Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.
Dirty Dancing delivers indictment of white complacency needed today: Mochama
The marginalization of people of colour can seem anachronistic. Yet it’s helpful to understanding not just Hollywood but also how Good White People™ can be both progressive and complicit.
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In theory, Dirty Dancing is a standard teen summer dance movie: Our main character can’t dance, she learns, she falls in love with her instructor, someone gets mad about it but yay, they’re too in love and into dancing to care. Cue final dancing montage.
In reality, it’s a daring movie that remains relevant to this day.
On a family trip to a resort in the Catskills, Frances “Baby” Houseman, the younger of two daughters to upper-middle class parents, becomes entangled with the dangerous and dashing Johnny Castle when she substitutes for his tango partner Penny, who has undergone an abortion.
Yeah, it packs a wallop.
First of all, Patrick Swayze. Need I say more?
Gather yourselves because I’ll continue.
The movie gets a lot of flack cause Baby is kind of corny. But Baby is 17. She’s at the point in life where she’s endlessly crusading without any nuance. At 17, I had strong feelings about the Starbucks corporation’s nefariousness that I’ve since abandoned because perfect ginger molasses cookies are one of life’s few joys in this terrible dark world.
Still, for young women, there’s a template to follow in Baby’s steps. When Harvard Medical School-bound Robbie The Creep tells her to read his personally annotated Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, she pours a pitcher of water on him and says, “You make me sick. Stay away from me, stay away from my sister, or I’ll have you fired.” For a short scene, it is essentially a gender studies seminar with bonus self-defense tips.
Baby is a model for white womanhood that kind of gives me hope. She uses her privilege appropriately: without telling other people’s secrets, she gets money from her dad to pay for Penny’s illegal abortion. Baby also follows through physically by dancing with Johnny.
But Baby isn’t perfect; she’s too white to be. In a review for Vulture about the movie The Beguiled, Angelica Jade Bastien wrote that “More white filmmakers should consider actively exploring and indicting whiteness itself, rather than acting as if it’s a neutral existence.” Dirty Dancing doesn’t do it perfectly, but the broad strokes are there.
The marginalization of people of colour can seem anachronistic. Yet it’s helpful to understanding not just Hollywood but also how Good White People™ can be both progressive and complicit. The few Black people in the movie don’t get any speaking lines. The family uses a line about “police dogs in Birmingham” to scold Lisa, the daughter who laments not bringing enough shoes to vacation. Although she wants to study “economics of underdeveloped countries”, Baby is unenthused when Neil, the resort owner’s nephew, says he’s going on a Freedom Ride after the summer. That’s a really dangerous and terribly brave thing to do! Baby doesn’t care tho; there’s Swayze to be had.
The movie tells a story of a particular kind of whiteness with heft while staying fun to watch.
The finale scene in which Johnny insists that “Nobody puts Baby in the corner” gets a lot of airtime. I’m finding new satisfaction in the scene where Baby tells her dad, “You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who was like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, to make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying someone from Harvard.”
It’s a scene from a 30-year-old movie that delivers an indictment of white complacency and complicity that I need to hear today.