This weekend, during a conversation about her extraordinarily successful career as a performer, Dolly Parton told The Guardian that she doesn’t call herself a feminist. “I think the way I have conducted my life and my business and myself speaks for itself. I don’t think of it as being feminist. It’s not a label I have to put on myself.”
Parton’s caginess about feminism clearly annoyed her Guardian interviewer (Dolly repeatedly deflected her pointed questions about sexual politics with some well-timed boob jokes); the reporter was eager to tie the London premiere of 9 to 5 The Musical with female empowerment in the #MeToo era. Dolly was having none of it. “I come from a family of six brothers, so I understand men and I’ve known more good men than bad men,” she said. Which doesn’t mean she has patience for predators. As she told The Guardian, “if someone was getting real aggressive with me, I’d scream or throw something at them. But, of course, I’ve been hit on – I’ve probably hit on some people myself!” As a young woman, Parton once pulled a pistol on an aggressive man in New York City.
But she refuses to be enlisted in others’ political posturing. Asked why she hasn’t joined her former costars Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in denouncing Donald Trump, Parton said, “I respect my audience too much for that, I respect myself too much for that. Of course, I have my own opinions, but that don’t mean I got to throw them out there because you’re going to piss off half the people.”
Compare Parton’s down-to-earth, savvy, tough-but-feminine sensibility with New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg’s recent paean to feminist Andrea Dworkin, whom she thinks Donald Trump has suddenly made relevant again.
Dworkin was best known for her 1987 book, Intercourse, which questioned whether sex could ever be consensual between men and women given women’s unequal position in society, and infamously equated heterosexual sex with violence. Her work relied heavily on personal stories of the abuse she claimed to have suffered throughout her life, some of which she appears to have invented. She’s arguably the theoretical godmother of overheated arguments about “rape culture” on campus and claims about the perniciousness of toxic masculinity everywhere else. With law professor Catherine MacKinnon, she happily trampled the First Amendment in her arguments about censoring pornography.
And yet Goldberg notes that Dworkin is enjoying something of a renaissance among younger feminists. A reissue of Dworkin’s book, Last Days at Hot Slit, prompted one critic recently to praise the “prescient, apocalyptic urgency” of Dworkin’s work. Rebecca Traister named Dworkin as an inspiration for her recent book about angry women, Good and Mad, and Goldberg notes approvingly that the women-only cult-as-co-working space The Wing now sells pins of Dworkin’s face to its members.
There’s even a new genre of what might be called Dworkin-lite literature for the feminist crowd, such as the comedic advice book, How to Date Men When You Hate Men, or a recent op-ed questioning whether sex dampens women’s necessary revolutionary purpose. The op-ed writer Nona Willis Aronowitz channels Dworkin when she approvingly quotes feminist Judith Levine. “Man-hating was necessary, liberating, and productive—and, anyway, irrepressible,” Levine wrote, a sentiment that prompts Aronowitz to admit, “Sometimes I wish I could conjure that unadulterated anger without worrying whether men find me palatable or sexy. How exhilarating would it be to free up that real estate in my brain?”
Dolly Parton might answer: Who’s stopping you? Parton, who showed up to her Guardian interview “dressed in a very characteristic outfit of skintight striped trousers, which show off her pocket-sized bottom-half proportions, a clinging ribbed polo neck, which shows off her differently proportioned top half, fingerless silver leather gloves, gigantic rings, even more gigantic earrings and high heels,” has spent her adult life upending other people’s expectations and assumptions by making her own rules (and building a wildly successful business empire in the process).
By contrast, Dworkin’s arguments about structural inequalities teach women that every consensual encounter should be approached as a “presumptive rape” and that women should direct their talents and resources into raging against the male machine. This message might speak to professional activists and grievance studies professors, but what guidance could it possibly offer the vast majority of women who want to marry or raise children, blaze a trail in a male-dominated field, or start their own business? Dworkin’s defect as a feminist philosopher wasn’t her rage; it was her nihilistic defeatism about women’s possibilities.
At a time when standards of behavior for dating and consensual sex and workplace interactions continue to be debated and rewritten (and where sweeping claims about male and female behavior often obscure more than clarify) we don’t need a revival of feminist thinking whose starting point is that men are either unnecessary or threatening. Nor do we need one that places women in the role of either infantilized victims or angry avengers. Contra Michelle Goldberg, what feminism needs is more Dolly and less Dworkin.