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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

"Dirty Dancing", Feminist Masterpiece

Essayist Melissa McEwan wrote in an article titled Dirty Dancing, feminist masterpiece that the movie, which she watched for the first time when she was 13 years old, inspired her adolescent rebellion against her parents and against her family's religion.
.... Dirty Dancing surreptitiously delivered a subversive counter-narrative to many of the things I was hearing as an adolescent girl poised on the precipice of years the adults around me fervently (and vocally) hoped would not be marked by significant rebellion or any of the foolishness associated with raging hormones. It provided me with important cultural references about America pre-Roe v Wade, about consensual sex and about rape.

When, the following year in confirmation class, the ordained instructor lectured us on the evils of legal abortion, I pictured Penny, bleeding and septic and certain to die without Dr Houseman's aid, and I knew the good reverend was full of it. 
When, the following year in my boyfriend's bedroom, we took the first hesitant, tiny, meaningful, fumbling steps toward the kind of sexual relationship we'd never actually have with each other, I knew when he slid his hand under my clothes, communicating with me about what we were doing, making sure I was OK, I was in agreement, that he was not like Robbie Gould, that bastard who raped (or attempted to rape) Lisa, but like Johnny Castle, who touched Baby with respect and love.
McEwan replaced her family's religion with "a firm commitment to principle" and a "fierce sense of right and wrong".
For a top student who didn't want to disappoint her parents, but was already seriously (but quietly) questioning the dogma of church and kyriarchy, finding alternative views hidden out in the open in ostensibly frivolous fare was magical. My escapist entertainment was the exhilaration of being able to put my well-worn VHS tape of Dirty Dancing into the VCR and find myself instantly transported to the Catskills, where life was just complicated but solvable enough, given a firm commitment to principle, that I might learn to be brave.

Like Baby, my hero. The plucky star of my feminist awakening. Baby, who believed she could change the world, who wanted to send her leftovers to starving children, who seemed at first glance like the perfect match for aspiring model of comfortable complacency Neil Kellerman, and even might have been, if it weren't the sinewy, smouldering dance instructor who stirred within her urgent feelings of possibility and need. Baby, with her deck shoes and her warm, envious gazes at the beautiful Penny and her fierce sense of right and wrong. ....
McEwan replaced her parent's moral example with Baby Houseman's moral example.
The film gave me an intimate look at Baby's life, not totally dissimilar from my own. It is a curious aspect of growing up in certain kinds of families that hewing too closely to what one's parents say, rather than the example they set, trying to live up to their espoused ideals, rather than following in their footsteps, inexorably leads to an unexpected moment in which parent and child are both surprised to discover that they aren't very much like one another after all.

Dr Houseman told his daughter that all people were equal. When she treated them like they were, and expected him to do the same, a cavernous well of disillusionment opened up between them. ...
McEwan was inspired by Baby Houseman's courage, especially in standing up to men.
I did, however, recognise instantly that Baby had something about her I wanted. Despite her confession that she is "scared of everything", she was audacious and indefatigable, fueled less by courage, perhaps, than the naïve belief born in the cloister of privilege that everything will always be OK, if only one endeavours to make it so.

Unlike the Disney princesses I'd outgrown, and unlike the one-dimensional female protagonists of popcorn rom-coms I'd never grow into, Baby was smart, funny, reckless, tenacious, awkward, curious, righteous, strong – and instantly real to me in a way most female protagonists were not.

She was a revolution.

Baby isn't apologetic for being smart or ambitious. She stands up for herself, and she confidently sticks to her ethics and accepts the consequences of her decisions. She admires other women without competing with them and ignores perfectly adequate male suitors with no qualm of being unpartnered.

She stands up to men, Robbie and Max Kellerman and her own father, exposing their prejudices and privileged assumptions. She helps Penny get an abortion and medical care. She doesn't leave her life or change her plans for her beau when he's fired and skips town. ....
McEwan was inspired to become sexually confident.
.... Already primed at 13 to regard sex as something that happened to girls in movies, and to expect the worst to befall a girl to whom sex happens, I sat in the theatre and watched Baby Houseman choose and enthusiastically consent to sex, outside of marriage and everything, to enjoy it, to not regret it and to suffer no tragic karmic consequences as a result.

It's difficult to overstate how important a message that was to receive at a time when every slumber party I attended was incomplete without a slasher film in which the slutty girl was always the first to die, when a girl at school my age who said she hadn't kissed a boy yet was a loser but a girl who said she had was a skank, when my minister admonished me in front of my peers for expressing doubts about doctrine that I would be "pregnant or dead" by the time I was 16. (I was neither.) ....
Ironically, it was Melissa McEwan's religious mother who took her to watch this subversive movie that subsequently inspired Melissa's adolescent anti-religion rebellion. The article begins with these words:
I was 13 years old when my mom took my little sister and me to see Dirty Dancing on a hot August afternoon in 1987. Years later, my mom would admit that she was slightly horrified to realise she'd taken her two young daughters to a movie that she thought was about dancing, but was really about class, feminism, sex, rape and abortion.

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