Counterpoint: Dirty Dancing is Not Trash

Every once in a while, someone has an opinion I disagree with. Usually it’s a white person at the National Post so I chortle, savage highly selective quotes on Twitter and then move on with my time.

But this time, the wrong person is a fellow sistren of colour whose work and intellect I highly respect. Sadiya Ansari, a writer for Chatelaine magazine, recently published, “The Problem With Johnny, And 9 Other Reasons Dirty Dancing Is Actually Trash”. I feel like the call is coming from inside the house.

This is a nightmare.

To begin with, no valid criticism of Dirty Dancing begins by referencing the hideous creation that was Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. (I firmly believe that film prolonged the US embargo on Cuba. Don’t @ me. Just watch it.)

But our intrepid reporter has qualms with this early 60s tale of love between a college-bound Frances “Baby” Houseman and working class dancer Johnny Castle.

Let’s get into them.

  1. Baby’s nickname is, yes, “Baby.” : Those of us who’ve watched the DVD commentary would know that the writer wanted to convey how young her family wanted her to feel. It’s a role she embraces partly (“I never thought I’d find a man as great as my dad”) but also she’s maturing with the times; Baby may be young be she’s ready to talk about the politics of South East Asia.
  2. “Johnny only has three speeds. Indignant, mean and sexy dancer.” : Well, he’s on the lower class run in a high-end family resort in the 1960s and he’s a man at the time, so yup, that all seems right. But he’s actually got depth: he’s not just indignant that Baby wields her wealth carelessly but also that she’s unwilling to claim him publicly. Johnny. Is. Sensitive. Look at him:
  3. Baby is annoying: Point me to a white girl trying to learn how to dance who isn’t.
  4. That first dance between Johnny and Baby: It’s a travesty, yes, but there’s a lot. Baby has no swagger but “I carried a watermelon” is ICONIC and whomst hasn’t tried a move that sounds like “I carried a watermelon”? Let he who is without sin, etc. Johnny and Penny kick their way in to the dancefloor with some hot person dancing which helllloo, finally, thank you, I came for some dirty dancing and so far it’s been upper middle class whites talking. Then Johnny tries to teach her how to dance and, my god, Baby has never met her hips before. It is a hoot. A HOOT. This scene is perfect and I’d be happy to re-enact it with anyone at any time.
  5. The abortion plot line is thin: but that is because, as previously mentioned, this is a film about dancing. Similarly, they also tango away from the race question. Neil, the ur-assistant-to-the-assistant-manager, tries to tell Baby about how he’s going on a Freedom Ride with some of the guys after camp is done. That’s a Big Fucking Deal and not a completely weenie thing to do, which Neil doesn’t get enough credit for. I popped some popping corn so I can see Patrick Swayze’s muscles lift a girl in the water, not to contemplate the long tortuous history of abortion. (I’d also watch the latter.)
  6. How is there “no real reason” for Baby and Johnny to fall in love?: They’re both clearly looking for experiences outside their wheelhouse. Johnny likes his brushes with the rich, and for more than the money; he like the validation too. He also doesn’t want the life set out for him in the housepainters and plasterers union. Baby wants to see more of the world than the restricting path that being sustainably white and wealthy will provide her. Neither are what the other expects.
  7. You right tho: More Kelly Bishop. At all times.
  8. The non-white people of colour never talk, except for the bandleader: Which is mega interesting. It’s a movie about the early 1960s and the black people don’t speak but are present. Yet Baby and Johnny are caught up in the risks and struggles of their own class drama. It reminds me of the scene in Mad Men when, after the death of Marilyn Monroe, Joan remarks that Monroe had everything and the Black elevator man says, “Some people hide in plain sight.” The political force of the 60s is background to our main characters, as it was — and has been — to most white people. This is a film about the machinery of whiteness as it is about the changing of the times.
  9. The dramatic goodbye scene: is excellent cause it features Patrick Swayze’s tearjerker track “She’s Like The Wind.” That is all.
  10. Johnny does say “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”: I’m never satisfied with Baby’s emotional progress, but this is a girl who was hugging her dad at the beginning of this family trip. She just made her dad—the excellent and stoic Jerry Orbach — cry by challenging how deeply he holds his progressive beliefs. And she’s heartbroken. At this point in the movie, she needs a lot. And she needs Johnny to step up for her, just as she needs to hear Lisa, her sister, tell her in the previous scene that “You’re prettier your way.” As strong as she is, she needs people to empower her to be who she already is. She’s 18. She’s a Baby.

Sure, the movie could have had more Penny and more Neil and more Kelly Bishop and fuck, even more Robbie the Creep who is probably working in the Trump administration right at this moment. But what it does have is decidedly Not Trash. It’s an exploration of class, sexual mores of the 1960s, intergenerational change and what first loves can do for you.

Nobody puts Dirty Dancing in the trash.

Also, the soundtrack has bangers for ages.

When I was 11, I lost a pair of black and white Adidas runners somewhere between Minneapolis and Chicago. My life's goal is to get them back. Those exact ones.

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