span.fullpost {display:inline;}

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Straightness and Dirtiness in "Dirty Dancing"

Gary Needham, who teaches in the Film Studies department at the University of Liverpool, has written an article titled Heteros and Hustlers: Straightness and Dirtiness in Dirty Dancing, which was published in the scholarly book The Time of Our Lives: Dirty Dancing and Popular Culture. His article includes the following passages:

-----

... The memory of seeing the film on video as a teenager in the 1980s was not having the time of my life. Perhaps this film, in which dancing "produces" heterosexuality, taps into the childhood anxiety of being forced by teachers to ask girls to be your partner at the school Christmas dance -- a feat of compulsory heterosexuality. Always last to be picked were me -- the sissy - and the fat girl, which might explain my long-standing preference for Hairspray over Dirty Dancing.

The title of the song "(I've Had) the Time of My Life" can also be perceived as a self-reflexive gesture in terms of how one ought to feel for having seen the movie; however, never have I felt so unmoved, while others around me were clearly being taken to a special place. ....

As someone situated so clearly on the "outside" of the text, I have the opportunity to develop a critical vantage point that can help me observe how heterosexuality is constructed: as effortless, naturalized and transcendent. ....

Dirty Dancing uses dance effectively to tell us not only what heterosexuality and romantic love might look like, but what it might feel like. The concept of being "dirty" becomes a means to express a raunchier form of heterosexual courtship dancing, with moves that evoke a freedom to put the "sex" into heterosexuality. Dirty Dancing makes heterosexuality exciting and literally uplifting ....

Johnny [Castle], the film's male lead, is presented on a few occasions as ore or less a hustler, a man for sale. Johnny may not be the fully blown (pun intended) male prostitute of American hustler cinema, but the textual evidence is there. ....

Dirty Dancing presents the trajectory of Johnny and Baby's relationship through dance: The better they work/dance together, the more they become emotionally involved. .... The dirtier the dancing gets, the more we are convinced that Baby and Johnny are made for each other. ...

On the other hand, their dancing also achieves Johnny's "taming" and his introduction to the sphere of respectability. Johnny and Baby do not really need to speak about how they feel ... As a form of non-verbal communication, dance uses the body to produce and express cultural ideas about gender and sexuality. ...

After the final dance, there is an outrageously patriarchal moment when Baby's father actually "passes" Baby into the care of Johnny as if she were property owned and relinquished between men. Any potential threat of sexual immorality or gendered impropriety suggested by the dancing is resolved firmly by this closing scene. ...

In the history of European dancing, the origin of couples-based dancing like the waltz was rooted in the "creation of a good moral citizen" who would behave in a way that was appropriate to his or her gender and class. Learning the rules of the dance was equated to learning the rules of social conduct: Men lead and women follow, the body remains poised and in control, women are to be picked and judged, and so on. ...

While Dirty Dancing is a modern film about modern dance, the movement bears the traces of a much older tradition based on women's physical dependency as a prelude to other types of dependency that might follow or be expected of her identity (for instance, financial support). That is why the final dance is tagged by the scene in which Baby's father literally passes her over into Johnny's safekeeping. ...

Dirty Dancing suggests that Johnny has been used or allowed himself to be used for the purpose of someone else's sexual gratification.  Even the name "Johnny" refers to the hustling trade, for a "john" is the hustler's client, as well as a common alias for hustlers themselves, who often adopted all-American, generic names. ...

Moe Pressman is going to be busy playing cards all evening, and he hands Johnny a wad of cash to made sure that his wife gets some "extra dancing lessons", as he calls it ... This scene is important because Johnny rejects Pressman's offer ... because he is not "going steady" with Baby. She has made a better man of him by rescuing him from vice ...

Vivian is an interesting character. ... She is caught in bed with Robbie by Lisa ... she is straddling a man half her age, which demonstrates clearly her ability to "lead" in an environment where all women are learning how to "be led" in dancing as well as in life generally. ...

Baby asks him how many women he has used before her. Johnny replies that he is the one who was used and not the other way around. Such a reversal speaks of Johnny's passivity, evoking clearly the idea that he is up grabs as the semi-tragic hustler, as the one who has been sexually mistreated. Despite his bravado and cocksure attitude, Johnny has no qualms about confessing that he has been used by other women, which within the romantic plotting helps make him seem vulnerable, adorable and ready to be rescued by the respectable, middle-class Jewish girl. ....

Johnny's clothes and overall style gesture toward the iconography of the "bad boy" and the male hustler that was a fairly dominant image in American postwar gay subculture. Time magazine in 1964 ... [reported that a] gay bar run for and by homosexuals is crowded with patrons who wear leather jackets, make a show of masculinity and scorn effeminate members" ... In contradistinction to the commonsense assumption in the 1960s that all gay men were effeminate, fluffy-jumper-wearing sissies, gay men could look like the dangerous hood on the street corner. ...

Johnny Castle looking like a tough homosexual hustler
(Photo from the article; caption written by me.)
From the very first moment in which we are introduced to Johnny, with his black leather jacket slung over the shoulder, tight t-shirt with rolled-up sleeves, and black jeans, [he demonstrates] the stock-in-trade look of the hustler so endlessly documented in gay literature and film. ...

The hustler was a central figure that served as a major trope for a crisis in "American manhood". ... Johnny is often taciturn, nonchalant, and introspective, with his feelings for Baby originally ambivalent .... Baby's eventual conquest of "the Castle" of Johnny's feelings is also an attempt to resolve his disaffected manhood. ... She saved him from what the widespread crisis in postwar masculinity typified by disaffected male stars like James Dean and Montgomery Clift. ...

Style and clothing are important to queer reception, especially when films do not speak about homosexuality directly. A black leather jacket can sometimes say more than words, and historically the item functioned as a signifier of gayness or hustler availability. ...

What I hope I offered here were two perspectives .... on the one hand, dancing and the normalization of heterosexuality and, on the other hand, hidden narratives of male prostitution and codes of homosexual style and subculture ...

No comments:

Post a Comment