Dolly Parton Put The ‘Honky’ In Honky-Tonk
O Fortuna! This is incandescent. Jessica Wilkerson is a young white professor who grew up in Appalachia loving Dolly Parton. She went off to college (including doing a master’s at Sarah Lawrence, and a PhD at UNC-Chapel Hill) and had the scales lifted from her eyes when she finally admitted that she “needed to confront Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness.” Read on:
Dolly Parton has explained the reason she longed for [Dollywood, her 150-acre Tennessee amusement park] in the first place: “I always thought that if I made it big or got successful at what I had started out to do, that I wanted to come back to my part of the country and do something great, something that would bring a lot of jobs into this area,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2010. And those jobs, anchored to place, could never be packed up and shipped to another country.
Turns out that after manufacturing plants started closing down in that part of the country, people were happy to have work at Dollywood. Studies show that most workers there like it a lot, though the work can be demanding of one’s time, and the pay isn’t great. One elderly worker who was there for decades says, “If it wasn’t for Dollywood, Sevierville would be on the unemployment line, I’m sure.”
Prof. Wilkerson informs us that Dolly is a hard taskmaster:
On top of that, their managers ask them to perform the emotional labor of hosting people as though in their own home, or, better yet, Dolly Parton’s home.
Oh Lord, no! Please, no more!
Dolly Parton promised jobs to her community; she did not promise well-paying jobs. And while Dollywood does not pay the worst wages in Sevier County or in the theme park industry, the wages are significantly lower than those they replaced as the economy shifted from manufacturing to tourism.
Imagine that: a theme park that depends on tourist dollars doesn’t pay its workers what they’d get at a manufacturing plant. We’re supposed to blame Dolly Parton for … what, exactly? There’s a health clinic onsite for workers and their families, and some pretty good benefits, but it’s not good enough. Wilkerson says some workers complain that they work too many hours, and others claim that they don’t get enough hours to amount to enough in their paychecks. Poor Dolly can’t win. Plus, the company that owns Dollywood along with her are a bunch of Evangelicals. Awful, just awful.
Plus, it turns out that in Prof. Wilkerson’s eyes, Dolly Parton is a pawn of white supremacy. Parton, 72, was born the fourth of twelve children to an illiterate Appalachian sharecropper and his wife, who raised them in a one-room cabin. It is no surprise that Parton does not keep up with the latest revisionist cultural takes on Southern history. The story of “Dolly Parton’s
Dixie Stampede” is cringey, and the phenomenon really does tell an unflattering tale of how white Southern popular culture uses Civil War history in self-justifying ways.
Still, it’s a campy dinner-theater show, an acrobatic hootenanny that’s about two tics away from the Hall Of Presidents exhibit at Duff Gardens. Wilkerson writes about the dang thing as if Leni Riefenstahl had choreographed the thing.
And so, Prof. Wilkerson comes to her sad conclusion: Dolly Parton has bamboozled America!:
But her true genius is in how she has created multiple personas at once so that her fans can choose one that slips easily into their own stories and desires. She’s embraced by feminists and queer folks at the same time she is declared a queen by Confederate apologists. Dolly-as-mountain-girl anchors her to an ancestral white home in the imaginations of white people, while her class-conscious and gender-transgressive performance of whiteness becomes a signifier for white progressives who embrace gender fluidity and working-class iconolatry. She exhibits worldliness at the same she cloaks herself in the symbols of white nationalism.
Dolly Parton has built her empire on and with the debris of old, racist amusements and wrapped it in working-class signifiers and feminist politics. I ignored that fact for a long time because it didn’t fit the script of the feminist, working-class heroine I had conjured. But I also ignored how others’ attachment to Dolly is exactly because of her embrace of Dixie and her complex celebration of whiteness. And I have ignored how whiteness clings.
Confess, you cisgendered white woman! Confess!
Dolly Parton’s mythical story-songs of a mountain childhood and her witty and glitzy hillbilly performance were the secret ingredient to Dollywood’s success and expansion — an expansion that requires the ecological demise of the mountains, that gobbles up tons of water, land, and bodies in order to simulate a white Appalachian past of real hillbillies that Americans love. Is Dollywood, as Jean Baudrillard wrote of Disneyland in Simulacra and Simulation, an “imaginary” that is “neither true nor false”? Is it “a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real”? Does Dollywood and Dolly Parton herself rejuvenate whiteness, fueling it so that it rises up again and again in its Dixie-forms and in its Appalachia-(Scots-Irish-Anglo-Saxon-mountaineer)-forms?
Dollywood gobbling up “bodies”? Well, gosh. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that when you write something that has the words “Dollywood” and “Jean Baudrillard” separated by two letters, that’s a reliable sign that you’re full of sh*t.
In all honesty, Wilkerson makes some interesting points about the cultural construction of Dolly Parton’s image, and what many of her fans see in her. But the overall effect is one of unintentional self-parody. Wilkerson has written a woke deconversion story, the faculty lounge version of a fundagelical stump preacher testifying about how she got saved and repudiated the world of sin. If Wilkerson’s piece were a country song, it’d be called “The Night She Tore Ol’ Dolly Down.”
I’ve never particularly been a fan of Dolly Parton, because her music and her style is not really my thing. But good grief, what kind of crabapple heart do you have to have to hate on Dolly Parton, of all people? Dolly was born into the kind of poverty and deprivation that’s all but unimaginable in America today, and rose out of it thanks to sheer talent and determination, became rich and famous without exploiting herself or being cruel to others. She went home to create a theme park that celebrates Appalachian music and crafts, and provides work for 3,000 local people in an economically distressed part of the state. It’s probably the case that the kind of people who vacation in Dollywood don’t work on university humanities faculties, and fail to understand that they should now be ashamed of ever having enjoyed The Dukes of Hazzard, and of taking tacky pleasure in a Parton-produced Hee-Haw-ish stage show that touches on Civil War themes without a long face.
Prof. Wilkerson probably thinks that Kornfield Kounty is a Hillbilly Rhodesia, and that “BR-549” is some kind of alt-right racist dog whistle. Progressive cultural politics ruins everything it touches. There is nothing wrong with turning a critical eye onto once-cherished cultural touchstones, and reconsidering them in the light of new information or realities. But denouncing Dolly Parton — Dolly Parton! — as a fraud who conceals her rapacious capitalism and white nationalism beneath a cornpone, cosmetically enhanced façade — well, it tells us more about Wilkerson than it does about Dolly Parton. Why is it that the woke always come across as the most joyless, loveless, and inhumane people?
Hating Dolly Parton is so hard to do that only the intensively educated manage to pull it off. What an achievement.
UPDATE: A reader writes to say that papers like this put him in mind of this passage from George Orwell’s essay “Politics And The English Language”:
In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style. The political dialects to be found in pamphlets, leading articles, manifestos, White papers and the speeches of undersecretaries do, of course, vary from party to party, but they are all alike in that one almost never finds in them a fresh, vivid, homemade turn of speech. When one watches some tired hack on the platform mechanically repeating the familiar phrases — bestial, atrocities, iron heel, bloodstained tyranny, free peoples of the world, stand shoulder to shoulder — one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy: a feeling which suddenly becomes stronger at moments when the light catches the speaker’s spectacles and turns them into blank discs which seem to have no eyes behind them. And this is not altogether fanciful. A speaker who uses that kind of phraseology has gone some distance toward turning himself into a machine. The appropriate noises are coming out of his larynx, but his brain is not involved, as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself. If the speech he is making is one that he is accustomed to make over and over again, he may be almost unconscious of what he is saying, as one is when one utters the responses in church. And this reduced state of consciousness, if not indispensable, is at any rate favourable to political conformity.
UPDATE.2: Oh my God. Look at this letter that just came in:
I am sitting by my wife in the hospital as she begins her transition to the presence of Christ. We had come to the mountains for one last visit 2 weeks ago, but once we got here her breathing became so labored we had to go to ER in Sevierville TN, at a hospital Dolly has contributed significantly to — LeConte Medical Center. It is a beautiful hospital, and the staff here is amazing. Just today one of the nurses was lauding Dolly for her generosity in investing so much money back into this area.
My wife, Kristi, was so impressed by the doctors and nurses that before she became comatose she said that she wanted donations sent here — HERE, not our cancer center in Tampa — instead of flowers.
Folks like Jessica Wilkerson are so divorced from reality it is scary and pitiful at the same time. But the juxtaposition of reading that article while sitting here in such a beautiful, caring, and peaceful hospital — funded in large measure by Dolly — was jarring.
If you have a moment, please say a prayer for my beautiful wife, who is concluding her 6 year battle with colorectal cancer here at this place of grace.
Please, please pray for Kristi. And for Jessica Wilkerson.
Thank you, Rod. Kristi passed away a few hours ago. She was the most beautiful person I’ve ever known. pic.twitter.com/cFARKSYzgb
— Shane Scott (@shanescott829) October 23, 2018
May her memory be eternal. To make a donation to the hospital in Kristi Scott’s memory, click here.