The most important lessons I learned from Dirty Dancing


In honor of its 30th birthday this week, we take a look back at the 1987 hit starring Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze and its still-relevant themes.

Dirty Dancing is so much more than the lift and “No one puts Baby in a corner”—not that you’d necessarily know that from pop culture’s many references to the 1987 movie. No, the Emile Ardolino-directed, Eleanor Bergstein-written dance drama has a lot more depth than people give it credit for.

On the surface, it’s about Frances “Baby” Houseman, a privileged high school grad (Jennifer Grey) who falls in love and lust for the first time. The object of her affection is Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), an older, working-class dance instructor at the Catskills resort where Baby and her family are staying for the summer. Through their mutual love of, ahem, dirty dancing, the two overcome the differences posed by their respective stations and Baby’s family, and go twirling off into the future together.

That would be entertaining enough, but it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what the film offers. In no particular order, here are the most important things I learned from Dirty Dancing:

Traditional gender roles don’t have to be a thing

There are a slew of examples for this: Baby’s father (Jerry Orbach) is the more present, nurturing parent, and the film’s women are much more sex-positive than its men, for instance. But I think the gender dynamics between Baby and Johnny are most important.

Baby is ambitious; she has her whole life planned. She is going to college, she will study international economics, and she will serve in the Peace Corps. Neither marriage nor motherhood is part of Baby’s plan, even after she meets Johnny. For his part, Johnny is a straight, masculine man whose passion is dancing. He’s also prone to moodiness, sulking, and frustration. One might even say he’s the more emotional person in his relationship.

Neither lead character in Dirty Dancing fills a stereotypical gender role. And the really impressive thing is that the movie never draws overt attention to it. It’s not proud of itself for subverting expectations, nor does it punish either character for resisting conventional gender roles. Baby and Johnny are who they are—and that’s okay.

Bad boys need to be called out occasionally

While it’s perfectly fine for Johnny to be the more emotional half of the couple, he does indulge in some unnecessary, Jess Mariano-style grouchiness, which can be damn annoying. Luckily, Baby is there to shut it down.

When Johnny goes off on her for messing up a dance sequence, Baby lets him have it:

“We’re supposed to do the show in two days,” she says, her patience running out. “You won’t show me lifts, I’m not sure of turns, I’m doing all this to save your ass, but what I really want to do is drop you on it.”

Translation: It’s not all about you and your six-pack. Get over yourself and show me some respect.

Class divisions are real and Ayn Rand is for jerks

You want to know the first time I realized that Ayn Rand and her political philosophy probably weren’t for me? When Robbie—aka the jerk waiter who impregnates and deserts Penny and then slut-shames her—recommends The Fountainhead to Baby. He offers his copy to her after sharing this little nugget: “Some people count, and some people don’t.”

It’s not only misogyny that fuels Robbie (Max Cantor): it’s entitlement and apathy towards anyone who isn’t privileged. He gets away with it (mostly) because he’s surrounded by other people who feel the same way. So Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) is ignored when she becomes pregnant and left in a double bind. She’ll have to bear a baby she can’t support if she can’t get the money for an abortion, or get fired from her job for taking time off for the procedure if she can get the money.

Johnny suffers from Kellerman’s class divisions, too. He is accused of theft because he’s poor and therefore not to be trusted. He is fired after an alibi is provided for him for the theft (staying in with Baby all night) because he’s poor and therefore has no business socializing with someone who has money. He’s talked down to in front of his students because how dare he have ideas? Johnny’s paid to work, not to think.

Women need the right to safe, legal abortion

Dirty Dancing takes place in 1963, about a decade before the Roe v. Wade case made abortion legal in all 50 states. After Robbie refuses to acknowledge Penny’s unborn baby as his, Penny realizes she has to terminate her pregnancy. She doesn’t have the resources for single motherhood. Even if she did, there’s no way Kellerman’s would keep an unmarried, poor pregnant girl on staff.

No matter the viewer’s political leanings, it’s hard not to empathize with Penny. She is desperate and scared, she has no idea where she’ll find the cash to get the procedure or how she’ll get the time off. When Baby volunteers the money and offers to take Penny’s place at a show, things seem like they’ll be alright at first.

But they’re not: the person who performed the procedure wasn’t medically trained and Penny almost dies. Luckily, Baby’s doctor father is on hand to help her, but what if he hadn’t been?

This particular lesson is pretty self-explanatory. No matter how you personally feel about it, women will have abortions. They just will. The least we can do is make sure the procedure is legal, accessible, and safe.

Life’s not easy for the Lisas of the world, either

I don’t know if this was universal or not, but when I first saw the film as a kid, I identified with Baby and I hated Lisa (Jane Brucker). In many ways, she is the opposite of Baby. She is vain, oblivious, boy crazy, and slow on the uptake. She’s too busy chasing after Robbie the Jerk to realize that important things are happening this summer.

But when I watched Dirty Dancing as an adult, my whole perspective on Lisa changed. In the world of high school, she might be more popular than Baby. But that’s where the advantages end. No one in the Houseman family listens to Lisa. No one cares about what Lisa wants. Her hair styling skills are all she has to offer.

The most heartbreaking part is that Lisa is self-aware. She knows Baby’s the favorite and that her parents have no interest in her life. Taking that into consideration, it’s no wonder Lisa sees Robbie as worth her time.

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What did you learn from Dirty Dancing? Tell us in the comments.