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On Childhood Heroes, And Why Dolly Parton Remains

My first moments of self-awareness came in the 1980s – that I was a female-identified person, an intelligent person, a driven person, and a person who didn’t half mind being the center of attention. Those traits were not easy for a child in an evangelical southern family to navigate. Unaware of the possibilities of gender and identity beyond my own, I searched for women whose life paths matched the things I was starting to understand about myself. My mother stayed home with her Mathematics and Art degrees to raise children; aunts and family friends made similar choices. Women were silent in my church and helpmates at home. Women in the media offered a more complete portrait, but few appealed to me. Nancy Reagan was someone’s grandmother, not a role model for a child. Florence Griffith Joyner was an athlete, which was plainly not my niche. Sally Ride didn’t wear makeup; even my 5 year old self knew that was a personal deal breaker.

Along with those memories, several women caught my attention. I remember marveling at Jessye Norman as she sang on the Today Show before the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She was my kind of woman, so confident and talented and dramatically beautiful. I studied fictional characters like Clare Huxtable and Julia Sugarbaker closely. They were my kind of women, too. Still, one woman was my constant point of reference: Dolly Parton.

For this girl growing up in the 1980s with an abundance of mixed messages about being attractive and smart and sexual and ambitious, Dolly Parton was a perfect fit. She was pretty in the same brash, intentional way that Mattel and years of mandatory Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders worship taught me to emulate. She was equal parts flashy and disarmingly self-deprecating. She wrote her own music and played her own guitar. She had her own amusement park with her own name on it. Dolly fulfilled every criteria of my embryonic understanding of the kind of person I might be some day. I wanted to stand on stage in a pretty dress and have everyone applaud my talent as I entered and exited. I wanted to go on The Tonight Show and tell stories and have boys who were paid to be funny laugh at my jokes. I wanted everyone to know my name because I was myself in the most brilliantly shameless manner possible.

I grew up, but so has my Dolly worship. Now I see a woman with a forty year career that has expanded from music to acting, various business interests, and extensive philanthropic work for literacy and AIDS charities. I see a woman who is plainly highly intelligent, and who has built on that as much as on her formidable physical presence and musical talent. I see a woman with a long marriage to a man who oversees his own business and leaves hers alone. I see a woman who has spoken in support of the LGBTQ community in a corner of the music industry where chart topping, award winning female artists are ostracized for voicing political opinions.

Of course Dolly has made a few personal and sartorial choices that my adult self has chosen not to replicate. My goals no longer include trading bon mots with late night TV hosts, and my list of heroes has expanded to include everyone from historical figures to radical bloggers. Making 50 undergraduates giggle at 8am is my equivalent of a standing ovation, although I do daydream of conducting lectures in a sequined ball gown with my breasts cinched up to my nostrils. But my driving force is still to be myself in the most brilliantly shameless manner possible, and thus Dolly remains the favorite of this intelligent, driven woman who doesn’t half mind being the center of attention.

(Dolly 4evah ~ed.)

20 replies on “On Childhood Heroes, And Why Dolly Parton Remains”

LOVE Dolly! One of my favorite CDs is Trio II, a collaboration with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. Dolly does the high harmonies when the others sing lead, and it’s enough to make you weep. She sings lead on “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”, a song she wrote and has sung live for many years.

I wish I could have found a video of them doing that one, but here’s a video of them doing another song from the album, “High Sierra”, with Linda singing lead.

I admired Dolly and RuPaul when grew up. That seems to not explain anything about my essentially butch existence.
I have to say I basically underestimated both when I was little. I just thought they were pretty and glam, and now looking on their work, I feel like I had pretty stable people to admire.

I love Dolly–she’s so amazing, something I didn’t realize until I was an adult.

BUT… It really bothers me when people, even people from the South, try to act like the South is of another planet from the North. The fact is, as a person who was born and raised in the South and had the opportunity to spend three good years in the North–we aren’t much different. I experienced so many stereotypes of Southerners, and I came to a realization–in many peoples’ minds there is still that confederacy.

Now some people would like to say I don’t really live in the South (try to tell that to any other red-blooded Texan), and true, there are certain things that are “Southern culture,” but certain things–like evangelical christian women who are told it’s better not to speak up? This is not simply a Southern thing, and let’s not foist this on the South. I came from a family of strong women who weren’t afraid to speak their minds–much like Dolly herself. Sure, my grandmother was a churchgoing woman–she was also prochoice, and she believed all women should get a college degree. When I wanted to drop out of college my parents gave me the 3rd degree guilt trip. No daughter of theirs was going to be a college dropout. And my mother, an education major, not only had children later in life, but only chose to retire from teaching because she didn’t like the daycare options for my brother. Even my father’s sister owned a successful business with her husband.

Dolly is indicative of all Southern women–she proves we follow no stereotype.

You know… I started to list my family’s liberal bona fides to prove that I couldn’t possibly be stereotyping anyone either, but the fact is I mentioned being southern exactly once along with other attributes that describe my family. It’s not prescriptive, it just is.

If there is ever a time when “Coat of Many Colors” doesn’t make me cry, no matter how I’m feeling about anything that might otherwise relate to the song, you’ll know I have given up on letting myself have any heart at all.

And when I told you earlier that the post made me tear up, it was before I realized that was one of the embedded songs, so take that as you will.

Ha! I just finished watching it myself… I agree it’s a great, great song. It was on the tape.

I think I’m going to call the folks and see if the can scan the cassette cover and liner for me. The fact that I can’t find the same line-up of songs anywhere is bugging the crap out of me.

I love Dolly as a performer and she’s horribly, horribly underrated as a songwriter. I’m embarrassed to admit I had few female role models as a kid. As far as camp that actually made pretty good role models, looking back, I guess Cher would have been mine. I love that she has that deep, deep voice which was all but unheard of in pop music. (I have a deep contralto and find most pop songs impossible to sing.) And I was always that girl who had olive skin and long, dark hair, so seeing someone who looked like me in a sea of puffy-haired blondes was a pretty big deal.

Cher was dancing around on aircraft carriers wearing 2 seatbelts and a smile when I was a kid, so I learned to love her a little later. I definitely remember identifying with other dark haired women though. Susannah Hoffs was probably the first person I remember loving simply because she looked like me.

(younger self? in your dreams.)

I love this! I didn’t know anything about Dolly until I was a teenager and the more I find out about her the more I love her. She is so easily bypassed by people who dismiss her as some sort of bimbo but beyond the platinum hair and boobs (which are awesome, in my opinion) she is a fierce, smart, charitable, savvy business woman, and someone worthy of admiration.

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