I missed this Vox piece about Dolly Parton when it was published last week but a friend suggested I have a look. And yeah, there’s something very weird about it in a way that’s hard to put your finger on. To really get the sense of it you probably need to read the whole thing but I’ll try to walk you through it and offer some thoughts about maybe what’s going on with this.
First, the piece, which is titled “How Dolly Parton became a secular American saint” is framed as a somewhat neutral explainer piece. That’s sort of true to Vox’s core mission, i.e. putting a somewhat neutral just explaining the news label on what is almost always partisan special pleading from the progressive left. In this case, the piece starts out pretty well. There really is something unusual about Dolly Parton. In an age of partisanship, she seems to be that rare person that everyone everywhere either loves or at least respects:
Dolly is the living legend who sells out arena tours in her 70s. She’s the songwriting genius who wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day. In recent decades, feminists have begun to reclaim her as a feminist icon. She is an impeccably dressed glamour queen, a business titan whose brand includes her own theme park, a philanthropist whose literacy program has sent free books to millions of children, and on top of all that she helped fund Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine — and then refused to jump the line to get a dose early. She is so beloved that WNYC devoted a full podcast series to investigating how a single figure could be adored by both blue and red states.
The piece devotes some time to explaining how Dolly went from “walking boob joke” to a feminist icon. Much of that seems to have to do with her decision long ago to dress in a way that pleased her rather than trying to appeal to men (though you might say she had that covered). Then there was her business savvy and ambition. She wasn’t shy about either even 40+ years ago when that might have been seen as not ladylike. Part of the reason so many people like her is her sense of humor. She created this meme on Instagram last year with the caption “Get you a woman who can do it all.”
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Lots of celebrities including Oprah were quick to jump on the bandwagon. I don’t know if she has a staff of social media people who came up with this for her, maybe so. But at a minimum, she approved this and that alone shows an appealing sense of humor. She’s not a stuffy, rich old lady who can’t take a joke at her own expense.
Whatever it is about Dolly, a lot of people all over the place really like her a lot. Vox reports: “By 2006, Parton’s tours were selling out again. In 2009, she started selling out stadiums. In 2014, she headlined the Glastonbury Festival.” And the article goes on to suggest there’s something a bit spooky about the way she impacts people, especially in person:
In 2008, Roger Ebert returned to his 1980 Dolly Parton profile, noting that it had missed something he considered very important: her presence, which he writes “enveloped” him. “This had nothing to do with sex appeal,” he says. “Far from it. It was as if I were being mesmerized by a benevolent power. I left the room in a cloud of good feeling.”
Ebert adds that when he spoke with his writing partner Gene Siskel about Parton the next day, Siskel reported the same feeling: “This will sound crazy,” he said, “but when I was interviewing Dolly Parton, I almost felt like she had healing powers.”…
“I say this with humility and as someone who is not a believer,” Dolly Parton’s America host Jad Abumrad told Billboard in 2019: “There’s something very Christ-like about her.”
And that’s when the article takes a dark turn, literally. Here’s the very next paragraph:
But America in the 21st century is no time for a secular pop saint. And there’s a dark side to Dolly’s ability to appeal, Christ-like, to all people at all times.
Yes, it turns out all of that build up was so the author could spend the latter half of the piece trying to find Dolly Parton’s dark side. He spends a lot of time on her refusal to take sides in any political debate, even against President Trump. Does that mean she secretly supported him? Well, there’s no evidence either way because Dolly doesn’t take sides, but it’s painted as very suspicious.
Then there’s a section about wages and benefits at Dollywood, which are modest (but above minimum wage). Vox concedes that none of this really adds up to her being a bad person or even a less than really good one.
The idea that Parton’s theme park is not a labor paradise is probably not enough to get Dolly Parton canceled. Neither is the idea that she refuses to talk politics in public, or that she allows racists to like her, or that she rewrote her labor rights anthem to help sell Squarespace. But it is the sort of thing that makes the reflexively trendy worship of Dolly — like a recent petition to replace all Confederate monuments in Tennessee with statues of Dolly, “the ‘Jesus of Appalachia’” — start to feel a little lazy, even cartoonish.
I’m not sure what’s going on here but this is my take based on far too much time spent reading Vox over the years. Vox always leaps in to write the “Ackshully…” columns, i.e. the contrarian take on any conventional wisdom. This is no different. If people are saying Dolly is wonderful and practically a saint (even if Dolly herself isn’t saying that) then Vox is ready and eager to take her down a notch.
The fact that they don’t have much in the way of evidence to do it with ought to probably make them reconsider their approach but it never does. In this case the author admits there isn’t even enough here to even excite the easily excited cancel culture mobs on social media. That’s a pretty low bar these days. If you can’t get those folks offended then maybe you should just give up trying. But it’s Vox so you still get this formulaic attempt at a takedown that no one wanted or asked for.
Read the whole thing. You won’t come away thinking any less of Dolly Parton, but you may come away thinking Vox is probably a very weird place to work.