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September 12, 2012 / Melissa Leeanne

The Social Commentary of Dirty Dancing

Spoiler alert, in case you have never seen a movie that’s been out for decades.

I’m watching Dirty Dancing again; I’ve lost count. I saw it for the first time when I was pretty young, probably in elementary school still. Many might dismiss Dirty Dancing as a frivolous dance movie from the 80’s, but it is so much more. I gave my first lecture on the merits of Dirty Dancing three or four years ago while I was wasting away as a bartender at a dive bar in the basement of a hotel cum flop house. It was most likely a night such that I was providing the beer and the entertainment – empty but for one or two. I know it was a male patron who was the unwitting recipient of my lecture.

Baby is a strong female lead. Within the first ten minutes of the film, you discover that Baby is intelligent, socially conscious, curious, and open-minded despite her sheltered upbringing and naiveté. She has flaws and doesn’t always make the right choices, which, you know, makes her seem human. She’s observant and empathetic, which is how the real story is illuminated. Sure, there is impressive dancing and there are some comedic moments (way to go dumping that pitcher on Robbie the Creep’s crotch) but there’s so much more.

You get a great look at the difference between the privileged upper class and the lower class when Ayn Rand wielding prep, Robbie, refuses to provide a paltry amount to fund an abortion, while most of the guests at Kellerman’s are completely blind to the financial instability the staff face or their mistreatment. It is clear that the upper class and lower class have a different set of options before them, dictated by their financial situation. Where Baby can ask for $250 for no reason, Penny’s only option is to pay $250 for a an illegally conducted and unsafe abortion.

Abortion?! Dirty Dancing highlights the importance of the availability of legal and safe abortion procedures by showing the consequences of having a procedure that is not even illegal, but simply unobtainable. Abortions are not new and they will not go away, illegal, unobtainable or otherwise. Dirty Dancing provides a narrative of a woman with whom the audience can sympathize, with few realistic options, whose life is endangered by the unavailability of a safe option.

And let me get back to how Baby is not just a strong female character, but a strong female. She takes a stand for herself and she tries to take a stand for other people. When she feels Johnny doesn’t take her seriously, she takes on a challenge (to help Penny, of course) and when she feels that he is being disrespectful, she asserts herself. She doesn’t expect respect from others, she earns it by her actions. It’s somewhat unfortunate that Baby’s good qualities are more apparent in juxtaposition with her sister’s superficiality and narcissism, but it’s a storytelling technique. Baby really peaks as a character when she takes responsibility for her actions to do right by Johnny and [proves him innocent] of his accused crime.

There is also reference to unfair employment practices and the allure of a union job, even if it’s a dull one. Johnny and Penny are terrified that they have no job security and Johnny is harassed when Penny takes a break from her physically strenuous job. Johnny recognizes that a union job provides a level of security, though it certainly doesn’t thrill him to think of being a house painter or something equally as mundane.

Possibly the best thing about Dirty Dancing is that it sneaks all of this social commentary into a funny romantic movie with a happy ending, sort of like sneaking vegetables into delicious dishes that kids will eat. So, enjoy that closing dance number with, knowing that you’ve earned it. You just watched a film that celebrates equality, feminism, reproductive rights, workers’ rights, and really great dancing. Now, didn’t you have the time of your life?

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