80s Week: Reconsidering “Dirty Dancing”

By Amanda Marcotte
Friday, December 3, 2010 18:31 EDT
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Confession time: I’ve spent most of the past couple of decades hating “Dirty Dancing”. Let’s face it—it’s a go-nowhere movie with a cheesy and incongruous 80s ending tacked on. The news songs that were written for the soundtrack sound really awful next to the classic early rock and roll featured in the film. And are we really supposed to believe that Patrick Swayze’s character, who pulls off moves he clearly learned in ballet, is just some schmuck who picked up ballroom dancing on the job and now works in the lowest rung of professional dancers? My main objection to the movie, however, was that it was the most favorite film of roughly every girl my age in my tween years, which meant I watched it roughly one million times. Every slumber party, every time you hung out at someone’s house after school, every weekend that you had a dollar and wanted to go see a movie at the dollar theater. Above all other things, I was sick of it.

Subsequently, I haven’t actually watched it in probably 20 years, though I can still basically play it on a reel in my head, at least the major plot points. But I did rewatch large chunks of it recently, while helping Marc with a film reel for the prom tonight. My conclusion is that it’s still a shit movie, but only in parts. In other parts, it’s actually a pretty good movie. And it does a couple of things that you almost never see in mainstream Hollywood movies, and those things it does very well. I think this explains its enduring popularity, which just so happened to be chronicled recently in the WSJ.

According to PageData, a company that tracks metrics and trends on Facebook, the film has more than 6.3 million fans on the site, ranking it sixth among movies. That’s just below mega leaders like “Twilight” and “Harry Potter,” but above “Avatar,” which clocks in at 3.9 million fans.

Lionsgate Home Entertainment Executive Vice President Anne Parducci said the film gets about 150,000 new Facebook fans each week.

“It’s really just people saying they love the movie, they love Patrick [Swayze], they love, love, love everything,” said Ms. Parducci. “There is an innocence to the movie that is so endearing. My 16-year-old daughter says to me, ‘I wish I could live back then.’”

Rewatching it, I have to say that actually its popularity probably has little to do with its “innocence” and more to do with its lack of it. What immediately comes across is that this is an extremely sexy movie. But it’s sexy in a way that you almost never see in movies—from a sex-positive, feminist-minded, heterosexual point of view. (Honest portrayals of lesbian sexuality are even more rare.) Attention is lavished on Patrick Swayze’s body, of course, but it’s more than that. Most sex in most movies, at least dramas, is shown as deadly serious, but the sex in this movie is mostly playful and filled with laughter. The overly serious portrayal of sex in movies tends to feel sex negative to me, because it discounts how much of sex is just about joy, pleasure, and fun. There’s also a strong focus on the female longing for actual sex. There’s a lot of business in the movie about distance, not touching, and all that. Most portrayals of straight female sexuality root it in the longing for male approval and romance, but this movie portrayals sexual desire as its own thing that women possess—the animal need to touch and to have. Jennifer Grey’s name in the movie is “Baby”, but it takes on ironic tone, since she takes to fucking like a duck to water. Rewatching it with an open mind, I was surprised at how some of these scenes went past right all my defenses and straight to the part of my brain that thinks, this. Most romantic movies are about a woman submitting to a man in some fashion, but this movie shows erotic love as empowering, and suggests that what’s really hot is treating sex like a two-person adventure instead of a capitulation.

No wonder women cling to this movie so fiercely.

On top of it all, the movie stands against a gazillion social messages that shame women for their sexuality, and it does it with confidence. Until the cheeseball ending, there’s no sense really that the main couple are going to last past the end credits, and that’s okay. Having a fling and an adventure without it meaning that you’re a dirty slut who will be heartbroken for life is normalized. Most astoundingly, this movie still stands as one of the few—only?—Hollywood films to portray abortion in a realistic, humane fashion. Even though the abortion is botched, there’s never a whiff of feeling that Penny is getting punished for being sexually active or having an abortion. On the contrary, the incident is just another example of how unfair Penny’s life is, and how decent a person she is despite it all. How the characters react to her abortion is a barometer of how good they are as people—kind and supportive people are good people, whereas her cad boyfriend who didn’t even have the decency to pay for it is the bad guy. And, if that wasn’t enough in terms of this movie bravely and effectively showing things that are forbidden in most of Hollywood, the movie portrays very well a platonic friendship between Johnny and Penny. This is two years before “When Harry Met Sally”, a movie that dramatically toed the Hollywood line in suggesting there is no such thing as non-sexual love between straight men and straight women.

It’s still a crap movie. All of this stuff is really great, and then it just falls apart, because I don’t think the writer knew what she wanted her third act to be. The conflict doesn’t really feel real (though there is still one great scene where Baby’s sister is kind to her despite their frequent conflicts—did I mention that this movie actually portrays women as supportive of each other in substantive and complex ways, instead of just “you go, girl!” ways?) towards the end, and then everything is wrapped up in a neat bow. The last scene feels like it’s from a different movie altogether, in fact, with the crappy music and the strange and sudden sentimental reversal of attitude of all the camp-goers and the (Jesus Christ) coordinated dance scene. I’m cringing to think about it. But it’s interesting to wonder if you could have just sliced that off and had a different movie, one that is remembered as a pretty solid and surprisingly feminist film, instead of the cheesefest that is actually onscreen.

Thoughts? Am I being too generous? Or am I being too harsh? Do you love this movie? Hate it? Or are you like I am now, standing in the middle, depending on what scene you’re watching?

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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