Johnny (Patrick Swayze): What's your real name, Baby?
Baby (Jennifer Grey):Frances. For the first woman in the Cabinet. [laughs]
Johnny: Frances. That's a real grown up name.
--Dirty Dancing (1987)
Stef is coming over for breakfast this morning, and I had to run out early to the grocery store to get some yogurt. Standing in the check-out line, I saw Patrick Swayze on the cover of the National Enquirer. They exaggerate things, of course, but I got kinda choked up to see how ill he is with cancer. I walked home thinking, How many women, me among them, would point to Swayze as Johnny in Dirty Dancing as playing a role in their early sexual imagination? A lot, I bet.
I read a study once that reported that women are afraid men will physically hurt them, while men are afraid women will laugh at them.
Swayze falls in the category of a certain sort of man attractive to women: physically powerful, masculine men who you trust would never rape you. (Compare with Marlon Brando, for instance, who is not in this category.) And he was never better than as Johnny, the object of sexual desire for "Baby" (Frances) the girl-woman protaganist of Dirty Dancing, who doesn't laugh at him.
How could I not have already written about this movie? Besides being a steamy dance movie set to a classic soundtrack, it's got one of the most interesting seductions--and tastiest first kisses--in film.
The film is among my Top 100 Movies. Written by a woman, Eleanor Bergstein, it's about the sexual awakening of a girl, Baby, told, rather unusually, entirely from her point of view.
Feminism has never looked better, entirely lacking the shrill edge it sometimes scrapes your ears with. In Dirty Dancing, feminism sounds like the Ronettes' "Be My Baby".
The story is told as a memory of the summer of 1963, before the assassination of JFK, before the arrival of the Beatles, and before the young woman everyone calls Baby goes off to college. Baby is staying with her family--her father's a doctor--at a holiday camp in the Catskills. There she sees Johnny, a working-class hunk, who keeps the rich, bored women campers happy with dance lessons ...and more.
To do a favor, Baby ends up replacing Johnny's usual dance partner for one performance. She's instantly attracted to him, but the movie captures how girlish she still is. When they rehearse, she keeps breaking down in giggles when he touches her ticklish waist.
He's used to mature women coming on to him and he pretty much just leaves her alone. She has to seduce him, which she does when she goes to his cabin late at night, after they perform their dance. Johnny's standing shirtless in front of a ripped poster of a matador, listening to Otis Redding's Love Man. He tells her he admires her--he's just a nothing, while she's afraid of nothing.
She tells him he's not a nothing, and as for her: "Me? I'm scared of everything. I'm scared of what I saw, I'm scared of what I did, of who I am, and most of all I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you."
The camera follows her point of view as she dances with Johnny, and as she touches him. They kiss, eventually, and go to bed together, but the really tasty stuff is in this playing around with who's leading whom in the dance of seduction.
I bet some film student has written a dissertation called "Dirty Dancing and the Female Gaze," but I certainly wasn't thinking analytically when I first watched it. I was just melting. Like I said about the Star Trek movie, if you're sitting in a dark theater thinking about film criticism, it's maybe not such a great movie. (Or it's French.) But years later, I'd say one of the things this extraordinary film is about is how looking at and saying what you want is a powerful act, sexually and personally--even politically. Being able to do that is the mark of a grown-up.
"Baby" becomes Frances--no one in the film asks her her real name except Johnny--when she looks at Johnny, knows she wants him, and finally gets the guts to acknowledge that, not just to herself, not just to him, but to her father, who thinks Johnny's a loser.
And Johnny is a man, not a "nothing" whom rich women use for stud service, when he gets real with her. He too has to get up the guts to challenge her father, which he does in a classic movie moment, returning to the camp after he's been fired and calling her out from where she sits in a corner with her family, saying the famous line, "Nobody puts Baby in the corner."
Look at me, he tells her early on when they rehearse, and she does. (And so do we.) You just know there's a Cabinet position in Baby's future, like her namesake, Frances Perkins.
May Mr Swayze have comfort in his illness.
Dirty Dancing screencaps here.