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RETROSPECTIVE: Dirty Dancing and Soft-Lit Subversion

Nobody holds Baby in the male gaze

Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey in Dirty Dancing (1987 - Great American / Vestron)

So you probably know Dirty Dancing (1987) as that 80s movie your mum really likes. What I’m here to tell you is: open a new tab, look it up and watch it now. It’s too good to be left in the same cringe-basket as perms and pink leg-warmers.

The thing about 1980s romantic comedies, the genre which Dirty Dancing is often bracketed within, is that they haven’t all aged incredibly well. It’s funny to watch Sally embarrass Harry in 1989's When Harry Met Sally, but there are so many misogynistic comments and tropes in that movie that I can’t watch it without growing frustrated with Billy Crystal's character. So, why is Dirty Dancing different?

First of all, Dirty Dancing is not just a rom-com. It’s a coming-of-age story. The film doesn’t come with blonde perms, bright patterns and fuchsia scrunchies. Filmed in 1987, it portrays a flashback to the 1960s, making it easier for writer Eleanor Bergstein to tap into experiences from her own adolescence. Bergstein had spent most of her summers growing up vacationing in the Catskills with her parents. As they golfed on the green meadows from dawn to dusk, young Eleanor spent her days in the dance studios and her nights ‘dirty dancing’ in basements. Sound familiar?

Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing (1987 - Great American / Vestron)

In the world of this film, it’s the summer of 1963 and Frances (Jennifer Grey) is a seventeen-year old girl vacationing at a luxury resort in the Catskills with her well-off family. The resort’s owner hires young, attractive and wealthy Yale students as waiting staff, mostly to charm the daughters of his wealthy guests. While he respects them, he abuses his relationship with the entertainment staff of his resort. Frances, who for some inexplicable reason everyone has decided to nickname ‘Baby’, immediately takes a liking for head dancer Johnny (Patrick Swayze) when she sees him perform with his partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes).

As soon as she understands that Penny and Johnny aren’t a thing, Baby (they actually call her that, I promise) dives deep into the flirting sea with him and neveeeeeer resurfaces. It’s a bit awkward. Very entertaining. Good for the soul. She escapes the advances of Robbie (Max Cantor), a Yale med student and professional sleaze that, turns out, has fooled Penny and gotten her pregnant. Now, he won’t pay for the abortion.

So, this is the moment where you all go: what?? I thought this was about?? Dancing?? There’s an abortion??

Well, yes. There is. And not just any abortion. An illegal abortion. Baby never asks Penny to think it through, and she certainly never questions her decision. Not only that, but Bergstein made sure that the illegal abortion, and the health risks that Penny encounters because of it not being provided legally, are made clear - and move the story along. The abortion screws the pieces of the wheel of this film together. Without it, Baby wouldn’t have to substitute Penny on the dance floor. She wouldn’t get to explore her attraction to Johnny. We wouldn’t have gotten that legendary lift in the final dance number.

Patrick Swayze and Cynthia Rhodes in Dirty Dancing (1987 - Great American / Vestron)

In a recent interview Bergstein herself shed light on Penny’s abortion:

"I think you can make a brilliant black and white documentary on abortion and everyone who sees it probably agrees with you before the first frame. But if you make a movie in color with pretty people and music and sensual dancing and a beautiful blonde young girl with a face like a delicate princess having no choices and screaming in a hallway under a dirty knife — maybe you’ll change somebody’s mind about what they assumed before."

But yeah, I guess it’s a movie about dancing.

To me, it’s a movie about freedom - a young woman’s freedom as she enters adulthood, as she comes of age in a society that clearly thinks her reproductive health shouldn’t be in her own hands, and that sex should be the last thing on an unmarried woman mind.

It’s not rocket science to say that the dancing in the movie is subversive. Of course it is. What I find deeply fascinating is the way the male gaze as a concept is laughed at throughout. We see everything - and particularly Johnny - through Baby’s eyes. The female gaze in Dirty Dancing moves with force and desire. Johnny is presented as the object of Baby’s desire from the very beginning. She doesn’t let him out of her sight as he dances, or as he teaches her. Her eyes, and ours, are fixed on him.

I’m in awe of this. It never happens. It certainly rarely happens in ‘80s movies snubbed as ‘rom-coms’ unworthy of respect. My informed take is: respect this movie. Respect it even though the protagonist insists on being called ‘Baby’ for no apparently good reason. Respect it for the deliriously cool soundtrack. Respect if for the bright bodysuits. Respect it for the FE-MI-NISM.

That’s my take. That's all you needed to know. Now go ahead and watch it.


Maria Orlando is a bookworm and writer that traded Italy's mild weather for London's constant drizzle. All to study literature. Oh well. Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in London, England.

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