Class, gender and sexuality in Dirty Dancing

As a kid, I spent every summer at my older sister’s house and every summer, soon after I arrived, I would ask for the video. She would dig through the wooden chest that housed her VHS collection and pull our Dirty Dancing. Long before I understood the complexity of the film’s abortion storyline or it’s commentary on class, I fell in love with Jennifer Grey and her tiny dancing feet.

If you’ve never seen Dirty Dancing, it’s the movie where Patrick Swayze says his most iconic line; ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’. The film was released in 1987 and written by Eleanor Bergstein, who, according to some quick googling, based the story on her own experiences as a teenaged dirty dancing competitor.

The movie follows the rhythmic adventures of Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman as she finds love, sex and some good old fashioned bump ‘n’ grind while on a family holiday as a posh resort. She finds the holiday – and her life – tedious and boring until she meets Johnny Castle, top dog of the notoriously naughty entertainment staff. Baby is thrust into Johnny’s dancing arms when his usual partner Penny reveals that she can’t attend one of their regular gigs because she needs to procure a back alley abortion.

Re-watching movies I loved before I found feminism is always a daunting task. What if all my precious memories of dancing around my sister’s lounge room or pretending to do ‘lifts’ in the local pool are ruined by an errant sexist comment that never seemed that bad before? Dirty Dancing has always stayed with me though, somehow immune to my thorough scouring for offensive content.

After all, there is a subplot that focuses on the dangers of illegal abortions. The film is set in 1963, long before the right to terminate a pregnancy was legalised in the US. At the start of the story, Penny has been ‘knocked up’ by the totally gross, rich white boy, Robbie Gould. With Baby’s financial help and the emotional support of her BFF Johnny, Penny manages to book an ‘appointment’ with a ‘real’ doctor. Hours later, she is back in her own bed, writhing in pain after the doctor turns out to be a shady guy with a fold-out table and a rusty knife.

A quick visit from Baby’s stern father – who actually went through medical school – and Penny is as good as new. After a rest, she goes back to work as a dancer and nothing more is said about the abortion. Somehow she manages to escape the moral anguish that movie women are usually subject to when they discover an unwanted pregnancy. In fact, the only obstacles she faces are patriarchal – first in the form of Gould when he refuses to show up financially or emotionally, and then in the form of lethal and detrimental laws that allowed terrible men to carve open women’s bodies with little regard for consequence.

In the more innocent times before I understood that Penny’s storyline was about abortion (the word is never actually used), I truly believed that the movie was about a young girl discovering her passion for dancing. Now that I am older and wiser and more cynical, I understand that the dancing is merely a metaphor for sex.

In this sense, the movie is really about an older, more experienced man (Castle) guiding a young girl –whose name is Baby– through a ‘sexual awakening’. Ick. As he teaches her about sex, she also learns about her own body; what it is capable of and how to dress it. The montage of Baby learning her first dance visually shifts her from girl to woman – she sheds her sack-like dress and oversized cardigan for tiny shorts and a bra; swaps her sneakers for stilettos and pauses her dancing to apply lipstick.

Her steps still feel somewhat stunted and full of anxiety though and she is unable to perform the ultimate lift properly until after they actually have sex. After the sex, she is a confident dancer but she is also more confident more generally, as though the sex has helped her to know who she really is. She even manages to shed the ‘Baby’ moniker! As a feminist, I’m not really here for the never ending narratives that suggest women can’t know themselves or become adults until after their bodies have been ‘known’ by a man.

There is something though, in Baby’s insistent pursuit of Johnny. She demands to be taught how to dance and is later adamant about having sex. If the dancing is a metaphor for sex, it seems important that her ‘learning to dance’ montage features her figuring out the steps on her own as well. Her sexual education then, includes a significant amount of figurative masturbation, which is a narrative I can get down with.

After they finally have sex, Johnny changes as well. He becomes more vulnerable and boy-like, shedding his bravado and admitting to Baby that his past affairs left him feeling used and confused. Their power dynamic shifts dramatically as Baby takes over the reins of their relationship and her own life as Johnny’s uncertainty about his future begins to overwhelm.

It’s hard to say if Dirty Dancing is an explicitly feminist text, though it certainly passes the Bechdel Test. The film is overwhelmingly white and heterosexual – as so many films are. Baby is planning to go to university though – to study politics and law – and she doesn’t seem to stray from that path, even as she takes up dancing and sex. In many ways, her introduction to dance culture seems to broaden her political horizons and strengthen her previously misguided ideas about justice.

If there is an overarching narrative throughout Dirty Dancing, it is one about class. The divide between the wait staff as potential doctors and lawyers and the entertainment staff as drop kicks is clearly classed. Significantly though, the rich white men of the film are portrayed as misinformed at best (the archaic Max Kellerman) and ghoulish at worst (Robbie Gould). Historically dancefloors have been socio-political arenas in which minority groups have creatively enacted and embodied their anger and frustration with the status quo and I think this is the story that Dirty Dancing is trying to tell.

Here, the working class entertainment staff have built themselves a sanctuary away from rich people and ideology. A safe space to critique the steps they are expected to perform on stage and throughout their lives. Baby’s introduction to this world of dancing is also her introduction to her own upper-middle class privilege and what it might mean to lack that privilege.

The final scene where Johnny returns after being fired and all of the dancers crowd around him and cheer is reminiscent of the beginning of a protest. Every time I watch the movie, I hope that this time, they will dance-riot, overthrow the patriarchal rulers of the resort and turn it into a co-op dance studio and squat. But as Johnny Castle always reminds me, resistance is more available to some people than others. So instead, they dance, and Baby dances with them because there is something to be said for solidarity in pleasure, even if it isn’t always entirely revolutionary.

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IMG_8437_1Gemma Killen is a PhD Candidate in Gender Studies at the Australian National University. Her current work focuses on the ways in which queer women’s identities become embodied and are made meaningful in online spaces. In 2015, Gemma moved to Canberra from Adelaide where she wrote for the Adelaide University magazine OnDit. She was also published in Wet Ink, an Australian magazine for emergent creative writing. As a writer, Gemma wants to produce gender-focused work that is accessible and creative.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.

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