Dirty Dancing Moves to Feminist Beat

A male dancer who is most assuredly
straight; a Hollywood leading man who is happily married: Patrick Swayze bashed
tired stereotypes. Most importantly, as the male star of the imminently
watchable Dirty Dancing, he made a film that tromps over prevailing myths about
women and sex while staying on beat.

Dirty Dancing is often dismissed as
sentimental silliness in two-four time and, yes, some of it painfully cheesy
and quaint. But it dares to declare that young female sexuality exists and can
be a force for good and not evil. It is the unheralded feminist anthem of our
time. And, sadly, there haven’t been any other mainstream contenders for this
title in the 22 years since its release.

Dirty Dancing depicts abortion — not
just contemplation of abortion in favor of the staying pregnant at any cost
story line that’s the staple of movies today. In 2007 unwanted pregnancy
carried to term became a cash crop, with Juno, Waitress and Knocked Up raking
it in on this theme. Even Sex and the City, with its claim to bold and honest
female sexuality, just couldn’t go all the way.

Not so in 1987, when Dirty Dancing came
out. A supporting character, Penny, not only undergoes a horrific illegal
abortion, she succinctly shatters the myth (read: stereotype) that women who
abort simply hate kids. The there are two kinds of women, mothers and those who
abort canard is quickly dispelled as Penny confides her relief that the
back-alley ordeal hasn’t left her unable to conceive. Penny embodies what many
pro-choice advocates have grown hoarse declaring: most women who abort already
have or go on to have kids.

Then there is Baby. Don’t let the name
fool you; she’s a heroine we should proudly love to love. She’s smart and
ambitious, politically aware and morally grounded. In defiance of movie
convention, she takes the sexual lead. Initially awkward, Baby ventures past
her safe social circle to see what, or who, the rowdy kids are doing next door.
Craving sexual experience, she goes after it. Make no mistake –she’s not
husband hunting. She’s on the make for a hot summer fling.

What’s more, there are no recriminations
for her sexual awakening — no emotional upheaval, unintended pregnancy,
infections or plans derailed. She will still be off to Mount Holyoke in the
fall and perhaps on to the Peace Corps after that and, we’re assured, she’s had
the time of her life. The film ends with her soaring above the crowd. She is
reveling in her pleasure — she has learned and grown confident, not suffered and
been made to feel shame.

Despite its requisite bow-tie happy
ending, the movie refuses to give over to sentiment. There is no illusion that
the leads will stay together, even as unwritten rules dictate this is the way
to make cinematic unmarried sex acceptable. This sex is mercifully not
premarital because this film knows that first comes love (or perhaps just sex)
doesn’t always mean next comes marriage and never mind about the baby in the
baby carriage.

Dirty Dancing is a brave and brilliant
blockbuster, one rendered more rare and praiseworthy with the passage of time.
The intervening years have brought us a pathetic retreat to the Hollywood norm:
boy pursues girl as she looks on coyly, sex leads to wedded bliss or dire
consequences, girl has baby no matter what, baby transforms girl’s life.

All accounts say that Patrick Swayze
battled his cancer bravely, living his last days to their fullest surrounded by
family and friends. He lived bravely too. Two decades and two different Bush
presidencies ago, he brought us a film that it’s not clear could get made
today. A film that told a nation of teenage girls watching rapt that young
women want to have sex, sex can be great, and when a woman can’t be a mother in
a particular moment it doesn’t mean anything more than just that.

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  • lara-riscol

    Anat, this is great! thanks for connecting the dots of immense cultural significance with what otherwise could be dismissed as bygone Hollywood cheese. look forward to more of your writing!

  • caroline8899

    Thank you for this, Anat. You’ve shed a new light on one of my favorite movies and added even more fondness to the memories of Patrick Swayze.

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Thanks Lara and Caroline for going out of your way to reaffirm what I already knew — people who read Rh Reality Check are incredibly supportive and kind. Glad you liked it.

  • aliciat

    Thanks, Anat, for highlighting the subversive, progressive, feminist politics underneath this classic film. I wonder if there are any other unsung feminist "texts" in popular media that you might care to dissect for us? I think that popular narrative – movies, TV shows, and pop music – is perhaps the most important (and underutilized) battleground in our gender discourse. But usually in pop media, women are simply not protagonists. They are accessories, foils, victims, and scenery. When they are protagonists, it’s usually in romantic comedies, which are seen as movies exclusively "for women." Whereas when men are protagonists, those films and TV shows are often seen as "for everyone." What do you think about the few films and shows that buck this trend? Do you think the TV show "Roseanne" could be described as ‘feminist’? What about the movie "Reality Bites," which was marketed not as a chick-flick but as a mainstream ‘dramedy’, yet featured a female in existential crisis, about not just men but her job, and the meaning of life? None of these dealt with sex and abortion as bravely as Dirty Dancing, but I think the treating of a woman as Everyman is a feminist statement in and of itself. Are there other examples of this that you can think of?

  • emma

    Thanks for this post. Dirty Dancing certainly did deal with abortion incredibly bravely, and it’s depressing that things have gone so far backward since.

    (Not to mention that I just have a huge sentimental attachment to this movie. Patrick Swayze was my first celebrity crush, lol. I kind of want to go rent it now, but I might cry.)

  • anat-shenkerosorio

    Alicia — you highlight some incredibly important (and frustrating!) truths about our pop-culture landscape. As far as other films that I would argue deserve entry into the honest portrayl of female sexuality category, there are many but all of them small, independent, often foreign-language titles. Sticking with the mainstream/blockbusters, the usual suspect named is Thelma and Louise. And, while I may be risking mass disapproval, I’m not sure I agree this is truly a feminist film. But that’s a whole other article.

    Perhaps I’m dating myself but the anti-brat pack movies of the 80s, while bleak, often featured strong girls who knew what they wanted with regard to life and sex and made it happen. I’m thinking here of Pump Up the Volume and Heathers. Believe it or not, I’d put Clueless in this category too — different era and genre, of course, but also a teen flick that accepts that sex happens without judgment.

    On the t.v. side, I just rewatched My-So-Called-Life on DVD and it’s even more brilliant than I had remembered. It is an honest look at coming of age, sexuality, relationships at every age with a strong/conflicted/developing, female lead. Sadly, there’s only one season.

    Other t.v. heroines who are, as you say, an everyman and not simply a romantic lead include Veronica Mars and Buffy. I personally haven’t gotten into these shows but friends rave about them. 

    It’s been too long since I’ve seen Reality Bites for me to recall it. I’ll have to check it out.

    As far as Roseanne, that’s so much about class and our national tendency to hide or glamorize the life of the working poor. I have to think about what it says about women and sexuality.

    Thanks so much for bringing up such important questions! 

  • julie-watkins

    I always liked “Dirty Dancing”, now I can better say why.


    Recently I was listening to a Les Mis "soundtrack" — actually it was from the concert version of the musical. Heartbreakingly beautiful music — but I wish it were sung French or some other language than English so I wouldn’t have to understand the words. It depressed me, listening to the lyrics, that it seemed mostly it was men who got to “do” things. For the most part, the women characters reacted, not acted. The only unambiguously active thing a woman character did was when one of Fontaine’s co-workers stole her letter & then got Fontaine fired from her job. A woman attacking another woman, how sweet. Gag. And the chorus really seemed to enjoy her ruination.


    I spend my life ignoring the mainstream — because I don’t want to be attacked. When I’m not being attacked they’re attempting to brainwash me to follow the consumerism, doubletalk, patriarchy, oligarchy, anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-minority, neo-liberalism game plan. Phoey on that.


  • crowepps

    The only unambiguously active thing a woman character did was when one of Fontaine’s co-workers stole her letter & then got Fontaine fired from her job. A woman attacking another woman, how sweet. Gag. And the chorus really seemed to enjoy her ruination.

    You must have missed the part where Eponine enrages her father by screaming to prevent an attack on Cosette’s home and then throws herself in front of a bullet to save the life of Marius. Both of which were in the traditional ‘self-sacrificial’ role for women, but still were ‘active’.

    You might also reflect that the chorus of women were also acting in their traditional role of women using social disapproval to enforce male standards of ‘morality’ and ‘proper feminine behavior’ against other women — sort of like trustees in prison. If we really want to get anywhere so far as ‘equal rights’, women need to stop trying to reach misogynistic men and instead convince their fellow women to stop accepting and enforcing unnatural and inhuman patriarchal ‘norms’.

  • crowepps

    As far as Roseanne, that’s so much about class and our national tendency to hide or glamorize the life of the working poor. I have to think about what it says about women and sexuality.

    I too would be interested in your take on this. Several things I noticed about it — the portrayal of ‘Mom’ was much more realistic – Roseanne was allowed to be sarcastic and inpatience and to find her kids a pain without the assumption that she ‘didn’t really love them’ or was ‘a bad mother’. She and her husband also obviously found each other sexy regardless of weight.