Facing Mean Girls: Dolly Parton’s Unexpected Lesson On Pure Class

We've all encountered her before: the girl with the appearance of calm who's really out for blood. Maybe you would call her a “mean girl” or a “frenemy.” How do you deal with someone who's always trying to get a rise out of you without making a fool out of yourself?

By April Ramos6 min read
Getty Images/Theo Wargo

As women, one of the worst things about being the more emotionally responsive sex is we can sometimes be the more emotionally cunning sex as well. Call it toxic femininity, if you will. Malicious emotional manipulation is often used by women who are deeply unsettled within themselves whether that be due to jealousy, envy, insecurity, or bitterness. Many times these women learn to mask their negative emotions (and intentions) with fake friendliness and even disingenuous compliments. 

This fake and phony-ness is exactly what we see in the 1977 interview of Dolly Parton by journalist and broadcaster Barbara Walters.

The Interview

When you think of Dolly Parton, the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t subtlety or reserve, but in this interview, not only is she the undisputed Queen of Country, she’s also the Queen of Class. The feminist icon trailblazer Barbara Walters uses many mean girl behaviors that you’ve probably seen before. Maybe you have a friend, a coworker, or even a relative who employs these cunningly catty techniques, knowingly or not. Nevertheless, Dolly (and psychology) has much to teach us in how to respond. Get out your pads and paper, ladies, because class is now in session.

The Not So Subtle Insult

Barbara Walters: “Dolly, where I come from, would I have called you a hillbilly?”

As if trained by the matriarch Gilmore herself, Barbara Walters clearly puts down Dolly Parton by separating herself, as if to say “you’re not high class like me.” Walters uses wordplay gymnastics to insult Parton without it sounding like a direct insult. 

Dolly Parton: “If you had’ve, it would’ve been something very natural, but I would’ve probably kicked your shins or something.”

The usually bold and brazen Parton gives her first response with the most gentle of warnings. Parton hints at her discomfort with the joke, but avoids any displays of anger or offense. According to Psychology Today, humor is a great way to take emotional tension out of an insult. This is a subtle way of saying, “Hey, you need to step back a little,” without intensifying the issue or giving the aggravator any satisfaction. 

Parton also plays along with the hypothetical. Instead of confronting the insult, she addresses the actual question Barbara asked and not the insinuations behind it. Mean girls often speak in very obvious code. They say things with strong negative connotations, like asking in a tone of disgust, “Is that what you’re wearing to the party tonight?” They know you can read between the lines, but when you do, they often accuse you of overreacting or reading into something that wasn’t there. This is called gaslighting and is a common tactic of narcissistic people. 

Sometimes, avoiding that underlying, coded conversation altogether is enough to put out their fire. For example, instead of becoming upset at what they’re truly meaning behind their carefully chosen words, like snapping back, “What are you trying to say about my outfit! You don’t like it?” you can simply answer, “Yes. This is what I’m wearing. Isn’t it great?” A plus side to this approach is if they didn’t actually mean to insult you, you avoid needless arguments and drama. 

The Insisting

So, what happens when you try the subtle approach, even give them the benefit of the doubt, and they double down on their attempts to aggravate you?

Barbara Walters: “But when I think of hillbillies, am I thinking of your kind of people?”

Parton gave Walters a chance to walk back her insulting question, laughed it off, and took the high ground, but Walters insisted on getting under Parton’s skin – on live television! At this point, most of us would be hot under the collar. Many times, this is where girls become either emotionally and verbally combative or self-deprecating and embarrassed. Dolly Parton does neither. 

Dolly Parton: “I think you probably are. The people who grew up where I was, we’re the ones who you would consider the Little Abner people, Daisy Mae and that sort of thing. They took that kind of thing from people like us, but we were a very proud people, people with a lot of class. It was country class, but it was a great deal of class, and most of my people were not that educated, but they are very, very intelligent. Good common sense, horse sense, we call it.”

"Acceptance may seem weak but can be the strongest response of all,” according to Neal Burton, M.D., and this is exactly what Parton does. She starts by verbally accepting that Walters and others would, in fact, see her as a hillbilly; which, if we’re honest, is like a slur equivalent to “white trash.” However, she never agrees with that opinion. 

With the self-control of a mother gently correcting a naughty child, Parton speaks her mind about how people like her have been historically mocked in comics like Li'l Abner. She goes on to say that while people will mock or degrade her community, they have intelligence and dignity, in spite of the negative stereotypes. In bringing up these details, Parton highlights Walters’ petty insults with calm and admirable self-assurance – and loads of horse sense as well!

The Blame Deflecting and Personal Information Seeking

Walters, seeing that Parton is skilled in replying to agitation antics, decides it’s time to move on to another topic: Dolly’s body and looks. 

After Walters hints at Parton’s possible plastic surgery, Parton says that she has always been “pretty well-blessed,” as have others in her family; however, Walters refuses to let her off the hook that easily. With the utmost cowardice, she once again acts as if it’s “someone else’s” question:

Barbara Walters: “My assistant asked me something, and I’m going to blame it on her because I wouldn’t have had the nerve otherwise, is it all you?”

Classic mean girl move: attacking while maintaining an innocent facade. In spite of what she says, Walters not only has the nerve to ask the question (because she chooses deliberately to ask it) but also has the nerve to try to act as if it is someone else’s fault that she must ask such an invasive question. It’s not my question, it’s my assistant’s question. It’s not my fault.

Good rule of thumb: watch out for the “friend” who always comes to you with bad things that others are saying about you. Sometimes they’re too afraid to insult you themselves, so they carry it out through someone else’s words, whether real or fake. Ask yourself why others feel so comfortable talking badly about you to them. Better yet, try asking them what they said in the moment to defend you.

Dolly Parton: “A lot of people say I have, a lot of people say I haven’t. I always say that if I hadn’t have had it on my own, I’m just the kind of person that would’ve had me some made.”

What I love about Dolly’s response here is she doesn’t fall victim to the prying or shaming. Her response shows that whether the rumors are true or not (which she chooses to not directly answer), she has nothing to be embarrassed about. The shock factor of the question could have led her to overshare due to frazzled emotions, but that’s one of the worst things you can do with a toxic person. 

The true lesson here is to never divulge personal information to someone you don’t know you can trust, especially if they’re prone to gossip, and never feel the need to fully answer a question just because it was asked. Plus, nothing is classier than leaving an air of mystery as opposed to being a constantly open book.

The Fake Compliment

At this point, Walters doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere with her edgy questions, and you can see and hear her frustration about it. She begins to practically scold Parton about her performance looks, but she still uses mean girl tactics to do so.

Barbara Walters: “You don’t have to look like this! You’re very beautiful. You don’t have to wear the blonde wigs, you don’t have to wear the extreme clothes, right?”

She pretends to be complimenting Parton; however, the point was to emphasize how she feels Parton looks ridiculous. Even though Parton is becoming irritated and may be feeling a bit defensive at the emotionally charged outburst by Walters, Parton fights back in the classiest way.

Dolly Parton: “No, it’s certainly a choice, I don’t have to be like everybody else, I’ve often made the statement that ‘I would never stoop so low as to be fashionable, that’s the easiest thing in the world to do.’”

No matter how intense Walters becomes, Parton stays calm, chooses her words carefully, and uses tact. She doesn’t get vicious or play dirty, even when delivering a jab. With the regality of a queen, she is able to give her disapproval and rejection of Walters’ ideas in such a cool and steady way that it almost comes across as friendly.

The Insult that Never Ends

This is where the gloves come off, and Walters lets her friendly mask drop. After Parton explains why she has chosen to jokingly play along with the eccentricity of show business, Walters pushes Parton again to agree to being an embarrassment. 

Barbara Walters: “But do you ever feel like you’re a joke… that people make fun of you?”

Keep in mind that Parton literally just explained that she sees herself as someone who is real and caring and has much to be appreciated for underneath her showy appearance. Yet, Walters keeps insisting on making Parton defend herself against the same insult. 

Dolly Parton: “Oh, I know they make fun of me … like I said, I am sure of myself as a person, I’m sure of my talent … I like the person I am, so I can afford to piddle around with makeup and with clothes … because I am secure with myself.”

Parton doesn’t have to think desperately about how to defend herself because she has real assurance in who she is. She repeats the same answer: I know and like who I am. Only someone who isn’t trying hard to impress others, who isn’t fake, can handle this kind of criticism with such graceful resolve. 

So, how do you build this type of self-assurance? Michael R. Edelstein, the Three Minute Therapist, has some advice: “When you're treated in a demeaning way, refuse to take it super seriously … Feeling hurt starts with a demand on yourself: ‘I must do well and get approval, otherwise, I'm no good. It's awful, terrible, horrible he called me an idiot, and I can't stand it.’” Instead, he advises you to change your thinking by questioning such beliefs. Try telling yourself, “Although I strongly prefer to have his approval, I don't absolutely need it … It's uncomfortable to be insulted, but I've survived discomfort in the past, and I'll survive it in the future.”

The Berating 

When Walters sees that the worst hasn’t shaken Parton, she becomes more conversationally aggressive: using sarcasm, increasing her speed of talking, interrupting, and even lecturing Parton. 

Barbara Walters: “Tell me about this marriage of yours, this man whom nobody ever seems to see. We heard that he was here, we heard that he was in town, but none of us have seen him … You say you know this marriage will always last, this man gives me everything I need, how do you know?” 

Dolly Parton: “Well, I need freedom, the man gives me freedom...”

Barbara Walters: “So, why get married?

Without missing a beat, Parton puts the pressure back on Walters:

Dolly Parton: “Why not?”

Clearly agitated, Walters’ journalistic questions (if you can call them that) become more like lecturing and berating.

Barbara Walters: “Why? I mean, if what you want most is freedom, why have a husband tucked away somewhere that you can see six weeks a year?”

Is Parton on trial here? It’s as if Walters is personally offended that Parton is married and is scolding her for it. She seems to want so badly for Parton to slip up and say something negative or revealing about her marriage. However, maybe for the viewers rather than for Walters, Parton makes a genuine case for her love life. This is the closest we see Parton come to being ruffled, and for good reason, but she pulls through with a confident answer under pressure. 

Dolly Parton: “The thing of it is, you don’t find a person that you can be happy with and that can accept you the way you are, and can share the things and the plan for the future, and to enjoy your home. We have our foundation, we have our roots, we have all the things that everybody’s lookin’ for, and that’s happiness in a marriage.”

Closing Thoughts

What could have been a respectful and insightful conversation between two female cultural icons ended up being a petty, public shaming session from one woman to another, and yet, a valuable lesson in some of the worst – and best – qualities women have. So, when your frenemies start to show their true colors, take a deep breath and throw in a smile to send a clear message that you are not going to be taking the express train to Crazyville or taking off your earrings any time soon. 

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