The great taboo

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, November 12, 2008 0:27 EDT
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In writing this post, I want to make one thing very clear up front: I do not like the movie “Dirty Dancing”. How could you, really? It engages in stereotypes about sexually liberated working class people (versus repressed upper middle class people), it flirts with being a musical but doesn’t commit, and it has that cliched 80s wish fulfillment ending where everyone who has been oppressing our hero/heroine realized their mistakes and makes it up to them by gathering around and applauding. Worst of all, it pairs classic mid-century pop music with the worst sort of 80s pap, some of which is sung by Patrick Swayze. It’s a timid, stupid film. Which is why it’s all the more interesting that it does make one move that seems risky, especially by today’s standards: it portrays abortion honestly. It’s remarkable, really, because the script is so implausible, but in the realm of portrayals of abortion, the one in “Dirty Dancing” is bafflingly at the top of the list of most realistic portrayals. The woman who gets the abortion is a good person and she contextualizes it in terms of can’t—can’t be pregnant, can’t have a baby, it’s just can’t. Getting money for it and getting the time off of work are the biggest issues for her. And when it goes wrong, we very clearly see the social assumptions behind abortion bans, and they have nothing to do with “life”—Baby’s father, who is a doctor (and the unsubtle stand-in for our sexually repressed society), is aggravated at the licentious behavior he believes led up to this moment and blames the nearest young man for the predicament in a show of paternalism. That’s it in a nutshell. Abortion bans are about a paternalistic, condescending attitude about women’s agency and a general uneasiness about sex. “Dirty Dancing” is one of the least subtle movies ever made, and that’s part of the abortion storyline. But at least it’s honest, which is so rare in movies and shows that portray abortion that it ends up standing out as a brave storytelling choice.

Naturally, someone has to fuck with it. Before the election, a reader sent me this blog post from the Chicago Reader about a stage adaptation of “Dirty Dancing”, and now that we’re back to pre-election frenzy blogging, I have the time to write it up. The play is a straight adaptation with very few changes, but of course they couldn’t let Penny have her abortion and survive it without shame, as she does in the movie.

Among the very few differences between the original screen version and this cotton-candy dance-party of a show, one is glaring: a scene in which the heroine’s mom expounds on the joy of holding one’s first child, while the knocked-up-and-abandoned botched-back-room-abortion survivor, Penny Johnson (played by the extraordinary Britta Lazenga), dissolves in anguish.

The scene lands with a thud and feels like a cautionary, patched-on bow to audiences thought to be more conservative than they were 20 years ago.

Apparently the screenwriter adapted the movie for the stage. I can only guess her logic was thinking that the entire rest of the movie panders shamelessly to people’s prejudices, so this part had to be written so it’s a pure pandering extravaganza. What next? A version of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” where Stacy decides against the abortion, and it compels Mike to shape up, get a job, marry her, become a decent lover, and they live happily ever after? Why not? You could even have him say, “You complete me,” as a shoutout to Cameron Crowe’s lesser work.

Equally aggravating is the way that “Boston Legal” decided to tackle abortion in a recent episode. Amie has a write-up here. There’s many, many things about this that irritate, including the way abortion is portrayed as an existentialist dilemma for the poor men tasked with controlling women’s lives, instead of a practical issue for women. But with all that going on in this show, the ending might be the topper on a cake made of horseshit:

The 15 year old pregnant teen? Well, as is so typical with judicial bypass cases (and, yes, I’m being sarcastic), she is actually an immigrant from China pregnant with a girl and decides, influenced by China’s one-child policy and the unspoken but widespread practice of aborting females, she is only having an abortion because the fetus growing inside her is female.

i have no doubt that the writers were patting themselves on the back for writing such a daring and creative storyline, so outside of the norm. But if they really wanted to be brave, they would have tackled the great taboo against showing a character who has an abortion and isn’t crazy or especially torn up about it. If they wanted to do a show about judicial bypass, they might have been super-duper unbelievably brave and pulled a case from real life. Not too many immigrants who are under the “influence” of laws in countries they don’t live in. Molly Ivins once wrote a really good article about it that would be an excellent resource for a writer who actually wants to write a brave, challenging storyline on abortion, because she draws from the real drama of real lives.

Social worker for a 13-year-old: “She ran away from her foster home and was gone for eight weeks. Now she’s in an emergency shelter and is pregnant.
Her mother is deceased. Her father raped her when she was 8 years old and is still in prison for it. I knew her when she had to testify against him. I don’t know if I can convince her to go back to court, but she definitely wants an abortion.”

Boyfriend of a 15-year-old: “She can’t report anything to the police about what her stepfather does to the family. He works for the department. And this is a very small town. The family seems to live in fear of him.”

“My older sister got pregnant when she was 17. My mother pushed her against the wall, slapped her across the face and then grabbed her by the hair, pulled her through the living room, out the front door and threw her off the porch. We don’t know where she is now.” — pregnant 16-year-old.

“My little sister was raped. Our parents are somewhere in Mexico, but I don’t know if I can find them.” — older sister.

And so on. Nothing there that wouldn’t make for compelling television, if that’s your concern. Of course, all of this would make the anti-choice lawyers on the show look like absolute monsters, but that sort of brave realism would also be a refreshing change of pace, no? The evil that lurks in the heart of William Shatner and all that.

You know, I remember reading an interesting rumor about the creator of “Boston Legal”, who also created the legendary incredible shrinking actress show “Ally McBeal”. I don’t remember where I read it, but I remember Courtney Thorne-Smith complaining about how David E. Kelley would roam the set of “Ally McBeal” and take food away from actresses who had the nerve to think they could eat and be on his show. I will let readers, who are excellent at drawing inferences, determine if there’s relevance to that. But what’s not a rumor was that he thought it was funny to have Ally followed around by an imaginary baby. What Kelley knows about women could fit in a thimble.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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