We Need To Talk About Dolly Parton

09/19/2017 05:22 pm ET Updated Sep 28, 2017

Much has been said about Sean Spicer’s surprise appearance at the Emmy Awards Sunday night. Those in attendance and those of us at home were shocked when host Stephen Colbert momentarily called Spicer on stage to deliver a joke at his own expense. He repeated the infamous lie about inaugauration-crowd size, but with an Emmys spin. The reactions were hilarious, but there was also instant anger over the way the media was once again normalizing very dangerous parts of the Trump administration. Spicer knowingly lied to the American public for seven months about a vast number of things. A one-off joke at the Emmys can’t make up for the damage he’s done.

But what struck me most during the telecast, and the subsequent rush to pontificate on the normalization of Spicer, was the relative radio silence about another uncomfortable normalizing moment smack dab in the middle of one of the evening’s highlights: a 9 to 5 reunion featuring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, and Dolly Parton together on stage. I heard relatively few people saying anything about a moment I also found quite unnerving.

As soon as the three legends took the stage, Jane Fonda began with, “Back in 1980, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot” (which also was the film’s tagline). Lily Tomlin quickly followed with, “And in 2017, we STILL refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot. A clear reference to Trump in the White House.

Many online and in media praised this moment for its resistance symbolism, after all the film itself is a feminist classic where female employees take revenge on their misogynist boss. They kidnap him and hold him captive while successfully running his business. Sunday, Fonda and Tomlin redeployed the well-known film plot to criticize the president of the United States. An article at Vox even claimed the exchange as the most strident anti-Trump moment of the night.

Very few are saying anything about what came next, though. Most clips of the moment now featured online even cut out the immediate aftermath of Tomlin’s line, showing instead an edited pastiche of the exchange.

Dolly Parton, standing between the other two women, looked immediately shocked and surprised, perhaps a little perturbed at Tomlin’s words. All while keeping that signature Dolly Parton cheerful smile on her face. Then, in what seemed to be an awkward and unscripted adlib, Parton walked back Tomlin’s comment by joking that it wasn’t political but actually referencing Dabney Coleman, co-star in the film. She laughed and assured the audience Coleman wasn’t still tied up, and is actually doing fine, in 2017. Now it was Tomlin’s and Fonda’s turn to be annoyed, but they also hid it well. Parton quickly moved on to jokes about her breasts and vibrators that got lots of laughs from the crowd.

But what does it mean for Parton to defend and normalize Trump, albeit in a roundabout way, during the very moment hailed as a major representation of resistance? Especially given the fact we know all to well—that 53% of white female voters voted for Trump in an unexpected shift, not anticipated by polls. That 53% swung the election in Trump’s favor. And Parton swung Tomlin’s and Fonda’s political critique in Trump’s favor on Sunday too.

I love Dolly Parton. But when I watched her on Sunday, I got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I don’t know if Dolly Parton voted for Trump, but does it really matter? Because what she did on Sunday served as an apology for his actions—actions that have violently targeted LGBT and queer communities (among many other groups of people) that make up a large portion of Parton’s most avid fanbase.

Regardless of her vote, Parton outed herself as one of the 53%. And we can’t ignore that, especially as fans, especially if we’re white people trying to grapple and challenge our own relationship to white supremacy in Trump’s America. Ignoring these things is how we got here in the first place. Ignoring Parton’s comments and continuing to celebrate her uncritically is what allows a White Feminism™ (a brand of feminism oblivious to intersectional differences, and one that often colludes with white supremacy) to continue to hide in plain sight under the guise of a progressive politics. A White Feminism™ that ironically cost Hillary Clinton, a white woman, the office of president.

Dolly Parton is an estimable humanitarian, but does that excuse her comments? She’s a huge inspiration and influence to many LGBTQ people, but does that mean we should look the other way this one time? She’s a feminist role model in country music, so does she get a pass? No. Sure, she might have reasons or excuses, but in 2017, there’s no such thing as political neutrality and Parton’s words chose a side whether we wanted them to or not.

It’s easy to express anger at Jimmy Fallon for tousling Trump’s hair or James Corden for posing in cutesy photos with Spicer while kissing him on the cheek. It’s far more difficult to be critical of a beloved artist and icon, but what Parton did is maybe even more dangerous because it flies under the radar and gets internalized. She maintains a more-or-less apolitical image while being anything but. We have to be critical.

On Sunday, Dolly Parton provided a moment we can all use to reflect on our own complicity in Trump’s normalization. How did we react to her words and why, especially compared with reaction to Spicer? Why are so many ignoring what Parton said? Question her and question yourself. Resist being complicit with the normalization of Trump in all ways you can. Otherwise, to paraphrase Parton’s own lyrics from “9 to 5,” he’s (Trump’s) got us right where he wants us; that man is out to get us all.

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