A Prayer(agraph) to Dolly Parton and a Stuffed Muskie

By: Graham Feyl

Dolly, Sweet Dolly:

This prayer (more like a nascent thought, but who cares what it’s called?) is guided by the mantra: “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap!”

The Church of Camp and Bimbosim is in Session, Ladies!

Repetition structures systems of faith: stand up, sit down, kneel, repeat after me: “amen.” Even prayers have repetition and rhythm. One can even argue that the buildings that frame sacred spaces are just the utterances that have slipped from the lips of the faithful as they say the same prayers over and over. They become the mortar that binds the bricks together. But prayers are not the only thing that frame religious experiences. If we are to call religion anything – and here I bring in all those Sundays spent in a Midwest church – it is high drama. A soap opera that denies this title, but we all know it’s true.  Jewel encrusted relics? The gold that glistens in the flickering candles? Images of people in extreme states of ecstasy? Sculpted men that are tied to trees in a form of BDSM? Drinking wine midmorning? Individuals wearing flowing clothes that are woven from glistening threads? PLEASE! Tell me that this level of décor and drama is not itself a form of religious experience.

But I find myself not kneeling at an altar with the motherly gaze of the Virgin Mary looking down on me or the sweet, rounded face of a cherub smiling at me, but that of an airbrushed portrait of Dolly Parton. Elephant in the Room seems an apt title as we are immediately drawn to her presence. Blue jewels glisten in her hair; an entire galaxy of blonde. Her large hoop earrings are composed of these bits of bejeweled blue sky. Small flames flicker in her eyes. She asks us to warm ourselves in her gaze. Or maybe it’s an internal rage? Either way, it’s a vibe. The altar that my elbows rest on, not in prayer but to bring a beer to my lips, is the bar that wraps around Rainbo Club in Chicago. Liza Eilers has transformed this iconic bar into a sacred space where bimbo energy is what we celebrate and aspire to embody (and when should we not?). Acrylic nails and lip gloss with glitter are what we wear in this holy space. Little jewels adorn the nails; our earrings are bright and loud. Wearing feather boas is in. We raise our long nails to the sky, allowing our laughter to be a sacred song. The metal censer that would hold incense, has been replaced by a chrome basin. Filled with sand – a material that is the antithesis to the clear surface of holy water – it holds the butts of cigarettes; its title, Cigarette Graveyard, alludes to this final resting place for them. Though the cigarettes have been discarded and crushed, the conversations and relations that formed by standing in the sticky summer air or the brisk winter breeze that swoops down Chicago’s streets, remain in their embers. Two hands holding cigarettes have been incised into the chrome surface of the receptacle: their lit crimson ends touch in a brief kiss. Mwah. This moment of connection has also been called “butt fucking,” another intimate act where bodies come together. But maybe it’s butt kissing. Either way these ephemeral encounters, whether echoing the giggles from a naughty joke or huddled over a lighter are memorialized in this shiny basin. <3 Short lived bffs <3 

The smoke of a cigarette – found in a collage that rests above the men’s bathroom as it pours from someone’s ass poignantly named Blowing Smoke– reflects the same transient moment of exchange that occurs over the basin. Whether they are words that extend the truth or are sweet secrets, they are fleeting and quick. But, even as the smoke disappears, they cling to the area where that last puff of smoke was exhaled. Even as the cigarettes lay dead in that pile of sand – having been soaked by morning dew or covered by other cigarettes – retain the lips (ass) that sucked on them. The last kiss of the evening.

Rainbo Club, with its wood paneling, worn furniture, and dark lighting seems to resist definitions of a dive bar; it may just have the energy of one. But let’s consider the idea of a man cave: what are the aesthetics of that? Wood paneled walls, heads of deer or fish as decor, the floor is crunchy, the lighting is low and a TV stands on a single crate. Those memes of “how do guys live like this” seem pertinent here: we have all been brought back to an apartment, where the guy is some musician in a band that you can’t recall and he is asking if you want PBR, and his bare mattress lays on the floor and the overhead light just creates a sterile tableau of it all. (PSA: Overhead lights have been OUT and UGLY for centuries). Think about the slew of men that hold fish in tinder profile pics; they proudly hold their catch as if the scaly creature will cause an instant orgasm. Has holding a fish always been considered a personality trait?

A stuffed muskie – the fish of 1,000 casts and that which is the trophy of male domination over nature – is one item that seems to ooze the idea of a man cave. The ultimate trophy that is meant to hang to show others “I did this.”  It is that piece that hangs on a wall and collects dust as the glass eyes slowly become murky over time. But the muskie in Rainbo Club has transcended our idea of a stereotypical taxidermied fish, she is Stargirl. Remember that book from elementary school? With the bright blue cover? But this Stargirl is placed behind a piece of glass, she exists in her own hot world. Airbrushed pink, purple and neon orange, stars go down her torso. She has been transformed. She’s no longer seen as someone’s trophy, she has become her own trophy. She is what aspirations are. She allows herself to stand out, even behind glass; because if the glass wasn’t there, we would be blinded by her glory. She has become the center of gravity. She is THE moment. If someone saw Stargirl being held up for a Tinder pic, they would ask to date her, not the person holding her. 

The blazing airbrushed Dolly, casts her eyes over the bar, over Stargirl and us as we drink cheap beers and flirt, embodies the hold that she has always had on our cultural imagination. She is an icon that transcends generations – constantly caught within a paradox – her persona difficult to pinpoint. Dolly makes claims of “not being political,” yet funds vaccine research during a pandemic that has had political parties at each other’s throats. She “isn’t a feminist,” but consistently critiques forms of patriarchy. She embraces her looks, using her constructed body, breasts, and face as both a point of comedy and self-embracement. She is **~~complicated~~** Is that not what she wants from us, honestly? To embrace our complications?  To take ourselves (un)seriously??? Why be boring, honestly? That, like overhead lights, has been dead for years. We only want hot things now.

The patron saints found directly across the bar from Dolly, hung above the booths, are represented by portraits of Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) and Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) in their Playboy Bunny costumes from Bridget Jones’ Diary and Legally Blonde. The word HEAD is repeated across their faces: so much occurs right behind their eyes. They beg us to stare deep within them. But, the Playboy costumes make us think of the sterotypical role of the “dumb blonde.” No thoughts, just vibes :) But we know that isn’t true. These films that come from the chaotic and sweet moment of 2001, place these women in paradoxes: they want to find happiness, but are unsure if it is with a man. A repeated scene in both films, by what appears to be a cultural coincidence, is that both are invited to a “costume” party, only to find out that no one dressed up and that they were to serve as the joke and entertainment of the evening. Sexy angels (or, I guess, bunnies) in a room of people who don’t deserve them. In the end both women find their strength within themselves, and these moments of teasing seem passé. Those people that laughed at them are now wishing THEY had worn those bunny costumes. They still can, honestly. I think we should all have a little sexy costume in our closets, just in case. Sexiness and strength go hand in hand, that is what Jones and Woods tell us. People may not take them seriously, but who cares? Put on your little costumes and get on out there.

The airbrushed portraits of these icons push femininity into the space. It slips in and out between the leather bar stools. Ideas of being looked at for one’s body, of being negated because they may say “like” one too many times, and of being too blonde, fills the room. Bimbo energy IS this moment. THIS is what we strive for. Embracing our bodies, twisting the ends of our hair as we look off into space, and saying “like” until our voices are hoarse.

Judith Butler writes that “If the ground of gender identity is the stylized repetition of acts through time, and not a seemingly seamless identity, then the possibilities of gender transformation are to be found in the arbitrary relation between such acts, in the possibility of a different sort of repeating, in the break or subversive repetition of that style.” (“Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology Theory” in Theatre journal, Vol. 40, No. 4, Dec. 1988, 520). Repeat, repeat, repeat. StarGirl, Dolly, Bridget and Elle ask us to think about repetition and ask to break it. Break up so you can have your hot bitch moment. The glory of Stargirl, the power of overturning a man cave so that we can gossip over gorgeous musical nails and share tender words over cigarettes (etched into Catch n’ Release– taken from a bathroom stall in a New York cafe: “Time is 12:00 am: No more cigarettes, night is too silent, I can’t sleep, I’m without You. Time is 12:02 AM: I found cig, It is OK without You.”) creates a vibrant energy. 

This synergy is found in the flames of Dolly’s eyes and the flames (flaming hot, baby!) that extend out in another work attributed to Dolly, PSY WGN.  Her face adorns a Tennessee license plate with the word “G O T H” on it, and pink airbrushed marks dance around it. The words “Love Machine,” notes that the car we get in is a space of love and sexiness. PSY WGN asks us if we want a ride home. We may pick up our friends, stop for food on the way or another bar and we will play La Bouche loudly. We are riding in Love Machine to go be hot and do our thing. We imagine if PSY WGN had a bumper sticker it’d say, “Shit Happens and Then You Live,” to quote Saint Anna Nicole Smith. Shit does happen but we don’t die that instant; we keep going. 

Thank you, Dolly, for your cheap and expensive look that acts as our guide in overturning repetitious acts that lull us into a slumber. You are asking us to wake up and feel our sexiness: being bimbos is a full time and rewarding job. It is how we overturn a system that thinks wood paneled walls are still in.

Xoxo, amen! Mwah <3