Parton is back in the news because a $1 million donation she made to Vanderbilt University Medical Center for coronavirus research ended up backing what early data suggests is a highly promising coronavirus vaccine. Any good news about the fight against the global pandemic is cause for exuberance, especially leading into what is likely to be a bitter and painful winter. But the reaction to Parton’s backing — ultimately compared with the $955 million the U.S. government plowed into Moderna’s vaccine — suggests an even broader hunger for a kind of champion who doesn’t show up much in action movies.
Let’s get the inevitable out of the way first: Even at 74, Parton looks a lot like an exaggerated cartoon superheroine. It’s a deliberate, and carefully cultivated, look. She’s said she took her initial style inspiration from “streetwalking women”; nicknamed her breasts “Shock” and “Awe”; and noted that her tiny waist is a family inheritance.
The way superheroines are drawn, and what they’re expected to do with their disproportionate bodies, have always reflected the genre’s ambivalence about powerful women. Apparently, it’s fine to face off with a human supervillain or throw yourself into battle against an alien invader — as long as you’ve got a perfect blow-out and a Vibranium-strength push-up bra. Superhuman physical strength is fine, the message goes, but don’t let it get in the way of conventional hyper-sexiness.
But the ability to land a punch — or to take one — is only one kind of toughness.
Parton’s heroism takes a different form and meets a different set of needs. Rather than distracting her fans from their day-to-day concerns with large-scale fictional conflicts, her music makes the mundane feel epic. Love and heartbreak, the fight against a rotten boss, pursuit of a professional ambition: All these universal experiences get respectful treatment in her songbook and in her movies.
Her long-running philanthropy meets material needs as well as emotional ones. Parton helped raise $8.9 million in disaster relief for families affected by 2016 wildfires in the Great Smoky Mountains, sending them $1,000 checks for six months in a kind of celebrity experiment with universal basic income.
Plenty of parents know Parton as a kind of literary fairy godmother. Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, which began serving kids in East Tennessee in 1995, now mails 1 million books a month to children in the United States and around the world. Though studies of such programs show mixed results on whether they improve literacy rates, there’s no denying the program’s fundamental kindness and generosity. In families where books might feel like a luxury, Parton helps children build their own libraries. And even in households full of books, the monthly arrival of a new package addressed to a child, rather than to her parents, sends an early message to very young people that there is someone out there in the great big world thinking of them kindly.
These sorts of sustained efforts aren’t the stuff of billion-dollar box-office takes. Nor, frankly, is the sort of basic and committed kindness Parton embodies in these philanthropies a quality that’s gotten much traction in national political circles in recent years. But they matter enormously to the people who benefit from them.
Parton also provides proof that practicality and bluntness can coexist perfectly well with empathy, and that caring about others’ feelings isn’t weakness. That’s a tonic, especially at a moment when cruelty has become something of a fetish, and when a lot of political debates have gotten tangled up in obfuscating jargon.
As she told Billboard magazine earlier this year, discussing a reimagining of one of her businesses that had been criticized for leaning into antebellum ideas about the South: “As soon as you realize that [something] is a problem, you should fix it. Don’t be a dumbass. That’s where my heart is. I would never dream of hurting anybody on purpose.” (That interview went viral for her embrace of Black Lives Matter in typical Parton fashion, declaring, “Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little White asses are the only ones that matter? No!”)
Not all problems in public life are that simple to solve, of course, just as not all charitable donations end up funding a successful vaccine moonshot. But the exuberant popular embrace of Parton, one of the few consensus figures left in a fractured America, is testament to the power of doing good and doing it consistently. That’s the sort of superheroism the country needs most right now — and all of us can aspire to it.
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