Wednesday, September 12, 2012

"Dirty Dancing" and the 2012 Election

One of the best features of my “year on vacation” house is that I have my own private movie theatre. Unfortunately for various reasons it took six weeks to set up, but now that everything’s working, I’ll probably get even less writing done as I go through my entire DVD collection. Not to mention Netflix streaming.

I christened the new theatre by watching one of my all-time favorites, “Dirty Dancing.” For those of you who’ve been living with slugs for the past 25 years, “Dirty Dancing” is the Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey blockbuster about an innocent idealist who falls in love with a dancer at a Catskills resort in the summer of 1963. I’ve loved the movie since it came out when I was in college. At the time, I remember thinking that while the love story was timeless, its setting seemed quite dated – not just the Catskills resort, but the caste system that kept everyone in his and her place.

Funny, this movie doesn’t seem dated anymore.

To refresh your memory, or update the slug-dwellers, Jennifer Grey’s Baby steps in as the dance partner for Patrick Swayze’s Johnny when his regular partner, Penny, needs to get an abortion on the night of a lucrative show. Idealistic Baby, although she comes from a well-off family headed by a doctor father, envies Penny’s beauty and dancing ability and rushes to her aid when she learns of Penny’s pregnancy. To help raise the money for Penny’s abortion, she asks Penny’s ex-lover, Yale medical student/waiter Robbie, for the dough. Instead, he hands Baby a copy of Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead.” “Some people count,” he tells Baby. “And some people don’t.” (you can see the scene here:

If that doesn’t just sum up the philosophy of the Republican party, I don’t know what does. And the actor playing Robbie is a dead ringer for Paul Ryan.

There are several ways in which this movie, set in 1963, illustrates the stakes of our 2012 election. The most obvious is Penny’s disastrous pregnancy. Unmarried and barely making ends meet as a dancer, Penny has no choice but to seek out an illegal abortion. In two respects, she’s actually lucky – she gets the money from Baby, and she gets an appointment with a doctor (although that doesn’t end well either.) Without these circumstances, Penny easily could have ended up with a clothes hangar or a bottle of Lysol.

Unfortunately, the abortion doctor is a butcher, and Penny returns from her appointment shaking and in shock. Baby summons her father, who saves Penny’s life and her ability to bear children. Again, Penny was a lucky beneficiary of circumstance. Without Dr. Houseman, she easily could have died. So many women like her actually did. Almost every Republican running in this year’s election would like to turn back the clock to the time when the Pennys of the world would be forced to bear the child or risk their lives trying to terminate the pregnancy. While these politicians claim that life begins at conception and it’s all about the baby, that’s not true. Controlling a woman’s ability to plan motherhood is a way to keep her from competing economically. Abortion was legal until the industrial revolution, when men began competing with women for jobs. It’s no accident that the Republican party, the party of callous millionaires and angry white blue collar men, is against abortion and birth control. It much easier to get and keep a job if half the labor force is too busy having and raising babies to compete with you.

Access to safe, affordable, legal abortion is an economic issue. Even before Roe v. Wade, women of means – and their daughters – who found themselves in trouble did not go to back alley butchers. They flew to Mexico or some other place where abortion was legal. Or they had friends who knew doctors – real doctors, sympathetic doctors – who would provide a safe and sterile procedure. Dr. Houseman may have even been one of those doctors. After all, he knew exactly what had happened to Penny the moment he walked in and saw her shaking, and he knew exactly how to treat her.

It is the Pennys of the world – the very women that the Republican party castigates as “takers” who don’t “pay their fair share” who suffered the most pre Roe v. Wade, and will suffer the most if Republicans have their way. The Babys? If Johnny had knocked up Baby, Dr. Houseman would have taken her to one of his friends to take care of it. Baby would have gone on to Mt. Holyoke, a bit sadder and wiser, but all the more ready to study the economics of undeveloped countries as she had planned. After all, most of those undeveloped countries are that way, in part, because their women cannot control their fertility.

Ironically, Republican policies would grow the number of “takers” they keep complaining about!

As Robbie put it, there are people who count, and people who don’t, which is another way of saying there are “takers” and there are “makers.” In “Dirty Dancing,” the divide is fierce. Her first evening at Kellerman’s Resort, Baby eavesdrops on Max Kellerman lecturing the wait staff – college boys including Robbie – that they are to date and court the daughters. But when the entertainers, including Johnny, come in, Kellerman’s demeanor changes completely. Practically spitting at them, he warns the entertainers “hands off the daughters!” no matter what. When Baby tries to help Johnny pick a replacement for Penny, someone who had the time to train, Johnny shoots her down – “We all work here!”

After Baby gets her father to help Penny, he’s furious with her and forbids her to associate with “those people” anymore. Yet he encourages the relationship between his other daughter, Lisa, and Robbie – believing Robbie is “one of us” and therefore a decent person. Finally, after Baby confesses her affair with Johnny, she confronts her father in one of the most memorable scenes in the movie: “You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break, but you meant everyone like you.” (see the scene here:

The divide is never more clear as Robbie keeps his job while Johnny is fired for his relationship with Baby. Yet change is in the air. Max Kellerman can feel it, although he misunderstands what the change is about. And when Johnny leads his group of entertainers in for the last dance, and the group finally dances the way they want to on the main floor, the unexpected happens. Rather than the old people running out and losing their hair, everyone joins in the dancing. Even Max asks his band leader, “Do you have the sheet music for this?”

Yes, change is in the air, youth is leading the way, and the older generation seems willing to follow. Even Dr. Houseman apologizes to Johnny for thinking the worst of him.

“Dirty Dancing” ends on a hopeful note, and why not? The filmmakers knew that in the next few years, the civil rights act would be passed, the Pill would be invented, and abortion would become a constitutionally protected right. All these factors helped set the stage so that women, minorities and poor people would have more tools to compete economically.

It is ironic that the Republican party, who believes so strongly about “makers” and “takers,” want to turn the clock back to a time when the only people who could support themselves economically were white men. Yet, if they have their way, we’d be headed straight back to 1963. Although “Dirty Dancing” is filled with great music, fantastic dancing and inspirational characters, we can’t go back to that time and expect to move forward as a nation.

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