Nobody puts History in a Corner: Insights from Dirty Dancing
Like for many others, Dirty Dancing is one of my favourite films. And like many others, I’m passionate about history. So it only seems natural to combine the two and examine what we can learn about American history in the 1960s from the film Dirty Dancing. Dirty Dancing is not simply a chick-flick but offers interesting social commentary on key issues of the 1960s America and its reception in the 1980s. I was inspired to write this post after listening to an episode of Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, which focused on feminist agency in the film. Just an early reminder, this article does contain spoilers…
Let’s begin with a short synopsis of the 1987 film, which was later adapted into a musical. The film is set in the summer of 1963, in America. The lead character, 17-year-old Frances Houseman, known as Baby, (played by Jennifer Grey) travels to Kellerman’s holiday resort with her parents and sister Lisa (Jane Bucker). This is no ordinary family holiday. During her time at Kellerman’s, Baby ends up standing in for holiday resort dancer Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) in a performance at a neighbouring hotel, securing the contract for next year, while Penny has an abortion.
Baby learns to dance from lead male dancer Johnny Castle, played by Patrick Swayze. In acquiring dancing skills, she finds out about Johnny’s insecurity as a resort dancer and the struggles of growing up in working-class America. Initially sceptical of Baby, Johnny grows to admire Baby’s determination as she not only dances at the local hotel, but secures Penny’s abortion and protects Johnny from accusations of his involvement in a hotel robbery. In the words of Swayze, ‘The two fall for each other, and the rest they say is history. They perform the final dance of the season, culminating in what has to be one of the most famous lifts in film history.’
Now we know the general storyline, let’s delve deeper and look at some of the historical themes presented in the film.
Civil Rights and Social Justice
Dirty Dancing introduces the civil rights movement as a way to show the generational differences between young people and their parents. The film opens with the Houseman family travelling to Kellerman’s, and in the first lines of dialogue, Baby mentions that she is set to join the Peace Corps after the summer vacation. Minutes later, after entering the resort, her father, Dr Jake Houseman (Jerry Orbach) references the ‘the police dogs used in Birmingham’ in the midst of the civil rights movement in 1963. Immediately, producers locate the film within the transformative period of civil rights using Birmingham as a historical anchor, referencing the popular memory of the movement.
Yet, the presentation of engagement with the civil rights movement varies between older and younger generations. For Dr Houseman, there is a certain detachment from events, and despite being proud of Baby’s upcoming work, he does not see himself as being directly involved in affairs like his daughter. This detachment is evident not only reserved for Dr Houseman in the film, but also in the musical where the owner of Kellerman’s camp challenges the actions of his nephew travelling around freedom riding – questioning the actual impact this will have (take a listen to the song here). In fact, these concerns were grounded in some truth – despite the work of young people travelling the country persuading African Americans to vote, only a small proportion voted. It was not until the passage of the Voting Rights Act in August 1965 when the proportion of African Americans registered to vote increased from 6% to 60%.
The film and musical highlight the parent/child clash over activism and involvement in the civil rights movement and the complex identity struggles which young people faced. They wanted to make a difference but found themselves in a tricky position with their parents’ expectations and discomfort about being on the frontline of debates over race relations. The producers present this generational gap cleverly in the film, and perhaps resonates with some of the current debates over Brexit and a ‘generational’ divide in the UK today.
One of the most politically contentious elements of the film is its treatment of abortion. Baby borrows money from her father, which unbeknown unknowing to him, she gives to Penny to fund her abortion. As emphasised in the recent episode of Woman’s Hour, Penny took a number of gambles with abortion – not only did she risk getting caught, but she also endangered her own life. The film was set in the days before 1973 Roe v Wade, and released fourteen years after the ruling. The abortion plot caused much controversy when Lionsgate released the film, as sponsors attempted to persuade scriptwriter Eleanor Bergstein to drop the storyline. Such efforts highlight the sensitive and highly politicised nature of such a storyline in the 1980s and the ethical issues this continued to pose. In presenting abortion in this way, Bergstein emphasised the intractable problems women faced when pregnant before Roe v Wade and draws attention to the progress made and her endorsement of the legislation.
Women as agents, not victims
Dirty Dancing also emphasises some of the changes which women underwent in the tumultuous decades of
the 1960s. This is most notable with Baby, whom Bergstein presents as a strong female lead – an agent, not a victim waiting to be ‘saved’ by a man. She is the one that volunteers to help Penny and Johnny secure the contract for the next season (despite Johnny’s insistence that ‘she can’t do it’); she is the one that lies to her father to acquire the funds for Penny’s abortion; she is the one that takes control of her own sexual agency and decides to lose her virginity to Johnny. Baby grows up in the 1960s, a decade which saw young women participating in social activist roles in their communities and beyond, rejecting the political passivity which had characterised women’s position since the end of the Second World War. Young, white and educated young women gave the 1960s sit-in movement additional legitimacy, by their peaceful, but defiant campaign against segregation in public places. Being released in the 1980s, amidst the growth of the Women’s Consciousness movement, Baby and Penny alike were themselves evident of some of the positive leadership traits which some women wished to emulate. Baby’s activism and confidence ultimately illustrate the impact of this new activist culture on young people, especially those in middle-class America.
This activism is not only reserved for Baby, but also for Penny. After an emotional breakdown at the beginning of the film upon finding out she is pregnant, Penny is strong-willed in taking the decision to have the abortion, despite the risks involved. Penny works with Johnny to teach Baby the moves for the dance and advises him on the practicalities of relationships between staff and guest. Female agency is not an uncomplicated theme within the film, however – the two characters Baby and Penny initially clash, owing to their differences in age, experience and class.
Seeing Dirty Dancing as more than a ‘chick flick’ title gives us a prism through which to analyse the changes America underwent in the 1960s. It also allows us to examined the cultural memory of the 1960s and its reception in the 1980s, particularly in relation to the civil rights movement and its impact not only on African Americans, but other civil rights participants. The film deals with complex, contentious issue, and highlights the differences in attitudes and approaches between generations. It emphasises how different women embrace activism, agency and femininity and transition into a new world. Nobody puts Baby in a corner? Nobody puts history in a corner with this film.