Dirty Dancing is a Feminist Masterpiece
FILM: Dirty Dancing
WATCH IT WHEN YOU NEED: Life affirming and aesthetically pleasing dance extravaganza.
YOU’LL LIKE IT IF YOU LIKE: Flashdance, Footloose, Grease, Coyote Ugly, Pretty Woman
THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS- if you haven’t watched Dirty Dancing, just go and do it. It’s not a long film. It’s on Amazon Prime. Off you go. See you in 1 hour 40 mins.
I was recently shocked when I was talking with some friends about movies. I mentioned that Dirty Dancing is one of my favourite films and was met with all round disdain.
‘Dirty Dancing?! Come on, that’s barely even a film, it’s just Patrick Swayze thrusting.’
I find it hard to contain my sadness (and RAGE) that this film has earned this reputation over the years. I blame numerous things, including hen parties, Dirty Dancing Sing-a-longs, the thoroughly shite musical and the unmentionable TV remake. For shame.
Let us go back to my first viewing of the film, which probably occurred around 1997, ten years after it changed my mum’s life.
I owe so much to my very 80’s parents for my early education in 80’s movies. One of the first films I remember watching was a recorded VHS of Top Gun that cut to snooker before the credits. Not far behind Top Gun was Dirty Dancing. It was another fairy tale movie for me for when I didn’t feel like Disney. The music! The dancing! The lake! The handsome prince! I loved it instinctively. I watched it so many times the tape went all fuzzy, I kept watching it anyway.
During my teenage years I closeted my love of the movie, pretending to like prestigious arty sounding movies instead. I watched it in secret with my mum when it was on the telly.
Years later I was having an existential crisis. I’d broken up with my boyfriend and was just about to graduate. I was panicking. Over 3 days I watched Dirty Dancing 5 times. I rotated my friends in order to get away with watching it so many times in company, and watched it twice alone. I blamed the break up, but really, I had another reason to keep watching. Dirty Dancing, the favourite of my childhood, was speaking to me like never before. I knew all of the words to this film by heart, but was hearing a brand new message loud and clear.
Women and girls are powerful. We are in charge of our own destinies.
More years have passed and that particular existential crisis is over. However the life affirming message of Dirty Dancing stays with me. Hearing someone reduce this masterpiece into Patrick Swayze’s (admittedly spellbinding) thrusting spurred me on to share the message which I have taken from this movie.
Spare me a moment, so I can break down for you the message of female power that I’ve found in this movie.
It’s okay to want to have sex.
If you’ve watched the movie, which you should have by now, you’ll know the scene I’m referring to in this bit. Baby turns up to Johnny’s cabin, uninvited, in the middle of the night and asks him to dance with her. You know the rest.
Baby, the teenager, goes uninvited to an older man’s bedroom and initiates sex with him- and it looks like she is having a seriously great time. How often is that the case? She has decided that she wants to sleep with this man and she is going to go and do it. It’s Baby that seduces Johnny, not vice versa as it is in so many other movies. To see a young girl take the lead and follow her own desires like this- nothing short of inspirational to women of all ages.
Side note- Lisa, Baby’s gawky older sister is also in charge of who she wants to sleep with. Robbie the creep puts a move on her early in the film: ‘I don’t hear an apology Robbie!’ and later she decides she’s going to go sleep with him off her own back. You go Lisa, sorry that you chose a creep.
It’s okay to be in charge of your life.
The entire plot of this film is driven by choices made freely by women.
Baby chooses not to be schmoozed by Neil. (We all know someone like Neil, nobody likes him and it’s a mystery he’s ever invited to things).
Baby chooses to go into the staff quarters and hang around.
Penny *shock horror* chooses to have an abortion- coincidentally- she’s fine by the end of the movie! She’s having a good time! and she seems to be a really great person as well. Could it be that nice people can have abortions too? That’s a big message to be putting out for 1987.
Baby puts herself forwards to be Johnny’s dance partner.
Baby nods and chooses to close the movie with an amazing lift.
It’s all about the decisions made by women. Sure, when Johnny gets fired by Max, that’s a spanner in the works, but the plot isn’t ruined.
A much shorter version of the film would have been ‘rich girl goes to holiday camp, does as she’s told, meanwhile member of staff loses job for illegitimate pregnancy.’ It’s the curiosity and innate drive to help in Baby that gives us a story to tell in this film. She doesn’t wait for life to happen to her, Baby makes decisions that drive events that give us a great movie. Be more like Baby, she gets shit done, even on a boring resort holiday.
It’s okay to grow and change as a person.
The most literal evidence for this is the name change in this film. All through the movie we hear Baby being called- Baby. Which is never really explained. Is it a nickname? Has it got some sort of significance? Why are you still calling your teenage daughter Baby? WHY?
In bed with Johnny, Baby reveal her real name to be ‘Frances, for the first woman in the Cabinet.’
Are you joking? That’s such a cool name to have- to be named after a politically significant, ground-breaking woman; it set the bar high for Baby’s own achievements. But instead of using this name, her family still call her Baby.
During the final scene of the movie, Johnny asks ‘Miss Frances Houseman’ to dance with him. Her dad nearly has a heart attack at this. I feel that this name change is a full stop at the end of the story of Baby’s personal growth over the film. She’s getting up there on stage, under her real name and dancing to show that she is not a baby anymore, she’s Miss Frances Houseman and she’s her own person now thank you very much.
We all have these moments. Mine was when I first went clubbing in a bra and shorts and no one was there to stop me. It was less photogenic than the end scene of Dirty Dancing, but felt as significant.
When you have self-confidence, you can do amazing things.
Let’s talk about the crowning glory of this movie, THE LIFT.
Oh my lord, just thinking about the ending scene of this film gives me goosebumps. I have still not learned that I can’t do the lift. Once at a wedding an usher told me he could lift me- I knocked over a table and took out the side of the marquee.
The lift (in the movie and my own experience) is a big thing, you need to trust the person lifting and have confidence in yourself to be able to get safely up and down. The first time Johnny and Baby dance in front of an audience, she doesn’t feel safe to do the lift. Incidentally the dance is still really good and nobody minds. Johnny doesn’t even mind. It’s okay Baby, you do you.
By the time we get to the end of the movie, Baby has lost her virginity, solved a few problems and she’s stood up to her family by doing an epic dance with a sexy man. Baby knows what’s up. She has come into her own.
When Baby gets lifted up into the air, we can hardly see Johnny, the lights are on her and she is illuminated. Baby looks AMAZING. This is her moment to say I have ARRIVED.
Yes they had to work together to practice and they happened to fall in love- but come on that’s her moment and her moment alone.
Bonus point- It’s okay to shoot a movie from a female perspective.
The whole narrative of this story bar ONE OR TWO SCENES (prizes if you can spot them) comes to us from Baby. How often does a movie actually reliably let a teenage girl tell her story? She is the central point of this whole movie and in control of her story. This is reflected in the way the movie is shot.
In her awesome book ‘Life Moves Pretty Fast’ Hadley Freeman points out
‘The whole film is told from Baby’s point of view, which is why there are so many adoring shots of Johnny with his top off and barely any similarly lustful ones of her.’
How cool is that? To find a movie that takes the time to examine the perspective of a lustful teen, rather than dismiss it. As Freeman says, it’s rare to have this imbalance of provocative shots of a handsome male and close to zero of the female protagonist. This camera is brutally honest is portraying the female gaze of the narrator and completely uninterested in the male audience member. That’s boss.
So there we have it. My understanding of this iconic movie laid out for your perusal.
If there’s one thing that I hope you can take away from this, it’s that Dirty Dancing is not a movie for middle aged women to remember their youth with (sorry mum). This is a movie that still has hugely relevant messages and if anything- one we should be showing to teenage girls now.
Nobody puts Dirty Dancing in a corner.