Dolly Parton: The Feminist Icon Who Rejects The Label

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Few things bring folks together like the music of Dolly Parton. At first glance, her concert-going fanbase may seem to be composed of people who’d otherwise not socialize with each other. The country singer not only resonates with church-going folks, but has a massive fanbase in the LGBTQ+ community as well, especially among drag queens. Of course, these communities aren’t monoliths, nor are they mutually exclusive. Still, Dolly leads by example, bringing folks together to celebrate the universal — and the universally felt.

And, maybe, she’s the perfect person to do so, since Dolly herself seems to be full of contradictions. At the very least, that’s part of Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad’s thesis on the country star’s cultural legacy, something the host examines in his WNYC podcast, Dolly Parton’s America. One of those contradictions? The way pop culture — and society as a whole — perceives Dolly. On one hand, she’s a musical genius. In an interview with NPR, Abumrad noted that, "Some of the greatest songs in pop music, they're falling out of her head… She may have written ‘I Will Always Love You’ and ‘Jolene’ on the same night."

At the same time, pop culture has made her into a kind of caricature — often through jokes about her (self-described) flamboyant appearance. This second perception has followed her since the early stages of her career: Dolly, a blond, folksy singer from the South, also had to contend with being one of the few women in Nashville to hit it big in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Regardless of the labels or appearances she wanted to — or did — claim, folks were going to have their own entrenched perceptions to foist upon her.