Not a “Baby” Anymore: DIRTY DANCING and Its Feminist Might
28 July 2013
A basic and simple definition for feminism may read something like this…the belief that all individuals should be treated equally. (The phrasing here is intentional; no use of men and women because that may inadvertently exclude those who do not place themselves in one of those two categories. The essence of the movement, at least my personal understanding of it, is equalization, regardless of the gender categories.) The last thing one might think about when watching Emile Ardolino’s Dirty Dancing is feminism; however, in consideration of this simple definition, there is a great deal of feminism to consider in this 1987 cult classic.
Set in the summer of 1963, “Baby” (Jennifer Grey), a teenager yearning to join the Peace Corps, and her family, The Housemans, set off on holiday to Kellerman’s, a resort in the Catskill Mountians. “Baby’s” father (Jerry Orbach) is a doctor, her mother (Kelly Bishop) a housewife, and her sister, Lisa (Jane Brucker), a girly girl to the max. Immediately, “Baby” is fascinated by the staff at Kellerman’s, particularly two of the resort’s dancers, Johnny (Patrick Swayze) and Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). After sneaking in to a staff party one night, “Baby” inadvertently learns Penny is pregnant and needs to get an abortion so she will not lose her job. Only problem is she can barely afford one, and the only appointment she can get will force her to miss work. “Baby” volunteers to fill in, although she knows nothing about dance. Moreover, she lies to her father so she can borrow money to help Penny. Tragically, the doctor hired to perform Penny’s abortion is a crook, and Penny ends up hurt. “Baby” races to her father for help, and he learns what “Baby” has been doing Kellerman’s and who she has been spending her time with. Doctor Houseman warns “Baby” not to see Penny or Johnny anymore, but “Baby,” who now has strong feels for Johnny, disobeys. As “Baby” and Johnny’s relationship deepens it becomes harder and harder to keep their love a secret from those around them. Unexpectedly, a robbery occurs at Kellerman’s and Johnny is accused. Although he is ultimately found innocent, Johnny gets fired and leaves Kellerman’s just before the summer ends. Depressed, “Baby” attends Kellerman’s final event, a talent show. And, to provide its audience the desired romantic finale, Johnny makes a surprising return to Kellerman’s to dance the season’s final dance with “Baby.”
First, and the topic many have picked up on when viewing feminist stances in Dirty Dancing, is the film’s abortion subplot. Facing complete career and financial ruin, Penny has an illegal abortion. According to the filmmakers this subplot is necessary to the film’s narrative structure; Penny’s abortion forces “Baby” to fill in as Johnny’s dancing partner. However, there may be more to it than that.
Dirty Dancing is set in the summer of 1963 (historically prior to Roe vs. Wade (1973), the Supreme Court case which legalized abortion), but was made in the late 1980s, a time when pro-life organizations fought vehemently in opposition of abortion’s legalization and growing accessibility to women of all ages. Sure, the abortion subplot does progress Dirty Dancing’s storyline, but it could have been avoided all together had the film’s writers not intentionally decided to include this controversial topic in the film narrative. Including the topic of abortion in the narrative does two things: first, it makes the film a bit scandalous, therefore marketable, and second, because of the film’s treatment of Penny, the abortion subplot makes a feminist claim in this 1987 sleeper sensation.
To elaborate, there are not a lot of films prior to Dirty Dancing in which a female character has an abortion, at least overtly. Simply for this frankness, Dirty Dancing is quite forward thinking and progressive. Yet, the few films that do capture a female trapped by and unwanted pregnancy often condemn the female, characterizing her as a sinner or immoral, and the entire experience typically destroys her entirely. This is not at all the case with Penny in Dirty Dancing.
Initially, and leading up to the revelation that Penny is pregnant, Penny is rather short-tempered, high-strung, and cold. She is unkind to “Baby” and a rather static character. However, Penny develops and even befriends “Baby,” teaching her how to dance with Johnny. As the film continues, Penny plays a role in keeping “Baby” and Johnny together, despite the circumstances pulling the two lovers apart. And, by the film’s conclusion, Penny is at Kellerman’s end of the season talent show dancing with Tito Suarez, the band leader. This once stubborn and angry character changes considerably for the audience, evolving into a likable and relatable character, regardless of her unwanted pregnancy and abortion. This is very unlike film’s treatment of female characters who terminate or desire to terminate pregnancies prior to Dirty Dancing.
Additionally, there is another sly feminist move in Dirty Dancing that is equally direct, but less discussed than the abortion subplot. In the film’s conclusion, Johnny takes “Baby” from “the corner” and leads her to the stage where they perform the season’s final dance. Before the music starts, Johnny stands at the microphone and dedicates this final performance to “Baby,” only he does not call her that; Johnny refers to her by her actual name, Ms. Frances Houseman. Immediately, the film cuts to a shot of “Baby’s” father, Doctor Jake Houseman, jumping up from his chair, seemingly to stop the dance that is about to happen; however, “Baby’s” mother, Marge, pulls him back down, saying, “Sit down, Jake.” Doctor Houseman was triggered when Johnny spoke “Baby’s” actual name. Up until that point, “Baby” lacked an identity; she was simply a generic term of seeming affection. Yet, she was not that to Johnny, and Johnny’s revelation of “Baby’s” name to all of Kellerman’s symbolically granted her the identity her family refused her.
It is interesting that Marge, “Baby’s” mother, is the one who pulls Doctor Houseman back because, up until this point in the film, she does absolutely nothing. Her husband lies to her and keeps her in the dark about “Baby’s” relationships with the Kellerman’s staff, but she simply gets up every day, dresses the part, sits by her husband’s side, and models as the perfect trophy wife for a doctor. Apparently, however, she has more to her than that. Not only is she the reason “Baby” is allowed to dance—which is arguable because “Baby” no longer exists; Frances Houseman has arrived and she is not ruled by anyone—, but after the dance several Kellerman’s guests get up and join in the jubilation. Marge absolutely gets up and dances with Jake, as revolutionary, yet subtle, a moment for her as “Baby’s” dance with Johnny. The evolution of Marge Houseman is remarkable, and undeniably feminist.
Also, it is important to mention that Johnny is the one who wants to know “Baby’s” name, and is the only one to call her by her name in the entire film. It is significant that he, the male protagonist, and clearly representing the young, upcoming generation, equalizes the female protagonist by asserting her full name. Unlike “Baby’s” father, representational of an older generation, Johnny is not threatened and not oppressive; to him she is an individual, she is Frances. This is another clear feminist element to the film, the argument that women are individuals, not pet names, and the newest generation is a set closer to the equality than the older, antiquated thinkers, like Doctor Houseman.
It is doubtful most people consider Dirty Dancing a feminist film; in fact, many people do not even consider Dirty Dancing any more than some 80’s dance movie. But, regardless of popular opinion, there are clear feminist elements built into the film, in its narrative structure, characterization, and language.