Dolly Parton: the working-class feminist who dresses like a Barbie doll

'I'm for all women, but I don't need a label': Dolly Parton
'I'm for all women, but I don't need a label': Dolly Parton - Ron Davis

Dolly Parton’s three passions are “God, music and sex”. As she writes in her 1994 memoir Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business: “I would like to say that I have listed them in order of their importance to me, but their pecking order is subject to change without warning”.

These days, she emerges as an unlikely feminist heroine, who understands the intersection of class and female experience more than most gender studies professors, who is loved for her authenticity while drawing attention to her fake femininity. “Don’t be fooled by my false eyelashes, because I’m not as phoney as I look,” the self-described “backwoods Barbie” has said. Her fanbase includes drag queens and hardcore Republicans, yet somehow she unites them, embodying a kind of inclusiveness that every world leader could learn from.

It would, I imagine, be very hard to say no to this tiny, 77-year-old woman who is adored by all and sundry. So it’s no surprise that Lizzo, Miley Cyrus, Elton John, Nikki Sixx, Steven Tyler, Joan Jett, Paul McCartney, Peter Frampton and Debbie Harry are just some of the people who appear on Parton’s new rock record, Rockstar.

Parton is clearly one the shrewdest brains in the business, and that is before we get to her magnificent songwriting. She understood branding before we ever used the word. She fought tooth and nail and lived on scraps of leftover food from hotel corridors to get away from controlling male managers and do her things her way.

Her back story of growing up dirt poor in the hills of East Tennessee never really leaves her. Her mother married at 15 and had 12 children. As they said at the time, she always had “one on her and one in her”. The family had nothing. Her mother and father would beat her, as did her brother Coy Denver. But she was always strong-willed – in My life and Other Unfinished Business, Parton writes dryly that “mountain boys” like her brother would have their chauvinism subdued after two or three divorces, at which point she would take her revenge, describing her approach as an “Appalachian feminist guerrilla movement”. This is about the only time Parton ever uses the word feminism, though she will be asked about it, over and over, throughout her career.

At 12, during her baptism, Parton became aware of her feminine power. In her memoir, she describes her wet cotton dress clinging to her “headlights”, and the boys say Hallelujah. In church, she feels horny. Well, she figures God wouldn’t have given her these famous breasts if he had not wanted people to notice them. She loves sex and when she starts to sing, she falls in love with the public, as they fall in love with her. She writes: “that’s the great thing about a sense of humour and a sex drive, you can’t wait to share it with everyone else”.

She creates her own make-up using blackened ends of matches on her brows and lashes, and pokeberry juice to stain her lips. She bleaches her hair and makes it bigger, while wearing tighter and tighter costumes. The Dolly image is born and it is both an expression of femininity and class, as well as a kind of armour. “I look like a woman but think like a man”, she writes.

The bedazzlement conceals an incredible songwriting gift; songs often about abandoned women, dying children and grinding poverty. Those who underestimate her because of her nuclear bosoms get their comeuppance. In New York, when a man who mistook her for a prostitute “started grabbing me in places I reserve for grabbers of my own choosing”, she draws a pistol, and says, “you touch me one more time, you son of a b—h and I’m gonna blow your nuts off”. You don’t mess with Dolly.

The late 1960s saw the emergence of the Women’s Liberation movement. Parton may not make public pronouncements about it or identify with it, yet she writes songs about the double standards around sex for women. For instance, her 1968 hit Just Because I’m a Woman was based on the upset that her husband Carl Dean, ever gnomic and invisible, had expressed over her having sex before their marriage aged 20. The song, which was banned by some radio stations in America’s southern states, featured the lyrics: “Now I know that I’m no angel/ If that’s what you thought you’d found/ I was just the victim of/ A man that lets me down/ No, my mistakes are no worse than yours/ Just because I’m a woman.”

In fact, several of her songs are about the double standards women face: both Bargain Store and The Eagle Flies centred the reality of working-class women’s lives. Bargain Store included the lyrics, “If you don’t mind the fact that all the merchandise is used/ But with a little mending it could be as good as new/ The bargain store is open, come inside”, and so was duly banned. Parton wasn’t bothered. “I wrote a lot of songs that people wouldn’t play on the radio, but I didn’t care…Whatever I write is just what comes out of me, and I refuse to be judged.”

The Eagle Flies demonstrated Parton’s duality; to be resilient and vulnerable at the same time: “She’s a woman, she knows how to dish it out or take it all/ Her heart’s as soft as feathers, still she weathers stormy skies./ And she’s a sparrow when she’s broken/ But she’s an eagle when she flies.”

Then the sublime Jolene – an incredible address from one woman to another, and one of the most perfect and unusual songs ever written  – and of course, 9 to 5, which Parton wrote by tapping her acrylic nails together, writing a song that universalised female experience.

Every time Parton is asked about feminism though, she sidesteps the question – ever alert to the conservatism of her country fans. “I don’t think … I mean, I must be if being a feminist means I’m all for women, yes. But I don’t feel I have to march, hold up a sign or label myself. I think the way I have conducted my life and my business and myself, speaks for itself. I don’t think of it as being feminist. It’s not a label I have to put on myself. I’m just all for gals”.

Often she has said that she does not like voicing her opinions: “I respect my audience  too much for that. I respect myself too much for that”. She has Republican friends and Democrat friends and saw the Dixie Chicks ruin their career for speaking out against the Iraq war.

Every part of Parton’s life seems to be to be lived as a feminist, no matter what she will admit to in public. She will dress how she wants, was one of the first to speak about cosmetic surgery – nips and tucks to “tits, butt and waist, eyes and chin and back again” – and brokers her own business deals. Early on, she knew to keep the rights to all of her songs – over 3,000 of them – refusing to sign over half the rights to I Will Always Love You to Elvis Presley. Whitney Houston’s cover continues to make her money to this day.

Her personal life is superficially traditional but again she does it her way. The everlasting marriage to Carl Dean – who never appears with her in public as he doesn’t like “wingdings”, and in fact no one has seen them together for decades – is maintained with her constantly praising him. Parton, who has never had kids, even had her tubes tied without telling him.

In her book, she hints at affairs and addresses the rumour that she is in a lesbian relationship with Judy Ogle, her best friend since grade school and who travels everywhere with her. “Forty years of friendship, Judy and me…one thing we’ve had to overcome is the constant rumour that Judy and I are lesbian lovers. It’s understandable. Most people can’t understand two women being so close and devoted to each other.” They sleep in the same bed and Parton does not care who knows it.

Here then, is a woman whose talent and wealth has given her the ability to live an independent life, breaking boundaries everywhere she goes.

For her, the word feminist connotes man-hating, so she shies away from it. Her younger sister chided her for not speaking up when the MeToo movement rose up. Stella Parton, 69, said: “I’m ashamed of my sister for keeping her mouth shut. She can run it when it is about something else, but speak up about injustice, Dolly Parton. Speak up. And speak out. Defend women, and don’t just do it in a little song. Speak up.”

Instead, Parton jokes about being a woman who would only leave the house without hair and make-up at gunpoint. She has even said that she sleeps in her make up in case there is an earthquake. She has walked this tightrope all her life, implicitly confronting male behaviour without alienating her fanbase. She never falls.

There really is no one like Dolly, however she describes herself. Whether she declares herself a feminist or not, Dolly understands working-class women’s lives better than anyone. Her capacity for bringing people together is the work of an instinctually consummate political operator. Why is she not running the world? In a certain way, she is. As she says, “I’m just all for gals.” Long may she reign.

‘Rockstar is out now