The simple, uncultured bro may think of “Dirty Dancing” as simply a 100-minute dance montage. As an excuse to watch Patrick Swayze at his Swayze-est.[ref]Yes, “Dirty Dancing” depicts the Swayze-est Swayze, and not “Point Break.” Sorry.[/ref] As a story strung together by ’60s hits culminating in the most ’80s song to ever be featured in a film set 20 years prior, that has resulted in countless back injuries at wedding receptions.
You, simple uncultured bros, are wrong.
“Dirty Dancing” is a brave movie that was years ahead of its time, both in setting and in production. The story goes far beyond simply learning to dance. It teaches a woman amazing and important things, most of which she doesn’t realize upon her initial viewings (especially if she is a child watching it on a VHS at her friend’s house because her parents think it’s too adult). “Dirty Dancing” has had a major impact on most women–even Natalie Portman recently confessed it is her favorite movie and bros, she went to Harvard. You don’t need to pull a Ryan Gosling in “Crazy Stupid Love” and do the lift just to impress a lady. The best way to a girl’s heart is by just carrying a watermelon, dudes. And by “carrying watermelons,” I mean “appreciating “Dirty Dancing” for the brilliant movie it is. Let me help.
A bro’s guide to ‘Dirty Dancing’
The basic plot is as follows: Francis “Baby” Houseman and her affluent family spend a few weeks at Kellerman’s Resort in the Catskills in the summer of 1963. Baby ends up hanging out with the staff, and eventually volunteers to help out by filling in for one of the dancers. She and her partner Johnny have hungry eyes, they fall for each other, and bang. Her liberal doctor father does not approve and Johnny ends up being let go by the resort. Baby is sad, but she is still Like the Wind. At the end of season show, Johnny comes back so he can do the final dance of the season with a partner who taught him what it means to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them and that person is Miss Frances Houseman and now I’m crying. So they dance and everyone has the Time of their Lives.
But Mel, you’re probably saying, what does this simple dance-infused love story teach your average woman who came of age herself watching Baby come of age? Some of the more important lessons include:
When we first meet the protagonist, she is an awkward teenager who is infantilized to the degree that everyone calls her “Baby” (despite her being named after the first woman in the Cabinet). We see her stumble over her own feet through the Catskills, shuffling from side to side when she dances with the owner’s nephew, averting her eyes down to her feet as soon as possible. After 10 dance intensive days though, BAM. She’s transformed into a whole different person–a confident woman.
Baby takes the lead when it comes to seducing her dance partner. Yes, a teenage girl does the deciding when she is ready and willing to have sex with the no-good dancer from the other side of the summer resort. Sure, Johnny could have been accused of statutory rape, but in this case, Baby is making her own choices and not pressured into anything. She’s owning her own sexual choice. This is huge for every woman.
What an abortion is
Yes, the impetus that brings these two lovers together is that the regular dancer Penny needs to go get a back alley abortion. For a young woman (or child, in my case) who may not even know what an abortion is (or even what “knocked up” is slang for, I was really too little to watch “Dirty Dancing,” you guys) it is hugely progressive for a movie made almost 30 years ago not only to depict a character getting an abortion, but to show an unquestioning attitude by all the men in her life about her decision. No one argues with her, no one shows up outside her staff cabin to protest with pictures of embryos–it just happens. Even when she almost hemorrhages to death, it is clearly because it was an illegal coat hanger abortion set the year before Roe v. Wade and not as a punishment because she had an abortion. Penny even expresses relief that she wasn’t so hurt that she can still have children later. This isn’t to say that this is the only way of dealing with an unplanned pregnancy and everyone of course should choose what is best for them–this is simply to say it is important that this depiction exists in popular culture, if only to expose more people to the idea of that option, and the risks of not having access to safe, legal abortion (or access to a helpful teenager with a dad who is a doctor).
The setting of the film is a rolling resort with two distinct classes: The rich guests and the working class kids who don’t know how they’ll get a paycheck after Labor Day. The resort owner’s nephew thinks he’s liberal because of his plans to go Freedom Riding, but turns around and sneers at the staff like second class citizens. There’s even a divisive class difference between the staff, as “Robbie the creep” finds it acceptable to lower himself to the role of waiter during the summers between semesters at Yale Medical School, and even OK to “go slumming” with Penny–but when it comes time to face responsibility and help with Penny’s abortion, he tells Baby that “some people count, some people don’t” while handing her a copy of “The Fountainhead.” And when Baby’s own father becomes angry at her for helping the “help,” she in turn sees the hypocrisy in her own family’s supposedly liberal views. As she tells her father tearfully, “I’m sorry I lied to you, but you lied too. You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who was like you.” This is a tremendously brave thing for a teenager to realize, and to say–that this classism exists even in people she admires, and she won’t be a part of it.
Make mistakes. Be brave. Do you.
Eleanor Bergstein, the screenwriter of “Dirty Dancing,” has said that the moment Johnny starts to fall for Baby is not when she’s glammed up for a dance performance or wearing tight white pants in the water, but when she messes up the lift in the show. She doesn’t stop dancing–she recuperates and keeps going. Baby is not perfect, but she faces her mistakes and still fights to correct them. Isn’t that what we should all be doing?
Go forward, bros, and use this knowledge of this incredibly progressive, layered work of art to impress and appreciate women a little more – and maybe let it inspire you to keep dancing even after you mess up the lift.