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Sunday, July 16, 2017

The "Masculinity Crisis" and Johnny Castle

In a recent article, I provided excerpts from a scholarly article written by Gary Needham and titled "Heteros and Hustlers: Straightness and Dirtiness in Dirty Dancing". There, Needham mentioned a so-called "crisis in American manhood".
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. ...
Needham suggests that Johnny's original ambivalence about Baby perhaps raised questions about his masculinity.

In this article I will go beyond Needham's article to offer my own thoughts.


Johnny works as a professional dancer. This is a professional where the males are -- and are perceived to be -- disproportionately homosexual. The actor Patrick Swayze himself has said so several times in his autobiography The Time of My Life. (I will not bother to cite quotations right now.)

Dance Magazine has published an article, written by Joseph Carman and titled Gay Men and Dance, which includes the following passages:
The stereotype of male dancers automatically being gay — not to mention the myth that dancing makes you queer — is a concept that Americans, in particular, love to embrace, as if to protect their own macho image. And yet, gay men do seem to be drawn to dance (and to other creative and equally stereotyped occupations like interior design, hairdressing, couture, and musical theater) for various reasons. ....

A 1997 study published by J. Michael Bailey and Michael Oberschneider in Archives of Sexual Behavior, titled “Sexual Orientation and Professional Dance,” detailed a survey of 136 professional dancers, including homosexual and heterosexual men and women, about the prevalence of gay men in their profession. Their anecdotal responses indicated that they thought that 57.8 percent of the men in dance companies were gay, while they considered 53 percent of the men in their own companies to be gay. Even if those numbers are off by 10 points, those are still high ratios.

Gay men enter the dance field at ages ranging from 5 years old to their college years, but there are often common denominators in their motivations. Choreographer James Cunningham, who co-curates “From the Horse’s Mouth” (a performed compilation of notable dancers’ stories), worked with a dance and theater troupe from the age of 7. “I was not interested in cars, sports, or dating girls. I was interested in theater, dance, and music, where I could explore my emotional, sensual, sensitive side,” says Cunningham. “I played everything — men, women, animals, spirits. What I was learning was that when you’re a free spirit you can be everything.” Cunningham talks about the yin-yang balance that gay men possess (in sexual terms, that equates to both active and passive libido). “When they call gay people ‘fruits’ or ‘pansies,’ that means they have a soft side. Well, I embrace that,” he says. “To be a dancer, you have to give in to the rhythm.” ....

Overwhelmingly, among the gay men interviewed for this article, the welcoming atmosphere of dance classes or companies made them want to stay once they got their foot in the door. Gay men are usually invited into the dance world without question, easily gain friends and peers, and are seldom judged for their sexual preference, as they might be elsewhere. ...
I will not belabor the point here. Suffice it to say that some people watching the movie Dirty Dancing for the first time perhaps wondered initially whether Johnny Castle might be homosexual. Soon Baby (and the movie audience) learns from Johnny's cousin Billy Kostecki that the relationship between Johnny and Penny Johnson is still only platonic, after knowing each other for many years:
Billy Kostecki
That's my cousin, Johnny Castle. He got me the job here.

Baby Houseman
They look great together.

Billy Kostecki
Yeah. You'd think they were a couple, wouldn't you?

Baby Houseman
Aren't they?

Billy Kostecki
No, not since we were kids.
When Johnny notices that Baby, a hotel guest, is at the bunkhouse "dirty dancing" party, he tells her to leave but then dances with her playfully. I think this is the moment of Johnny's apparent ambivalence that Needham mentioned.

For those audience members who wondered whether Johnny might be homosexual, their uncertainty continues until he pulls Baby's blouse off in his cabin and then engages her in some sexual activity.


Johnny seems to lack self-confidence in regard to men of authority. He does not defend himself to Jake Houseman, Max Kellerman or Neil Kellerman. He expresses social aggression and physically fights only against Robbie Gould, who works as a mere waiter.

Johnny seems to spend disproportionate time with older women. He teaches dance to older women, which is his job, but he also engages in sexual activities with older women -- the so-called "bungalow bunnies".

Johnny's involvement with the younger Baby is a consequence not of his intentions but rather of accidental circumstances.

Baby lectures Johnny to develop and express self-confidence. At the movie's end, when Johnny steps up onto the talent show's stage, he publicly declares that Baby has demonstrated and taught him about self-confidence.


The so-called "Masculinity Crisis" in the late 1950s was related to several factors. The USA was not engaged in an active war. US society was becoming more aware of homosexual men. The age of marriage for men was gradually being postponed. Compared to previous generations, young men in the late 1950s and early 1960s were considered to be immature and to lack self-confidence, especially in regard to women.

The "crisis" is discussed in an essay written by Keith Moore and titled American Cold War Politics: Homosexuality and the Crisis of Masculinity, which includes the following passage:
According to scholars, masculinity became a key component of both foreign and domestic policy beginning in the 1950s because of the sociologists and historians that “began to define notions of sexual character and to isolate masculinity as a subject for contemporary study.”

Thus, scholars examined thoroughly why masculinity became such a focus for politicians and politics alike during the early Cold War. Scholars ...  have concluded masculinity became imperative because of the upset in hetero-normative gender roles for men. Smith says, “The apparent nexus between the communist menace, disease, and illicit sexuality was strengthened by the concerted drive after the Second World War to re-establish conventional definitions of masculinity and femininity especially the dominance of heterosexuality and what was to become known as the‘nuclear family.’” The gender ideals present in society were the foundational support of the war against communism. ...

Following WWII, many women refused to leave the workforce and their newly found freedom to return to their previous roles of domesticity. Combined with a new era of mass consumption, which inherently implied feminization ... , scholars contend it was the fear of destabilizing the country through newly created gender ideals. As Gilbert states, mass culture had created passive consumers and stereotyped women as easily manipulated thusly “the effects of conformity, suburban life, and mass culture were depicted as feminizing and debasing, and the proposed solution often lay in the renewal of traditional masculine vigor and individualism.”

The Artifice website has published an article written by a female essayist (she identifies herself as bzukovich657) and titled Masculinity, Gender Roles, and T.V. Shows from the 1950s. The article includes the following passages:
During the 1950’s, it was of the utmost importance to socialize boys strictly as boys. Through these television shows, boys were shown how “real men” were supposed to act. These shows display clear differences between men and women, with women as subordinate. For boys in the 1950s, “being a man” and never doing anything that anyone could consider feminine was a lesson taught to them by their fathers and by the popular culture of the time. ...

Boys during the 1950s were surrounded by this rigidity of manhood. This hyper-masculine mold that they were supposed to fit into consequently meant devaluing the role of women. It is possible that such television expectations contributed to the development of violent tendencies, because these boys growing up watching the men of the 1950s were not raised to value women, but rather to devalue them to make themselves seem more masculine. The repetitive exposure to these television shows, alongside with the patriarchal society that was solidified even more during the post-WWII years, created a highly constructed identity for men in America.

The television shows of the 1950s may have encouraged such violent outcomes. There was a lot of pressure on the boys to grow up as men, being ridiculed for any behavior that was not masculine and knowing that they would one day be the primary breadwinner for their family. There was also a clear gender difference growing up as boys in the 1950s, and since they were raised in a way to devalue “women’s work” they did not see girls and women as important parts of society. The television shows of the 1950s may not have shown violence to boys but it shows that subordination of women and hyper-masculinity are normal, which is the exact mindset that can lead to violent tendencies.
Johnny Castle was teaching dance, and it seemed that he never would earn enough money in that job to become a family's breadwinner. Although he was not effeminate, he was falling far short of our society's masculine ideal.


A book written by Brian Baker and titled Masculinity in Fiction and Film, points out the 1960 movie Psycho. The movie's villain is a young man, Normal Bates, who cannot detach himself from his mother even though she died many years ago. Bates dresses in his mother's clothes and murders women for tempting him into adult heterosexual relationships.

Normal Bates exemplifying the Masculinity Crisis
in the 1960 movie "Psycho"

The public concern about masculinity continued through the Presidency of John Kennedy in the 1960s. The words that Kennedy used was "vigor" and "vitality" -- the opposite of which was "softness". Some examples follow:

This knowledge, the knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself.
But the harsh fact of the matter is that there is also an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies — whose physical fitness is not what it should be — who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation. For the physical vigor of our citizens is one of America's most precious resources. If we waste and neglect this resource, if we allow it to dwindle and grow soft then we will destroy much of our ability to meet the great and vital challenges which confront our people.
But physical fitness is as vital to the activities of peace as to those of war, especially when our success in those activities may well determine the future of freedom in the years to come. We face in the Soviet Union a powerful and implacable adversary determined to show the world that only the Communist system possesses the vigor and determination necessary to satisfy awakening aspirations for progress and the elimination of poverty and want. .... Only if our citizens are physically fit will they be fully capable of such an effort.
It is ironic that at a time when the magnitude of our dangers makes the physical fitness of our citizens a matter of increasing importance, it takes greater effort and determination than ever before to build the strength of our bodies. The age of leisure and abundance can destroy vigor and muscle tone as effortlessly as it can gain time.

Fortunately in relation to Masculinity Crisis, the movie Dirty Dancing ends with Johnny Castle demonstrating his masculine strength and vigor by lifting his female partner -- who is wearing a pink chiffon dress and ultra-feminine, pink, high-heel shoes -- high into the air.

Strong, vigorous Johnny Castle lifting
soft, feminine and pink Baby Houseman
Perhaps this strong and vigorous moment marked the end of the Masculinity Crisis, in 1963.


In 1995, however, a new Masculinity Crisis developed.

Patrick Swayze in the 1995 movie
"To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar"

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