Dirty Dancing Moves to Feminist Beat

Anat Shenker-Osorio

Dirty Dancing is often dismissed as sentimental silliness in two-four time and, yes, some of it painfully cheesy and quaint. But it dares to declare that young female sexuality exists and can be a force for good and not evil.

A male dancer who is most assuredly
straight; a Hollywood leading man who is happily married: Patrick Swayze bashed
tired stereotypes. Most importantly, as the male star of the imminently
watchable Dirty Dancing, he made a film that tromps over prevailing myths about
women and sex while staying on beat.

Dirty Dancing is often dismissed as
sentimental silliness in two-four time and, yes, some of it painfully cheesy
and quaint. But it dares to declare that young female sexuality exists and can
be a force for good and not evil. It is the unheralded feminist anthem of our
time. And, sadly, there haven’t been any other mainstream contenders for this
title in the 22 years since its release.

Dirty Dancing depicts abortion — not
just contemplation of abortion in favor of the staying pregnant at any cost
story line that’s the staple of movies today. In 2007 unwanted pregnancy
carried to term became a cash crop, with Juno, Waitress and Knocked Up raking
it in on this theme. Even Sex and the City, with its claim to bold and honest
female sexuality, just couldn’t go all the way.

Not so in 1987, when Dirty Dancing came
out. A supporting character, Penny, not only undergoes a horrific illegal
abortion, she succinctly shatters the myth (read: stereotype) that women who
abort simply hate kids. The there are two kinds of women, mothers and those who
abort canard is quickly dispelled as Penny confides her relief that the
back-alley ordeal hasn’t left her unable to conceive. Penny embodies what many
pro-choice advocates have grown hoarse declaring: most women who abort already
have or go on to have kids.

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Then there is Baby. Don’t let the name
fool you; she’s a heroine we should proudly love to love. She’s smart and
ambitious, politically aware and morally grounded. In defiance of movie
convention, she takes the sexual lead. Initially awkward, Baby ventures past
her safe social circle to see what, or who, the rowdy kids are doing next door.
Craving sexual experience, she goes after it. Make no mistake –she’s not
husband hunting. She’s on the make for a hot summer fling.

What’s more, there are no recriminations
for her sexual awakening — no emotional upheaval, unintended pregnancy,
infections or plans derailed. She will still be off to Mount Holyoke in the
fall and perhaps on to the Peace Corps after that and, we’re assured, she’s had
the time of her life. The film ends with her soaring above the crowd. She is
reveling in her pleasure — she has learned and grown confident, not suffered and
been made to feel shame.

Despite its requisite bow-tie happy
ending, the movie refuses to give over to sentiment. There is no illusion that
the leads will stay together, even as unwritten rules dictate this is the way
to make cinematic unmarried sex acceptable. This sex is mercifully not
premarital because this film knows that first comes love (or perhaps just sex)
doesn’t always mean next comes marriage and never mind about the baby in the
baby carriage.

Dirty Dancing is a brave and brilliant
blockbuster, one rendered more rare and praiseworthy with the passage of time.
The intervening years have brought us a pathetic retreat to the Hollywood norm:
boy pursues girl as she looks on coyly, sex leads to wedded bliss or dire
consequences, girl has baby no matter what, baby transforms girl’s life.

All accounts say that Patrick Swayze
battled his cancer bravely, living his last days to their fullest surrounded by
family and friends. He lived bravely too. Two decades and two different Bush
presidencies ago, he brought us a film that it’s not clear could get made
today. A film that told a nation of teenage girls watching rapt that young
women want to have sex, sex can be great, and when a woman can’t be a mother in
a particular moment it doesn’t mean anything more than just that.

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