that Dolly’s relationship with her husband, Carl Dean, would be unorthodox. They are famous for giving each other plenty of space. She says they don’t like being apart for more than two weeks at a time, but they often go a day or two without seeing each other, just because they’re doing their own thing. She describes the fight (immortalized in her song, "Just Because I’m a Woman") she had with her husband when, early in their thirty-year marriage, she confessed to him she’d been with other men before. He was hurt (she was, she believes, his first), but they worked through it. It’s hard to imagine staying mad at Dolly, especially for being loose. That’s like being mad at the sun for being bright.
Because of her flirtatiousness and her husband’s invisibility, there have always been rumors of Dolly’s having an affair with one co-star or another. In her book, she doesn’t exactly say she’s never slept with other men. What she does say about Carl is: "He seems to know that I’ll be back, and that love affairs and relationships are just part of my dealings with people." When one of her best friends, a straight man, got engaged, she gave him a trip around Europe — with her. Carl and the fiancée saw them off at the airport. "Friends are friends to me, male or female," she says (after stating for the record that she and her friend didn’t have sex on the trip but did have an inordinate amount of fun). There are also plenty of rumors that she’s a lesbian — her best friend, Judy Ogle, is around an awful lot. She denies this, but not vigorously.
Compare that with the role models highly sexualized girls have today. Pre-frumpification, Britney played the naughty schoolgirl pretty well — she took many of her clothes off, writhed around with snakes and called herself a virgin. Pamela Anderson made sex tapes and routinely shows up to events in see-through shirts and short-shorts. Pre-Back to Basics makeover, Christina Aguilera was forever showing us everything but her cervix in FHM. Perhaps she realized that there’s something hollow about those crass displays. There’s
nothing wrong with how vulgar they are, but they seem morbid (today’s sex symbols leer rather than beam), and completely insincere. You get the feeling that at the end of a night spent dancing on tables, these women take off their six-inch heels, climb into bed and fall asleep.
Britney’s evolution from sexpot to nationwide joke has all but confirmed this. When she got chubby, she started padding around parking lots in bare feet. By contrast, what did Dolly do when she put on weight? Starred in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), a film so oddly liberating it should be mandatory viewing for all sex- education classes. Dolly plays a madam carrying on a clandestine romance with the town sheriff (Burt Reynolds). Sex in the film involves mail-order panties, line dancing and general delirium. Carnality is something men and women want desperately and equally. The dancing hussies and eager football players make sex look innocent and fun, but the glowing ember of sexuality at the center is Dolly. At her most voluptuous, she sways down the staircase in ridiculously skin-tight gowns to greet customers and make them feel good about what they want. It’s obvious that when she says sex is a good thing, she means it. As she’s said herself, she’s a hell of a singer, but not that good an actress.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in the trappings of female empowerment as defined by Second Wavers and to miss the real markers of feminist victory, like a woman’s making her own money, maintaining control over her work and having a satisfying sex life on her own terms. Yes, Dolly’s "objectifying herself to attract the male gaze," but she’s objectifying herself all the way to a happy career and marriage.
Sinéad O’Connor, of all people, seems to understand her. In the liner notes to a Dolly tribute album, O’Connor says Dolly inspired her as a child: "She ought not to be underestimated I guess, as some people kind of laugh when you say you’re into Dolly Parton. But she’s a fucking genius. And what’s more, she’s paying her own damn bills!"
That film also makes clear how Dolly has reconciled her religious upbringing with her fame. She was raised devoutly Pentecostal, but chose to focus on "faith, hope and love," and to emphasize humility over judgment. She has always been fiercely protective of gay causes and deeply generous to anyone in any kind of trouble. "Everybody has their own idea of God, and God is just there for all of us. I think so many people live their whole life in fear and doubt and shame," she has said. "I just feel that God is my friend, my co-producer, my partner." We should all have such a warm, loving cosmology.
It’s time to get Dolly, now sixty, back on the covers of the tabloids and onto all the talk shows. Such a comeback may well be brewing: After charming everyone with three wardrobe changes on the Oscars, she made a Today Show appearance to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of 9 to 5. The anchor asked, "Did any of you have a bad boss like in the film?" Jane Fonda said, indignantly, "I was fired because I wouldn’t sleep with the boss!" Dolly said, cheerfully, "I was fired because I did!"
As if anticipating our desire to regard her as a role model, Dolly cautions in the introduction to her book, "I think it’s a big mistake to try to pattern yourself too much after anybody else. We are all individuals . . . It is up to you to be the best (your name here) you can be. If I can help in any way, then I feel good about taking your money for this book . . . Besides, I need the money. As I always say, ‘It costs a lot to make a person look this cheap.’" There’s no one cheaper, or more precious, than Dolly Parton.
©2006 Ada Calhoun and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Nerve consulting editor and Babble editor-in-chief Ada Calhoun has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review, a contributing editor and theater critic at New York magazine, and her softball team’s MVP.|