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Dirty Dancing: A feminist classic


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30 years on from its original release, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dirty Dancing is just another chick-flick.

But beneath its pink, romantic exterior is a feminist masterpiece - a film that defies the expectations of the decade it was made in. From addressing the ever-controversial topic of abortion head on, to depicting a passionate romance from the gaze of its female lead, Dirty Dancing is something special, even by today's standards. 

Set in the summer of 1963, the film follows a bright, naive young woman who, upon arrival at a family vacation in the Catskills, becomes enraptured by Camp Kellerman's enigmatic dance teachers. However, the main plot - and the reason Baby and Johnny get together in the first place - stems from something altogether more serious.

Carefully embedded within this story of romance and burgeoning female sexuality is a social message about the dangers of illegal abortion procedures. Johnny's dance partner, Penny, becomes pregnant after a fling with the film's repugnant antagonist Robbie. Distraught, Penny seeks a quick, but costly, solution from a shady 'M.D.' - with Baby not only providing the money but also pledging to fill in for Penny at her and Johnny's next dance gig. 

However, just as Baby and Johnny are beginning to warm to each other, it soon transpires that the 'M.D.' who performed the procedure was nothing more than a conman with "a dirty knife and a folding table," leaving Penny on the brink of death. It is only after Baby desperately pulls her father - a real doctor - out of bed to aid her, that Penny manages to recover.

The topic of abortion is, and has always been, a tricky subject - often made to seem taboo. The fact that this major Hollywood film included such an important message - not only advocating a pro-choice attitude but also warning against dangerous illegal procedures - is remarkable. In her book, Life Moves Pretty Fast, Hadley Freeman spoke to the film's writer, Eleanor Bergstein, about the film's inherent social message: 

"When I wrote the film, abortion - like feminism - was one of those issues that people thought just wasn't relevant anymore. A lot of young women thought those battles were won, and talking about it was tiresome. [...] The film is set in 1963 but came out in 1987 and I wanted young women watching to understand that it wasn't just she went to Planned Parenthood and it went wrong."

Bergstein's clever integration of the sub-plot in the wider story meant that even when studio execs eventually caught on to the possible ramifications, the social message remained: "I knew that if I put in a social message, it had to be carefully plotted in. A lot of movies have social messages but they end up on the cutting room floor. It's true that not many people talked about the abortion plot when it came out, but it meant that I was getting the message to people who wouldn't go to see a documentary about abortions, and we were also getting big feminist audiences."

Of course, the film's feminist inflections also range beyond this bold statement about safe, legal abortion practices. Although she is branded with a belittling family nickname, Baby - otherwise known as Frances - is a strong, believable female character. She's intelligent and ambitious - she has plans to join the Peace Corps and while her sister fusses with her hair in the car to Kellerman's, Baby is seen reading a book about economic development. 

She's not perfect - she's almost unbearably naive, learning throughout the film more about the stark realities of lower working class life, as well as what she herself is capable of doing and choosing. Described by Freeman as a "character for the girls," Johnny is the catalyst for Baby's sexual awakening - and it shows throughout the film. We view Johnny through Baby's eyes - an unusual feat in Hollywood, where we are usually put in the position of a male spectator, viewing female characters through a sexual prism.

In their first love scene, this becomes even more apparent, as the camera follows Baby as she swathes around Johnny's bare torso. The scene is all about her experience and her perspective. If you think about it, there aren't many instances where that's happened again on film, even in contemporary, seemingly more progressive films. We're still viewing films from a very male perspective - which leaves films like Dirty Dancing in a league of their own. 

For all it's corny one-liners, guilty pleasure anthems and dance numbers, Dirty Dancing remains to this day to be a rare, feminist masterpiece. Should you watch (or rewatch) this classic, you won't just have the 'time of your life' - you might just be inspired as well. 

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