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.)