If most of you are anything like my roommates and me, you were too busy staring at Dolly Parton’s crazy outfit and impossible breast-to-waist ratio to pay attention to what she was singing at the Oscars last night. But Dolly was there to perform “Travelin’ Thru,” her song from the “Transamerica” soundtrack, which was nominated for Best Original Song. (She already won once in this category, with the theme song from her movie “Nine to Five”).
In “Transamerica,” Desperate Housewife Felicity Huffman plays Bree, a male-to-female transsexual on a cross-country road trip with the son she never knew she had. And a lot of people think Dolly Parton looks like a drag queen, so it’s a perfect fit, right? Once I stopped gawking at Dolly’s platform shoes, I started listening to the words of her song. In a Dolly Parton song, it’s not at all unusual to hear rhymes about Jesus. But invoking Jesus in a song about a transsexual? Now, that’s news.
“Travelin’ Thru” was written specifically for the movie. The lyrics (“I’m just a weary pilgrim trying to find my own way home / Oh, sweet Jesus, if you’re out there, keep me ever close to you”) and could be about any traveler on any path. But knowing the plot of the film makes the lyrics come into focus. The song is about a person who wants to find acceptance after having gender-reassignment surgery. When Dolly sings “we’ve all been crucified, and they nailed Jesus to the tree,” she’s letting Bree’s voice speak through her. Despite facing humiliation and scorn, Bree always trusts that she has made the right decision.
The lines “God made me for a reason, and nothing is in vain / redemption comes in many shapes and many kinds of pain” echo loudly. Bree is defiant against the detractors who tell her that she is a freak who can never be accepted by God and society. In fact, Dolly seems to be making the argument that if God can make men and women in His own image, God can make transgendered people, too. The “keep me ever close to you” refrain is a reminder that Jesus loves all his children, even the outcasts. Calling Bree a “pilgrim” applies a classic American symbol to someone who is blazing a new trail in America. The 17th-century pilgrims wanted religious freedom, and 21st-century Bree wants her own freedom.
Although Huffman received an acting nomination for “Transamerica,” the film isn’t anywhere close to being as iconic or controversial as “Brokeback Mountain.” Host Jon Stewart and Oscar winners like George Clooney and Ang Lee got attention for making political comments last night. But Dolly got her point across in a subtler way. Her song was further proof that not every political statement needs to be made with a sledgehammer. This argument for diversity and religious acceptance for sexual minorities may have missed my ears the first time around, but the song will keep going long after the image of Dolly’s teased hair escapes my memory.