Wednesday, 10 July 2013

I always wanted to be Frances 'Baby' Houseman

 I just read this awesome article on how Dirty Dancing is a subversive masterpiece and it got me thinking about how Dirty Dancing occupies a really special place in my heart (and film collection) and how it had a huge influence on my sense of being, even if I didn't realise it at the time.

Dirty Dancing is a shared bond with my sister

My sister and I aren't very alike. It is just the way it is. But we have some shared loves, and Dirty Dancing is one of them. One of the reasons my DVD of the film is so precious to me is because my sister bought it for me for Christmas.
I think it all started when we were on holiday in the South of France, me aged 11, her aged 9. We met a couple of kids that we hung around with, a boy a year older than me, and his sister, who was a year older than mine. I think I probably had a little first crush on this boy, I remember thinking he was really cool. Anyway, he'd seen Dirty Dancing, a film we only really knew from the label on the VHS in the drawer at home. I seem to recall that my sister and I asked our parents if we could watch it when we got home to England. My parents replied with a not so unexpected NO, given that it was officially a 15 rated film and we were under 12.

So we did what any kid would do, and 'borrowed' it from the video drawer one Sunday afternoon. I guess our parents knew we'd watched it, and anyway I think I was aghast at its 15 rating given that there really isn't that much obvious sex in it. Watching Dirty Dancing became a regular activity, so much so that we can both recite the entire film off pat. We would 'practice' lifts over the big spare bed, and try to learn all the dance moves.

So to this day, every time I hear "I've Had The Time of My Life' I think of my sister.

Nobody puts Baby in a corner

Thanks in part to Dirty Dancing (and because of my folks and other stuff), I grew up believing that women were allowed to make the move on men. As Lesley says, Baby has all the agency when it comes to her sexual behaviour. She makes all the choices. Thankfully Johnny is a gent and behaves as such, but she is a powerful woman learning her way through her sexual awakening.

I don't think it ever really dawned on me as a teenager just how forward Baby was - in 1963 the idea of a young woman taking charge of her sexual awakening in quite that way would have been unusual. I think watching Dirty Dancing as I approached puberty really helped shape my actions (not all of which were less than embarrassing) as I embarked on dating, and later on as I embarked on my first sexual relationships. I'm quite a forward kind of woman, I don't see any sense in waiting around to be wooed by men. It hasn't ever really happened if I'm honest, I really can't think of a time when a relationship began because I was bought flowers and responded to flattery!

At the end of the day, Dirty Dancing is a truly feminist film

I read this article a couple of years ago about the politics of Dirty Dancing, and it sort of opened my eyes to a whole new world. Whilst I studied gender relations at university, as well as film, my reading of films has always been from a more gender blind perspective, normally focussing on the influence of international politics in film scripts. So while the article initially made me feel a little bit like a shitty feminist, it did flick a switch in my brain that helped me realise what I had long taken for granted.

As this essay from Alyssa Rosenberg  and this essay by Irin Carmon discuss, Dirty Dancing is a film made by women for women, and is a film where women are not chastised for sexual desire or made to feel like their lives are lacking from not having a ring on their finger. All too often in films there are consequences for being anything other than the virginal princess, or for not being engaged or married yet.

Dirty Dancing, in a refreshing breath of realism makes no happily ever after promises for Johnny and Baby, and only chastises the behaviour that should be chastised: the consequences of not having access to legal abortion, and treating women like possessions to be picked up and put down.

When you compare the portrayal of women in DD to that in other films, it becomes clear that popular culture seriously lags behind what we know to be better. Very rarely do such positive portrayals of women appear in films and TV; when push comes to shove, in many instances the female characters eventually revert to stereotype.

I will always long for a man who dances like Patrick Swayze

Which is one reason I ended up getting married to my ex I suppose. He fancied himself a bit of a dancer, and to be fair, had a reasonable rhythm and flair. The Beard only dances when he's had a fair amount to drink, and while he isn't Patrick Swayze, he can move his feet well. I just wish I could persuade him to dance more!

I also always really admired Baby's wardrobe, and apart from the colours being different, I have a lot of similar things in mine.

If you don't believe me that Dirty Dancing is a feminist film, or that it has a positive message, think about it, then go and watch it. And then watch it again. The first viewing, just take the time to appreciate the film's beautifully simple set up and style. Then, when you re-watch it, really look out for those deeply political, feminist undertones that make the film the beautiful inspiration that it has been to me.

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