Living with Dolly Parton
October 16, 2018 7:05 PM   Subscribe

Dolly Parton was one of two women I learned to admire growing up in East Tennessee. The other was Pat Summitt, head coach of the Lady Volunteers, the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. One flamboyantly female, the other a masculine woman. Both were arguably the best at what they did, had fantastic origins stories of hardscrabble lives in rural Tennessee, and told us that with enough grit and determination, we could succeed. Queer kids and nerdy girls, effeminate boys and boyish girls who desired something more than home took comfort in their boundary crossing. From these women they learned that they too could strike out on their own while maintaining both their authenticity and ties to home.

The love for Dolly that I learned was one without doubt. To question one’s devotion to Dolly Parton is to turn the world upside-down. Indeed, it is to question one’s investment in, and rehearsals of, mythologies of whiteness, which are rarely spoken, rarely noted as white. “Whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach,” Sara Ahmed writes. Dolly Parton was crucial to my own orientation.

Because my grandma is right — inquiry is seductive — I needed to question Dolly Parton’s meaning in my and our lives.

I needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.
posted by MovableBookLady (8 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
posted by East14thTaco at 7:40 PM on October 16, 2018 [23 favorites]

Yeahhhh this is the sort of thing one must confront as a woke country fan. When Charley Pride's first single came out, they only showed him in silhouette for fear that nobody would buy a single by a black man. They were wrong, and he's still a star, but I've also seen people point to him as a sign that "see, country music doesn't have a problem with racism!" Which is laughable. Oh yeah, the ONE black country singer you can name disproves the whole thing.

I have a morbid fascination with Pigeon Forge and the kitsch of Dollywood, but it's pretty dark. You can't mythologize the South without quickly falling into Lost Cause bullshit. Plus, I didn't know workers were treated so badly. Maybe I don't need to make a pilgrimage there after all.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 7:50 PM on October 16, 2018 [10 favorites]

Headline: MeFite BigHeartedGuy Dies of Heart Attack After Thinking Dolly Parton Post Means She Has Died.
posted by BigHeartedGuy at 10:02 PM on October 16, 2018 [6 favorites]

Great read!
posted by k8t at 10:16 PM on October 16, 2018

“the back of my grandfather Carson’s Lexus”
Dollywood currently generates $118 million in state and local tax revenues annually. 2017
posted by Ideefixe at 11:07 PM on October 16, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Generates $X in taxes" is largely irrelevant without accompanying figures like revenue, profit for owners, or subsidies or grants offered by government. It's unclear if $118M is a large amount, or a relatively paltry amount.

Not that an amusement park could ever make up for the sucking void of major manufacturing leaving the region, but it sucks that they seem to be doing the same "we're all family, except the owners profit and the workers languish" sleight of hand that Disney does.

Dolly Parton seems like a genuinely lovely human, but the park seems to be profiting off her good name without working to provide the opportunities that Dolly herself is grateful for having had.
posted by explosion at 7:40 AM on October 17, 2018 [3 favorites]

I thought this was an interesting essay, and it's always cool - and uncommon - to see white people recognising ethnicity as something that also pertains to them; but I'm not sure figuring Dolly Parton as an exemplar of current and historic racism and structural economic inequality is quite apt? What's that got to do with her voice? It's her voice that gives the chills.

Dollywood has helped to make Parton one of the richest women in the music industry, all to a soundtrack of growing up poor. So what? She did so grow up poor, and any claim that she's a mediocre talent who just managed to get lucky by having a shrewd commercial sense, is quite ridiculous. Heart is what you hear in her bluegrass. If you're going to imply that that heart is a lie you might as well agree with the (ornery, male supremicist, antique classical) philosophers that all art is lies.

I dunno, I feel this essay might have more appropriately found a different peg to hang its argument on. (That argument is imo valid - that white supremacy is behind a lot of cultural institutions in fond popular regard, especially in USA given its recent history.) But as it is, this essay reads a bit like blaming James Brown for structural sexism in the 70s. He was undeniably a sexist, controlling, mean, combative guy, and no he wasn't responsible for the context that enabled some of his worst behaviour.

I have wondered what it would be like to visit Dollywood as a black person - uncomfortable I bet. But as someone who likes European folk, legends and landscapes I have encountered that same discomfort before, I mean it's not rare. (A recent example was finding out the Externsteine, a site in Germany I've longed to visit since I found out about it, has evolved into some kind of nationalistic Nazi Moot Thing.) In short, we live in interesting times, and it feels like you can't turn over a rock without finding a white supremacist under it these days. Not the case ten years ago but since then they've been giving each other strength.

This is separate from the essay in question, in which a scholar looks at received truths from her own cultural background through the lens of her studies, but I think this kind of critical scrutiny of the loved thing is a very, very common experience for bi-cultural people, I mean it's almost inherent to the state of bi-culturality. With nationalism currently metastasizing into a decidedly poisonous, cancerous thing, is the act of drawing sustenance from your roots problematized for everybody? How does it get resolved?
posted by glasseyes at 7:41 AM on October 17, 2018 [11 favorites]

This is a minor nitpick, but I thought she mischaracterized the Nile Rodgers statement a bit.

Wilkerson: " She sang her pop hits, the songs that disco pioneer Nile Rodgers refused to praise because he heard them as appropriations of Black artistic innovations."

Rodgers: "In those days, everybody had disco songs. I would go to a club and Dolly Parton would be singing disco. Frank Sinatra! It was disgusting. I hated it."

There have been a lot of discussions about how disco crash-landed into the mainstream, but Rodgers sounds less like he's complaining about appropriation and more about the ubiquity of a sound he helped create.
posted by pxe2000 at 5:42 AM on October 18, 2018

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