Dirty Dancing (1987)


I don’t often post movie reviews, but I found Dirty Dancing to be irresistibly problematic (i.e. worthy of investigation) in terms of its morality. On the one hand, there is a lot that is morally exemplary, especially the actions of the protagonist, Baby. Baby wants to “save the world,” but she approaches her calling through the people directly in front of her. She approaches others with an open mind, gravitating towards those victimized by the Kellerman’s establishment–that is, the working class. Particularly, Baby comes to the defense of Penny, a dancer at Kellerman’s who is impregnated and abandoned by one of the other staff. Baby’s actions are messy, yet in the end she draws on all of her relationships to get Penny the help she needs after a botched abortion. The event pits Baby’s family against her staff friends, yet she refuses to abandon either and continually tries to create peace between them. Surprisingly (from a realistic perspective), Baby’s efforts succeed.

Dirty Dancing is a film simultaneously naive and realistic. On the one hand, it addresses class issues and the consequences of pregnancy. On the other hand, its address of these issues only goes so far. Class issues are never resolved in any sustainable way, just resolved in a scene of rich guests and poor staff dancing together at the end. As resolution goes, this is drivel. Penny’s abortion, likewise, is handled in an incredibly flippant way, drawing no real consequences (which is all too often unrealistic) partly due to Penny’s speedy and complete physical recovery. Any consequences from the real problems presented in the film are either ignored or swept under the carpet with a tenuous closed ending.

Where the film is really problematic, however, is its sexuality. Now, I must confess I was raised with a fairly moralistic approach to sexuality in films, an approach I might add that is shared by the MPAA and websites like my old favorite kids-in-mind.com. Such a perspective typically raises issue with nudity (as defined by the government) and explicit sexual activity over “softer” forms of sexuality, like “dirty dancing.” I, however, have come to adopt a fairly opposite perspective. For this reason Dirty Dancing, despite its PG-13 rating and lack of nudity or explicit sex, is one of the most sexually disturbing movies I’ve encountered. For instance, the films first images are slowed-down exhibits of “dirty dancing,” an amalgamation of exposure and touching by complete strangers (i.e. without characterization). There’s a name for this: voyeurism. Later, Baby’s coming of age is visualized by the sequential shrinking of her clothing. On the one hand, this can be seen as her growing confidence in her own body, which is a good and healthy thing. On the other hand, skin seems to be clearly treated as naturally sexual. Bodies, in this world, are thus always in a sexual mode (i.e. nymphomania). If you think this sounds healthy, try and sit through McQueen’s Shame.

It is no surprise, then, that sexual activity is treated as natural to any kind of romantic relationship. However,  sex is treated as naturally emotional without being physical, the effect of  before|after shot pairs that eliminate the physical act. It is all to easy, in this realm, to ignore the physical complexities and consequences of sex, which cannot be separated from the act in the real, physical world. Dirty Dancing thus reinforces the myths of sex without babies (despite its forgettable abortion subplot) and bodies (which have unique physiologies). There isn’t much the film gets right about sex, other than that everyone wants it and will pay for movie tickets to experience it vicariously.

On the ethics of that I have no comment.



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