There’s not much room for ambiguity in our times, as some Hollywood stars have found out, yet Parton’s philanthropy, which includes her funding of a Covid-19 vaccine, means she gets a free pass. But it’s easy to read between the lines, says Adam White

Dolly Parton probably isnt Jesus, but the jurys still out. She emerged from Tennessees Smoky Mountains wearing a coat of many colours, and through her songcraft and earnest sense of goodness, she has become a rare unifier among global chaos. Her lyrics, which burst with memories, traumas and wit, continue to touch those from every walk of life, Parton resonating with young and old and every colour and creed. Her philanthropy has helped teach children to read, and funded Covid-19 vaccines. At the same time, Parton has sat on the fence politically, refusing to align with nor condemn any particular ideology or US president, while insisting that its the key to her longevity. Its a bit more complex than that.
Many have tried and failed to get Parton to open up about her political leanings over the years. Its a game only made trickier by her skills at deflection, whether by deploying a canny topic pivot or, more commonly, a joke about her breasts. I dont do politics, she told the acclaimed biographical podcast Dolly Partons America in 2019. I have too many fans on both sides of the fence. Of course, I have my opinion, but I learned years ago to keep my mouth shut about things.
Its not just an increasingly polarised electorate thats inspired all those questions, though. Parton is a hodgepodge of left-wing and right-wing signifiers, a red state icon who refused to critique Donald Trump, and who also happens to express love and adoration for every gender, sexuality and colour imaginable. Dolly Partons Christmas on the Square, her new Netflix film, is a testament to her occasionally jarring bipartisanship. It is thick with God-fearing spirituality and occasionally creepy nostalgia for small town Americana, but it is also hyper-queer in execution think Its a Wonderful Life if directed by Divine. Parton appears early on as a heavily made-up bag lady carrying a box of change and her rags fashioned into a glamorous shawl, while the film casts veritable gay icon Christine Baranski as an immaculately coiffed festive grinch. Enough said.
That kind of shapeshifting, or Partons ability to be exactly what you want her to be, depending on the angle, is why she is as beloved as she is. Its also why she provokes such confusion. In Dolly Partons America, host Jad Abumrad repeatedly questioned Partons limp stances on feminism and right-wing boogeymen. He recalled her visible discomfort at a joke made at Trumps expense at the 2017 Emmys, in which her Nine to Five co-stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin repurposed a line from the film to condemn the then-president. Parton, on stage with the pair, pointedly stayed quiet, then made a quip about her boobs. In another episode of the podcast, Parton bristled when asked if she identified as a feminist. I dont believe in crucifying a whole group just because a few people have made mistakes, she told Abumbrad. The word feminist is like I hate all men.
Read more
The way Parton tells it is that, first and foremost, she is a businesswoman. Just glance at her biography, and that is clear. Parton is one of country musics most prolific crossover artists, and only became embraced the world over after putting the work in. It was her choice to move into a more chart-friendly direction, shifting elegantly between pop, country and bluegrass since the Seventies, just as Nine to Five was a calculated move to broaden her mainstream visibility. Discussing politics, particularly for an act whose earliest fame came within the conservative world of Sixties Nashville, would have potentially dented her bottom line long ago.
Ive seen things before, like the Dixie Chicks, Parton told The Guardian in 2019, referencing the hysterical backlash the country trio endured after condemning the Iraq War in 2003. You can ruin a career for speaking out Of course, I have my own opinions, but that dont mean I got to throw them out there, because youre going to piss off half the people.
That was the old way of doing things, though. In 2020, on the heels of a catastrophic Republican presidency and a summer of international protest over systemic racism and police brutality, being apolitical in the public eye is no longer a desired approach to stardom. More and more, its considered a hindrance. Taylor Swift faced a significant backlash for keeping mum on her politics amid the 2016 election, later expressing regret at not publicly declaring her Democratic values and opposition to Trump. Like Parton, she alluded to the treatment of Dixie Chicks in 2003 as the reason for her silence.
The Guardians of the Galaxy star Chris Pratts increasingly unpopular status on social media is directly linked to his political ambiguity, while the controversy swirling around Ellen DeGeneres this summer was at least partly inspired by her eagerness to pal around with George W Bush. Even a one-time figure of shiny, apolitical blandness like Jennifer Aniston has become outspokenly political in recent months: supporting Black Lives Matter, and chastising Covid conspirators and those voting for Kanye West instead of Joe Biden in the presidential election. Open signalling of your values, and using your A-list privilege for political good, has become a fundamental part of modern celebrity branding.
Parton has yet to submit. It means many of her modern interviews are slightly awkward, Parton talking around matters of importance and sticking to an admittedly anodyne script of wishing everyone well and calling for unity. But that she hasnt been condemned for it speaks to something deeper than what Parton actually articulates. Parton hasnt called for Trumps head, nor got behind figures in the Democratic Party in comparison instead she has signalled her values with actions rather than dialogue. It helps explain why there hasnt been as much of an anxious urge from many of her left-wing fans to have her speak out, even if interviewers continue to grill her over it.
Glance at Partons choices over the years and theres a sense that we already know where her heart lies. Whether she likes the word or not, Partons feminist credentials are clear, from her shattering of the dumb blonde stereotypes that led her to early mockery (This dumb blonde is nobodys fool, she sang on the opening track of her debut album in 1966), to her pioneering fights to maintain ownership of her music and lyrics. She has donated millions to Aids research and was an early advocate for gay marriage and trans rights, and has also used her incredible wealth to give back. Dollywood, her official theme park, is the largest employer in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near where she was born, and it has pumped millions into the local economy.
Parton and her Nine to Five co-stars Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Dabney Coleman
Through her Imagination Library charity, more than 100 million books have been sent in the post to hundreds of thousands of children under the age of five in countries worldwide. This year she donated a million dollars to research into a vaccine for Covid-19 a pandemic that was made incredibly political by right-wing figures who believed it was, depending on the week, relatively harmless or a communist hoax.
In August, Parton told Billboard magazine that she supported Black Lives Matter (Do we think our little white asses are the only ones that matter? she asked). In 2018, she removed the use of the word Dixie from an attraction at Dollywood citing its confederate origins. As soon as you realise that [something] is a problem, you fix it, Parton explained. Dont be a dumbass. Thats where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.
Partons politics dont exist in binaries, of a kind weve become accustomed to. She is not a Democrat, nor a Republican, but a representative of something else entirely a Dolly party, if you will. Her politics are based on what is just or right, rooted in compassion, the sharing of wealth, and helping wherever help is needed. If you think about it, her values are far removed from not only traditional Republicanism but also Trumpism and even Biden and Kamala Harris. Parton appears to have far more in common with the progressive left than any other political ideology.
The mysteries that surround Parton are an important part of her legend: the husband that no one has ever seen; the tattoos covering her body that may or may not exist; whether or not she actually did secretly produce Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her politics have often been mentioned alongside all of the above, just another ambiguous element to the Parton we all know and love. In truth, though, theyre probably the most unambiguous thing about her, as fundamental and obvious to the Dolly Parton story as the chest shes always poking fun at. For someone who regularly claims that she doesnt do politics, Dolly Parton is more political than most.