I Had The Time of My Life–Dirty Dancing, Remakes, and Battles We’re Still Fighting

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.

26 comments for “I Had The Time of My Life–Dirty Dancing, Remakes, and Battles We’re Still Fighting

  1. Steph Herold
    August 11, 2011 at 1:07 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece, Sarah! For anyone who is interested in supporting the New York Abortion Access Fund, here is more information: http://www.nyaaf.org. 100% of donations go to women who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford an abortion.

  2. anna
    August 11, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    I also love the fact that Penny has a big nose and it doesn’t stop her from getting the hot guy. Especially since Jewish women are still often cast as the bitchy princess or the overbearing mother and not the romantic lead.

  3. August 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    I didn’t watch the film until years later, but I remember at the time it was released how controversial it was. My first cousin, very much a product of the 1980’s, went on and on about it back then. I was quite young, but I can still remember the discussion.

  4. August 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    This. Dirty Dancing was the first movie I ever saw more than once – me and a friend spent the summer when we were about 10 sneakily using her parents’ VHS every chance we got, and I’m glad my first “teen movie” gave me such a good first impression!

  5. August 11, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    This is where my film geek and my feminist collide. All the points made in this essay are excellent and reasons why I love this film (I’ve recently rediscovered its awesomeness).

    That being said I do NOT want to see a remake. Mostly because with a few exceptions (have both versions of a Little Princess, and the 90’s version is way better) remakes tend to be horrible, and take classic films and infuse them with all the things that make modern day film terrible.

    I wish they’d leave this one alone.

  6. Sanoe SC
    August 11, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I’ve never seen Dirty Dancing. Maybe I should check it out.

  7. August 11, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    I am in my late 20’s, from a fairly not-affluent suburb, and I get the sense that my high school class thinks of that movie with fond nostalgia, never really grasping the politics of it, just mouthing “nobody puts baby in a corner.” I saw it in my early 20’s and was so surprised when i “got” the plot! But as children or very young adults all i got that we got was the romance of the story, and the possible tittillation at it being “dirty.” Thanks so much for this!

  8. AK
    August 11, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    I really hope there isn’t a remake, though it doesn’t surprise me that there is one planned. I really doubt they could approach the original, and it really really doesn’t NEED a remake in my opinion. It was perfectly cast, well-acted, and even though the fact that abortion is illegal in it dates it somewhat, it’s pretty timeless overall. Actually I think it’s really valuable in part *because* it takes place when abortion is illegal, and Penny’s is shown without judgment–she does what she has to do, even Baby’s father doesn’t judge her, and the only judgment expressed is towards the “doctor” who performed it, and towards what’s-his-name who got Penny pregnant and then skipped out and tried to place all the blame on her. I think a lot of young women who grow up pretty privileged really don’t get what it is like to NOT have access to abortion, and a lot of young women who have never experienced it (or had a loved one go through it) really don’t understand that “good girls” get pregnant too. Penny is presented as working class, but kind and honest and if I remember right she’s shown as having been really in love with what’s-his-name, not just sleeping around (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m trying to say that it shows her as a very sympathetic character to someone who might not call herself a feminist and might still buy into all those “good girls don’t sleep around” myths). I would kind of like to see a movie where a woman has casual sex and gets an abortion and it’s no big deal, but I think Dirty Dancing’s presentation is fairly unique in popular movies and important as well.

    I like this movie too because the relationships between the women are realistic and strong. Penny and Baby become friends, and there’s no jealousy or competition between them even though I think most movies would see them as rivals. The only hint of it is when Penny gets mad at Johnny for getting romantically involved, but it’s out of a concern for them (and she’s mad at him, not Baby) rather than jealousy. Baby and her sister bond over men and beauty rituals, but it feels genuine to me. I mean, that’s what my sister and I talk about and did a lot as teenagers/young adults, even though we were shaving crazy patterns into each other’s hair rather than putting in curlers and updo’s, and since my sis is gay and I’m straight we talked about romance in general rather than men specifically, but you know… ;)

    Also, I recently watched it and really did realize that it is filmed with women’s (or anyone who likes men, really) desire in mind. One of my big gripes in most romantic movies is that, while they’re ostensibly for women (which for Hollywood of course means straight and cis), we don’t really get eye candy in the way that straight men do. Even in “chick flicks” the women seem to wear a lot less clothing than the men, and the cameras focus on them! I love the fact that there really is a pretty equal focus on both Swayze and Grey in a physical sense.

    Um, can you tell I really like this movie? ;) It’s one of my favorites. I love silly romance movies, but this is one I don’t have to feel guilty about watching! As you said, it isn’t perfect but for the genre it is about as close as I’ve seen, at least in a major release.

  9. Gabrielle
    August 11, 2011 at 7:29 pm

    I tend to go off about how amazing this movie is for being so feminist, pro-choice, and sex-positive, AND it deals with class structure and privelege. AND IT’S A ROM COM. With a cheesy (amazing!) soundtrack. Not enough films like this one out there. I have the 2 disc special edition that comes with all kinds of wonderful special features. I’m glad that other women recognize what a gift this film is.

  10. Tamara
    August 11, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    This was so interesting! I also grew up with and loved DD, I saw it over and over and friends had the soundtrack. Great to realise that it had such a positive message! I also saw the stage show a few years back, which was just as fantastic, and really close to the film (except a bit more “adult”). I am not in favour of a Hollywood remake, it spells trouble.

  11. sabrina
    August 11, 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I’m twenty and dirty dancing is my favorite movie of all time. It was the only thing in my house that could get away with being the least bit feminist and liberal. As a teenage feminist who was also a dancer I really looked up to baby and appreciated everything about the movie. I think that if the remake sticks to the exact same plot and that they cast brilliant actors/actresses for the roles that it could be okay.

  12. Jenae
    August 12, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I’m 33 and I watch Dirty Dancing every time I see it on TV. I still get chills at some parts of the movie (the ultra-hot but still tasteful sex scene, for one). Loved this article!

  13. Frank Lobato
    August 12, 2011 at 1:39 am

    They are both great dancers,I believe Sasha should’ve won,but since about 3 weeks ago I saw what was happening and I said to my mum, they are playing the verbal subtle game again.It did not surprise most people.but Sasha is the stronger and more versatile dancer.Watch for her over the years to come. http://bit.ly/o30BwK

  14. Complicated
    August 12, 2011 at 7:19 am

    I know they air Dirty Dancing on ABC Family a lot – does anyone know if they edit out important parts of the abortion storyline? I assume they edit out the sex scenes.

    I’m wondering partly because I’m trying to remember the first time I saw it. I’ve seen it several times and I always loved it, but I’m not sure I fully understood the abortion plotline when I was a teenager. If I saw it in a context where they cut some of it out, that might explain it, or maybe I’m just not remembering it clearly.

    Anyway, I’m betting a remake will be bad, but you never know. It would be interesting if they kept the original plotline but set it in modern times in one of the states that doesn’t have an abortion clinic nearby because the doctors keep getting shot. I’d be surprised if they do though – it seems really controversial.

    How controversial was the abortion plotline when the original movie came out?

    (I hate when ABC Family shows Cruel Intentions and they cut out so much of it that the plot doesn’t make sense anymore. If you want to bleep one swear word, fine, but if you need to cut out huge chunks of the movie, maybe you just shouldn’t be showing that movie on your channel. That’s why I’ve avoided watching Dirty Dancing when they air it.)

  15. Complicated
    August 12, 2011 at 7:20 am

    I also love the fact that Penny has a big nose and it doesn’t stop her from getting the hot guy. Especially since Jewish women arestill often cast as the bitchy princess or the overbearing mother and not the romantic lead.

    You mean Baby, right? Penny’s the blonde and I don’t recall her having a big nose.

  16. Complicated
    August 12, 2011 at 7:23 am

    (Why is my first comment awaiting moderation and not my second one? Did I use some buzzword that tripped an automatic filter?)

  17. August 12, 2011 at 8:20 am

    I think when we talk about whether the original and it’s setting is still relevant, it’s important to remember that it’s also a period piece that was set in the Kennedy era a good 20-odd years before it was released.

    If they do remake it, I hope like hell they DON’T change the storyline or the setting..if they did, why not just write a whole new movie and not hang on the coat-tails of a classic?

  18. Brandy
    August 12, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    I really need to watch this movie again. I think I missed a lot watching this movie when I was younger.

  19. anon
    August 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Am I missing something? I remember watching Dirty Dancing 2 (Havana Nights) back in High School…I think secretly because at 17 I probably still wasn’t supposed to watch it. (conservative family) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0338096/

    Or are they making an actual remake instead of a sequel?

    As for the original, I saw that secretly too, and I’m not sure I understood the abortion thing. I think that growing up hearing that abortion was “killing a baby”… I just didn’t equate that scene with abortion. Thank god I escaped my childhood expectations and became the black sheep of the family (aka feminist, pro-choice, agnostic).

    I need to watch Dirty Dancing again, as a feminist. I think it’d be really good this time around.

  20. Rachel
    August 12, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    @ Anon- My thoughts exactly. I love Dirty Dancing 2 because I love the dancing and the story plot, but after reading this analysis of the first one, I can see how Dirty Dancing 2 failed in so many ways. I don’t believe it’s as sex positive as the first one and I don’t remember it touching on the issue of abortion at all.

  21. August 12, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    I think that growing up hearing that abortion was “killing a baby”…

    Sorry this just reminded me of a time I was in the car with my kids, and there were anti-choicers protesting on the highway carrying signs that said “Abortion kills children”

    My kids were all “Uhm.. Mommy.. what’s abortion?” and I remember thinking “Oh great.. now they think there’s some monster that’s going to come and kill them.”

    Sorry, off topic.

    More on topic:
    I just went into my local book/record/various curiosities store today and they had a copy of the dirty dancing soundtrack on vinyl. I thought that was funny. For a moment my movie geek/feminist geek and music geek worlds kind of collided in a wonderful wonderful way.

  22. Michelle
    August 12, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Thanks to all of the recent changes limiting access to abortion, they won’t even have to really change the story line. Set it in a state with one abortion provider, where they have to wait 72 hours (not an option for keeping her seasonal job), it’s not covered by insurance, it’s in a far away location, etc. The idea that she might seek to do an illegal abortion is more believable than some of the other plot elements from dirty dancing.

  23. michelle
    August 12, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    this is just so supremely satisfying – the confirmation that my favorite childhood film is as awesome as i had always believed it to be. dirty dancing is one of the few movies i grew up with that as an adult i still love as much as i did then. i hardly watch movies, old or new, because politically speaking, they are always so disappointing and/or disturbing. but every time i catch DD on t.v., i am as transfixed as the first time (i was five years old my first time, my friends and i would watch it over and over and over again). i am glad to know that i haven’t just been responding to childhood nostalgia (which was so overpowering the first time i watched it as an adult i missed a lot of the feminist elements, catching more of the class dynamics), but rather to the film’s affirmation of my most deep-seated beliefs and politics. this film is a real jem.

  24. anna
    August 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm

    Duh I meant Baby. Sorry about that.

  25. Skye
    August 14, 2011 at 2:49 pm

    THANK YOU. I’ve read many a DD editorial rhapsodizing over why women respond to this film so readily. Yours, I think is the most accurate of all. I especially like that Penny’s horrific illegal abortion has a (somewhat) happy ending…she mentions that she’ll still be able to have children. She’s not handed an irrevocable punishment for her sexuality, is what I mean,

    Even Baby’s father’s disgust over the abortion seems to be because a man’s irresponsibility has driven a woman to desperate measures, not that the woman has gone for an abortion itself. Yes, truly a gem of a film.

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