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Lyrics and Life

 

By Caitlin Ward

06/17/2015
Backwoods Barbie
Dolly Parton

I grew up poor and ragged, just a simple country girl
I wanted to be pretty more than anything in the world
Like Barbie or the models in that Fredricks catalogue
From rags to riches, in my dreams, I could have it all

I’m just a backwoods Barbie
Too much makeup, too much hair
Don’t be fooled by thinking that the goods are not all there
Don’t let these false eyelashes lead you to believe
That I’m as shallow as I look, ’cause I run true and deep

I’ve always been misunderstood because of how I look
Don’t judge me by the cover, ’cause I’m a real good book
So read into it what you will, but see me as I am
The way I look is just a country girl’s idea of glam

I’m just a backwoods Barbie in a push up bra and heels
I might look artificial, but where it counts, I’m real
And I’m all dolled up and hopin’ for a chance to prove my worth
And even backwoods Barbies get their feelings hurt

I’m just a backwoods Barbie
Too much makeup, too much hair
Don’t be fooled by thinking that the goods are not all there
Yes, I can see where I could be misjudged upon first glance
But even backwoods Barbies deserve a second chance
I’m just a backwoods Barbie just asking for a chance

I’m just a backwoods Barbie

Dolly Parton has always been far more quotable than some people give her credit for, but there’s one line in particular I’ve always loved:

“I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb . . . and I also know I’m not blonde.”

There’s just something so fantastic about that line to me. There’s something so perfectly Dolly about it. She’s done incredibly well in a lot of different arenas of her life: singer, songwriter, entrepreneur, philanthropist, actress, all-around impressive human being. Given her background and the years her career has spanned, I’m guessing that hasn’t always been particularly easy. The 1950s and 1960s, when she started her career, were notoriously unkind in terms of taking women seriously as, well, just about anything, and that’s to say nothing about the economic disadvantages of being raised by a tobacco farmer in what’s often been characterized as a backwoods part of Tennessee. She’s never been one to complain about these things, mind you; it’s easier to understand what must have been a challenging upbringing from many of her songs than from what she’s actually said about being one of 12 children, or helping raise many of her younger siblings. The songs themselves are rarely particularly sad, mind you. They’re happy, or sweet, or funny, or clever. Her more sombre songs tend to be about characters, rather than her own experiences.

Of course, she’s not really known particularly well for those things in mainstream culture — the philanthropy, the entrepreneurship, the way she’s looked after her family, the record number of No. 1 singles. She’s known far more for what I would consider less important attributes. Actually, let’s just not beat around the bush: traditionally, she’s been known for being a blonde with a huge rack.

Of course, she doesn’t seem to mind that too much. She’s been unapologetic about her use of plastic surgery as she’s aged, and she’s been pretty candid and funny about her own vanity in songs like Backwoods Barbie. She’s a pretty cool lady, overall: one who doesn’t see a contradiction in being a garishly glamorous type of person who also has a lot to contribute to the world. And that’s why I love this quotation of hers so much. There’s the realization that she doesn’t need to define herself by other people’s perceptions of her, as she clearly has never allowed herself to do. There’s also the nudge and the wink that they’ve got it all wrong, anyway — not just about her intelligence, but also about the colour of her hair. It’s not a perfect sort of feminism, I suppose, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect feminism.

And it’s because of all of this — the respect I have for Dolly Parton, coupled with my love for this infinitely quotable quotation — that I was pretty annoyed when I watched a comedian pull apart the quotation and retold it as, “I’m not offended by all the dumb blonde jokes because I know I’m not dumb . . . and I also don’t understand them.”

See, more than anything else, I find this offensive because the joke’s not as good this way. The original quotation is funny because it unexpectedly switches back on itself. The rewritten quotation is funny because . . . why? Because it relies on an old trope about dumb blondes that was never funny in the first place — a trope that Parton was cleverly subverting. The rewritten quotation isn’t funny. It was a good joke that was made into a hack joke.

The particular comedian and the particular situation in which this happened strike me as not particularly relevant, because it’s hardly an unusual circumstance. If you pay attention, it becomes obvious fairly quickly that a lot of comedy (stand-up or otherwise) relies on people laughing at things that are supposed to be funny, rather than things that actually are funny. Jokes that are reinforcing stereotypes: fat people are lazy, gay men are effeminate, women are crazy, people of colour are . . . well, depends which minority, I suppose. I’d rather not go through all of them, because that’ll be depressing for all of us.

Of course, calling people out on this isn’t always particularly effective. They tell you to have a sense of humour, already. It’s just a joke. What do you mean I shouldn’t say that? This is political correctness run amok. Or, at least, that’s what Jerry Seinfeld said recently. He told comedians not to go to college campuses because it’s too politically correct, there. Humour is lost on college students because they call you racist and sexist when . . . what, you say racist and sexist things? I wasn’t too clear on what the problem was.

Or, alternatively, college students expect you to be a little less lazy. Because here’s the thing: comedians who are genuinely clever, genuinely subversive? They have rarely been accused of being politically incorrect. Offensive, edgy, even dangerous, yes. Some of them have been brought up on obscenity charges, historically (Lenny Bruce). Some of them established private clubs to get around those obscenity laws (Peter Cook). Some of them got in trouble with everyone all the time and seemed not to care much at all (Bill Hicks).

But politically incorrect? Not so much. And the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to suspect that “political correctness” is not so much a force destroying dialogue and/or comedy, as it is a term people use to trivialize real concerns and disempower people who are often already pretty disempowered.

You see, good comedy punches up. If it’s going to take a shot, it takes shots at the establishment, at the powerful, at accepted norms that are maybe not actually that acceptable. Parton’s quotation — the one I like so much — it takes a shot at a sexist society that tries to force her into a box. But its retooling — where Parton is rewritten as the dumb blonde she’s supposed to be — it punches down. It’s trying to put a woman in a box she’s worked very hard to break out of, and one she shouldn’t have to be in in the first place. And punching down, at those less powerful? That’s not comedy. It’s being a dickhead.

Ward is a Saskatoon-based freelance writer who spends her days (and most nights) working at a small Catholic college. Her less eloquent thoughts can be found at www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings