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[Guest Post] Found Feminism: Rewatching Dirty Dancing

2013 January 9

I’m not a fan of stereotypical femininity, so when my sister decided to organise a trip to see the stage version of Dirty Dancing for her hen night – with compulsory “prom dress” costumes – it sounded like my idea of pink, fluffy hell.

Very pink poster for the stage show.But I was pleasantly surprised to discover that when you get past the neon pink advertising and the frilly dresses, there are some surprisingly serious and complex themes woven into the plot. By the time we reached the interval I had been converted, but since it can be difficult to find anyone to discuss intersectional feminism with you on a hen night pub crawl, I’ve had to save my observations for the internet.

In case it’s been a while since you’ve seen the 1987 film, here’s a quick recap of the plot: in the summer between high school and college, Baby spends a few weeks with her well-off family at a holiday resort in the Catskills, where she meets Penny, a working class dance instructor who has recently become pregnant and then been dumped.

Penny desperately wants to have an abortion, but it’s illegal and therefore expensive and risky. On top of that, she can’t afford to take time off from her second job, performing at a neighbouring resort with her dance partner and platonic best friend Johnny.

Baby steps in to help her, first talking her father into lending her the money to pay for the abortion, then learning the dance routine so that she can take Penny’s place on stage. In the process of learning to dance, she has to spend lots of time with sexy dance instructor Johnny, in situations which conveniently provide excuses for him to be wet and/or shirtless, and they end up having a hot summer fling.

Although it’s easily overlooked in favour of her romantic relationship with Johnny, it’s Baby’s friendship with Penny which sets up the film’s feminist credentials: the main catalyst for the plot is one woman helping another woman to obtain an abortion. Unlike more recent American films about unplanned pregnancy, such as Juno or Knocked Up, Dirty Dancing approaches abortion from an openly pro-choice perspective. At no point does Penny face any moral judgement for her decision, but there’s plenty of criticism for the man who abandoned her, and the abortionist who charges her hundreds of dollars for a procedure that leaves her seriously ill.

But even before she makes her grand gesture of sisterly solidarity to Penny, Baby is presented as a feminist character. When she is first introduced, we learn that she is about to go to college (it’s later explained that she plans to study economics at a prestigious women’s college) and wants to join the Peace Corps after graduating. This stands in stark contrast to her sister Lisa, whose main ambition appears to be finding a husband. Lisa and the other female guests at the resort demonstrate the kind of comfortable yet uninspiring lifestyle that Baby has decided to reject in favour of having adventures and trying to save the world.

Baby’s determination to make a difference could have been presented as a straightforwardly positive trait, but her ability to help Penny is closely tied to her family’s wealth, and the writers use Johnny’s reaction to comment on her privilege. Johnny initially resents her involvement, and makes the scathing comment “it takes a real saint to ask Daddy” when Baby hands over the money for the abortion.

Poster for the film with Patrick Swayze and Jennifer GreyAs they grow closer and Johnny begins to talk about his life and his precarious employment situation, Baby looks naïve and sheltered in comparison, but by the end of the film she has started to understand her own privilege and question her father’s assumptions about Johnny.

Baby’s class privilege affects the dynamic of her relationship with Johnny, giving her power and agency that goes against traditional gender roles. As a guest at the resort, Johnny relies on Baby’s cooperation for his continued employment, and he feels further indebted to her because she is paying for Penny’s abortion.

Baby’s background means that she’s used to getting her way, so she isn’t shy about talking back to Johnny during their early dance lessons, and she remains assertive when they grow closer, eventually being the one to initiate the sexual aspect of their relationship.

Women’s sexuality is a major theme in the film, and it’s actually kind of refreshing to see a film address women’s interest in sex without trying to dress it up in a desire for True Love. There are frequent nods to the female gaze, whether it’s through the blatant fanservice of Patrick Swayze’s shirtless scenes (set to music like Hungry Eyes), or the resort owner, reminding the nice, respectable college boys he has recruited as waiters that part of their job is to provide holiday romances for the younger female guests.

There are also comments about the “Bungalow Bunnies”, middle-aged women who stay at the resort all summer and are only joined by their husbands at the weekends, who use Johnny for sex in a reversal of the older-man-exploits-young-woman trope.

As a coming-of-age movie, the script also touches on the idea of sexual awakening, contrasting Baby’s experience with her sister Lisa’s. In one very brief scene (which starts at 0:50 of this clip), the two women discuss when they should lose their virginity, and Baby tells Lisa that it should be with “someone you sort-of love”; not necessarily the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, but someone you like and are attracted to.

Lisa sees sex as part of a long-term plan to persuade Robbie – who the viewer already knows is the sleazebag that dumped Penny when he got her pregnant – to marry her, while Baby, who isn’t deliberately looking for a husband, ends up with the better man and the more rewarding relationship. This might not be much of a revelation to many real women, but it’s unusual to see a chick-flick where the romantic happy ending doesn’t involve marriage and babies.

Dirty Dancing isn’t without its flaws: the Bungalow Bunnies fit what we would now call a cougar stereotype, and Johnny’s final speech about how Baby has taught him to be a better person might be kind of dodgy from a class perspective, but it’s a little unrealistic to expect a low-budget romance film from the 80s to be totally right-on.

It stands out, not because it’s perfect, but because the writers address class and gender issues at all, and as a result has been sneaking a little bit of Trojan horse feminism into teenage sleepovers and girls’ nights in for the last 25 years. It’s the feminist sleeper agent of chick flicks, and deserves a bit of recognition for that.

  • Alyson Macdonald is an admin worker by day and a writer the rest of the time, blogging mostly at Bright Green and tweeting from @textuallimits. She wouldn’t normally be caught dead watching chick flicks, and hopes that her reputation as a scruffy geek survives this encounter unscathed.
4 Responses leave one →
  1. January 9, 2013

    I thought I’d seen ‘Dirty Dancing’, and am surprised to discover that I haven’t. The film I thought was ‘DD’ is set in Australia, and has a completely different storyline.

    So, everything I now know about ‘DD’ is gleaned from this post. As I read it, the elephant in the room that kept leaping out at me (except that elephants don’t leap a great deal) is that the lead character seems to be called Baby. The implied infantilisation repeatedly distracted me from the main thrust of the post — as though someone were scratching a blackboard as I read.

    • January 9, 2013

      IIRC, her name is actually Frances. Baby is a nickname given to her by her family, because she is the youngest. I *think* she ditches this name by the end of the film too.

      • Miranda permalink*
        January 9, 2013

        I think Johnny finally uses her real name at the end when he gives his speech, and that’s sort of a turning point. Very rusty memory though!

  2. January 9, 2013

    I’ve always loved the movie Dirty Dancing, and was reminded of just how much more than a dance movie it is when I was summarising the plot for a friend. I’d never really considered it from a feminist perspective before (which is odd, seeing as I wrote about Grease in a similar way for The F-Word a few years ago!), but I love your critique. The class aspect is fascinating and the interaction between the female characters is great… despite the fact a lot of the conversatins are about men!

    Thanks for a really enjoyable post.

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