Dirty Dancing: alienation, ideology & emancipation

Beyond the formula

When it comes to writing a Hollywood script, there are certain easy ways to make a plot appealing. First off, if you’re trying to make a romantic drama, not too brainy, you have to make sure that your lead characters exhibit a lot of easy-to-understand contrasts: he should be dark, mysterious, from a poor background, whereas she is kind, light-hearted, idealistic. Also, make sure that you have a particular theme that resonates with young people, such as, say, dancing or summer vacation. Situate these tropes along a familiar story arc and you get what is called the `Hollywood formula’, an easy-to-consume, ready-made film that is bound to generate a profit.

Questions of profitability aside, I want to try and get beyond this formula, because there is an almost perverted sort of pleasure associated with analysing a film in terms of its most common tropes: a pleasure that is directly dependent on the film being nothing more than its ridiculously mediocre parts, its own teaser trailer drawn out for about an hour and a half. We see these films and we laugh about how predictable they are, how little they actually have to offer. This is sadism pure and simple, derived from the film’s failure to offer anything worthwhile, in turn fuelling our own sense of superiority regarding the film. My objective is to counterpoint this pleasure: I want to discuss a film that seems superficial and bland, but that actually hides, below its surface, a thematic narrative that is not just entertaining, but also subversive, thought-provoking, actually interesting.

Dirty Dancing (1987, directed by Emile Ardolino, starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze, written by Eleanor Bergstein) is indeed rife with stereotypes. If we should believe Roger Ebert’s review, it is nothing less than “a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between kids from different backgrounds.” Now, Ebert’s review is as brutal as it is grumpy, at one point even taking offence at the fact that the dancers dance too professionally for the film to remain believable. (Whoa, take it down a notch, grandpa!) You might defend Ebert, of course, by pointing out that his review was written for an older, ‘more mature’ crowd of filmgoers. I would counter that already when it was released, the film reached a surprisingly larger audience than was expected and moreover appealed to a much older crowd. This is significant, because it suggests that Ebert’s review is wrong: if such a large crowd was interested in the film, there has to be something that is actually interesting, something that makes the film more than the sum of its tropes.

Situating Dirty Dancing

According to Ebert, little else than the all too familiar ‘boy meets girl’ story arc is needed to make sense of the film. But Ebert is wrong, if only because he gets it the wrong way round: if anything, Dirty Dancing is a story told from the perspective of 18-year old Frances ‘Baby’ Houseman. It is therefore more properly called a ‘girl meets boy’ story. I am not just making a cheap joke: in terms of its gender politics, the film is an admirable example of female empowerment, and this is no coincidence: writer Bergstein has gone on record saying that film’s political content was an important theme for her when writing the film.

Ebert might retort that, in the end, Dirty Dancing plays out the same tired old plot of a man, Johnny (Patrick Swayze’s character), that comes to the rescue of the helpless girl that Baby turns out to be: in the end, it has to be Johnny who stands up to Baby’s father and has to say that “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” We will return to the film’s ending at the end of this essay, for now, I want to draw this argument into questing by focussing on the importance that Bergstein attached to the surroundings in which she situated the film:

The following summer, the summer of ’64, you couldn’t have told that story, because all that music was above ground then, and all the guests would have been doing that kind of rock band thing, so perhaps not as erotic as the dirty dancing, but it was just when one thing was going on in one place and another in another. […] [It] was the last summer there could be an upstairs and a downstairs in that way. (From the interview)

The ’60s, of course, are well-known as an era of rebellion against the establishment, but what about the place? What of the fictional Kellerman’s resort?

Alienated labour at Kellerman’s Resort

Going with Bergstein’s self-appraisal, we might entertain the possibility that the film’s main theme is, in fact, the struggle against exclusion and class divisions, against an “upstairs” and a “downstairs.” I draw your attention, now, to one of the film’s opening scenes.

When Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) has a first look around the resort, she secretly overhears Max Kellerman, the owner of the resort, giving the waiters their last-minute instruction:

Max: There are two kinds of help here. You waiters are all college guys… And I went to Harvard and Yale to hire you. And why did I do that? Why? I shouldn’t have to remind you; this is a family place. That means you keep your fingers out of the water, hair out of the soup and show the goddamn daughters a good time… All the daughters, even the dogs. Schlepp ’em out to the terrace, show ’em the stars. Romance ’em any way you want.

At which point Johnny Castle (played by Patrick Swayze) walks by and casually remarks: Got that, guys?

Max: Hey, hold it! Hold it! … Well, if it isn’t the entertainment staff… Listen, wise ass, you got your own rules: dance with the daughters, teach ’em the mambo, the cha-cha, anything they pay for. That’s it. No funny business, no conversations and keep your hands off!

This short interaction makes it clear that there are at least three social classes at Kellerman’s, all of them definable by the way in which their bodily interactions are governed. First, there is the class of waiters who are prescribed a very simple regime: they must keep their fingers out of the water and their hair out of the soup. In return they are rewarded control over the second class.

The members of the second class, the ‘daughters’, are defined by their gender, adolescence and their occupying a particular position within the nuclear family. It is important to note that this class is offered no control whatsoever, they are merely there to be ‘schlepped’ around. They are mentioned in an active role only once, as having the ability to pay for dance instructions, which is hardly an active capacity worth mentioning. It is also important to note that there are no boundaries set on the extent to which the waiter class may control the daughters. Supposedly these boundaries are self-evident (everybody knows Ivy League students are well-mannered people, am I right?) but in any case they remain implicit at best, which is not good.

Lastly, there is the class of entertainment personnel. For them, the rules are all too explicit: like the class of daughters, they have no autonomy whatsoever. They must refrain from ‘funny business’ with the daughters, they cannot touch them and are not even allowed to have a conversation with them. Yet, paradoxically (and unlike the daughter class), they must also perform certain actions prescribed to them by Max, namely to teach the daughter class how to dance. I cannot stress enough the absurdity of this situation: how exactly does one go about teaching someone to dance without either touching this person or talking to him/her?

So with his instructions, Max has created an absurd situation wherein, on the one hand, the waiter class is unsure of its boundaries, and on the other, the entertainment class can have no coherent idea of how to behave in the first place. Lastly, there is the class of daughters that merely has the very dubious capacity to pay for stuff. Here, I want to point out that we are talking about a very specific form of absurdity: what we see happening here is a process of alienation by which each of the classes are subjected to a foreign regime of bodily comportment. The waiters are subjected to Max’s idea of romance, the entertainment staff to a very paradoxical code of ‘dancing but no touching’, ‘instructing but no conversing’ and lastly the daughters must undergo each and every whim of the waiter class. Now, if the film has established first this alienated situation, the second task is to show that this is a bad state of affairs. Accordingly, there must come a crisis in which the utopia that Max has envisioned for his resort shows itself to be no utopia at all.

Hula dancing & the ideology of objectivism

Towards the middle of the film we learn that Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, is secretly pregnant by Robbie Gould, one of the Ivy League waiters hired by Max. Incidentally, Robbie is all the while also dating Baby’s older sister Lisa and, as we will learn later, prostituting himself with a third woman, Vivian Pressman. What these events tell us, is that Robbie is taking full advantage of the regime prescribed to him. Robbie has no problem with the way that he is expected to act, even if it means taking advantage of others. No wonder, right? Robbie seems to be one of the winners: as long as he doesn’t spill the drinks, he can do as he likes! We must note, however, that he remains alienated: because he follows his orders to the letter, the creeping possibility remains that he is not actually doing what he himself wants, that rather, he is a slave through and through. Therefore, what Robbie needs is a narrative to assure him that the choices he makes are really his own. That what he is doing, moreover, is beneficial to him and everybody else. Such a narrative we call an ideology, its function: to straighten out with words what is wrong in fact. The particular ideology suited for Robbie’s purpose is made clear in a key scene of the film: after hearing of the pregnancy, Baby confronts Robbie and urges him to take responsibility for getting Penny knocked up. While helping out, filling glasses with water, she tries to explain the wrongness of his actions. Robbie, however, remains nonplussed. He tells Baby to be more careful pouring the water (the one rule, we remember, Max has given Robbie) and then hands her a copy of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. This is not the place to delve into a discussion of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, suffice it to say that her ethical viewpoints can be summed up as promoting egoism (or ‘rational self-interest’) as a cardinal virtue. The question is: how does the film show the limits of this ideology?

In a scene that could pass for a David Lynch fever dream, Lisa is practising a surreal hula dance routine and (falsely) singing an absurd song. The camera pans over to reveal Baby working on some decorations and Johnny writing something down on a clipboard. Although they are in love, Baby’s father Jake has forbidden her to seek out Johnny and Baby’s apparent refusal to stand up for Johnny has created some tension, reflected in the latter’s somewhat ill-tempered behaviour. With Lisa’s ridiculous singing continuing in the background, the camera cuts to a couple of old people playing cards in the corner of the room. Vivian Pressman enters the shot and is acknowledged by one of the oldies, a bald guy smoking a very fat and very Freudian cigar. Vivian addresses the man as Moe, her husband, whom she encourages to “win big, as always.” After giving Moe a kiss on his head, she notices Johnny and walks over to him. Baby eyes her suspiciously when she comes up to Johnny carrying a cigarette. After Johnny lights the cigarette, she says to him: “This is our last night together, lover… I’ve got something worked out for us.” After that, she rejoins her husband at the cards table and the camera cuts back to Lisa who is now well into the bridge of the ridiculous hula song, making combing motions while she sings:

Lisa: All the boys of Okakokanoka island
gather all the gifts that Hula Hana asks,
They have combed their island home, fulfilling each one
And its worth it when they watch her shake her grass, three, four, five…

The camera cuts back to the cards table, where Johnny has walked up to Moe and Vivian. Johnny hands Moe a pirate hat and Moe, in turn, thanks Johnny and gives him some cash. He explains: “You know I play cards all weekend and I’ve got an all-night game tonight. Why don’t you give my wife some extra dance lessons?”

This scene is positively rife with psycho-analytic symbolism: first, we can see that Moe is in a stage of pre-Oedipal sexuality, as he is unable to sexually satisfy Vivian. This is made clear through his cigar, a clear if a bit worn-out symbol that he is obsessed with the size of his own penis rather than Vivian’s desires. Second, when Johnny hands Moe his pirate hat, the latter’s status as an adolescent is confirmed: Moe just wants to play games. Next, Baby’s status as a member of the daughter class is made painfully clear as she is forced to either watch Vivian seduce her lover or disobey her father and so disavow her status as a daughter. Meanwhile, Johnny is apparently offered the sexual companionship of a hot-blooded sexually mature woman, but the truth of the matter is made clear by Lisa’s silly hula song: he is being tempted and tricked into selling off what limited bodily control he still had. The paradox for him is now complete: Johnny knows all too well that he is not supposed to have intimate contact with the guests, he is only supposed to give them whatever they pay for. But what if the thing that they’re paying for is exactly the thing that he is not allowed to sell?

We know, of course, that Johnny is head over heels in love with Baby, so it’s no surprise that he declines the money. We must note, however, that this is a clear break with the regime prescribed to him: by choosing to remain faithful to Baby, he disobeys his orders to give whatever he is paid for. Moreover, this break is necessary in order to resolve the contradiction inherent in Max’s regime. But what about the objectivist Robbie Gould? As I already hinted at, he sees no inherent wrong in prostituting himself and therefore ends up having sex with Vivian. Robbie’s regime does not create the kind of perfect contradiction evinced so clearly in Johnny’s case. However, note that the regime prescribes for Robbie a completely absurd situation in which he is compelled to believe that he is making his own decisions but, in reality, is being taken advantage of by Vivian: a contradiction if ever I saw one. This is a situation, moreover, that is allowed to persist merely because through ideological means, that is to say his (objectivist) belief that he can do as he please without having to worry about the consequences. Because Robbie does not question himself as regards any one of his immediate desires, the question whether or not he should in fact act in accordance with them does not enter into focus and, consequently, Robbie remains obedient to Max’s regime.

Carrying watermelons & bodily emancipation

At this point, you might be perplexed at my ability to shoehorn psycho-analysis into a discussion of Dirty Dancing. You might have gotten the impression that I am reading too much into this film. Wasn’t this supposed to be a no-nonsense feelgood chickflick? Since when is it about alienation and ideology? Personally, I have no qualms about interpreting Dirty Dancing as an instance of ‘high art’, but others might. Ebert, for example, might say that the films socio-political themes remain mere windowdressing: “This movie could have been about the subjects it pussyfoots around so coyly. […] But the movie plays like one long, sad, compromise; it places packaging ahead of ambition.” As a response, and by way of conclusion, I would like to discuss the film’s ending.

By ‘ending’, I do not mean the famous scene in which Johnny stands up to Baby’s father, telling him that “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” By ‘ending’, I understand the point in the film at which its tensions are resolved. If we go by this definition, the actual end of the film is not really an ending at all: by sticking up for Baby, Johnny actually reasserts Baby’s presumed inability to take charge for herself and therewith Max’s regime. But what about the famous ‘lift’ moment? Surely this feat of dancing prowess shows us the successful breakthrough of that same regime and Baby’s transition from a girl, a daughter, to full-blown womanhood? Fair enough, but let’s be clear: this transition was a sure thing to happen ever since the film’s real ending. This ending, I maintain, is not te be located at the actual end of the film, but rather and in true art-house fashion at the very beginning of the film.

Let me reiterate the first few scenes of the film. The first scene sees Baby traveling down to Kellerman’s Resort along with her family, her voice over explains how adolescent she still was and how her love for her father was all that mattered to her. After arriving and settling in, we see Baby awkwardly positioned in the middle of a crowd of dancing people, with Penny fruitlessly shouting instructions at them. For the most part, Baby is shoved around a lot, early on establishing the passive position she is supposed to occupy. When Penny instructs the crowd to partner up, Baby hovers to her father, again signalling her dependency on him. Penny, however, interjects at the last minute and instead partners with Baby’s father. The third scene shows us Baby eavesdropping on Max’s explication of his three regimes, the first time we Baby doing something of her own accord (still, however, secrety and merely as an on-looker). After dinner, Baby is subjected to more awkward dancing as well as being made to play the role of ‘woman sawn in half’ in the cheesiest magic routine you could imagine. After this ordeal, she finally gets the chance to sneak away and decides to have a look around the staff quarters. She meets one of the entertainment staffers, Billy, whom she offers to help out with carrying three very large watermelons upstairs to a party. Billy initially declines: he is not supposed to converse with Baby and therefore tells her to “go back to the playhouse.” However, he quickly realizes that he would like some help from Baby and so he comes around and gives her the chance to carry a watermelon upstairs. They make their way upstairs where Billy kicks open the door to reveal another dance floor. This time, however, the floor is filled with mostly young people dancing rhythmically to rock ‘n’ roll music. The contrast is clear: here Baby sees what real dancing is about. She sees, moreover, Johnny and Penny arriving at the party and immediately starting to dance. Billy reveals that, contrary to appearances, Johnny and Penny are not a couple. After a first dance, Johnny notices Baby’s (illicit) presence at the party and walks over to her. Trying to justify her being there, all Baby can think of uttering is “I carried a watermelon.” This is hardly a special feat, of course, but Johnny lets the matter slide and walks off. After some more dancing, Johnny again notices Baby, who is now a bit upset. Johnny gestures Baby to come join him and hesitatingly she does so. What follows is an impromptu dance lesson that can only be imperfectly translated into words: there is no alternative for watching Baby start out stiff and awkwardly moving and then almost imperceptibly regaining control of her body as she starts making smooth rounded motions to the beat of the music until, finally, the songs ends and Johnny walks away. He leaves Baby head over heels in love, sure, but also as a transformed person, stumbling over her own legs as if, for the first time, she is now in control of her body.

Everything is contained within these first 20 minutes of the film: first, we see Baby’s status as an adolescent, subjected to a foreign regime and surrounded by others alienated from their own physical movements even. Secondly, we see the rupture that is effected between her and her principal authority, her father. Lastly, we see Baby fighting to retake control over her own body, at first merely by snooping around, then afterwards by trying to prove to others that she can perform manual labour (carrying watermelons), until finally she realizes her freedom through dancing: a curious kind of adulthood in which she is just as much dependent on Johnny as she is in control over her own steps. However, as the film aptly shows us, dancing actually consists precisely in this dual process of letting go and controlling your own movements: Baby’s freedom is dialectical. Surely, one cannot pass this off as mere window-dressing: Baby’s transition into womanhood is an essential part of the film. To be in control of one’s body in such a way that it does not matter what you do, because every step is right, an expression of a `dirty’ desire, this is what the film tells us is a true, non-ideological relation to the world. And if one then, still, objects to all the dancing and how professional it looks… Well, that just seems overtly pessimistic as regards our own alienated situation.


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