The Feminism of Dirty Dancing
I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time on Monday night. I know, the fact that it took me this long to see it is a real shanda (scandal).
I saw it on the big screen, with my wife and some friends and a few hundred screaming feminists (screaming with glee at the sight of a shirtless Patrick Swayze, that is). Prior to the film, one of the event organizers, my friend Irin, interviewed the movie’s screenwriter and co-producer Eleanor Bergstein. The evening was organized by Jezebel, with proceeds going to benefit the New York Abortion Access Fund, an all-volunteer organization that helps provide funds to poor pregnant women who want abortions but cannot afford them.
Much has already been written about this showing, by Irin herself, by the Wall Street Journal‘s Sarah Seltzer, and by Esther Zuckerman of The Village Voice. Indeed, between these articles and Irin’s earlier piece arguing that Dirty Dancing is “the greatest movie of all time,” I’m not sure what I can really add to the conversation. Nevertheless, I’ll share my main take-aways from the evening [spoiler alert]:
1) I knew the movie was popular, a cult classic seen countless times by North American girls and women, but I had no idea how big it was internationally. In Australia, truck drivers watched it at repeatedly at rest stops. In Germany, the dubbers were so obsessed with having the mouth movement at least resemble German words that they translated Johnny Castle’s signature line, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” to “My Baby belongs to me. Is this clear?” And apparently that’s the line they love and remember. Ah, the Germans: always thinking everything belongs to them.
2) The most obviously feminist aspect of the movie is the illegal abortion which Penny receives. The film is set in 1963, ten years before Roe v. Wade, but it came out in 1987, at a time when the abortion wars were heating up. One sponsor, Clearasil, pulled out (no pun intended) because of it, sparing us the sight of a zit cream tube on the movie posters. Yet Bergstein fought hard to keep the abortion in there, and won that battle because it was absolutely integral to the plot. Baby (played by Jennifer Grey), needs to replace Penny in a dance show so Penny can get the abortion and still keep her job. In preparing for the dance show, she falls in the love with her partner and instructor, Johnny (played by the late Patrick Swayze), which is the crux of the film. Without the abortion, the whole story falls apart. Had it been a small, side element, it would undoubtedly have been cut.
As Bergstein noted, movies today typically present abortion as the “less moral” choice than keeping the baby, with the latter almost certainly leading to a happy ending (think Juno and Knocked Up). A powerful exception occurred on television in Friday Night Lights, without question the best network drama in a decade, where a high school student makes the intelligent decision, against the wishes of her conservative small-town Texas community, to have an abortion after a one-night-stand that resulted in her pregnancy. More often, though, we see unplanned pregnancy, even among teens, minimized or even glamourized, such as in ABC Family’s frightening The Secret Life of the American Teenager, featuring a cameo by Bristol Palin. I’m just waiting for the short film about an unplanned pregnancy, where the woman makes the totally acceptable and reasonable decision to have an abortion and then the credits roll with no tension or drama at all.
3) The fact that this abortion appeared in a fun, funny, sexy, fictional film is what made it have such an impact. As Bergstein noted, one could make a documentary about illegal abortions, and that could be great, but everyone who would see it would already agree with the pro-choice message. Preaching to the progressive choir, as they say. Dirty Dancing, on the other hand, has been seen by millions of people, especially women, of all ages. Bergstein said she has no problem with an eight-year-old seeing it and thinking it’s simply a love story, as I’m sure many of the audience did when they first saw it many years ago. But upon repeated viewings (almost everyone in attendance could recite the lines verbatim), the powerful feminist message becomes clearer. Dirty Dancing is not pro-choice propaganda. It’s a terrifically entertaining movie, a work of art with a pro-choice message woven in.
This point is hugely important. I’m certain that many purportedly anti-choice viewers love this movie. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bristol Palin is among them (she clearly likes dancing, even if she’s not great at it). Maybe others who are unsure of their position on the abortion debate subconsciously internalize the correctness of the pro-choice message. Sometimes, people from the “other side” see Michael Moore’s documentaries, but everyone sees Dirty Dancing. Didn’t some famous Canadian once say something about the medium being the message?
4) The abortion is hardly the only feminist aspect to the film. The narrative is one of Baby the girl becoming Baby the woman, asserting her agency and independence by helping her friends, defying her father and her class, seducing Johnny, and embracing her body and sexuality through sex and dance.
5) The movie is incredibly Jewish. Though it’s never made explicit, the handful of Yiddish words, the Catskills setting, and the characters’ last names make this exceptionally clear. What’s more, there’s an important story of assimilation. The Housemans are middle or perhaps upper-middle-class Jews. The father is a doctor. They’re staying at a summer resort, seemingly at home in America. Yet all the guests are Jewish. The resort owner is Jewish. Even the Ivy-League attending wait staff are Jewish. These are Jews aspiring to make it, who feel themselves above the working class dancers, including Johnny. The way one class, one group of immigrants, formerly poor, betrays another, is really a classic American Jewish tale.
Yet even Baby’s love affair with Johnny is rich with Jewish undertones. Baby is in some sense the archetypal ugly duckling, symbolized by Jennifer Grey’s stereotypically Jewish nose (indeed, Grey’s subsequent nose-job basically destroyed her career). Baby’s sister, Lisa, has a smaller nose, straight as opposed to curly hair, and is paler and conventionally prettier. As the film goes on, however, it becomes clear that Grey’s Baby is actually more beautiful, and certainly much sexier. Lisa wants Robbie, the conservative, Ayn Rand-spouting, Ivy League WASP wannabee who impregnated Penny. Her singing and dancing is an absurd parody of the American Jewish attempt at assimilation. Baby, meanwhile, comes to assert her own sexuality, and by extension her nose, and her Jewishness. Her dancing is beautiful and sensual, taught to her by working class Johnny and Penny. In a sense, she is returning to her roots, and embracing them.
6) It was actually incredibly sad to see Patrick Swayze on screen. As a straight man, I have no trouble admitting that Swayze was not only an incredibly talented dancer, but he was also painfully, almost supernaturally handsome. Earlier today, my wife and I watched the hilariously funny Saturday Night Live Chippendales sketch, where Swayze and Chris Farley compete for a spot in the famous gogo dance troupe. The sight of the sculpted Swayze next to the flabby Farley (maybe the greatest physical comedian of all time) still brings laughter, but also a few tears. Now both men are dead, taken before their time.