Dirty Dancing: Pop Culture and Feminism Collide
by Mandi Harrison
There are certain movies- the ones you can watch over and over again. The ones you can recite line by line. Everyone has a few of those movies. One on my list is Dirty Dancing. I didn't discover it until high school, but I can't even tell you how many times I've watched it. And the soundtrack is a staple.
To me, Dirty Dancing is a perfect summer movie. It takes place during the summer, at a crossroads in Baby's (the protagonist's) life, as well as in our country's history. When I first watched it, it seemed like a first love movie. But it is more than that. It's about fighting for what you believe and for those who can't fight for themselves. It's about feminism. It's about the right to chose your own path. It's a coming of age- with Patrick Swayze as the catalyst.
released August 1987
Directed by Emile Ardolino
Written by Eleanor Bergstein
Starring: Jennifer Grey, Patrick Swayze, Jerry Orbach and Kelly Bishop
Budget: $6 million
First Run Box Office: $170 million
Brief rundown of the story. Frances "Baby" Houseman is joining her family on vacation at a resort in upstate New York in 1963. Baby's family and sister are having fun, but Baby of course is different and more studious. She is drawn to the staff's quarters and tries to befriend the dance instructors. She finds her chance when one of the instructors, Penny, reveals that she is pregnant and has scheduled an abortion with a traveling "physician", but the only day he will be in town is the day that she and her partner, Johnny, have to dance in a competition in order to get jobs for the next year. Baby volunteers to take Penny's place at the competition and Johnny reluctantly agrees to teach her to dance. Of course they fall in love, shenanigans happen, her father disapproves, more shenanigans and a big finish. (Don't want to spoil it if you haven't seen it- but really you should see it.)
Dirty Dancing came to be because a dance number from a script that Eleanor Bergstein had written for Michael Douglas was cut from the final movie. She took the scene and parts from her childhood and wrote Dirty Dancing. She sent out mix-tapes with songs that fit the tone of the movie. Many studios passed on the script, saying it was too edgy, but loved the mix-tape. She finally found the perfect studio and the right director. The movie could've had multiple sponsors to help finance the movie, but the companies were skittish about the abortion storyline. All the filmmakers refused to cut the storyline, and they were able to find funding to make the movie the way they wanted. Jennifer and Patrick had worked together previously on Red Dawn and did not get along, but they had great chemistry and came to work well together. Some of the most classic scenes, including her laughing as he was running his hand down her side, was just them being themselves.
After the movie was finished, not much hope was held for it. In fact some studio heads said just to burn the film. But audiences loved it. It was number one opening weekend, with many people seeing it multiple times. It reached $10 million in just 10 days, which at the time was an amazing feat. It went on to make over $170 million worldwide. When it was released on VHS, it was the first movie to sell one million copies. The soundtrack(s!) sold millions of copies and the lead single, "(I've Had) The time of My Life", won an Oscar and a Grammy. Something that no one wanted turned out to be something everyone wanted.
Dirty Dancing has certainly earned a place in pop culture history, with lines like "Nobody puts Baby in the corner!" and THE dance move (recreated beautifully by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in Crazy Stupid Love... and then again by Ryan Gosling and Al Roker on the Today Show- seriously, look it up. It's a thing of beauty). It's spawned sequels and a touring show. But it has also earned a place in history as being a gold standard of handling a woman's right to choose- showing concern for her health as opposed to judgment and condemnation.
Another interesting factor is that the camera truly is Baby's view of the world. Most films, especially about first love and the first time, film the woman in a provocative way. Dirty Dancing has the camera capture Patrick Swayze the way that Baby looks at Johnny- at first shy and curious, leading to desire and then with love and trust. The audience gets to feel their connection instead of knowing that sexy times are ahead because of gratuitous shots of Jennifer Grey.
This movie never would be made today. I know that there was a tv musical version that was just on, but the acual movie never would have been green-lit today. The studio would have cut the abortion storyline all together or made it very judgmental, among many other changes.
There is more about Dirty Dancing (and many other 80's movies) in an awesome book called Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We've Learned From The Eighties Movies (and Why We Don't Learn Them From The Movies Anymore) by Hadley Freeman. This book is super interesting. It has all sorts of fun facts about some of the best movies ever made, as well as life lessons that we can learn from them. This is in my top 5 of favorite books about movie history.
Reading this book showed me that Dirty Dancing never would have been green-lit the way it is now. The studios now are too worried about the bottom line and the peanut gallery online to take chances, especially with movies geared toward women. The abortion storyline alone would have been cut or reworked to make Penny look like a slut, instead of a girl who just got into a situation where there was no other alternative. And Baby wouldn't have been allowed to find who she was the way she did. Johnny would have been the one to show her the way. Those would be the main changes, but lots of smaller things would change. I think one of the reasons that the movie has endured so long is that it did take risks and gave a voice and a normalcy to real situations.
People joke about Dirty Dancing, saying it's cheesy, and yeah, it has it's moments. But for me, it's one of those movies that just has all the elements. Every character has their wants and their needs and they are all right in their own way. (Except Robbie. He's just an @$$hdhd) The music is killer. And say what you will, but that last dance number is MAGIC.