Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Dirty Dancing

YEAR: 1987
DIRECTOR: Emile Ardolino
KEY ACTORS: Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Cynthia Rhodes
CERTIFICATE: 12
IMDB SCORE: 7.0
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 71%

SEX SCORE: 5/5
✔️Definitely rewatchable – the soundtrack alone would tempt me to watch it again before even considering the dancing!
✔️ And yes, I’d want to fuck Patrick Swayze at his peak. Didn’t we all?
✔️ For a film made in the 80s when rape and misogyny were often amusing plot points, this is such a sex positive film! It supports easy access to abortion, and the coming of age through holiday romance, hot hot sex and dance. It would rank higher than a lot of more modern movies; it’s extraordinary.
✔️ Just as Up in the Air is an archetypal hotel fuck movie, this is the holiday romance movie to inspire all holiday romances. Of course I wanted the hottest guy on holiday to notice me and want me and fuck me in secret and then publicly announce his love for me. It’s the dream of a teenage girl who never thought she’d be noticed but it’s still a great dream… Oh, and I always always always want to dance like I’m being fucked. It’s everything.
✔️AND it passes the Bechdel Test! Only the second 5/5 film yet!!

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £5.99), YouTube (from £2.99). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com

Dirty Dancing poster showing Swayze and Grey in the starting position for their dance

I don’t remember when I first saw Dirty Dancing; I genuinely don’t remember a time when I hadn’t watched this film. But I do remember watching it in my early teens and realising what it was really about.

It wasn’t just a film about learning to dance and having a holiday romance. It wasn’t just a film for girls or teenagers or something that should be dismissed (famously by prominent male critics) like so much romcom and chick lit. It is a fucking gritty film for women about women’s pleasure and women’s issues – abortion and privilege and class – that just happens to be wrapped up in a lovely dancing plot with a cracking soundtrack. This is a frivolous, hilarious, cheesy film but it is such a Good Film and rightfully deserving of its 5/5 score – only the second one I’ve given. It’s a feminist masterpiece!

Dirty Dancing follows the Houseman family through their summer holiday at a resort in America. The youngest daughter, Frances, is always called Baby (Jennifer Grey) and, because she’s in the right place at the right time, becomes aware that one of the dancers, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), is in trouble – Penny needs an abortion and has neither the time or the money to get one. Baby uses her privilege to get her the money from her father, who trusts her without question, before she is taught to dance by Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) so she can cover for Penny while she sees the doctor. Sadly, the ‘doctor’ turns out to be nothing more than a back-alley quack with the equivalent of a coat hanger, and Baby once again turns to her father for help as he’s a doctor. Of course Baby and Johnny then fall in love. Of course Mr Houseman is horrified that Baby is mixed up in all of this mess. Of course it has a happy ending with a rousing dance number that will never fail to bring a smile to your face.

Penny, Baby and Johnny dancing in formation

Oh, I have so much to say about this film!

For a start, it’s so fucking hot! And I mean that from the perspective of an innocent young teenager and from that of a horny woman in her 30s. I have spent my entire life wanting to dance like the staff dance at the beginning in their secret club. It is literally and figuratively hot; steamy, red, gyrating, dirty, close, sweaty, dishevelled, talented. Fuck. It’s probably the closest thing to sex that I’ve seen on screen that isn’t actually sex, and it’s certainly hotter than most movie sex! And it’s so fucking performative, it’s an exhibitionist’s dream. They’re all dancing like they’re fucking and they’re doing it in front of each other. Unff. I think about this scene whenever I dance with someone new. I think of this scene whenever I press myself up against my partner when dancing. I think of this scene and I imagine that I’m that sexy just because I’m dancing!

And it’s not just the dancing that’s hot – Baby and Johnny are so good together. They’re clearly having so much fun and they are so into each other. They’re affectionate, they’re considerate and they look good. I also love the teacher-pupil dynamic between them with the dance lessons. Hot. It’s just hot. They were a relationship model of sorts for me growing up – I wanted to laugh like that with my partners, I wanted to be that proud of them and that comfortable with them. And it is such an empowering image of female sexuality. Perhaps knowing what it would cost him if he were to make a misstep, Johnny lets Baby lead and the camera follows her hands across his body and in every gratuitously topless shot, revelling in the female gaze. To find all that in a holiday romance is almost too much!

Swayze, topless, standing behind a Grey who is laughing hysterically

I’ve not seen Dirty Dancing 2, mainly as I cannot imagine lightning striking twice, but I know it doesn’t follow Johnny and Baby’s future. Swayze has a role as a dance instructor but he’s not named – I assume he’s Johnny but I don’t know why they wouldn’t name him if he was! Anyway, I often wonder what would have happened to the two of them after the events of the original film. When I was younger, I never doubted their happy ending, but would they have stayed together? Could they have overcome their class differences and heavily implied religious differences and made it work? Their love seemed too great to just be over, but now I can’t imagine it working out any other way. ‘I’ll never be sorry’ Johnny tells Baby, and that somehow made it all OK that they’d likely go their separate ways now the season was over. Heartbreaking, and likely a love story that would weigh heavily over all of their future relationships, but OK. I don’t know that they’d have made each other happy long term.

Of the various nuances that I missed in my early viewings, the class differences wasn’t one of them. The already existing customer/service divide is exacerbated because the Housemans seem to be special guests of the management. Are they rich? Or high status? Or just friends of the Kellermans? Such is her privilege that Baby doesn’t notice the difference. ‘I envy you,’ she tells Penny when she hears that Penny has been dancing professionally since she was 16. Baby sees only the romance of life on the stage but I dread to think what hoops Penny needed to jump through to succeed.

Johnny and Penny dancing

Johnny is also very aware of the divide between him and Baby. He knows that despite being Baby’s teacher and superior at the holiday camp, that isn’t their future. She plans on volunteering to join the Peace Corps; he is soon to start a manual labour job. He knows that he could never financially support Baby in the manner to which she is accustomed, never compete with her intellectually. It’s frankly quite adorable how grateful he is when she acknowledges him to her parents, and I realise how patronising that sounds. As the film progresses, the extent of Baby’s privilege becomes more and more obvious – the revelation of her affair with Johnny causes disappointment in her father’s eyes but isn’t likely to affect her future. Johnny is fired and is unlikely to be re-employed next year.

But the class divide isn’t just played out through Baby and Johnny. The waiters are instructed to romance the guests’ daughters, ‘even the dogs,’ but the entertainment staff are only for dancing. The class divide here is too great; that would be an embarrassment to the wealthy families. Except this works in reverse with the bored wives – they’re not looking for a future for themselves so instead throw themselves at the hired help! And it’s difficult to say no. This was an early lesson for me in coerced consent – Johnny can’t really afford to say no to these rich women, both through immediate tips and because he needs to keep his job. ‘They’re using me!’ he tells Baby, and the power differential here is obvious.

This is just one example of what I find so extraordinary about Dirty Dancing – it casually covers subjects that remain topical and pertinent today, and manages to do so in a way that is real and sympathetic. As described in an opinion piece in the Guardian written in 2017, it lightly and almost casually portrays ‘the kind of issues that today’s Hollywood would handle with Christopher Nolan-esque gravity or sidestep altogether for fear of criticism,’ such as abortion and sexual assault. As it quite correctly concludes, this film would never be made today!

And it remains astonishing that it was made at all. This is a notable exception among 80s teen movies to show sexual assault as wrong rather than an amusing plot point – Molly Ringwald being casually fingered without her consent in The Breakfast Club, Anthony Michael Hall sleeping with a drunk girl who doesn’t know who he is in Sixteen Candles; the 80s were a difficult time for women and I fear that this freedom to feel up unsuspecting women is what boomers are talking about when they moan about how the world is not like it used to be.

But Dirty Dancing takes a dim view of that kind of behaviour. As much as this movie has a villain, it is Robbie – the cocky waiter who is the father of Penny’s baby but won’t help her. He’s also shown to sexually assault Baby’s sister and sleep with other guests, which is ironic as he accuses Penny of sleeping around. Particularly viewed with post-#MeToo sensibilities, his entire attitude is pretty revolting. He wants Dr Houseman’s support and recommendation before starting a career in medicine so dates his daughter (!), tries to force her to go further with him that she wants (!!), and then presumes that Dr Houseman will side with him and understand when he admits to his role in Penny’s pregnancy (!!!). ‘Some people count and some people don’t,’ he tells Baby when she confronts him about Penny, effectively summing up the whole film!

And perhaps Robbie isn’t that wrong to believe that Dr Houseman shares his views on who is worth attention. Baby calls her father out on the hypocrisy of his actions compared to the more magnanimous ideals of providing help and support to everyone that he taught her, declaring that ‘you meant people like you.’

But the most important and most radical plot line involves the representation of abortion. The film’s writer, Eleanor Bergstein, talking to Hadley Freeman for her book on 80s movies ‘Life Movies Pretty Fast,’ said that she had intended to present social messages in a ‘pleasurable way so that the moral lesson would sneak up on people,’ and she definitely succeeds!

Baby and Johnny messing around on the floor. She is crawling towards him as he plays air guitar

I love love love how intentional Bergstein was in using this film as a vehicle for a pro-abortion message. Her film was dismissed by men on all sides as it was a film for teen girls, and they apparently didn’t even notice the abortion plot until it was too late and money had been invested. It’s completely integral to the plot – nothing would happen without it. I suspect that’s one of the reasons why I haven’t yet heard a credible suggestion of remaking Dirty Dancing.

For me, it strikes exactly the right note with regard to discussions about abortion. Penny is not judged for needing an abortion; she’s portrayed sympathetically but her response to the predicament is understandable. No one ever suggests keeping the baby. Why would they? And yet her sensible and reasonable need for an abortion almost kills her as she is unable to get one safely and legally. She can’t go to the doctor even after she’s been butchered as what she’s done is illegal. Again taken from her conversation with Hadley Freeman, Bergstein is so ahead of her time with her intentions: ‘when I wrote the film, abortion – like feminism – was one of those issues that people thought just wasn’t relevant any more…But I thought Ros vs Wade was precarious…The film is set in 1963 but it came out in 1987 and I wanted young women seeing the film to understand that it wasn’t just that she went to Planned Parenthood and it went wrong.’

Wow.

Set in 1963, first came out in 1987 but upsettingly relevant today.

Rolling back our reproductive freedoms and limiting access to abortions doesn’t mean more babies; it means more people desperately resorting to ‘some butcher…with a folding table and a dirty knife.’ People will die. Without any doubt, people will die. And disproportionately people like Penny – people who can’t afford to see doctors with clean operating theatres and who are willing to risk ignoring the rules. Vulnerable people will die. And that is just not good enough!

It should also be noted that, importantly, Dirty Dancing does not suggest that sex should be avoided despite acknowledging these potentially tragic consequences. The plot around Penny’s abortion is what brings Baby and Johnny together; they have all this wonderful, hot, life-changing sex almost immediately after seeing what happened to Penny. The fault, it correctly implies, is not with the people having sex – it’s with the system that denies them access to safe abortion.

Baby and Johnny lying in each other’s arms

God, I love this film!

It’s not perfect. I don’t know why Baby does so much of the dancing in her underwear, except to unnecessarily perve on her body, which feels out of character with the rest of the film, and the ‘gu-gung’ heartbeat scene is nauseatingly cringeworthy. I also don’t know if it can be forgiven for the number of copycat weddings, parties, dance scenes etc that have tried and failed to recreate Johnny’s prance down the aisle at the end or the iconic lift scene.

(I can forgive this one)

And yet Dirty Dancing‘s importance cannot be underestimated – it’s a quiet yet ‘powerful morality tale.’ It shows the consequences of limitation of our reproductive freedom in an accessible way; it demonstrates how ‘youthful indulgence [and] daddy’s girl privileges can be harnessed to foster social unity’ – as the Guardian comments ‘Ivanka Trump take note!’ – and it demonstrates and condemns casual indifference to sexual assault. Big, important issues, all displayed for the mainstream to see.

All this, and it’s just so joyful. It’s wonderful. It’s the time of our lives!

Next week: Gone Girl

I have specifically chosen this film as it has an abortion theme because Smutathon 2019 is approaching! A charity smut writing challenge when an entire community of erotica and sex writers will be writing as much as we can for 12 hours on 28th September to raise money for the National Network of Abortion Funds, a charity that aims to reduce all barriers to accessing abortion in the USA – financial, logistical and legal.

Click the button below to read more about our challenge or click here to donate!

The Smutathon badge showing a woman’s legs in fishnet tights bending over a chair

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

3 Comments

  1. A great review Livvy and yes, so relavant to the Smutathon charity choice. This is really poignant for me as my son and daughter in law bought us tickets to Dirty Dancing at an open air cinema at Hatfield House this summer. The four of us had a picnic and watched the film together. Really proud that they wanted us to go with them to watch it. I love the film and it brought back memories of the first time around for me. Not perfect as you say, but sadly up to date right now!

  2. I absolutely love this post. Although I’ve never thought of Baby dancing in her underwear as being as an unnecessary opportunity for the audience to perve. I assume her clothes getting skimpier is a visual metaphor for her becoming more aware of and confident about her sexuality/attraction to Johnny. Based on the excerpts of the interview with Bergstein I can’t imagine these filmmakers were as cynical as to use gratuitous semi-nudity and I think that growing lust and maturing sexuality wouldn’t be as palpable if she stayed in her cardigan. I’m going to keep believing that.

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