I have to be honest. I kind of struggled with this one! I grew up on this movie, so it felt weird to turn a critically eye on it. And once I did, it felt difficult to know what to say about it. On the one hand, we have a light-hearted rom-com that’s trying to convince us we’re at a summer resort in the 1960’s despite all that 1980’s hair. On the other hand, absolutely none of the action in this movie would be happening if not for an illegal abortion. Baked into that is class struggle, coming of age, toxic masculinity, and the double edged sword of the sexual revolution (see previous list item regarding toxic masculinity). So frankly, I didn’t know where to start.
Let’s start with a fun fact about the music before we get into the hard-hitting family/class/abortion drama subject matter: According to The Movies That Made Us, the scriptwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, was dead-set on using music from the early 60’s that she hand picked. The budget was so tight that most of it went to acquiring the music rights. But honestly, thank God they did or we would never have had this gem:
I also learned in The Movies That Made Us that this tight budget presented Patrick Swayze with the opportunity to approach the film’s creators with “She’s Like The Wind.” Originally recorded for Grandview, U.S.A, the song went unused until it was included on Dirty Dancing‘s soundtrack.
Anyway, not to burst your “Time of My Life” or “She’s Like The Wind” bubble, but “Hungry Eyes” is the best song on the soundtrack.
I suppose the above scene is a good segue back into the subject matter of the film. Frances “Baby” Houseman is at a summer resort with her parents and sister when she clandestinely borrows money from her doctor father to pay for featured dancer, Penny, to have an abortion. Baby will also fill in for Penny during the procedure and her post-op recovery time. Oh and this is 1963 so things don’t go so well during the procedure.
Now I’m sure you’re expecting a better recap from me, and frankly I was too, but I can’t afford another streaming service, and I haven’t seen this movie in a long time. So I relied on YouTube clips. My sincerest apologies.
Here’s a clip of Robbie explaining to Baby why he is unwilling to help Penny after he slept with her. Robbie is working as a waiter but it’s just a summer job to him. He’s from a wealthy family and attends Harvard.
Anyway, Robbie’s a real Ayn Rand kind of guy and he doesn’t think Penny matters. (He’s also probably a narcissist who doesn’t think anyone counts but suffice it to say he’d be a little more helpful if knocked someone of his social status up.
Robbie’s social status is, of course, largely why Baby’s sister, Lisa, thinks he is a good catch. And failing to recognize the universal symbol for, “someone is having sex in here,” Lisa pushes right past that towel on Robbie’s doorknob and finds out who he really is the hard way. (This clip is in Italian. But. You get it.)
Of course, Robbie is the fu**boi villian of this movie, but he’s really a metaphor for a larger point the film’s making. Some people have options and some people don’t. And the decisions people make can look very different and have wildly different repercussions when they don’t have any options.
And I guess that’s what made me super sad about all of this and perhaps reluctant to write this post. I’ve seen this movie numerous times over the past twenty-years or so and it’s never felt more relevant than it does today, which is weird because you’d think we’d learn from history (but time and again, I suppose, we don’t). In 1963, abortion was illegal for everyone, though maybe people like Lisa or Baby could have found a more reputable doctor to help them out quietly than Penny could have. Nowadays, I’ve found myself increasingly concerned that our supreme court could revert abortion laws back to the early 70’s when some states allowed abortion and others didn’t.
Regardless of how you feel about abortion, federal abortion laws are an equalizer. Overturning Roe vs. Wade won’t stop abortions, it will just stop safe abortions for people who can’t afford to go somewhere safe to get one…you know the same people who can’t really afford to have a child or even afford the pre-natal care that it would take to safely have a child and place it with a family for adoption. It’s never the people like Lisa and Baby who loose access to abortion (pretending for a moment they don’t all live in New York already). It’s the people like Penny who loose access because they don’t have the means or the opportunity.
And I’m anticipating all of the negative comments from random people coming across this post which I imagine will contain moral arguments levied mostly against Penny. To which I can only say, nothing happens to Robbie. They make the same decision and there’s no repercussion for Robbie. There’s no moral judgment. Doesn’t that bother you? It really bothers me.
In this class struggle of the wealthy and the working class, it’s not only Penny who suffers. We see this arc with Johnny’s character too. He’s repeatedly used by the women who visit Kellerman’s, who he finds sophisticated and interesting, only to find that they’re using him as an easy lay because he isn’t the kind of person they’d take seriously anyway. Just horrible.
Now I’m kind of telling this story out of order, but you’ll see from the clips number below that Penny’s botched abortion happens prior to the clip above. And this is, of course, when Baby’s wonderful father Jerry Orbach gets involved. Even though he doesn’t personally agree with abortion, he provides Penny with free and diligent medical care. (I’ll just list this as a great option that our country could offer if we actually wanted to reduce abortions for everyone.)
Anyway, the fact that Baby lied to her father originally to get money for Penny — which to be fair it makes complete sense her father is angry about this — eventually comes to light after she provides an alibi for Johnny when he is accused of stealing wallets at Kellerman’s.
And this brings us to the most beautiful scene in the movie, Baby’s heart-to-heart with her father.
In the end, Johnny is fired anyway. But he crashes the end of the season show to perform the final dance as he always does, this time with Baby and his own choreography. And Baby’s father apologies for accusing Johnny of being the creep who knocked up Penny and then left her all alone to handle it. Still no repercussions for Robbie though…which may be the most timeless message of all. *Sigh*
Stay tuned for Road House, which I remember having lighter subject matter — hopefully, my memory is correct on that one!
The Movies That Made Us from Netflix
Dirty Dancing Is The Greatest Movie Of All Time by Irin Carmon for Jezebel
How ‘Dirty Dancing’ opened my eyes to the urgency of abortion rights by Katy Brand for Independent
‘Dirty Dancing’ Was A Safe-Abortion Champion Wrapped In A Rom Com Bow by Jillian Capewell for HuffPost
‘Dirty Dancing’ Writer On Why She Integrated Illegal Abortion Into A Love Story by Alanna Vagianos for HuffPost