MUSIC MOVIES & ME: DIRTY DANCING Is Actually Good And I'm Tired Of Pretending I Like It Ironically

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MUSIC MOVIES & ME: DIRTY DANCING Is Actually Good And I'm Tired Of Pretending I Like It Ironically

This article is the fifth in a series by Sarah Jae Leiber exploring "music movies" and all the beauty and frustration that comes with them! Read last week's column here.


There's definitely an argument against calling "Dirty Dancing" a music movie. It's a dance movie. It's a romance film. It's a chick flick. But "Dirty Dancing" wouldn't be "Dirty Dancing" without its soundtrack, which has sold more than 32 million copies worldwide and won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. Half the charm of "Dirty Dancing" is the way it sells us a romance through the way Baby and Johnny react to music-the other half is Patrick Swayze's sweet, sweet nose crinkle.

"Dirty Dancing" actually has a lot more charm than those two halves. "Dirty Dancing" is a considerably better movie than people (read: men) give it credit for, and I am tired of having to pretend I like it because it's a thirst trap. It is a thirst trap! It would be hard to be attracted to men and NOT love it for that reason! But "Dirty Dancing" is also a smart, funny, incredibly romantic film that WAS made for women at a time where "Full Metal Jacket" and "Spaceballs" were dominating the box office. There's a reason this movie was the first to ever sell over one million copies on home video-and it's Patrick Swayze's sweet, sweet nose crinkle.

"Dirty Dancing" isn't trying to be a prestige drama. No one involved was gunning for an Oscar. But every time I've watched it-and that's probably about 20 times-it's given me a distinct feeling of wholeness and completeness and safety.

It's odd for a movie to make you feel safe. I spent a long time trying to figure out why it does that for me-a reason other than Patrick Swayze's sweet, sweet nose crinkle. One day I paid a little closer attention to the names in the credits: "Dirty Dancing" was written by a woman named Eleanor Bergstein.

I should have known a woman (and a Jewish woman!) wrote "Dirty Dancing!" For all of its cheese, every single female character in "Dirty Dancing" is a complete person-even Patrick Swayze and his sweet, sweet nose crinkle has a backstory, a reason for existing at this ritzy Catskills resort that isn't just "he has arms." I love this movie because it's a thirst trap with arms, legs, and a heart, and it's grounded in respecting women.

"Dirty Dancing" depicts the before, during, and after of an illegal abortion, and it does not for one second shame the woman who got it. Characters in the movie question her character and are promptly shut down. We see how dangerous the world was before Roe V. Wade, and how dangerous the world could be if it's overturned. That's not an accident. Bergstein wrote Penny's abortion explicitly because she worried about a world without a woman's right to choose - something that was increasingly possible as the conservative, Christian-fundamentalist Reagan adminstration raged forward.

It's done so subtly it's almost insidious, a sort of benevolent brainwashing. "Dirty Dancing" is couched in so much love and sex and romance that its nittier-grittier moments feel less nitty and gritty. The abortion moment is also about privilege - Penny's only able to get her scary, shady abortion because Baby's family lent her the money.

"Dirty Dancing" uses music in a really smart way to illuminate class differences between the resort workers and the resort guests - and Johnny and Baby by extension. Baby's family takes Penny's mambo class near the beginning of the movie (where she utters the immortal words, "God wouldn't have given you maracas if he didn't want you to shake 'em!"). You see a bunch of old, rich people uniformly dancing to a foreign rhythm that in other circumstances may have scared them off. Kellerman's is a facsimile of a very real meeting ground for American Jews, a place where people could go on vacation and be with Their People. That's not a judgment - as an American Jew, I recognize the comfort and safety that comes from being with people who were raised like me. But it's certainly limiting, and it's nothing like what goes on behind closed doors in the staff quarters - where the Dirty Dancing happens in "Dirty Dancing."

"Dirty Dancing" is about a young, rich, liberal, white, Jewish woman who learns what it means to exist in a diverse space. She walks into the fully integrated, uproarious staff quarters, hears "Do You Love Me," and maybe for the first time discovers race and sex and fun. Baby realizes that the staff doesn't just exist to serve her; they are whole people with real life experiences and stories that rock her world and change her perspective. She's uncomfortable, and that discomfort teaches her more about herself than she ever could learn during her freshman year at Mount Holyoke.

She also falls in love with Johnny Castle, a goy with no money and an incredible body. (Side note: have you SEEN "I Am Patrick Swayze"? That is a RENAISSANCE MAN with one sweet, sweet nose crinkle). There are a lot of ridiculous things about Johnny Castle - his ambiguous age, the way he refers to his cousin as "cuz," the way he personifies a heartbeat. But he's potentially the most conventionally attractive lead in a movie ever, and he's a DANCER. He has FEELINGS, and only has sex with women when he feels an EMOTIONAL CONNECTION to them. He's a fantasy, sure - but it's telling that a woman screenwriter's version of fantasy is a man who is in touch with his feelings. I don't have to tell you about a man screenwriter's version of fantasy.

Maybe Baby and Johnny aren't meant to be together forever, but they learn from each other. Their love for each other stems from a genuine interest in where the other comes from, and from a shared love of movement and dance and music. Their relationship is based on learning to work with each other and learning to trust each other - each other, as equal partners. If there weren't a level of equality between them there would be no big lift at the end.

The most romantic moment of this movie-and maybe any movie ever-is not the big dance sequence in the end, or even the lift. It's not "nobody puts Baby in a corner." That's a stupid line.

It's this. It's Patrick Swayze's sweet, sweet nose crinkle in the aftermath of that big lift. It's these performers coming together to acknowledge what everyone could see in the moments before - a private intimacy that comes from the trust they'd built throughout the movie. In a genre where relationships are so often built on lies and deception, it's revolutionary to have one that's built on mutual trust. It's not "The Godfather," but it's also important.


"Dirty Dancing" is available to RENT OR BUY on YouTube, Vudu, and more. Watch the original theatrical trailer here:



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From This Author Sarah Jae Leiber