Monday night I went to a screening of Dirty Dancing hosted by Jezebel, benefiting the New York Abortion Access Fund, and featuring a Q&A session with the film’s screenwriter and co-producer, Eleanor Bergstein.
Is there any better way to spend a Monday evening than watching one of your favorite childhood movies on the big screen for the first time, surrounded by feminist friends and allies, for a good cause? I could feel the stress knots loosening in my shoulders as I chatted, waiting for the Q&A to start.
I’m the first person to note that Dirty Dancing is political. Aside from the obvious–the illegal abortion that sets the whole plot in motion–there’s the class differences between Baby and the guests at the resort, the Yale-Medical-School-bound Ayn-Rand-reading douchebag waiter, and the “entertainment staff”–Johnny and Penny, the folks who are dirty dancing in the staff apartments.
There’s Baby’s overt politics–she’s going to study Economics of Underdeveloped Countries and go into the peace corps (but “it never occurred to me to mind” being called Baby). But more importantly, the film is the story of how she learned to see politics as something that happens in front of her, that affects her every day, rather than as something to go far away to fix. She goes from wanting to send her leftover pot roast to southeast Asia to trying to help the people right around her. She goes to joining a community, to deciding which side she’s on.
And also, it’s a film that celebrates something I wish feminists spent more time discussing (and that I’ll never shut up about): female desire. Baby wants Johnny, not the other way around. She pursues him from the minute she meets him, she has sex and isn’t punished for it (so important to keep this film sex-positive, considering the awful consequences of Penny’s sex life), and we get as many loving, lingering shots of dear departed Patrick Swayze’s body as we do of hers.
During the Q&A, Bergstein (who looks exactly like Penny would at her age) noted that the ongoing abortion fight shows that a battle is never won when you think it’s won, and that’s true for all the fights in her movie, as well as the fight FOR her movie–a little movie that spread by word of mouth when all the suits thought it was junk. Because it was a woman’s story?
(I called my mother and told her about my Monday and she couldn’t remember who had told her, but she definitely remembered getting a phone call–“You have to see Dirty Dancing!”)
The abortion fight isn’t won. The class fight isn’t won. The fight for women to have the right to desire isn’t won.
But the movie isn’t about winning, it’s about the fight itself. Bergstein said that she wanted “To tell the story of a girl who took her life in her hands and ran with it no matter what it cost her.” Baby “fights for her life and she fights for honor.” It’s about “being responsible to other people.”
This little movie, well, Irin Carmon, who hosted the Q&A, wondered aloud if the film’s politics had seeped into all of us in the room, mostly women in our 20s and 30s, as we watched it as children. If the film’s popularity had helped shape a generation of young feminists.
My coworker said as much to me today as we shared Alyssa Rosenberg’s essay on the politics of Dirty Dancing and the likely remake, which we have to wonder about. Will it be set in 1963, where abortion is still illegal, or will we have switched to a setting now, where perhaps Penny can get a legal abortion but it costs far more than Baby can even borrow from her father and she has to get across a state and through a picket line to the one available doctor? Or will there be another reason why Baby has to fill in for her and learn the dances and fall into a love that she deserves because she won it through an act of solidarity with another woman?
Will Baby and Johnny just fall in love because “it was meant to be” and will they rewrite the ambiguous ending to assure us that Baby and Johnny will be forever and not, as Rosenberg writes, “passionate without concern for the final shape of it.”
Dirty Dancing isn’t a perfect movie, of course–is there one out there? Bergstein made a passionate argument for putting her politics into popular art–not just making a pro-choice documentary that, she notes, only people who agree with you will ever see. For weaving it so deeply into the story that the whole thing falls apart if, as they tried to do with her, the suits want you to cut it out.
She makes an argument for fighting for what you believe in, fighting for honor, fighting for art you can be proud of and living your politics day to day.
I can only hope that the crew remaking her movie took away what those of us in that room Monday night took away, and remember what we truly loved about Baby and Johnny: the fierceness with which they fought for each other, for the other people in their lives, their decision to be accountable to one another and the people around them, their willingness to transgress the bullshit rules of a society that only hurt them.