Nobody puts the lady geek in a corner: How Dirty Dancing is feminist
I saw Dirty Dancing for the first time when I was 12 years old. It was playing on TV and they were showing that hot intro with all the couples dancing in slow motion. Obviously, being a teen with raging hormones, I sat down to watch it. To my surprise the first scene is a girl reading a book and looking… completely normal! Then I heard the first line of the movie and I was hooked: “That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind”. For some reason that opening line stuck with me… Maybe it was the feminist in me trying to tell me something... I proceeded to watch the movie in my living room; afraid my mom would come in and catch me watching one of the dirty dancing scenes or worst... the sex scene. At that age, I didn’t fully understand why that movie made such an impact on me. It could be argued that a teen girl would get obsessed with a movie like this because of the romance and shirtless, dreamy, Patrick Swayze… but no, it was more than that. As I watched, I became more and more intrigued with this awkward female main character that had no problem standing up to people, helping others unconditionally, not being ashamed of showing how smart she is, and above all, demanding to be treated as an equal to the men around her.
Today, I am 29 years old and I have watched Dirty Dancing more than a 100 times. I am not joking... Before you start judging me, keep in mind that this movie is constantly playing on TV… I am counting those times too… Of course if it is playing on TV, I stop everything and watch it… but still... The more I watch it, the more I continue to love it. I’ve come to realize that the reason I love this movie so much is because it was one of the first movies I saw that featured a smart girl being the main character and most importantly, it is a feminist movie in many, many ways. It is! Trust me. Let me tell you why:
1. Standing up to your parents… a.k.a GROWING UP: The plot of the movie is not the romance, but the struggle of a girl becoming a woman. “Baby” starts the movie being daddy’s little girl, but towards the end she becomes her own independent self. The scene that shows that full transformation is not the sex scene, or the dance scene, but when she confronts her dad. We all know how that feels like. That moment when you realize your parents are not always right and that they are just like you with insecurities and flaws. When you become an adult, there will come a time when you are going to confront your parents and tell them they are wrong. It doesn’t matter the situation. You will have the courage to do it, and if you have been a nice kid your whole life, like "Baby"… like me… that is one of the scariest things you’ll ever do. To see her, a woman, confront her Dad, is extremely empowering even to this day. The whole speech is absolute perfection: “You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who was like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist, and marrying someone from Harvard. I’m not proud of myself, but I’m in this family too. You can’t keep giving me the silent treatment. There are a lot of things about me that aren’t what you thought. But if you love me, you have to love all things about me. And I love you. And I’m sorry I let you down. I’m so sorry Daddy. But you let me down too.” Simply amazing. So many people can identify with this monologue, but to see a woman deliver it makes it even more special to me.
2. Women cheering for other women: Sure, the movie’s main relationship is between Johnny and Baby. But, the relationship between women in this movie deserves to be highlighted. We are used to seeing movies with just one woman as a main character. If there’s more than one woman, they are usually fighting over a guy, being frenemies, stabbing each other in the back, or simply not interacting with each other. Not in Dirty Dancing. In the movie, some of the most best relationships are between Baby and Penny and Baby and her sister. Let’s explore each one:
a. Baby and Penny – Baby sees Penny for the first time in a dance class and they don’t interact much. Later, Baby believes Penny is Johnny’s girlfriend, only to find out they are just childhood friends. In any other movie, a predicable plot would develop into jealousy from Baby towards Penny, probably breaking Johnny’s friendship with her. But, in Dirty Dancing, Baby automatically is willing to help Penny with her "situation", takes her place at the hotel performance to help her not lose the gig, never shows a hint of jealousy towards Penny, and clearly respects her as a woman throughout the movie. She admires her without competing with her. It is the type of female friendship and female/female interaction we desperately need more of in movies nowadays.
b. Baby and Lisa – From the beginning of the movie, you can see Baby and her sister are complete opposites. While Baby is the care-free book nerd, Lisa is the self-obsessed insecure teen girl that only cares about what others think. Their relationship is clearly rocky from the start; they obviously have nothing in common. But, towards the end, we see Lisa change her attitude towards her sister and her jealousy turns into respect and admiration. We see this clearly when Lisa tells Baby she’ll do her hair for the last event and after reflecting a bit she goes on and says: “You’re prettier your way”.
3. Women can take control: In the movie, we all see that the first time Baby lays eyes on Johnny she is interested in him. When she sees him dancing, oh, it’s ON like Donkey Kong. She is instantly willing to try this sexy dancing and who wouldn’t? It is the first time she is able to let loose and not worry what other people are saying. She is discovering her own sexuality and the fact that we are able to see that unravel in the movie, is unique and something you don’t see that often. Women’s sexuality is unfortunately still considered taboo and often not properly portrayed in movies. Once Baby gets to know Johnny, her crush grows. Now, what is interesting and great about Dirty Dancing is that she is the one that makes the first move. We all know the line: “I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you!” Right? I mean… that takes a lot of guts. A LOT. And she does it, she takes charge. She likes him, she wants to be with him, and she lets him know.
4. Johnny: *sigh* Johnny, Johnny, Johnny… This guy. Yes, he is sexy and has great moves. But Johnny’s character is much more than that. At the beginning when it is suggested that Baby should take Penny’s place at the hotel performance, Johnny is 100% against it and says twice: “She can’t do it!” But, he gets to know Baby and realizes the type of woman she is. During the time they rehearse together, he NEVER takes advantage of her or touches her inappropriately. He admires her personality more than her appearance. He wants to become a better man thanks to her. He acknowledges her efforts and even praises her when he thinks she is being brave. He defends her honor against that douche-bag Roby. He doesn’t cheat on her, even when he has more than one opportunity to do so. He motivates her to follow her dreams. He stops calling her “Baby” and starts calling her by her real name, Frances. Even though he says “she can’t do it” at the beginning, when she starts doubting herself at the end of the movie he tells her: “I don’t want to hear that from you! YOU CAN!” And of course, we all know the line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” Still gives me chills every time I hear it. But, for me, that line is nothing next to his monologue after that: “I’m going to do my kind of dancing with a great partner; who’s not only a terrific dancer but somebody who’s taught me that there are people willing to stand up for other people, no matter what it costs them. Somebody who’s taught me about the kind of person I want to be. Miss Frances Houseman”. He wants to be like HER. He looks up to HER. He acknowledges how amazing she is, by just being HERSELF.
5. Men and women can be friends: Johnny and Penny’s relationship is something that is very rarely seen in movies. A man and a woman being JUST friends? *gasp* As we have learned from countless movies, tv shows, and books, if a man and woman are friends, they will eventually become romantically involved. But, in real life, as shocking as it may sound, men and women CAN be just friends. It is true! And it is refreshing to see in Dirty Dancing. And it’s not a casual friendship either. They are childhood friends, they grew up together, and they love each other. He protects her against Roby and takes responsibility for her even when that means Baby’s dad will judge him. He supports her choice to get an abortion. You never see him questioning her or judging her about her decisions. She gives him advice about his interest in Baby, but it doesn’t come from a place of jealousy at all. She is just concerned about her friend. When he has a disagreement with Baby, he goes to her not to cheat, but to seek her support. They dance together, like dancers do, not lovers. They respect each other and it is lovely.
6. Objectification of men: Sure, the 12 year old in me still falls in love with Patrick Swayze every time I see Dirty Dancing. Johnny is hot. But, the movie touches a very interesting theme. After Baby asks him if he’s had many women, he gets really upset. In a surprising twist, he explains how he feels used by women. All these women, that want to sleep with him, are just using him; they don’t really care about him at all. We see how men are also objectified and they can be seen only as sexual objects too. Again, one of the few movies that features this important issue.
There are many other things I could talk about. How everybody respects Penny’s choice to have an abortion. How Baby puts Roby in his place. How concerned Johnny is when the abortion goes wrong for Penny. How the movie promotes consensual sex, outside of marriage, and without any of the consequences religion and horror movies have taught us. How Baby is named after the first woman in the Cabinet... Again, there are many things, but most importantly is Baby, Frances. She is one of the first female characters I admired and wanted to be like. Many people see Dirty Dancing as a movie about cheesy music and dance moves, but I see it as an example of how movies can actually make an impact. When you look past the “Dirty Dancing” and see the actual plot of the movie, is like discovering a hidden treasure. It is not surprising that many women consider it their favorite movie. Some of them may like it just for the romance, others may like it just for the sexy dances, but others, like me, see it as the movie that made us realize we could be strong, smart, and sexual at the same time. Going back to that first line: “when everybody called me Baby and it didn’t occur to me to mind” Yes, and at the end of the movie, she is no longer Baby, she is Frances. The strong, smart, and sexy female hero I want to be.