"Dirty Dancing" Is A SUBVERSIVE MASTERPIECE And Here Are Four Reasons Why

Reason #1: It is a movie whose plot hinges on the very real dangers of illegal abortion.
Publish date:
July 9, 2013
movies, issues, abortion, nostalgia, class, chick flicks, summer movies

Sunday night, after a long and extremely busy holiday and weekend of visiting family, I found myself flipping through cable channels even though doing so usually only ends with me asking myself why we pay for cable at all when we watch literally six TV series on it over the course of the year.

And then I saw it, on Lifetime -- of course, it was Lifetime -- “Dirty Dancing” was on.

In looking over the xoJane archives I was surprised to learn that I’ve referenced 1987’s “Dirty Dancing” quite a lot over the past couple of years -- which is funny, as I really never thought of it as one of the movies with the greatest impact on me at the time it originally came out. Like on a list of movies that were most influential to adolescent Lesley, I would have put it far below “Heathers," which came out following year, or “Beetlejuice” (remember when we all just wanted to be late-80s era pretty-but-weird Winona Ryder?) or even “The Little Mermaid.”

The funny thing is, I don’t even remember the first time I saw “Dirty Dancing” -- I remember my friends and I being interested in it, probably because it had “dirty” in the title, but it wasn’t until it came out on VHS that the obsession began. And we were pretty obsessed. This movie was a staple at sleepovers and I wore out my cassette tape of the soundtrack.

I knew it well enough that when I rewatched it a couple years ago, for the first time since the 90s, I was surprised to discover that I could still recite most of the dialogue from memory.

I was also surprised by some other things, too. "Dirty Dancing " has been described in some quarters as "the ultimate chick flick," a term which would usually seem to indicate it lacks substance or merit beyond the notion that the ladies enjoy it.

And sure, you can watch it that way. The first time I saw “Dirty Dancing,” -- which was written by Eleanor Bergstein and based on her own teenage experiences -- I would have been around 10 or 11 years old. While I loved it as a mushy romance starring a relatable heroine and a dreamy guy, a huge portion of the plot flew right over my tiny unworldly preteen head. But it was only as an adult that I realized how RADICALLY subversive and politically bananas this movie really is.

Radical Subversion #1: “Dirty Dancing” Is About Abortion

Okay, yeah, there is more to it, obviously, but the fact remains that an illegal abortion is the primary impetus for pretty much everything else that happens, including the grand romance this film is best known for.

“Dirty Dancing” is set in the summer of 1963, pre-Roe v Wade, when abortions were almost entirely illegal in the US (with a few states having certain difficult-to-qualify exceptions for rape, or if the mother’s life was endangered by the pregnancy). For everyday women who found themselves unexpectedly and unhappily knocked up, there were no real options to terminate their pregnancies.

In the movie, Penny is employed as a dancer at Kellerman’s, a summer resort in the Catskills, and she finds herself in a family way thanks to grotesque monster Robbie, a douchebag waiter at the same resort, and one with an unjustifiably high opinion of himself (more on this later). Penny’s problem is soon discovered by 17-year-old Frances “Baby” Houseman, the idealistic younger daughter of the affluent Houseman clan, who are spending a few weeks as guests at the resort in question.

When Baby learns that Penny lacks the funds to have an illegal abortion, to be performed by a "real MD" offering the procedure in a nearby town for just one night, she borrows the needed $250 (which would be roughly equivalent to $1900 today, according to the inflation calculators I checked) from her doctor father, without telling him what it's for.

Unfortunately, it turns out the “real MD” is a dangerous amateur who administers the abortion without anesthetic and leaves Penny pale and traumatized, shivering in pain and shock. Baby again sails to the rescue by fetching Doctor Dad to Penny’s bedside in the middle of the night, and he saves Penny's life, but he also forbids Baby to see any of the hotel staff involved in the incident ever again.

The impact of this part of the story never really registered with me as a kid -- like I knew vaguely what an abortion was, but I don't think I realized that the issue here was that abortion was not legal and therefore both accessible and safe. When Billy explains that “the guy had a dirty knife and a folding table” I remember being disturbed by it, but only in a vague way. Where did the knife go? What was the table for? Why doesn’t Penny want to go to the hospital? Why would the hospital call the cops? And so on.

The idea that Penny could hypothetically be arrested and prosecuted for having been nearly butchered in an effort to receive a procedure that should have been readily available was just inconceivable to me, and I was distracted by Patrick Swayze as Johnny Castle anyway.

As an adult, however, this whole section of the plot is just chilling, and a needed reminder of what happens when abortion is forced underground, into back alleys and secret rooms. Women die. Sometimes, they die alone and terrified that someone will discover what they’ve done -- or rather, what has been done to them.

For this reason, I cannot imagine this movie being made today, and I believe that the indefinitely postponed plans for a 2011 remake were probably less an issue of cited “casting difficulties” and more the realization that to make a film now that indicts restrictive abortion laws in such a clear and indisputable way would invite such a political firestorm that it’s probably not worth the effort for any major studio.

And you know, that’s okay, because “Dirty Dancing” doesn’t need a remake anyway.

Radical Subversion #2: “Dirty Dancing” Is Rife With Class Politics

Arguably the most notable example of this happens when Baby talks to Robbie about Penny’s need for money to end her pregnancy. Robbie refuses to help, even though he could totally afford to do so, and dismissively tells Baby that, “Some people count, and some people don’t.” He then offers Baby his well-worn paperback copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.”

Baby reacts to this with unconcealed disgust, dumping a pitcher of water down Robbie’s pants and warning him to stay away from her family, or else she’ll have him fired.

I, like many of my generation, had NO IDEA what the hell “The Fountainhead” was, or that it was written by Ayn Rand, or even who Ayn Rand was. I always assumed Robbie was inexplicably handing Baby unsolicited porn of some kind. And to be fair, while it’d be a stretch to call “The Fountainhead” obscure, it remains a curiously specific cultural marker to insert in a late-80s summer-romance movie.

Robbie, although employed as a waiter at the resort where Baby’s family is staying, is not on the same socioeconomic level of the other types of resort staff. Robbie’s family used to stay at Kellerman’s, and Robbie himself has recently been accepted to Yale Medical School. He's a guy with a summer job where he claims to be saving his tips to buy an Alfa Romero.

Although Baby also comes from a wealthy background, her family’s politics are far more liberal, and even her name is an homage to the first woman in the United States cabinet. Baby’s future plans are to attend the private women-only Mount Holyoke College, and from there to join the Peace Corps, for which Baby's politically engaged father is quite proud of her.

Elsewhere, you have the working-class reality of much of the rest of the hotel staff, few of whom ever had any hopes of going to college, and who are primarily concerned with making ends meet from one month to the next, and making sure they keep their jobs next year. As in life, though, it’s the poor folks who are far more conscious of class divisions than the wealthy guests, so Baby is frequently perplexed by the dance staff’s coldness toward her in the beginning, as she is not fully aware of the privilege she represents, and the tension her presence causes.

It’s true that a lot of these class politics are used to amplify the whole forbidden-romance Romeo and Juliet angle, but that’s not all they do -- the varying levels of self-awareness and class consciousness of different characters often make for a suitably complex cast of characters and interactions.

In one scene, Neil Kellerman, the slightly sleazy grandson of the hotel’s owner, makes an obvious play for Baby’s affections by telling her how he “took” a “girl” from one of the lifeguards last week. Neil relays the story that when asked by the lifeguard, “What’s he got that I haven’t got?” said girl replied, “Two hotels.”

Neil seems proud of this story -- baffling, considering the woman in question has basically admitted she’s only interested in him for his money -- while Baby rolls her eyes in a world-weary way, and you get the sense she’s had similar conversations with similar guys before, and wasn't impressed then either. Thus her attraction to the magnificent Johnny Castle is hardly a surprise. Which brings us to --

Radical Subversion #3: “Dirty Dancing” Gives The Sheltered 17-Year-Old All The Sexual Agency

Baby and Johnny -- who is both Penny’s dance partner and another dance instructor at Kellerman’s -- first begin spending time together out of necessity, as Baby is going to fill in for Penny at a performance, so that Penny can go have her ill-fated abortion. Baby and Johnny bicker throughout rehearsals while she learns the routine, and Johnny more or less holds Baby at arm’s length, unwilling to trust her not to screw him over, until the night of the performance.

The dance performance happens, and it seems like Johnny is sorta starting to like Baby, who has gone far in proving that she doesn’t think herself any better than him or anyone else, in contrast to many of the other resort guests. On the car ride back to Kellerman’s, Baby changes in the back seat, and Johnny keeps stealing furtive glances in the rearview mirror, and it’s such an adorably perfect illustration of early attraction.

This is actually one of the scenes that most fascinated me as a kid -- I think because I was mesmerized at the way Johnny seemed to like her even though she wasn’t really trying to do anything special to make him like her. (The Lifetime TV edit actually cuts this part, which is CRIMINAL.) Although Baby is definitely fascinated by Johnny early on in the film, by this point she is just being herself, and to a younger version of me, the notion of a boy just liking you for who you were was kind of mindblowing. And yet here it was! On film!

Also Johnny Castle was so very hot. I mean I don’t even really like romancey movies as a rule, but Johnny Castle’s impact on my adolescent sexual development cannot be overstated. I mean, those pants. And how could it be that the searingly hot guy liked the slightly awkward, opinionated, boundary-crushing girl? How did that even WORK?

And then, pretty much immediately following her father’s admonition not to go anywhere near Johnny and his friends, Baby heads directly to Johnny's cabin, where she freaking seduces him. Even at the time that I first saw it, this scene blew my mind, because EVERYBODY KNEW that if you were the virgin (which presumably Baby is) then your task was to wait around for somebody more knowledgeable to come and deflower you -- not to roll up on the guy your dad just told you not to see and start sexy-dancing all on him until he takes off your shirt.

Baby is the one who initiates the sexual relationship, and Johnny is the one who is at first reluctant to pursue things in that direction (probably because he doesn’t want to lose his job, but still).

Later, when Baby’s father knee-jerkily blames Johnny for “taking advantage” of his daughter, it’s all the more upsetting, because even though it’s clear Baby’s father adores her and wants her to be happy, he honestly cannot envision her as an individual with her own desires and motivations. As a result, this coming-of-age movie is as much about how a parent deals with their kid’s burgeoning adulthood as it is about the kid herself. That’s not a perspective we get to see very often.

Radical Subversion #4: "I carried a watermelon."

There are so many quotable lines in “Dirty Dancing,” most memorably, “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” spoken by Johnny Castle when he takes Baby from her family’s dinner table at the end-of-season dinner for one final dance. But I am partial to “I carried a watermelon.”

Baby delivers this line very early in the movie, when she has helped Billy, another hotel employee and also Johnny’s cousin, to carry the aforementioned fruit to an after-hours party in the staff quarters. When Johnny, whom Baby has been watching with barely concealed fascination, notices she’s there, she explains, “I carried a watermelon.” Once he’s gone, she repeats it to herself in utter horror, “I carried a WATERMELON?!”

It’s possible there are people somewhere in the world who have never said anything ridiculous and inane to a person they found attractive, and have never felt the self-reproach and terror of having made such an impression, but I don’t actually want to know about those people. I want to live in a world where we can all recognize an “I carried a watermelon” moment and accept that we are weird and inept sometimes and that this is normal and even funny. This is such a perfectly human moment, and Baby is so brilliantly caught between attraction and embarrassment, it resonates.

I love "Dirty Dancing" for lots of reasons, but Baby's character is one of the main ones. She is often gawky and unsure, but she also knows what she wants, and is fearless about going after it -- because she straddles that line between the wobbly uncertainty of adolescence and the relative confidence of adulthood, which is actually how I remember myself and my friends at that age.

Baby is never truly innocent, so she can never be spoiled; she’s neither precious nor pure, she is just inexperienced, and so she defies many of the stereotypical portrayals of no-longer-a-girl, not-yet-a-woman characters. She has depth and purpose and wisdom and even when she doesn't know what she's doing, she pushes onward with courage and aplomb. For these reasons and more I consider "Dirty Dancing" to be one of the better movies to leave an impact on my formative years.

Also, Johnny Castle. And Those Pants.

Lesley carries all the watermelons on Twitter.