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Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Houseman Family's Moral Concerns

The movie Dirty Dancing begins with a view inside an automobile, as the Houseman family was traveling to a three-week summer vacation at a resort-hotel in the Borscht Belt. The father was driving, and the mother was sitting idle in the passenger seat. In the back, the younger daughter Baby was sitting behind the father and reading a book about the economics of peasant society, and the older daughter Lisa was sitting behind the mother and looking in a mirror and rearranging her hair style.

Then Baby put down her book and happily threw her arms around her father’s neck, causing her father to smile happily. Then Baby spoke as a narrator from the future:

That was the summer of 1963, when everybody still 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.

The car radio played the song Big Girls Don’t Cry. The story that would follow was a family drama involving the father and his two daughters. Both daughters wanted to find a guy as great as their Dad, a medical doctor. As the daughters actually became involved intimately with young men, however, their relationships with their father were ruptured. The older daughter Lisa already had become so self-involved in her efforts to attract a young man that she and her father had difficulty with talking with each other seriously and candidly. The younger daughter Baby, however, intended to defer her romantic efforts until some still far future year, after she would graduate from college and then serve in the Peace Corps. Therefore Baby and her father still talked with each other seriously and candidly, uninhibited by any secrets involving sexual desires and activities with young men.

The story would not involve the mother significantly but would, as a minor theme, depict the exclusion, alienation and frustration of middle-age women.


The revolves around the younger daughter falling in love with a young man and therefore losing her ability to talk seriously and candidly with her father. The rupture in communications between this daughter and father began with a moral conflict involving Baby’s request to her father for $250 to pay for an illegal abortion for a young woman who was a stranger to their family. Although this moral conflict was initiated by Baby, this conflict troubled mostly Dr. Houseman – as a doctor and as a father.

The story never addresses the questions of whether abortion itself is moral and should be legal, whether the fetus is a life that should be protected. Rather, the story depicts the problems caused by the secrecy surrounding abortion. The situation compelled Doctor Houseman to maintain several secrets for professional and family reasons, and this secrecy prevented him from asking questions that might clarify the situation, prevent misunderstandings and focus his moral judgments accurately.

For Doctor Houseman, the secrecy surrounding the unexpected abortion was a precursor to the secrecy surrounding his daughters’ new sexual desires and activities. All these secret situations crippled the father’s ability to communicate effectively with his daughters and wife. For Baby, this summer eventually would turn out to be a joyous time, celebrated by the movie’s theme song The Time of Your Life. For her father, however, the summer would be a time of continuous moral conflict, criticism and confusion.


Baby asked her father for $250 (in 1963 that amount was much more significant than it is now) to pay for an illegal abortion for the dance instructor Penny Johnson. When he asked what the money was for and whether it was for something illegal, Baby responded only that she needed the money to help someone and that it was not for something illegal. He then gave her the money without asking any further questions.

Although Baby had been told that the abortion would be performed by a real doctor, she surely knew that it was illegal. As it turned out, the abortionist was not a real doctor, and he botched the abortion and caused Penny to suffer painful and dangerous complications. Therefore Baby had to ask her father to treat Penny, and so he learned the truth about how his money was used.

This situation posed several serious problems for Dr. Houseman. His money had been used to pay for an illegal abortion, which endangered the woman’s life. The woman then refused to go to a hospital because she was afraid the police would be notified. Therefore Dr. Houseman had to provide medical treatment to her secretly in her employee cabin at a resort hotel where she worked. Furthermore, Dr. Houseman was a friend of the resort hotel’s owner, who employed the woman and owned the cabin.

After Dr. Houseman finished treating Penny and left the cabin, Baby tried to apologize and explain. However, Dr. Houseman interrupted Baby’s explanation and forbade her to continue any more associations with the resort hotel’s employees. At this point, because he did refuse to hear Baby’s explanation, the moral fault in the developing situation shifts from Baby to Dr. Houseman.

In addition to preventing Baby’s explanation, Dr. Houseman decided not to tell his wife about the situation. He angrily told Baby: “I won't tell your mother about this. Right now I'm going to bed. And take that stuff [cosmetics] off your face before your mother sees you!”

Dr. Houseman returned to his hotel room, where his wife was sleeping. When his wife asked him, “Is everything all right, Jake?”, he responded, “It's all right, Marjorie. Go back to sleep.”

Later in the movie, several remarks in the dialogue indicated that Dr. Houseman gave Baby “the silent treatment” during the days following the abortion, refusing to talk with her about anything. His refusal enabled Baby to continue to conceal additional secrets – related to herself and to Lisa – that were related to the abortion. Even if Dr. Houseman had talked with Baby, she might have continued to reveal these family secrets, but now her father’s own refusal to talk gave Baby a convenient excuse to remain silent about them.


Dr. Houseman believed mistakenly that Penny Johnson had been impregnated by her fellow dance instructor Johnny Castle, but Baby knew that the culprit was Robbie Gould, a medical student who worked as a waiter in the hotel resort during the summer. Furthermore, Baby knew that this same Robbie Gould and her older sister Lisa now were becoming involved in a romantic relationship that Lisa was concealing from her parents. During one of the first evenings of the family’s stay at the resort hotel, Lisa and Robbie had gone together to the golf course in order to make out, and Lisa had asked Baby to tell their parents a false story about Lisa’s whereabouts.

Later that night Baby saw Robbie and Lisa coming out of the woods. Lisa’s hair and dress were disordered, and her slip was showing. Lisa was demanding an apology from Robbie, who was telling Lisa to “go back to Mommy and Daddy” and joking that Lisa would hear an apology from him only in her dreams. Baby saw this incident before she learned that Penny had become pregnant and that Robbie was the culprit.

The movie’s author Eleanor Bergstein explained in her running commentary about the movie that a long scene was removed from this part of the movie. In the removed scene, Penny saw Lisa and Robbie coming out of the woods, and so she herself became upset at Robbie’s behavior and so she herself ran away into the woods. Baby saw all these events and so assembled a few people to go into the woods to find Penny. During this search, Baby used some navigation and orientation techniques that she learned in the Girl Scouts, thus depicting Baby’s intelligence and resourcefulness.

This search through the dark forest was filmed with great difficulty. Since, however, the scene lasted several minutes and because the film’s editors thought the movie was too long, the editors recommendation that this entire search scene be cut from the film. Bergstein resisted this recommendation but eventually relented. The scene was eliminated, and Bergstein eventually came to feel that this cut improved the movie. In the film’s final version, Baby simply found Penny hiding and crying in the resort hotel’s kitchen. Although Bergstein agreed to cut the search through the woods, we can suppose that she felt that this cut scene had given the audience some important understandings.

The cut scene helped the audience understand that Baby initially had focused her attention primarily on Penny Johnson, not on Johnny Castle. Before this search scene, Baby had seen Penny and Johnny dance twice –once in the resort hotel’s ballroom and once in a warehouse where the employees were dirty-dancing. Baby watched both dancers with obvious fascination. The audience might assume that Baby focused her fascination primarily on Johnny, but at first she was intimidated by him and focused her fascination primarily on Penny.

On the day following the dirty-dancing scene, Baby even approached Penny to flatter her, saying she admired her and envied her talent. Penny dismissed Baby’s remarks, and Baby’s feelings were hurt. Later, that night, Baby was dismayed to see that when Penny saw Robbie and Lisa came out of the woods together, Penny became upset and ran into the woods. Baby’s admiration and concern for Penny motivated her to organize a group effort to search for Penny in the woods.

Since the search scene was removed from the movie, the audience lost much of the author’s intended understanding that Baby at that time was focusing her attention primarily on Penny. Baby wanted to flatter and help Penny already before she knew anything at all about Penny’s pregnancy. The audience lost also much of the author’s intended understanding that this early situation caused Baby to develop anger toward her sister Lisa. Although Baby still did not understand that Penny was pregnant from Robbie, Baby did understand that something about the relationship between Robbie and Lisa upset Penny terribly.

When Doctor Houseman’s own anger caused him to stop talking with Baby, he prevented her from explaining Lisa’s secret involvement in the abortion situation – that Lisa was becoming involved romantically with Robbie, who had made Penny pregnant.


Doctor Houseman’s refusal to talk with Baby prevented her also from explaining her own secret involvement with the abortion situation. Doctor Houseman concluded mistakenly that Penny had become pregnant from Johnny. By the time Doctor Houseman made this false conclusion, Baby already had spent a lot of time receiving dance instructions secretly from Johnny and even had performed a dance with him at the other resort hotel.

After Doctor Houseman finished treating Penny’s complications from the abortion, he ordered Baby to cease any further associations with any of the employees. However, on the very next day, Baby went to Johnny’s cabin to apologize for her father’s mistaken and insulting accusations against Johnny. During this visit, Baby and Johnny had sex for the first time, and so now Baby’s moral problems became even more serious. Now she had disobeyed her father’s order to cease associations with any of the employees, now she was having sex with the very employee who her father thought had caused Penny’s pregnancy, and now she herself was in danger of becoming pregnant and eventually needing an abortion.


I speculate that Doctor Houseman’s fury at Baby for using his money to pay for an illegal abortion was compounded by his own feelings and experiences related to illegal abortions. When Baby had asked him for $250 to help someone but would not explain the circumstances, the thought must have occurred to him that the money might be for an illegal abortion. He asked Baby whether the money was for something illegal, and when she said it was not, he immediately apologized, saying: “That was a stupid thing to ask. Forgive me.”

Of course, his question whether his money would be used for something illegal was not “a stupid thing to ask.” If, however, he believed that abortions should be available to women even though abortions were illegal, then perhaps he indeed felt that he should not ask such aggressive questions if the money indeed was for an abortion.

Later, when Baby ran to tell her father that there was a problem caused by an abortion, his first question was whether the victim was Lisa. After Doctor Houseman learned that the victim was Penny and after he finished treating Penny, he expressed his anger to Baby with the words: “You're not the person I thought you were. I'm not sure who you are.”

I speculate that Doctor Houseman was making these two statements to a great extent about himself too. If he himself had performed illegal abortions, then perhaps those past experiences caused him to feel that he was not the person he thought he himself was and that he himself was not sure who he himself was.

Perhaps he was thinking also that if Baby had told him from the beginning that Penny needed an abortion, then he might have provided some advice or direction that would have avoided her complications. He might have recommended a real doctor who would have perform the abortion or might have performed the abortion himself.

Penny said she refused to go to a hospital because she feared that the hospital would inform the police. Since Dr. Houseman himself did not call the police after he learned about the situation, he apparently did not believe fully that all illegal abortions should be reported to the police.

All these considerations would have caused Dr. Houseman great moral conflict that impeded him from discussing the situation with Baby fully and candidly. With regard to abortions, he had various secrets of his own to conceal from his family, including from his wife.


Doctor Houseman’s inability to talk effectively about the abortion decision involved also his attitude toward the ordinary employees of the resort hotel. He generally viewed them with benign condescension, which turned into contemptuous disgust at the particular employees he perceived to be directly involved with the illegitimate pregnancy and illegal abortion.

When Dr. Houseman came into the cabin to provide medical treatment to Penny, he asked who was responsible for Penny. Johnny Castle responded that he was responsible, meaning that he would pay for any further medical costs. Doctor Houseman misconstrued Johnny’s assumption of financial responsibility to mean instead, however, that Johnny had made Penny pregnant.

Afterwards, Dr. Houseman refused to talk with any of the ordinary employees, especially with Johnny, who tried several times to explain himself. The only non-management employee Dr. Houseman would talk with was the waiter Robbie Gould, the medical student who actually had made Penny Johnson pregnant.


During one first nights that the Houseman family spent at the resort hotel, Lisa and Robbie went together to the golf course. Apparently they engaged in some heavy petting, but Lisa stopped Robbie from going too far, and so they quarreled and walked back through the woods to the resort hotel. Baby and Penny saw Lisa and Robbie coming out of the woods still arguing about Robbie’s seduction attempt. After Baby saw how much this incident upset Penny, Baby developed a growing anger toward Lisa.

Baby’s anger was compounded when she learned that Robbie had made Penny pregnant, abandoned Penny, and refused to pay for Penny’s abortion. Baby’s anger was compounded even more as she sat in the resort hotel’s dining room every day and saw Robbie, serving the family as a waiter, ingratiate himself with her parents. Furthermore, while Doctor Houseman stopped talking with Baby, he became more and more talkative with Lisa. Baby stopped talking with Lisa and so decided not to tell Lisa about Penny’s abortion and Robbie’s role.

Then on one of the last nights of the family’s stay at the resort hotel, however, Lisa and Baby were lying in their beds in their hotel room, and Lisa happily informed Baby that she had “decided to go all the way with Robbie.” Lisa expected that her decision eventually would result in a marriage and even wondered aloud whether the resort hotel might allow her and Robbie to stay for free if they returned for their ten-year anniversary.

The sisters’ conversation in the bedroom progressed as follows:

Lisa: I’ve decided to go all the way with Robbie.

Baby: No, not with someone like him.

Lisa: Do you think if we [Lisa and Robbie] came back for a ten-year anniversary, it [another stay in the resort hotel] would be free?

Baby: It's just wrong this way. It should be with someone, with someone that you sort of love.

Lisa: Come on. You don't care about me. You wouldn't care if I humped the entire army, as long as we were on the right side of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. What you care about is that you're not Daddy's girl anymore. He listens when I talk now. You hate that.

Lisa’s last statement expresses her own fury toward Baby. Lisa perceived that Baby was interested only in politics and that Baby considered Lisa to be promiscuous. Furthermore, Lisa pointedly mocked Baby for losing her, Baby’s, status as their father’s favorite daughter.

Since Baby continued to conceal her knowledge of Robbie’s bad character, Lisa later did go to Robbie’s cabin with the intention of having sex with him. She stopped at the most moment only because she saw that he already was having sex with an older female guest.

Later in the story, however, the two sisters reconciled. This happened after Lisa saw Robbie having sex with an older woman and after Johnny Castle was fired by the resort hotel’s owner. Only after both sisters had lost their boyfriends did the reconciliation become possible. The reconciliation was depicted toward the end of the movie, in short scene where the sisters were sitting together in their bedroom and Lisa offered to restyle Baby’s hair. Baby seemed to respond reluctantly to Lisa’s offer, but then in the final scene Baby appeared with a different hair style.

(As I described in a previous article, the movie’s author Eleanor Bergstein scrambled the roles that she and her real sister played in their real family. Her real sister Francis was more serious, becoming a mathematics professor who tried to remain faithful in her relationships, as she was depicted in Bergstein’s other movie It’s My Turn. When Eleanor Bergstein herself was a young woman, one of her own major activities was competing in dirty-dancing contests. Surely Eleanor was the much more sexually promiscuous of the two real sisters.)


Late in the story, Baby attempted to reconcile also with her father. He was sitting sad and alone on a deck overlooking the lake behind the resort hotel. He had just learned that Baby has been sleeping with Johnny. Then Baby approached him on this deck, and they had their first conversation since he had treated Penny’s abortion complications. Baby too was unhappy, because she has just learned that Johnny has been fired and is preparing to leave. Therefore she herself now has lost any reasons to continue to conceal from her father any remaining secrets of her own.

Baby initiated this conversation with her father by apologizing for lying to him. Then immediately, however, she attacked her father for lying to her. He had pretended to be egalitarian, but the recent events had revealed how he looked down on the hotel’s ordinary employees, such as Johnny Castle. Baby’s concluding words in this conversation:

I'm not proud of myself, but I'm in this family too. You can't keep giving me the silent treatment. There are a lot of things about me that aren't what you thought, but if you love me, you have to love all the things about me. And I love you. I'm sorry I let you down. I'm so sorry, Daddy, but you let me down too.

Although Dr. Houseman and Baby at least resumed talking with each other again, this conversation did not end with a complete reconciliation and clarifying discussion of their conflict. He continued to believe mistakenly that Johnny Castle had made Penny Johnson pregnant. Doctor Houseman was still so angry that decided to punish Baby by making the family leave the resort hotel on the next day.

Since the family vacation was supposed to last several more days and conclude after the talent show on the final night, however, the family protested against the father’s rash decision to leave early. He relented and the family stayed. Fortunately, Dr. Houseman’s attendance at the talent show on the final evening provided an opportunity for him to clarify his essential misunderstanding of the abortion situation. When Doctor Houseman tried to give an envelope full of money to Robbie Gould as a final tip for his waiter service, Robbie Gould inadvertently revealed that he, not Johnny Caste, had made Penny Johnson pregnant. This fortuitous revelation of the key facts then enabled Doctor Houseman to recognize fully his own moral faults in this entire situation. And so he apologized to Johnny Castle for his false accusations and began to accept Johnny Castle as a social peer.

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