Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay, Katie Hoogendam, lauds the subversive celebrity of one of country music’s biggest stars.
Feminism: The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of sexual equality
Oxford English Dictionary
I was the first woman to burn my bra—it took the fire department four days to put it out.
Think “Dolly Parton” and what likely comes to mind is a set of gargantuan bosoms tucked neatly into a rhinestone-appliquéd, spandex outfit of one sort or another. This image does not correspond with what is typically conjured up by the contentious term, “feminist.” Many would in fact argue that Dolly Parton’s “Backwoods Barbie” shtick flies directly in the face of all that is properly feminist. Upon attending her musical 9 to 5 a couple years back, I went from viewing Dolly as a silly, frilly country music star to admiring her as a feminist figurehead. If you’re familiar with the musical, which is based on the 1970s television show of the same name, you know that it follows Dolly Parton as the female protagonist working in a male-dominated office where sexual harassment is par for the course. The musical was witty and feminist in its own way: the sexy protagonist refuses to be objectified and gives her boss his just dues, in the process rallying the female workers together in the cause of making the boss repent for his sexist shenanigans. But it wasn’t simply her take on sexism in the workplace that made me rethink Dolly; rather, it was the realization that that Dolly Parton, simply by being true to herself, has managed to enact feminist values in bold, blatant—and paradoxically, entirely subversive—ways. It’s as if, like the fembots of Austin Powers’ world, Dolly’s boobs distract us from her message, and whilst made vulnerable by her mammary glands, she shoots us right in the throat. BAM. This just got real.
Dolly Parton’s brains are bigger than her boobs
Dolly makes her living by gathering up all of the scattered ideas of Western world femininity—mother, lover, sister, mistress—whirring them together in the centrifuge of masquerade, and repackaging them into a postmodern-day Venus that most red-blooded folks can’t help but eat right up. But this Venus is real, and she don’t need no man to carve herself, friends—cause this sister invented the chisel. And this is why I love Dolly Parton; this is why she represents feminism to me: because she’s nobody’s fool. Patriarchy loomed (and continues to loom, although less so) large in the world of country music, the world that Dolly wanted so badly to break into. Instead of overtly using the techniques of first or even second wave (although it had not occurred yet) feminists to take down “the man” and force her way into the industry, Dolly, like so many punks and protestors, usurped the power of the oppressor by radical means. She, in essence, “took back” the female body from the “Man” who had voyeuristically colonized and objectified it. By slipping on spandex and marching around stage trussed up like a drag queen, Dolly is not pinching our cheeks like some playful playboy bunny—she’s smacking us in the face, over and over again, all the while making millions.
Dolly Parton’s modus operandus serves as but one (albeit shiny) example of what feminist principles can look like when exercised toward a purpose. No, her music did not win women the vote, or give us equal pay for equal work. Dolly hasn’t cracked the glass ceiling to become the first female president, or stopped sexual harassment in the workplace. She has done none of these things, and yet her work remains emancipatory. Why? Because Dolly’s success is the direct result of her capacity to understand the political, social, and cultural expectations of her time and, while recognizing that the world understood her sex and gender as liabilities, she refused to be marginalized, delegitimized, or disempowered by the system.
“Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” (Rebecca West)
I don’t want to be a country music star—I don’t even love country music—but I do live in Dolly Parton’s world. I am a woman, therefore, I must endure sexist jokes in the workplace (yes, even in 2012, even in a Christian workplace!). Because I do not have a penis, I cannot become a priest. In many denominations, I could not become a pastor, even if I felt that Christ—a man, while human—was calling me to do so. Because I have a vagina, in Saudi Arabia, I could not drive. In many cultures, I could not show any part of my body but my face or eyes, and I would have to be escorted by a man if I wanted to leave the house. Simply because I am a woman, I am more likely to be aborted or killed upon birth. In war, my female body becomes a battlefield, multiple and violent rapes the weapon of choice for armies of various stripes.
As a woman and a Christian, I am tired. I am tired of being lured into dichotomous debates in which I am expected to defend feminism as if it were something that were only forcibly, and not inherently, a Christian value. If Christianity is radical because it is based in Truth-with-a-capital-T, I would argue that feminism, understood by many to be “radical,” is radical for the very same reason—because there is a Truth in it that makes some people uncomfortable. Equality and respect only become radicalized when they exist within a political, social, or cultural context in which they are not the norm. Ultimately, feminism is about demanding equality among the sexes and respect for all people, regardless of their sex or gender (the socially constructed ideas about what is masculine and what is feminine). Unfortunately, feminism remains radical because our global social context does not uphold the values of equality and respect. When it does, “feminist” will become an obsolete term, one inherently implied in the word “human”—and if we’re really lucky, one implied in “Christian” as well.