Friday, May 31, 2013

Thoughts on Dirty Dancing (1987)

Patrick Swayze & Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing (1987)
Movies out of time always present a problem because they incorporate modern ideals into past eras. The heroine’s family attends a dance camp for the summer, and that’s where the entire story occurs. On the surface Dirty Dancing seems like a fun coming-of-age story of a young girl who is about to head off to college anyway, so it’s about time she came out of her shell and started developing. After a little excavation, however, the movie displays some ideals that are strictly 1980s, and would never have been either A) thought of in 1963 or, at the very least, B) never voiced.

The entire underlining thread of this film is an “Out with the old, in with the new” mentality. The fox trot and the tango are for the old-timers, people from a bygone era like mom and dad. The young people are stifled by the establishment’s resistance to new ideas, especially the hero, Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze). When Baby (Jennifer Grey), the heroine, finds her way to the staff quarters of the camp, she’s shocked at the way the employees dance in their free time. I’m assuming this must be the beginning of “grinding,” a method of dancing where personal space is totally ignored and hips are ground against hips. She’s embarrassed at first, then Johnny takes her in hand and teaches her to loosen up, and she finds that she likes it. Of course she does! Because that type of dancing is something exciting and liberating and meant to be shared only with a spouse because it awakens sexual yearnings.

Baby’s dad is played by Jerry Orbach, and because I’ve loved him since I first heard Lumiere in Beauty & the Beast, I was predisposed to liking him. And I do like him because his ideals are deemed “old-fashioned” by the younger set. When one of the female employees has a botched abortion, a completely illegal abortion since this is 1963, Baby runs to him for help and he does help, utilizing his healing hands as a physician to keep Penny from dying. And he is compassionate and gentle with her, not judging at all, but he is hurt because of Baby, because she asked him for the $250 needed for the abortion without telling him what it was for, and if he had known, he would have never given it to her. She violated her father’s trust. But because of this “Out with the old, in with the new” plot thread, Baby lectures her father for disappointing her too, all while offering him an apology. So, instead of Baby returning to the value system she’s been raised on, her father must elevate himself to a new era of thinking and join her value system. Sexual immorality is born!

In that same vein, the very idea of an abortion in 1963 is an abomination. I’m sure women had them, but they would have never been filmed during the era. It would have been a very hush, hush and shameful act. Dirty Dancing nudges viewers into the Roe vs. Wade mentality. Because Penny thought the man she slept with loved her, then she wasn’t doing anything wrong, and when she gets pregnant, there’s only one way out. She’s scared, and pitiful, and alone, and the audience grieves with her, and so the viewers are trained to believe that Penny does the right thing by having an abortion. This movie was trying to condition me to believe that, in some circumstances, abortion is appropriate, even necessary, for a woman to live a full and happy life. I’m sorry? I didn’t quite hear that? She can still have babies and she’s relieved? How wonderful for her. How exciting. She can still experience the fullness of motherhood, but just when it’s convenient for her.

This film is a complete rehash of 1980s values masquerading as a movie set in the 1960s. I sort of expected that it would be, but half hoped it would try to be more than that. In the end, though, it’s just a movie about poor moral choices and dirty dancing. Not even Jerry Orbach could save it for me.


  1. I couldn't like this movie -- anything that pretends abortion is okay gets my down vote in an instant, plus I have no patience for rebellious teenagers.

  2. I understand the realism of a young woman getting an abortion because she thinks that she has nowhere else to turn. It's something that happens in real life, and it's a tragedy. But, like you, what I didn't like was how easy it was for her to get an abortion. That was her first and only conclusion and everyone helped her to that end. No moral quandary, nothing. And that's where the realism left. In today's society, women wouldn't think twice. In 1963, they would have.


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