I have a couple things in common with Dolly Parton. No, not the boobs! I too was born and raised in the East Tennessee mountains; I too am the fourth of many children (six not 12, as in her case) and as such, have always sought attention, just like Dolly.
OK, since I have zero musical talent, fame, or interest in wigs, that’s about where the commonalities end. Or so I thought. Watching the new Netflix documentary, Dolly Parton: Here I Am, I learned that she is a steely feminist. I certainly identify with that. But her feminism came way early and seems to have been organic—not learned as in my case.
The Dolly Parton Documentary: Early Feminism
In 1968, she released a single and an album titled Just Because I’m a Woman. The song is a gritty appeal for equal treatment and a rejection of a double standard. The refrain goes like this:
Yes, I’ve made my mistakes
But listen and understand
My mistakes are no worse than yours
Just because I’m a woman.
The song was a hit, and just think for a minute what that means. It was a hit on the country charts, where normally, especially at the time, you’d find songs about standing by your man and macho pasttimes like driving trucks, drinking beer, and leaving women behind.
Again, this was 1968. Yes, Betty Freidan had written The Feminine Mystique and Gloria Steinem had published articles about the treatment of Playboy Bunnies and other indignities of life as a woman. But the women’s movement hadn’t yet officially launched.
I find it endlessly intriguing that a young woman with no college education, growing up in the hills of Tennessee far from the power centers of the country, could be pushing the equality message earlier, or at least at the same time, as cultural elites. And packaging it in a way that others could digest.
No Dumb Blonde
The other major takeaway from the documentary is just how smart and self-aware Dolly Parton has been from the beginning. She has crafted her larger-than-life image wisely, like Mae West did before her, and it’s meant BIG business in all senses of the word.
Even before Just Because I’m a Woman, she recorded a song Dumb Blonde that became her first song to appear on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. This song basically established a running theme of her life: I may look one way on the outside, but underestimate me at your peril.
Just because I’m blond
Don’t think I’m dumb
‘Cause this dumb blond ain’t nobody’s fool
In the documentary, she says,” I know I look totally bizarre and artificial, but I’m totally real inside.” Being authentic, in touch with her humanity, has allowed her to write such searing, memorable songs (reportedly she has written 3,000 of them) that have universal appeal. And being totally together inside has allowed her to loom large on the world stage for decades, as a singer-songwriter, actress, businesswoman, theme-park owner, philanthropist, and also a compassionate, tolerant, broad-minded human being.
“It’s OK to be different,” she says at the end of the documentary, something she’s proved every day. “You know it’s OK to not be like everyone else. In fact it’s not only Ok, it’s wonderful that you are who you are.”
Thank you Dolly!