some reasons why Dirty Dancing is the best

Seriously, if I was doing this post in gifs, I’d have to include pretty much the whole movie. The watermelons! The bridge montage! The awkward “woooaaaaaaah” noise they both make on the log when Patrick Swayze almost loses his balance! (Okay, that last one wouldn’t make a great gif, but it’s one of the moments particular to this movie.)

Let’s start with the watermelons. When Baby wanders out of bounds, into the staff only area, she encounters Johnny’s cousin (does anyone remember his name?) carrying three huge watermelons. He calls her names, she makes to leave, he offers her a watermelon to carry as a peace offering.

Why watermelons? Who knows. But that one random detail gives one of the best shots of the movie – Johnny’s cousin shouldering open the doors to the staff dance hall, then juggling two watermelons – and one of the best lines of the movie. When Johnny finally condescends to stop grinding every woman in the place and come talk to Baby, the only line she can come up with is, “I carried a watermelon.”

The whole sequence could have happened without the watermelons, but wouldn’t have been anywhere near as good.

Baby’s relationship to her sister Lisa is a – hmm, I was going to say subtle, but I’m not sure anything in this film is subtle – wonderful small piece of feminism. Baby looks down on her older sister, who’s a superficial girly girl. Baby’s smart and serious – she’s going to enter the Peace Corps. So when Lisa first hooks up with Robbie, one of the waiters, Baby just rolls her eyes, because it has nothing to do with her. It’s just Lisa being easily distracted, as always.

Even when she sees Lisa storming out of the woods with Robbie, straightening herself up and demanding an apology, she doesn’t think it has anything to do with her. She even uses going to see if Lisa’s okay as an excuse to escape her awkward date, but never actually goes to see her.

But after baby falls in love, and starts having sex – after she comes to realise how important romantic experience can be – she sees Lisa in a new light. She also knows what a scumbag Robbie is, first hand. So for the first time she tries to talk to her about what sex means, and asks Lisa to think about it and be careful. Lisa doesn’t listen, of course, because why on earth should she?

After Lisa also realises, first hand, what a dick Robbie is, and sees Baby ostracised over Johnny, they start to see each other more clearly. Lisa can see that her sister isn’t all high-and-mighty anymore – she has walked into that murky, uncomfortable, human space where she lets other people affect her. They’ve both had their hearts broken.

For the final concert, Lisa offers to do Baby’s hair. Baby understands this gesture is how Lisa can show her love, show she’s sorry. And Lisa, pushing Baby’s hair back into a style, lets it go, realising Baby doesn’t need to be anything other than what she is. They will never be the same kind of person, but they’ve found a way to understand and stand up for each other.

Also, Lisa singing Hula Hana is hands down one of the best bits of the movie. Especially because it’s just background to a transformative emotional moment. (Another of those perfect details, like the watermelons.)

And then there’s the romance.

It starts out with a conventional romance vibe – a naive good girl falls for the bad boy from the streets. But gradually the dynamics start to shift. Baby lives an undeniably privileged life. She can go to university and join the Peace Corps. Not because she’s smarter or more moral than anyone else, but because she’s in a financial position to do it – and more importantly, because she’s been raised to believe she can do anything.

Her privilege isn’t sneered at, or turned into a negative trait. Johnny sees that it gives her power. It puts her in a position he’s never been in in his life. It makes her something that’s difficult for him to understand, but so seductive and inspiring. It makes him look up to her. It makes him want more.

And Johnny, the bad boy with the incredible body and dance moves, isn’t as powerful as he first appears. In that conventional romance set-up, he has all the power. He can desire her or not, choose to dance with her or choose to sneer at her. But then we realise how rich women take advantage of him. He’s a fantasy to them, not a person. He’s a weekend getting back at their husbands. He’s a break from real life.

He’s talented and passionate, but if he wants to keep his job he has to keep the guests happy. And if he steps out of line, well his dad has a place in the House Painters Union lined up for him. His world is a tenuous place.

What’s even better about the romance, though, is that Baby’s privilege does make her naive, and Johnny’s background does keep him in his place more effectively than any outside influence. These big, obvious themes are complicated.

The moment when Baby comes to Johnny’s hut and asks him to dance (have sex) with her, his face is amazing. (I don’t care what anyone says – Patrick Swayze brings it in this movie.) He’s so completely terrified. He wants so badly, he’s burning up with hope, but he doesn’t know how to trust it.

Baby, much as we love her and believe in her, is just one more privileged woman enjoying the fantasy of Johnny.

The romance doesn’t actually happen until the moment Baby tells her father she’s been sleeping with Johnny. Until that moment she could leave, leave Johnny’s heart in tatters, and no one would be any the wiser. Until that moment she’s playing at being in love. It’s also the moment she proves she’s not just going to ride out on her white horse and save the world from on high – she’s actually going to act on her convictions, and get her hands dirty. The world, when you really engage with it, is a messy place.

And how great is it that when they say goodbye they don’t pretend they’re going to be together forever, or even see each other again? It’s just this beautiful thing, that neither of them will ever regret.

And lastly, there’s that incredible call from the heart, when Johnny’s walking away, and Baby calls out his name.

So if you’ve made it through this love-fest: What are your favourite bits of the movie? Or do you, travesty of travesties, not like it?

Comments 14 Responses

  1. Shelley

    I love this movie. I’ve loved it since I first watched it in high school, when I unabashedly adored it largely because it dealt with abortion without making moral judgments of the character who has one. And, you know, the romance, and the idea of this one, beautiful love that can’t and won’t last forever, but will mark the rest of your days in relation to it.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      The whole movie is astonishingly free of judgement. The abortion, as you say. Also, when Baby finally tells her dad she’s sleeping with Johnny she never once apologises for sleeping with him. She just has this absolute confidence that it’s her decision to make. Also I love how Lisa’s completely shallow, but never judged for it.

  2. Vassiliki

    I adore this post! You articulate everything that I feel about this move and all its levels of romance goodness. My favourite scene is when Baby and Johnny are dancing to Mickey and Sylvia’s Love is Strange. I think I have the album stashed away somewhere – now to buy a record player :)

  3. Kaetrin

    I love this movie. I think I saw it 5 times when it first came out and who knows how many times I’ve watched it on TV or DVD. I had Swayze posters in my bedroom and everything.

    And I choose to believe that somehow, after the movie’s end, Johnny and Baby were together somehow. So there!

    The best part of the movie? “Nobody puts baby in the corner.” *sigh*

  4. Liz Mc2

    In college I took a film studies class with my best friend and my first real boyfriend. We had to see a couple of movies outside of class and this is one we chose. So it has a special place in my heart.

    I had never really thought of Baby and Johnny’s relationship this way. I think I just identified with her youth and naiveté and desire to do good and insecurity about her own desirability so much that I only thought about HER potential heartbreak. Uh, embarrassing TMI–but I loved the way you got me seeing them from a whole new angle, Anna.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I don’t know if there’s such thing as TMI on the accidental housewife :-) . I think it’s one of the amazing things about the movie, that the romance can be read in so many different ways, and is on every watch.

  5. anna cowan Post author

    Another thing I love, but couldn’t fit in the post, is how it’s a love letter to this earlier age. It’s so drenched in nostalgia at the same time as acknowledging that the period it’s eulogising was problematic in so many ways, and is only rosy in retrospect. And can never be again.

    1. Shelley Hughes-Mills

      Yes, it acknowledges the limits of that time– kind of like loving one’s flawed hometown, while still recognizing its faults.

  6. Natalie L.

    Dirty Dancing really is the best! You know that scene where Johnny’s getting out of bed and you can see the side of his naked butt? When I was 14…

    Every time I watch the movie I see something new in it–there’s so much going on in it and it’s such a sneaky movie in so many ways. I love the way Baby’s father has to come to terms with her growing up and making decisions he doesn’t agree with. I love the way he helps Penny after the botched abortion and doesn’t judge her. Jerry Orbach was just a wonderful, wonderful actor.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Ha, when I was 30, like, just the other day, that bit of Swayze’s butt… Whew!

      The dad is so great! It’s probably hormones, but the scene where Baby wakes him and gets his bag and he just comes with her, and *runs* up the path – that made me tear up.

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