The ‘Steel Magnolia’ Ms. Dolly Parton

As she celebrates her 75th birthday, Dolly Rebecca Parton, of Pittman Center, Tennessee, remains one of the finest country music stars. To some, Parton is simply that: A star. But to others, her body of work is above simple concepts of “stardom.” In 1989, well after the successes of albums Jolene and Coat of Many Colors, Parton starred in Steel Magnolias as a small-town beautician. The film’s title refers to its characters, who are tough as steel yet sweet as magnolias. But the reference goes past the characters; it defines Parton in her personification of the all-American feminized good.

Parton’s upbringing was difficult, as she grew up impoverished in rural Tennessee. Due to this background, Parton faced criticism and judgment, and was called superficial insults like “trailer trash” or “hillbilly.’ Her famous look, marked by her blond wigs and figure-hugging outfits, also attracted an outpour of misogynistic and classist remarks. This never fazed Parton, and she would never disavow her home or appearance. Her upbringing molded the iconic Southern Belle ideal of politeness, respect, and hard work we know today. In shaping her look around her hometown’s “town tramp,” embodying a type of shunned sexuality, Parton supports women unfairly judged by circumstance and subverts the common idea of an “angel’s” look.

Through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Parton’s career flourished with hits like “I Will Always Love You” and “Here You Come Again.” Along the way, she helped foster the careers of other female musicians such as Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt and collaborated with Donna Summer. Her openness to collaborate with other artists and genres led to successes in the pop and bluegrass charts, fulfilling Parton’s childhood dream of making as many people happy as she could.

That dream was fruitful. Appealing to the public usually requires a celebrity to avoid all controversy, often leading to an apolitical, neutral stance. Yet, Parton balances having mass appeal while firmly keeping her integrity and beliefs. Parton is a child-literacy philanthropist, a long-time supporter of civil rights, and uses the Dollywood foundation to aid her hometown with counseling and food resources. During the pandemic, Parton donated one million dollars to research for the Moderna vaccine

As the United States has become increasingly polarized, celebrities have either entered into political conversations or remained silent on partisan topics. For the entirety of her career, Parton has remained in the second camp, eternally elusive on her political leanings. For some, Parton should get involved in politics, given the outright, politically-aligned principles grounding her work. In an economically and racially diverse state like Tennessee, where Democratic strongholds like Memphis and Nashville are at odds with the rural remainder of the state, Parton’s influence could wield significant sway. 

On the other hand, Parton’s philanthropy could be the reason why she avoids political interference. Perhaps her focus is on real change; not questionable lip service, but rather on the tangible benefits that come from her donations. Rather than working inside of the system like the celebrities at the Democratic National Convention, this outsider approach makes a visible change to Tennesseans’ lives. From being a sympathetic employer to a quasi-librarian, Parton’s work directly affects issues of education and literacy, which cycles back to employment. Whether she is a “cut-from-the-cloth” conservative or a “til-the-sun sets” socialist, Parton enacts an agenda for the common good, which is more than an endorsement could ever do.

Parton’s global impact is timeless. She will always remain relevant to this generation—not just because of the anti-capitalist, pro-worker message of “9 to 5,” the subtle queer undertones of “Jolene,” or her heartwarmingly protective relationship with god-daughter Miley Cyrus, but because of her unabashed perseverance to be herself against all expectations. Parton’s kind, altruistic, and hard-working authenticity makes her a Steel Magnolia like no other. As she celebrates her 75th year, having given the world so much, it is only fair that we celebrate her, too.

 

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