Pretty In The Past: Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton is the patron saint of those who choose to defy nature and pursue beauty on their own special terms. She is a glorious self-construction.
Publish date:
January 9, 2013
dolly parton, pretty in the past

Mirrors are impartial. They do not judge, they only report. As angry as we get with them, they are not responsible for what we see when we look into them. But they have a weakness — a crucial flaw that allows us to transcend the bonds of our circumstances. They can be fooled. They can be tricked. They can be deceived.

Show them who you really want to be and they will betray no evidence of whom you once were. A mirror only shows you reality if that’s what you want to see, but if you dream of being something special and will that dream into existence, it will show you so much more.

For example, a young girl is born in Sevierville, Tennessee. She’s the fourth child of a couple who will eventually have eight more. Her father is a tobacco farmer, but not a wealthy one, as the entire family lives in extreme poverty in a one-room cabin. The face this girl sees in the mirror is one that belongs to someone the world finds very easy to dismiss, but she knows from a very young age that isn’t who she is inside. She isn’t a poor southern farm girl destined to spend her life trapped in some dusty small town.

Her name is Dolly Rebecca Parton and by the time she finishes transforming herself, her reflection is that of a superstar—a woman whose name will become synonymous with outrageous glamour and infectious joy and who will be celebrated as a champion of self-expression and a symbol for everyone who refuses to take any mirror at its word.

The sting of “natural beauty” is that it is not something a person can aspire to. You are either born with it or you aren’t. As a result, most of us have to resort to its less-respected alternative, which is seldom called “unnatural beauty”, even though that’s really what it is.

Unnatural is a word most often used as a pejorative - used to describe something that has no right to exist. The problem with this is obvious. It assumes that nature is just and that it has a plan, when the reality is that it is simply all of the stuff that has happened, nothing more. We assign reason to it, because doing so makes us feel better, but there is no plan. It’s all just an accident.

Nature is unfair and accepting the supremacy of “natural beauty” means bowing down to the tyranny of the fortunate few, who did nothing more to achieve it than be born.

So nature can go screw itself.

Dolly Parton is the patron saint of those who choose to defy nature and pursue beauty on their own special terms. She is a glorious self-construction. She is every bit the person she wants to be, and she is that person without one iota of regret or shame. She knows who she is and what she has to do to be her and she doesn’t care one little bit if you know it too.

But that’s just the shell. Dolly’s beauty goes so much deeper than that. It begins somewhere within her, in that place that bestows an already special voice with genuine emotion and resonance. It is a voice that can go wherever it has to - whether it’s a celebration of happiness, a cry of desperation or something in-between - but it always remains relatable and utterly human. If there is natural beauty in Dolly’s design, this is where it is found - surrounded as it is by one of her amazing blond wigs.

Still, there are a lot of singers who can sing (almost as many as those who can’t), yet Dolly stands apart. So many of them also wear tight dresses, extravagant makeup, fake hair and wield custom-made appendages, yet Dolly stands apart. Quite a few turn to acting and expand their brand out into businesses far more lucrative than the recording industry, yet Dolly stands apart.

Some might say it’s because she’s been there longer and simply done it better and that’s largely true, but there’s another reason Dolly is special and so much greater than the sum of her fabulous parts.

She’s in on the joke.

Dolly Parton is amazing because Dolly Parton knows better than anyone why Dolly Parton is hilarious. She is incapable of deception - like a magician who tells you precisely how all of her tricks are done while she’s doing them. But instead of ruining her “mystique” her honesty only makes her more real.

She is the goddess we all can be, so long as we understand that a sense of humour and an appreciation of our inherent ridiculousness is not a weakness, but instead a powerful strength. You cannot hurt a person who knows who they are and has embraced it. Whenever someone makes a joke about Dolly Parton, she only becomes bigger and stronger. When she does it, it’s not self-deprecation; it’s self-celebration.

Dolly serves as proof that in order to construct, you first must have a solid foundation. All of the qualities that make her unique and legendary would still be there if you stripped away her famous exterior - she’d still be smart, funny and sing with that voice - but those qualities would not stand out as much if not covered by what she herself has described as a childhood-inspired tribute to small-town “tramps” and “loose women”.

“I want to look like trash!” she once told her mother when she heard her describe a peroxide-blond neighbour as such. Dolly knows what she thinks is beautiful and she doesn’t care if you agree with her or not. Tacky, trashy, garish, and trampy are only insults if you insist there is only one true - natural - way to make an impression in the world. And if you insist that, all you are doing is exposing the limits of your imagination.

Dolly Parton tricks her mirror everyday, but what it reflects is no illusion. That is who she is. That is why she is an idol to so many and will become an idol to so many more who have yet to be. None of us are limited to the immediate realities of our creation. We can rebuild. We can recreate. We can reimagine. We have the technology.

All we need is a dream and the will to make it happen.