When Jesus Tells a Boob Joke

Dolly Parton’s America

Sarah Condon / 11.20.19

It has not been easy for me to listen to the new podcast Dolly Parton’s America. I feel like I am hearing a preacher point to the most self righteous places in me and calling them out. I feel a deep connection to the women in my family. And also Dolly Parton’s America is the one place where you will hear a horrific story of Dolly’s mistreatment followed by her simply saying, “Forgiveness is all there is.”

In the opening episode, entitled Sad Ass Songs, Dolly talks about her early music. It is an apt title. Many of Dolly’s songs served as a kind of response to the older violent Appalachian ballad music that was all too often about the death of women. Her songs gave those dead women a chance to speak for themselves. They were the answer back from the grave. Helen Morales, author of Pilgrimage to Dollywood: A Country Music Road Trip through Tennessee remarked, “Those songs were insistent witnessing to women’s lives. Women being treated really badly by men.”

Her best known later work in this genre is the timeless “9 to 5.” The song offered the soundtrack that the feminist movement so desperately needed. What’s more, it is also just total fun. People who would have never considered themselves aligned with a feminist agenda, are suddenly belting out lyrics about the mistreatment of women in the workplace. Which is the pure genius of St. Dolly. This song is played so much in my household that you can slap a blonde wig on my 5 year old, squint your eyes, and swear that Kenny Loggins is about to come into the room.

Even more recently, she wrote a song about the history of the 19th amendment. That’s right folks, Dolly Parton has recently penned a ditty about a woman’s right to vote. And she rhymes huts and butts with no shame:

They said a woman’s place

Was staying in her hut.

Washin’, cookin’, cleanin’,

Wipin’ baby’s butts.

They said she’d never see the day

We’d equal up to them.

But here we are, we’ve come so far.

I guess we sure showed them.

She is singing our history back to us. She is telling us our stories in real time. And she has been doing it for generations of women. My daughter is on track to love Dolly Parton just as much as my grandmother loved her. Not just because the music is wonderful, but because the music is us.

And this is why I was relieved and fascinated to hear Dolly Parton’s America address the great critique of Dolly. Namely, people insist that she is “not political enough.” As though all of those lyrics and all of those stories count for absolutely nothing. In the fourth episode of the podcast, called Dollitics, (Dolly + politics), they dive right into this controversy.

In 2017, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Dolly Parton were all Emmy nominees that year. They had of course all starred in the movie 9 to 5 together decades earlier. As they approach the microphone to great fanfare, the mood in the room quickly shifts. Jane Fonda quotes a line from the original movie but directs it at Donald Trump, “Back in 1980 in that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.” Then Lily Tomlin leans into the mic and adds, “And in 2017, we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot.”

Dolly’s face changes completely. Lily Tomlin goes on to read the prompter and list the nominees for supporting roles. Dolly sees her chance. She takes to the mic and says, “Well, I know about support, if it hadn’t been for good support shock and awe here would be like flopsy and droopy.”

The audience laughs. She is of course referring to her boobs.

Jad Abumrad, the podcast creator commented, “Within just a few seconds, Dolly had disarmed the whole room.”

The fallout from this moment was big on both sides. People on the right felt like Dolly should have defended the president. People on the left felt like she should have joined Jane and Lily in the roast.

But what got me, and what got Abumrad himself, was her reflection on the entire incident. Dolly later said:

“What I wanted to say is ‘let’s pray for the president.’ Why don’t we pray for the president? If we are having all these problems, why don’t we just pray for Mr. President? It’s like I wanted to say that but I thought ‘no keep your damn mouth shut.’ That won’t work either. So tit joke. When all else fails be funny.”

This wrecked me for so many reasons.

First of all, Dolly Parton’s songs and lyrics have done more to narrate the struggles of women in America than any other music I know. She writes about poor children, about immigrants, and about dealing with mental illness. To say that she is not clear about her devotion to the least, the last, and the lonely, is to not really know Dolly’s songbook at all.

It also reminded me of how people demand that their preachers come down hard on a political stance. We insist that our religious leaders be prescriptive. We do it in the name of knowing what is right and what is wrong. But really, we do it because we want our preachers to tell us that we are right and that the people out there are wrong. The best preachers I know absolutely refuse to hand out these modern day indulgences.

Like Dolly, they sing the Gospel and trust God to do the naming.

The best preachers I know are descriptive. They tell stories of the other knowing that everyone in the room has felt like the other at some point in time. Like Dolly, they remember that everyone has felt pain and struggle. And also like Dolly, they use compassion as the gateway to the heart.

Yet perhaps what struck me most about this incident is just how much Dolly struck the posture of Christ. She sacrificed herself in that moment. We all know that the people who agreed with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin’s opinions on the president were just driven further into their stance and the people who did not agree were just made angrier. And there stood Dolly, in the middle of it all, making a boob joke at her own expense, in the context of a movie about feminism.

I mean, my word. She was unwilling to be the one who divided people, so she simply divided herself on behalf of everyone there.

This is not to suggest that any of us can “be” Jesus. But we can certainly offer one another glimpses of Him–which she gave us all that night. Besides, Dolly Parton knows and loves the Lord. She realizes that open-chested, open-hearted humility is the only thing that can help us anyway.