The first time I saw Dirty Dancing was when I was 18. I found a video of Dirty Dancing in an op shop for two dollars, and I thought, why not? It was apparently a classic, after all. I decided to watch the really poor quality video one night when I was home alone, and three years later, I still remember exactly how I felt. It was very erotic, mesmerising, lovable, and multidimensional. I wished I hadn’t waited so long to see it, but at the same time, I knew that watching it at this age, I could appreciate it, and actually watch it in a different way than I could have if I were younger.
I noticed more in the film with each time I watched it, and I was pleasantly surprised to find progressive social messages that actually aren’t so subtle or cleverly hidden; I just think that viewers can be too distracted by the dancing and the love story to notice the deeper issues in the story. The film explores virginity and the fetishisation of virginity, female sexuality, race and class, and all through a female directed, feminist lens – with a fantastic soundtrack to boot!
I’ll give a quick plot rundown for those of you who haven’t seen Dirty Dancing or those of you who have seen it but can’t quite remember what happens. So, it’s the summer of 1963 and 17-year-old Baby Houseman is vacationing with her well to do family at Kellerman’s, a resort in the Catskill Mountains in New York State. Baby befriends a staff member, Billy, who introduces her to the secret side of Kellerman’s; the staff quarters where they all drink, listen to soul music and dirty dance, and this is initially very shocking to innocent Baby. She learns that one of the staff dancers, Penny, is pregnant, and Baby borrows money from her doctor father (without telling him what it’s really for) to give to Penny so she can get medical help. While Penny is away, Baby fills in for her and learns her dances so she can perform with Penny’s partner, Johnny Castle, Kellerman’s resident bad boy and dreamboat. What starts out as hostility between working class, jaded Johnny and optimistic, privileged Baby, turns into an unstoppable chemistry and romance; he teaches her to dance, and she teaches him to love. When Baby’s father finds out that his money funded an illegal abortion which has left Penny very ill, he’s angry at Baby for being involved in such things, for being involved with such people, and he forbids her from seeing any of them again. Of course, Baby can’t stay away from Johnny, and they have secret sexual liaisons. However, tragedy ensues; Baby and Johnny are found out, her father has a semi-existential crisis that his Baby is no longer pure, and Johnny gets fired for his involvement with the daughter of a valued customer, and leaves the resort. Despite this dark and dramatic time, Johnny returns for one last triumphant dance with Baby in front of everyone at Kellerman’s. Okay, now you’re caught up. Let’s mambo.
It’s no surprise there were such social issues being explored in this film; just look at the cultural context. Not only were the 1960s a significant era for social change, but 1963 itself was one of the most tumultuous years in terms of civil rights in the United States: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan was released, adding fuel to the raging fire of second wave feminism sweeping across the country; US involvement in the Vietnam war had begun the year before, and many Americans were outraged at this; Malcolm X was making waves, and Martin Luther King Jr made his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech; racial segregation was rife across the country, as were the protests against this; and the cold war and space race were ticking along constantly in the background.
Dirty Dancing was female written and produced (by Eleanor Bergstein and Linda Gottlieb respectively), and I believe this infused the female gaze throughout the film. Baby is a strong female protagonist; while she comes from a privileged family, she wants to help people, all kinds of people, and she stands up and speaks out when things aren’t right. She’s curious, and an adventurer. She helps the bag boy take the luggage out of her family’s car when no one else does.
Her innocence and virginity is fetishised constantly, particularly by her father, and even Baby admits this; “everyone called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind”. She’s underestimated by everyone around her. She meets Neil, a Cornell hotel management student at Kellerman’s, who is patronising towards her; “are you going to major in English?”, he assumes, to which Baby replies, “No, economics of underdeveloped countries. I’m going into the Peace Corps”. During this conversation, Johnny and Penny greet the visitors and do a show stopping Mambo, and Neil remarks, “Oh, them. They’re the dance people”, clearly indicating the class difference between someone like him and people like that, and class continues to be a prominent issue of the film.
Later that night, Baby comes across Billy while she’s exploring the grounds, and he shows her the secret dirty dancing headquarters, a staff common area. This staff is the band members, the cleaners, and the entertainers, the working class people, including black people and Latinos – they’re the kind of people Donald Trump would call ‘bad hombres’. However, the front of house people such as the waiters who are instructed to pay attention to the young female visitors so they’ll get better tips, are white and preppy male Med students working in their summer break away from college. One in particular, Robbie, when talking about ‘those’ lower status staff members, remarks, “Some people count and some people don’t”; the divide of class is instantly clear. These dirty dancers work all day, then they listen to soul music pioneered by black culture, drink beer, and sweatily grind the night away.
When Baby sees Johnny for the first time, it is clear to her, and audiences, that he’s a bad boy; he’s wearing a black leather jacket and black sunglasses…indoors. He’s older, rebellious, and sexually experienced, contrasting greatly with sweet Baby, who wears below the knee dresses, flat shoes, and baggy cardigans. As the film goes on, she symbolically starts dressing more confidently and adventurously. The chemistry and tension between Johnny and Baby is electric, including the scene where they are returning from their dance gig and Johnny sneaks looks in his rear vision mirror at Baby changing clothes in the backseat; which is a bit creepy, even for a “wild” man.
That same night, Johnny and Baby discover bed-ridden and panicked Penny, suffering from the effects of her illegal and unsafe abortion – although I think it’s important to mention the ‘A’ word is never actually mentioned. The audience is left to piece that together themselves when Billy says they can’t call the hospital, as the hospital will call the police; then, Baby says, “I thought you said he was a real MD”, and Billy replies, “The guy had a dirty knife and a folding table”. I learnt from a girlfriend of mine studying Screen and Media that a recurring theme of Femme Fatale films is that the sexually adventurous, independent (and therefore bad) woman is usually punished at the end of the film for what she’s done, for breaking the rules assigned to women. I found this really interesting when I compared it to Penny’s situation, as she doesn’t get punished at all. Baby gets her father to come and help Penny, and he does, being very respectful and kind to her, despite his personal disagreement with what she’s done. With Dr Houseman’s help, Penny’s back to normal in no time, and she beams with happiness when she tells Johnny she can still have children. Then, in the very final scene when Baby and Johnny dance in front of everyone, Penny and Dr Houseman have a nice exchange, embracing, and then she is seen dancing with the band conductor, smiling and glowing. Unlike Johnny, she doesn’t lose her job. This is such a positive way to depict abortion and the women who have them; she’s not a ‘bad’ woman, she’s not judged by those closest to her, she’s not punished.
This night when Dr Houseman helps Penny after her abortion, he asks who is responsible for her, and Johnny says he is; the father is actually Robbie the waiter, who wants nothing to do with Penny now that she’s pregnant, but Johnny being Penny’s friend, and a good guy, steps up. Baby then comforts Johnny, putting her hands on his arm and shoulder, and Dr Houseman sees this – big mistake. When he leaves Penny’s room, he shakes Billy’s hand but refuses to shake Johnny’s, walking off when Johnny is trying to thank him for helping. Baby and her Dad walk back to their family cabin and he tells her, “I don’t want you to have anything to do with those people again”, and he also tells Baby to take her make up off before her mother sees it, which is a vintage slut shame.
Of course, Baby cannot stay away from Johnny. It’s late, but she goes straight to his private bungalow to apologise for how her father treated him. However, as sensitive and polite as Baby really is, there’s an underlying motive for this visit. She makes this wonderful speech, “I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of what I saw, of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling for the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you”. The record player is on, the sexual tension is through the roof, but Johnny doesn’t say anything back; he’s been warned not to get emotionally involved with a guest, particularly one as innocent as Baby. He clearly wants her but he holds back. Then, something fucking awesome happens; Baby stands up and says, ‘Dance with me’. Luckily I watch all of my films with subtitles because I noticed there’s no question mark at the end of that line; she’s not asking him, she’s instructing him. Her desire is in the driving seat, for the first time in her life. Baby approaches Johnny and touches him, and he soon holds her, and they dirty dance. She kisses him on the neck and runs her hand across Johnny’s buttocks, and after that he gives her this intense look, and you know it’s on. Johnny then takes off her top (she’s wearing white pants, a white top, and a white bra underneath, the costume designer really nailed the whole ‘white as a symbol of purity thing’) and after some more dancing dips and neck kisses, the camera fades to Johnny and Baby kissing in bed, then it fades to the next morning.
This scene is driven by Baby’s desire and her taking control of her sexuality and pleasure. She has agency and she makes it happen, and despite this being her first time, she is not passive at all. This scene is also the most erotic and sexually awakening film moment I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch home alone, * ahem * but anyway, moving on with my professional, complex, and not at all subjective film analysis. After this first time, Baby goes back for more, even going to Johnny’s bungalow and waiting for him when he’s not there. It turns out that they had sex without Johnny even knowing Baby’s real name, and she tells him one day in bed; “Frances, after the first woman in the Cabinet”. #Feminism
Their secret doesn’t last long, as a Kellerman’s visitor and jilted lover of Johnny’s, Vivian, sees Baby leaving his bungalow early one morning, and as an act of jealousy and revenge, Vivian accuses Johnny of stealing her husband’s wallet – and Max Kellerman, who’s in charge of the resort, recounts this to the Houseman’s. Baby defends Johnny, but this means exposing herself and their secret; “I know Johnny didn’t take the wallet. I know he didn’t take it, because he was in his room all night. And the reason I know… is because I was there with him”, she admits.
Cue Dr Jake Houseman’s crisis, where he ignores Baby, and sits alone in front of the lake, silently sulking that his Baby daughter is no more. She’s no longer his sweet little girl, she’s an illegal abortion funder and sex-haver, what is the world coming to??? His baby daughter’s virginity was holding the sky up, and now it’s gone, everything is apparently crashing down around him. He sees Johnny as a “predator” who has corrupted his “innocent young” daughter; of course, assuming that Johnny initiated their romantic and sexual relationship and Baby was a passive, powerless victim in the whole thing. Not only did Baby lose her virginity to a working class man who is so beneath her, but Jake still believes that Johnny got Penny pregnant, which is further tarnishing his reputation in Jake’s eyes. Baby confronts Jake and schools him with her young wisdom; “You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who was like you. You told me to make the world a better place, but you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying someone from Harvard. I’m sorry I let you down, Daddy. But you let me down too”. (Cue mic drop) Baby is clearly referring to his views on class and sex, politely reminding him to pull his head out of his ass.
Johnny leaves after he is fired, but comes back for that famous last dance, and that famous line; “Nobody puts Baby in the corner”. Baby is literally sitting in a corner between her parents, but reading deeper, Johnny is saying, nobody should control Baby, keep her down, stop her potential, or silence her. He is talking to Jake, not so much to Baby’s mother, Marge, as it’s only her dad that is punishing her for what she’s done. We see this so much in society still today – purity balls, and that tired old trope of the father overprotective of his ‘princess’, it’s all about male control over female sexuality and the female body.
Johnny and Baby dance their last dance, and all of the accompanying visitors and staff dance too, and it’s so touching. Everyone, regardless of skin colour, income level, and dancing style (the polite and classy, to the dirty dancing), is dancing together in one room; there is no more segregation. Everyone learns a lesson and leaves a better person than they were before – although Vivian is still bitter.
This last note may be a bit of an unpopular one… when I get to the end of the film, I always get the feeling that this is Johnny and Baby’s last dance, their goodbye. When Johnny mouths the song lyrics, “I’ve had the time of my life. No, I’ve never felt like this before. Yes, I swear it’s the truth, and I owe it all to you” to Baby, he looks momentarily sad, like they’re both resigned to the fact that this has been amazing, and it’s ending, but they can still enjoy this last dance together. I’m a hopeless romantic and an optimist so I hate to think this, but realistically, how would Baby and Johnny’s future work? Baby is going to college soon and she wants to join the peace corps and travel and help people in underdeveloped countries; would Johnny come with her, or would they have a long-distance relationship? What would happen to Johnny’s dance teaching career, or his opportunity to enter the house painter and plasterer’s union?
More importantly, this is assuming they actually want a serious relationship together. They can love each other, and they’ve had the time of their lives, but maybe that’s enough for them. You don’t need to end up with your first love (or your first fuck), you can take the lessons you’ve learned and the memories and the dance moves, and move on – I think that’s an empowering message.
Then again, maybe I’m focussing too much on the coming of age love story aspect of the film. What makes this film really special to me is that it’s a cleverly hidden (in the way that it’s not so hidden at all), feminist exploration of virginity (and fetishised virginity), female sexuality, and class, with progressive messages and characters. More coming of age love stories should be like this. I adore Grease, but it’s never sit quite right with me how Sandy changes for Danny. At least I can watch Dirty Dancing and not only love the music, the plot, the characters, but the messages too; help people, trust the good in people, be your own woman, go after what you want, and do a hell of a lot of dancing.
Well, that’s what I get from Dirty Dancing anyway.
By Eleanor Danenberg.