Why ‘Dirty Dancing’ is one of the most feminist films in cinema history

A syrupy romance embodied by actors Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Gray, adorned with horny dances and phrases that have become cult like “ We do not leave Baby in a corner ”… This was the view of cinema-goers for a long time regarding the American film, Dirty Dancing, released in 1987 and often rebroadcast on television. In short, a “teenage movie” for young girls in bloom and a guilty pleasure once one has passed adolescence. Big mistake. This movie is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

It hides behind the bluete that tells the love story between the characters of Frances Houseman (“Frederique” in French version), known as “Baby”, and Johnny Castle, a true feminist manifesto. While the Parc de la Villette (Paris 19th) launches this Wednesday until August 21st, the 32nd edition of its free outdoor cinema sessions under the sign of the 7th Arts and Dance, we regret that Dirty Dancing is not part of the programming . Just to see it (again), but with the right reading grid.

A blow to gender stereotypes

Let’s already be the main character. In the early 1960s, Bébé got bored in a holiday camp with her parents and big sister. She is 17 years old, very good student and ambitious, she spends her time discussing politics with her doctor father. For an eroticized female character, we come back … One day, she discovers that entertainers from the summer village are hiding to form a separate dance group. For the wise young girl, it is the beginning of her liberation thanks to “dirty dancing”, an ultra-sensual dance, and thanks to her encounter with the beautiful dancer Johnny.

Subject to lust and lust, he is THE character presented as sexy, not her. “Besides, the heroine does not correspond at all to the cannons of beauty. No big breasts or thick buttocks filmed in close-up. It is the caricature of the young New York girl who, as soon as she takes her nose out of her books, is a little lost,” adds Laetitia, a 42-year-old fan who transmitted the “Dirty Dancing” virus to her teenager. girl.

In short, the slightly awkward nerd who crushes her feet while dancing, it’s her. He comes from a modest background (the film also depicts relationships between different social classes). In addition to his activity as a dancer, he sometimes performs as a gigolo with older women to make ends meet. “He is the sexual object. It is rare in the cinema,” she notes again. If the film was directed by Émile Ardolino, we owe the script to a woman (also a co-producer): Eleanor Bergstein, who had declared: “There is not a second that in a certain way is not a part of my life. and my story ”. The fact is that the camera translates the female point of view, heroically.

The right to abortion and feminine desire in the foreground

Dirty Dancing is also about women supporting each other, with empathy and without judgment. Baby has to learn, without his parents’ knowledge, a complex choreography to replace Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), Johnny’s partner, during a performance with the famous lift. And this so that she can have an abortion, with the money Baby borrowed from her doctor’s father. In 1963, it was illegal.

The story takes place ten years before Roe v. Wade protects the right to voluntary termination of pregnancy throughout the United States. A right that has just been annulled by the Supreme Court of the United States, giving this scene a very contemporary resonance. In the film, the young girl ends up asking her father for help as Penny is dying of this messy abortion. Penny’s initiative is never discussed or questioned. Not even Baby’s dad who finds out what his money was used for and kindly takes care of Penny.

This scene, shot in conservative America in the Reagan years, the screenwriter was so attached to it that she arranged so that it could not be removed during editing. “If you want to include such an element, you’d better embed it so precisely in the plot that the day you are asked to remove it, you can’t do it without the film falling apart. Because if we can remove it, we will do it, says Eleanor Bergstein to the magazine Cosmopolitan.

“I perceived years later the progressive messages that are in this film”

“Years later, I realized the progressive messages that are in this film, admits Chloé, 28 years old. When I was younger, it was only the love story that interested me and the soundtrack. In the associations I worked with when they started talking with me about Dirty Dancing as a feminist film, I said to myself “but what are they talking to me about?”. That was about five years ago. And it’s true, there is everything: the right to abortion, female sexuality, sorority and even a “first time” at the top “, analyzes this We All activist from the Lyon region.

As they are about to begin their first sexual relationship, it is Johnny who stands half-naked in the middle of the room while Baby surrounds him, starts dancing with him and seduces him. Although she is a virgin, she is not passive. She enthusiastically chooses to succumb to her desire for a caring lover. And as the summer draws to a close, she does not change her plans to end up with Johnny, just as she does not cry all the tears in her body from having to leave him.

But before this conclusion, the cult dance scene in the lift (which Baby finally succeeds with Johnny) comes to the tunes of the no less cult “(I’ve had) The time of my life” (Oscar for best song in 1988). One detail may have escaped you, but when Johnny calls him on stage, in front of the entire station, he uses his first name “Frances”, which no one else uses. He thus recognizes her in front of the whole room as his equal and not as a little girl. So yes, it is high time to rehabilitate Dirty Dancing and clear up the many misconceptions about it.

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