“Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” It’s arguably the most iconic line from 1987’s Dirty Dancing starring Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. It’s the one-liner that just about everybody and their mother remembers, and it’s the scene that received the most applause when I recently attended a special 30th anniversary screening. But upon re-watching it this month, it occurred to me that the line means so much more than it ever meant to me when I admired Swayze in it at nearly every sleepover I had with my adolescent friends in the early-to-mid ‘90s.
On the surface, Dirty Dancing is a great film about “girl meeting boy” and falling in love, both with dance and each other at a picturesque resort set in the Catskills. But at its heart, it’s a poignant coming of age tale set during a time of great political and social upheaval in the United States – the summer of 1963 – and it has many feministic overtones that seem more appropriate now than perhaps ever before, as I take in all the recent women’s marches held across the United States and the world over.
Frances “Baby” Houseman (Grey) sets the feministic overtones within her first voice over at the very beginning of the film: “That was the summer of 1963 – when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind. That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came, when I couldn’t wait to join the Peace Corps and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad. That was the summer we went to Kellerman’s.”
While on vacation at Kellerman’s Resort that summer, Baby grows up and takes notice of just how divided society around her really is when it comes to men and women and different socioeconomic groups. “Some people count and some people don’t,” if you’re to believe Robbie the waiter (Max Cantor), who it turns out is an ardent admirer of “The Fountainhead,” as well as a deplorable womanizer.
Although they never really say it outright (and the first time I watched it as a pre-teen, I certainly didn’t fully understand the implications), Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) gets knocked up by Robbie the creep, who refuses to own up to the fact because Penny apparently doesn’t count. (“He went slummin’.”) Penny then sustains serious life-threatening injuries during an illegal abortion performed by a doctor with “a dirty knife and a folding table” who took Baby’s lent money and ran. All I remember about Penny’s story as a pre-teen was her palpable fear. Seeing her huddled in the dark kitchen with tears and mascara streaming down her beautiful face, and then later after her procedure once more visibly shaken and deathly pale, was very emotionally jarring to a kid to say the least.
In 1963, abortions were still illegal in the United States. It was a full decade before the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. It’s heartbreaking to think that women’s reproductive rights could once more be in jeopardy by the current U.S. political administration. How many more women will needlessly become seriously injured or killed during illegal “back-alley” abortions if Roe v. Wade ever gets fully overturned? Whether or not you believe abortion is morally reprehensible, surely you must admit that women having access to safe, legal medical procedures and educational materials is of the utmost importance.
Dirty Dancing teaches the all-too-important lesson about not being afraid to stand up for one another in the face of adversity. Baby faces the scrutiny of her judgmental father (Law & Order’s Jerry Orbach), mother (Gilmore Girls’ Kelly Bishop) and ditzy older sister Lisa (Jane Brucker) after her father lends her the money for Penny’s abortion, and is then required to step in and give her life-saving medical attention after it’s botched. Baby stands up not only for Penny, but also for Johnny (Swayze) when her father mistakenly assumes it was he who knocked up his partner, given his considerably lower economic status in society, and again when Johnny is erroneously accused of theft by the resort’s management.
The reason the line “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” reverberates so well after all these years is because it’s synonymous with women challenging the status quo and society recognizing their right – and perhaps moral obligation – to do so. But Dirty Dancing is not only about awakening feelings of feminism in previously content to be silent young women, it’s also about overcoming societal prejudices. It’s this very reason why I think the film is perhaps more relevant in today’s societal landscape than it was when it was originally released.
Whether it’s been a year or 20 since the last time you watched it, I urge you to consider revisiting Dirty Dancing when it makes its way to DVD and Blu-ray for its 30th anniversary (and not just because it has one of the best motion picture soundtracks ever produced, in my humble opinion). I believe we need a new generation of Baby Housemans, “people that are willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them.” People who will teach us about the kind of person we’d all like to be. And yes, I’m still “crazy for Swayze” after all these years. Old crushes die hard.