In the last few years, many people have discussed Dolly’s seemingly public silence on political issues while speaking to them in her work. They point out that she has never answered a political question point blank but that she uses her art to show “leftist” pride. Her conceived political silence made its way to trending again this week as she asked the state legislator in our shared home state of Tennessee to not put up a statue of her.
In the great reckoning that was 2020, many Tennesseans started debating hot button topics like changing racist high school mascots and the removal of confederate statues. As the coming civil war began boiling in Tennessee (much like the last one) and grown people were at each other’s throats claiming that their high school mascots were still very important to their lives today and that history was being erased, a solution bubbled up out of the roiling water – replace all the confederate statues at the state capitol with statues of Dolly Parton. Much like the woman herself, it was a solution that everyone in Tennessee could love with ease. As the legislators moved towards a vote to approve her statue, she asked them to pause, saying that it just wasn’t the right time to put her on a pedestal.
Since she was on my mind, I wanted to put on a Dolly movie. Steel Magnolias is my favorite, but I’ve seen that one so many times that writing about it would feel stale. I decided to branch out and binge watch “Heartstrings” on Netflix.
I cannot express this enough – DO NOT BINGE THIS SHOW. It has been a pretty traumatic day for me over here. A constant sob fest. I think that I’m done, I think that *this* story won’t hit me – I mean I have no emotional memories of the Vietnam War – but NO. I repeatedly cried so hard that my partner laughed at me while my tears soaked in to my cat’s fur.
I do, however, recommend that every person watch this show. They watch like parables, like Vegetales for adults. (Dolly > Larry the Cucumber). On the surface it may seem like Dolly is speaking politics through her work again, but upon closer examination I would argue that she isn’t even touching politics – she’s teaching lessons on humanity.
The reason that Dolly appeals to such a large audience (literally everyone in the world…have you ever met someone that doesn’t like her?) isn’t that she’s mum on politics, it’s that she accepts us all as who we are without judgement. The first episode is a retelling of her song Jolene in which Jolene is the main character. The wife in the story is actually friends with Jolene and misplaces the weight of her own insecurities about her marriage on Jolene’s shoulders. It’s a compelling story from a perspective that we don’t hear very often, that of the third woman. Some may try to draw lines to Monica Lewinsky and say that Dolly is going political, but I think it’s a bigger picture than that. I think that Dolly is encouraging us to look at all of the “other women”, not just the famous ones. Dolly is encouraging us to give people the benefit of the doubt, and not judge them as the sum of their parts. She’s reminding us that the way we look at people has more to do with ourselves than anything else, and that we all deserve a clean slate if we’re willing to work for it.
Two Doors Down, the second episode, may seem like we’re venturing in to political territory because a major plot in the story is that a southern woman’s gay son is having trouble coming out to her. I think that rather than being written for her LGBTQ+ fans, that episode was written for their mothers. Their southern, conservative mothers who want to be “hip with the times” by accepting everyone, but struggle with what true acceptance means. That episode is reaching out to all of those women, telling them that they still have time to come around and that when they do, they will still be loved.
The rest of the episodes play out in an emotional blur that I couldn’t clearly write about without more distance (I’m still a wreck). They’re all like wonderful and diverse Hallmark Movies, they come off as very comforting and then, in the last fifteen minutes, rip your heart out and leave your cheeks wet with the rivers of a thousand tears. Each episode teaches me empathy for someone whose shoes I never could have otherwise imagined walking in.
I’ve heard over and over lately that it’s disgusting that human rights has become a political issue. I think, maybe, Dolly Parton is trying to remind us that things like love, acceptance, and humility aren’t political – they’re human. It sounds idealistic, and you may say that I’m dreamer. But I’m not the only one. Dolly Parton has created her perfect world, and she is already living in it. Let’s join her.