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Growing up in the Shadow of the Eternal Sunshine of Dolly Parton

“Womanhood was a difficult thing to get a grip on in those hills, unless you were a man.” — Dolly Parton, on growing up in rural Tennessee

For over 50 years, Dolly Parton has been a mainstay of American culture. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who she was, and she looms large and sparkling in some of my earliest memories. She was hugely popular when I was a very little girl in the mid-70s, and she starred in multiple iterations of the ubiquitous variety shows that my family watched, gathered around the console TV as if around a hearth, its flickering blue light promising a world beyond our Texas living room. She was and is an icon, an aspirational character of talent and light. But, honestly? When I was a little girl, it was the boobs that intrigued me. The boobs, the wigs, the sequins and the tawdry excess of it all was candy to my little eyes.

An early memory: when I was three or four, I’d stand in the blazing Texas sun on the blank concrete slab that was our patio and gaze at my reflection in the sliding glass door, singing plaintively into the end of a jump rope. Because I was playing at being Dolly, I’d stuffed two foam balls from my toybox down the front of my little t-shirt. They were two different sizes, and the unbalance bothered me, but I was impressed enough by the sound of my own voice that I managed to overlook it.

Here’s another weird thing I did sometimes when I was a little girl: I would record what I thought of as subliminal messages on a cassette tape and play them to myself while I was falling asleep. They were breathlessly whispered messages to myself, both because I somehow felt that would make them more effective and because I was embarrassed about making them and afraid my parents would hear and tease me about it. The whole thing is odd and more than a little cringe-worthy, but the saddest thing is what the messages said. I would love it if they were all about being clever and talented and a good friend and daughter. But they weren’t. They went something like this: “Leah, you are beautiful and sexy and boys can’t stay away from you. You have big, beautiful breasts like Dolly Parton that make everyone look at you.”

It’s hard to disentangle all that I’ve learned about Dolly in the intervening years from what it was that first engaged and fascinated me so intensely. I remember having much more complicated feelings about her as a child than I do now. To my grownup self, she seems like a glorious fairy godmother, a campy and delightful being of pure joy. But then, when I was discovering her, I had an odd approach-avoidance conflict about her, and I think it made her even more thrilling.

She scared me a little if I’m being honest. She was frightening to me in the way that Santa Claus or other characters in costume are frightening to some little kids. Their special otherness, their fanciness, is so exciting that it’s kind of like being on a roller coaster to contemplate them too much.

Once I started kindergarten, I started to hear the crude jokes about her body and appearance from other kids, both boys and girls. It made me acutely aware that what I valued about her was something that I should be ashamed of wanting — but also something that, could I get it, would garner me the attention I wanted so badly. When, by third grade, I’d suddenly developed breasts so large that I was labeled a “slut” by my peers and gawked at by adult men in public, I was deeply ashamed, and believed that with my fervent wishes to be like Dolly I’d brought it on myself.

And then there were her songs.

“Jolene! Jolene! Jolene! Jo LENE! I’m begging of you please, don’t take my man.” It’s the first non-nursery-rhyme song I knew the words to. I felt those lyrics deep down, and they inspired a complicated web of emotions in me. First, it was inconceivable that anyone could take Dolly’s man. But then, she seemed authentically terrified of losing him. So, this was how it was? You could be gorgeous and talented and kind and funny and famous, for god’s sake, and yet still you couldn’t be sure if the man you were with wouldn’t just take off with someone else? That couldn’t be right. I wanted to believe there was something, some shortcoming in her that made her susceptible to being left. Something I’d figure out before any man could ever leave me. And that made me want to find fault with her on some level. There must be something wrong with her, something that would enable Jolene to get her man away from her. Because if there wasn’t something wrong with her, then you couldn’t count on a man not to just run off with some floozy. And that was a reality too troubling to contemplate.

I was nine when my parents took me to the movie theater to see The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I don’t remember if there was any discussion about whether that was a good idea, given the subject matter and my age and all. That movie was the first time I remember hearing the song “I Will Always Love You” (which I learned years later she wrote the same day she wrote “Jolene”), and it reinforced the idea that romantic love involved a lot of begging and martyrdom — at least on the part of the woman.

The feel-good musical was about a popular brothel (called “The Chicken Ranch”) in a small Texas town that local authorities were threatening to shut down. Dolly played Mona, the kind-hearted madam of the place, and if I didn’t already think being a hooker seemed like a great career option, I did after that movie. I’d never seen a group of women having so much fun together! All singing and dancing and being adored by the bumbling men who visited the big house where they lived like sorority sisters. It seemed fortuitous that I lost one of my baby teeth at that movie. It popped right out in a Rolo candy — a sure sign that I was growing up. And grown-up women fell into a few camps, from what I could tell.

There were moms and teachers, and I already knew I didn’t want anything to do with either of those things. There were women who worked in offices (which my mom also did) like those dreary, sad women in 9 to 5, the other Dolly movie I’d seen. That was another life I definitely wanted no part in. And then, on the other end of the spectrum, there were the fancy ladies who wore costumes and lots of makeup and were generally adored by everyone as they drove men wild. That? That was the life for me.

A few years ago, I heard the slowed-down version of Jolene that went viral, and it shook me. Gone was the helium-baby voice and the frantic, rollicking pacing of the music. It was Dolly, but it was deep and it was tragic in its tone. For once, the sound of the song matched its desperate, broken lyrics. I recognized it as the shadow side of a woman we’d known as all sparkling light for the last 50 years. Is that who Dolly really is, or is it a distorted version, Dolly in a funhouse mirror? I’d guess the truth is somewhere in between. As guileless as she’d have us believe she is, she’s obviously a great artist and shrewd businesswoman. She’s curated her image in a spectacular way. We really don’t know much about her that she hasn’t chosen to let us know, and that’s kind of miraculous.

Today I have nothing but love for Dolly, despite my complex childhood relationship with her image. She was a self-made woman in a time when that didn’t seem like an option. She took the raw material of who she was, a poor little hillbilly girl with musical talent and a banging body, and created an entertainment empire. After half a century of super-stardom, her grace and kindness are legendary. I’ve never heard a negative thing about her, and that’s astonishing.

In retrospect, I learned some hard lessons about being a woman from Dolly. But she was and is an authentic teacher who knew what it took to survive and thrive in a man’s world. I regret a lot about my childhood, and though I detest so much about the world and what it does to those it sees as weak, I am eternally grateful for Dolly Parton and her graceful, smiling transit through its pain.

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