In memory of Patrick Swayze, some thoughts on "Dirty Dancing"
by Laura Smith-Gary
Earlier this week I re-watched Dirty Dancing in memory of Patrick Swayze. It’s a film that is near and dear to the hearts of many feminists, both for its treatment of serious themes like back-alley abortion, classism, and impending cultural revolution, and because even humorless “sexual Nazis”* like myself can appreciate shirtless Patrick Swayze. If you haven’t already, go read Melissa McEwan's piece on the movie right now -- she describes beautifully how the film has introduced young women like her to feminist themes.
Now, I love Dirty Dancing. I love Baby/Frances, who’s brave and intelligent and idealistic and unabashedly sexual. I love Johnny, who's tough and vulnerable and willing to change his mind. I love that despite the restrictions and limitations on Baby and Johnny, they fight for each other fiercely and dance Kellerman’s stodgy camp into the ‘60s.
But my heart always goes back to Penny, Johnny’s professional dance partner. As a teenager, I envied Penny's dance talent but vaguely despised her character -- she was slim, beautiful, blond, and, I thought in all my seventeen-year-old arrogance, fundamentally weak. She clung to Johnny while Baby required no protection, she believed the lies of Robby the Creep while Baby rejected his copy of The Fountainhead and dumped a pitched of ice water on his pants, and she quickly sank into tears and panic -- and again, dependence -- when she hit an obstacle, while Baby reacted with determination and optimism. I sympathized with Penny's plight, but I found myself wanting to bombard her with instructions. "Learn marketable skills for when you can't dance any longer! Be optimistic! Don't put up with men treating you badly! Stand up for yourself! Don't have sex without contraception! Don't be mean to Baby, she's trying to help!" I was obnoxious and self-righteous when I was seventeen.**
When I watched Dirty Dancing from a (slightly!) more grown-up perspective, I saw a whole new narrative, grimly lurking below the optimistic central storyline -- Penny's story. Though part of her job is portraying a high-society image, glamorous and carefree and flirtatious, Penny comes from a much lower socioeconomic class than all the guests (and the "upper" staff, the Ivy League waiters like awful Robby). She exists at the intersection of gender and class oppression, and Dirty Dancing makes this painfully clear.
Penny and Baby both face discrimination as women, but because of her class Penny is fundamentally vulnerable. She has no safety net. Many of the things that I love about Baby -- her idealism, her bravery, her assurance that life can always get better -- are aspects of her personality, but are nurtured and allowed to flourish by her class privilege. She can go to Mount Holyoke. She can turn down boring, pompous Neil Kellerman without fear of reprisals. If she's desperate -- for any reason -- she can ask her father for $250 and he'll give it to her. I don't mean to say her class privilege eliminates the fact that she is treated differently because she is female. Baby is condescended to and called by a diminutive nickname instead of Frances, she's not allowed to go to an all-male university, her lifestyle does depend entirely upon her father, and her parents desperately want her to fit into an asexual "good girl" model.
Penny, however, has not had the opportunity to go to school or develop a variety of skills, since her mother threw her out of the house when she was sixteen and she's been dancing for her supper ever since. She has no social or economic power, which makes her vulnerable to sexual pressure -- would she be able to refuse Neil's advances, or the advances of a guest, without losing her job? On the other side of the same coin, she could easily be fired if she did give into a guest's advances and was found out. Despite Penny's "glamorous" job that Baby wistfully says she envies, she spends every day and night catering to the desires of Kellerman's guests. She can't even take a short break without the management snarling -- she must be constantly available for the guests' enjoyment, and her badly needed salary is dependent on her body being constantly lithe and able and her sexy, feminine charm being constantly lavished on all comers.
Of course, because of his class status Johnny is subject to some of the same pressures. He too has no financial safety net and no apparent family support, and some of the female guests feel free to demand his sexual favors -- and take revenge when he refuses. "I'm balancing on shit and as quick as that I could be back there again," Johnny tells Baby, and it's true for both him and Penny, as it is for so many of those who live paycheck to paycheck -- or go without paychecks entirely.
However, Penny's vulnerability has a gendered dimension. She's balancing not only on the edge of hunger and unemployment, but also sexualized "ruin." If Johnny lost his job he could probably pick one up in construction, moving, or other seasonal work that employs able-bodied men. Penny might be able to work in a factory or as a maid or waitress, or she could become a sex worker. While many sex workers enjoy what they do and have chosen their work, becoming a sex worker out of desperation is not something to wish on anyone. In addition, sex workers are stigmatized by huge swathes of society, and Penny's obvious desire to be "respectable" would be shattered. And sadly, in any one of the jobs she could get as a poor, uneducated, pretty woman she could well be expected to make her body available to customers or coworkers.
Penny also has a significant liability Johnny has not -- she can get pregnant. In 1963, it wasn't even legal for married couples to use contraception (that Supreme Court decision came in 1965), and abortion wouldn't be legal for another ten years. For Penny, sex or rape hold the constant risk of disaster (additional disaster, in the case of rape). And not only is Penny subject to sexual pressure because of her sex and class, she also does not have anything to fall back on if she does become pregnant. This circumstance becomes the central plot point of Dirty Dancing. When Penny does get pregnant, she has no resources -- no power to demand anything of Robby, who impregnated her (and who sneers "Some people count, some people don't"), no legal way to terminate the pregnancy, no money for an illegal abortion, no way to take time out of working to get an appointment, no legal or medical recourse when the "doctor" botches the abortion. No way to carry the pregnancy to term without losing her job and being labeled a "fallen woman." No obvious way to support another person. No one to help her raise a baby, except perhaps her friend and dance partner. Little hope for the "respectable" marriage and family she seems to crave. While adoption could be an option, she would have to go without employment as a dancer for several months as well as paying medical expenses, which she can't do. Penny can't keep the pregnancy and she can't end it. She's utterly dependent on Robby, Johnny, Baby, the evil fake doctor, and Baby's father Dr. Houseman, who saves her after the botched abortion. (If you are under the impression legalized abortion solved this problem, stay tuned -- next week I'll discuss how abortion is still a privilege in the United States.)
If I were in her position, I would be crying hysterically in the kitchen in about five seconds, and hoping against hope that a bathtub of hot water and gin actually works. Being a woman who is poor and "low-class" gives her next to no options and simultaneously makes her body one of her only resources and liability.***
After she is saved by Dr. Houseman and Baby and Johnny's romance starts heating up, Penny fades quickly from the story. I can't help but wonder if it is because the writer and director couldn't see an optimistic, inspirational path for her -- being alive and still fertile was the best they could do. As Dirty Dancing draws to a close, guests and staff at Kellerman's are all dancing together, joyous and excited for the future. Baby is off to study Economics of Underdeveloped Countries, Johnny has found courage and purpose, and Awful Robby has been exposed and glared at by Dr. Houseman. Penny, displaced from her one shining, happy role as Johnny's partner, has the fact that she's alive, she's pretty, she can dance, and she can still have children one day.
*I was so called, in the Equal Writes comment section this week! By a fellow who has also told me that due to the female “hive mind,” I speak for all Anglo-American feminists. I...win?
**I still am, but now I pause for upwards of three seconds before I start pelting people with advice.
***It's important to mention that although Penny’s options are seriously limited by her gender and class status, she is privileged in a number of ways -- she’s white, she speaks English as a first language, albeit with a slight “low-class” accent, she’s a documented citizen, she’s straight, she’s cissexual and cisgendered (she identifies with the sex and gender she was assigned at birth), she’s thin and conventionally attractive, and she’s temporarily able for most of the movie. Were she not to have even one of those privileges, her options would again dramatically contract. She certainly wouldn’t be a centerpiece at Kellerman’s.
Rest in peace, Patrick Swayze.