There aren’t many topics on which we can agree in our increasingly polarized world—certainly not politics, religion, or social issues.
However, Dolly Parton exists.
One of the few celebrities that most Americans adore without conditions is the blonde legend with the bouffant. Conservatives and progressives, indie rebels and country lovers, boomers who grew up with her, and “Zoomers” who have posed with murals of her face, have all become believers in her. She is a role model for feminists, an advocate of the LGBTQ community, and a Southerner from the Smokies whose success story is a near-perfect illustration of the realization of the American dream. She contributed to the cost of the Covid-19 vaccination from Moderna. Dolly Parton is Teflon and has been for decades.
Parton is possibly the best-known representative of a very uncommon type of celebrity: the American sweetheart. Sweetheart superstars have developed a reputation for kindness, genuineness, and hard work over a long period, elevating them above the usual A-lister. They are the type of superstars who throw an inauguration party to comfort a distressed nation. When they are pictured eating a sandwich by themselves on a park bench, it makes people feel bad for them. And when they pass away, there is a national outpouring of grief as if every American had just lost their grandmother.
These “sweethearts” end up as pop culture icons in America. According to Claire Sisco King, an associate professor of communication studies at Vanderbilt University who specializes in the study of celebrity culture, we look to them for motivation, moral instruction, dependable entertainment, and even solace.
Political polarization, worry about the state of the earth, and the probable extinction of human life are all difficult issues that people deal with daily, Sisco King told us. Therefore, the notion that a renowned person might also be kind inspires hope in others.
Some of the largest American love interests have been ingrained in the culture for many years. We spoke with experts on celebrity culture on how some stars climb above the rest of the Hollywood elite to become the public’s darlings and the deep connections that fans can have with these untouchable idols.
We seek to identify with famous people
Celebrity culture serves a more significant purpose than we realize, according to Sisco King, although focusing so much attention on them may appear superficial given how well off and protected they are from common problems.
She argued that celebrities perform “emotional labor” for both their admirers and detractors. They give us the ability to experience things through them. For example, we may admire and love people like Dolly Parton or the late Betty White because they can serve as examples of kindness and humility, but we may mock more divisive people like Kim Kardashian or Taylor Swift because, to some, they may stand for narrow beauty standards or dishonesty.
She added that we like to identify with famous people. “Stars – they’re just like us!” is a frequent piece in the tabloid US Weekly. – a series of photos taken by the paparazzi of celebrities refueling their cars, doing their grocery shopping, or dropping their kids off at school. According to Sisco King, those kinds of pictures can support the notion that famous people can be identified with.
According to Jenna Drenten, an associate professor of marketing at Loyola University Chicago who focuses on how celebrities use social media, it seems natural that we’d want to identify with renowned people whose reputations for kindness are also well-known.
It’s a common practice among fans to ask themselves, “Does this individual seem like someone I’d like to be friends with?” said Drenten to us.
It undoubtedly helps a celebrity gain a “sweetheart” reputation if they are known for playing sweethearts, as is the case with Tom Hanks. In addition to his role as an irascible toy cowboy, Hanks has also played Mr. Rogers, a young boy who grew up too quickly, a Southern man who accidentally stumbles into history, and a widower whose kindness draws Meg Ryan. We associate him off-screen with that same persona because many of his most well-known characters are kind-hearted individuals, Sisco King said.
She remarked, “We expect actors to demonstrate honesty and a sincere emotional experience. “We sometimes confuse performers and the roles they play because of that emphasis on realism,” said the author.
Hanks is not Forrest Gump or Mr. Rogers, but he is conscious of his reputation and upholds it in interviews and on red carpets, according to Sisco King. Fans want him to play the “good guy” role, so he does.
We adore tales of the underdog
According to Sisco King, these lovers also promote the amazing “American dream,” which holds that any of us may achieve great achievement through perseverance. Despite the numerous traumas Oprah experienced as a child, as well as racism and sexism in the television industry, she managed to land her daytime talk program and enhance her reputation as a sincere TV personality. She continues to be praised as a rare gem by her numerous devotees even after she became a millionaire.
Family, Dolly Parton was raised in abject poverty in a rural area of Tennessee. Numerous personal traumas that Keanu Reeves has gone through have made him popular among followers. All of their conflicts have only enhanced their fame.
According to Sisco King, “(Celebrities’) stories of rising from modest beginnings to greatness become a way of validating people’s faith in or hope that they might achieve similarly.”
Simply put, according to Drenten: “Americans love a good underdog tale.” And we frequently find ourselves rooting for those underdogs when they become titans in their industry while continuing to appear human.
The epidemic and social media increased public access to celebrities
According to Sisco King, our interactions with famous people have grown significantly closer over the past several years, particularly since the pandemic’s start. When our favorites weren’t working or attending press junkets, they kept themselves in the public glare by posting private photos from quarantine online or funny cooking videos on Instagram Live. At this point, it nearly seemed as though famous people were just like us. (That didn’t last long as they started taking vacations or using comfortable homes to get away from the infection.)
Additionally, Tom Hanks contracting Covid-19 in March 2020, one of the first confirmed instances of the virus among well-known individuals, helped many people understand the gravity of the epidemic. At the time, the idea that such a disease might break through a celebrity’s protective bubble was frightening. On Instagram, he informed his followers of the news.
It was a “perfect convergence” that the epidemic occurred in an “age of pervasive digital networks,” according to Sisco King: We had easy access to famous individuals with whom we could form parasocial relationships—those one-sided friendships with people we’ll probably never meet. The strong feelings we had for particular celebrities were only heightened when the majority of engagement took place digitally.
Because they are easy to access, certain celebrities can drive us to become somewhat addicted, according to Sisco King. That form of parasocial relationship “kind of intensifies” itself.
Celebrities are still expected to provide fans access, according to expectations. The Parton team regularly posts on her behalf, posting a mixture of sponsored content, tempting retro images, and even memes. If his “Hanx!” signatures are to be believed, Hanks might even send a personal message. Oprah posts open videos about her daily activities, including what she’s cooking, where she goes hiking, and the antics she drags Gayle King into.
Even brief celebrity anecdotes can spread quickly and far on social media sites like Twitter and TikTok, which can benefit some sweethearts’ reputations. Stories of celebrities performing simple acts of kindness—like Tom Hanks bringing a tray of martinis to his table at the Golden Globes or Paul Rudd reaching out to a victim of fan bullying—often go viral. When a sweetheart celebrity doesn’t announce they’re good deed, it has a greater impact. For example, when Keanu Reeves’ $31.5 million donation to cancer research was made public, it further strengthened the impression that Reeves is a modest, truly kind guy.
Why Dolly Parton is regarded as the queen of lovers
Parton is a “unique case” even among American sweethearts, according to Sisco King.
Sisco King remarked, “One of the things that have made her so beloved is that she’s loved by individuals from so many various walks of life. To so many different individuals, she might signify so many different things.
Parton has been hailed as a feminist icon who overcame sexism and objectification to become the best in her field, which makes her popular among those who are disenfranchised due to their ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Her lyrics are gifted, and fans are still moved by her music decades later. Sisco King remarked that she is what we wanted her to be.
Parton, who is always astute, has benefited from this protracted surge of celebrity made possible by social media. She has put her name on numerous products in the past five years alone, including a live New Year’s Eve performance, a live Netflix series based on her lyrics, an NBC Christmas special, a Duncan Hines cake mix, a Williams-Sonoma collection, and a T-Mobile Super Bowl commercial (the last two in collaboration her goddaughter Miley Cyrus). Then there are the third parties that market products bearing her likeness, such as prayer candles bearing her image, cross stitch patterns bearing her lyrics, wrapping paper bearing her likeness, or automobile air fresheners in the form of her wig. The approximately $400 cashmere sweaters from the Lingua Franca brand are embroidered with “What would Dolly do?” and “In Dolly we trust.”
Despite this, most fans still have faith in Dolly Parton and her marketing savvy. We can “suspend disbelief” to “compartmentalize those concerns when you’re deeply invested in a celebrity,” according to Sisco King when a celebrity we love does something we don’t love (like Tom Hanks swearing at paparazzi and fans swarming his wife, perhaps, or Dolly Parton lending her likeness to products we dislike).
According to Gayle Stever, a psychology professor at Empire State College, State University of New York, who specializes in fandom, Parton has also accrued “goodwill capital.” “People appreciate her generosity and philanthropy because they are well known.” We believe we know her well enough to be able to ignore any move she makes that we wouldn’t make.
American lovebirds can motivate us to act morally
Sisco King observed that celebrity sweethearts like Parton and Hanks can seem just as significant to us as our loved ones. Even if the affection isn’t returned, we sense a connection with the people we believe to be close friends.
It can be somewhat consoling when a likable character like Paul Rudd or Keanu Reeves makes an appearance onscreen when the biggest celebs of the day are a millionaire tech executive with shaky Twitter skills and a formerly renowned rapper who uses racist and antisemitic words.
Better can come from interacting with adored celebrities than from video tributes and merchandise bearing their image. According to Stever, adult followers of celebrity couples are frequently inspired to support the topics that their heroes are passionate about. It matters when celebrities like Dolly Parton promote children’s reading, Oprah spotlights anti-racist initiatives, or Betty White promotes animal advocacy because they might inspire their followers to get engaged.
According to Stever, “Those kinds of role models inspire individuals to be charitable and to care about others.” “I believe this has significant cultural value… All of these individuals have built up a significant quantity of positive social capital that motivates their followers to donate to the causes these adored superstars champion. We require that.
Engaging with adored celebrity love interests “allows us to process our sentiments,” according to Sisco King. We can experience those emotions that we might otherwise hide by appreciating their effort or encouraging them.
We look for emotional experiences in movies and television shows because, as she put it, “I want to have a good cry.” “I believe celebrity culture operates somewhat similarly.”