Dirty Dancing, Emile Ardolino
Promotional Still: Vestron Video International

‘Dirty Dancing’ in Pre-Roe v. Wade America

Andrea Warner’s book on Dirty Dancing in pre- Roe v. Wade America, The Time of My Life, is the deep dive into the film we need in these times.

The Time of My Life: Dirty Dancing
Andrea Warner
April 2024

If you’ve not heard of writer, editor, podcaster, and broadcaster Andrea Warner, start with the book she launched last week. The Time of My Life, the lucky number 13 entry in the Pop Classics series by ECW Press, is an in-depth look at a film many know quite well: Emile Ardolino’s 1987 music romance Dirty Dancing. The first chapter summarizes the film’s exposition in case anyone left on Earth who hasn’t seen it and the historical context for the necessity of setting the film during the summer of 1963. This is the year of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Jennifer Grey’s Baby Houseman would’ve been had it not conflicted with the big family vacation in the Catskills.

There is also a solid amount of relevant biographical information about the dance career and liberal politics of the film’s writer, Eleanor Bergstein. Warner’s admiration for Bergstein and her strongly autobiographical character ring out clearly in her summation of Baby as “a quiet rebel and burgeoning feminist interested in exploring her own pleasure, confronting her own privilege, subverting expectations, challenging the status quo, and demanding accountability from the men in her life—she was the hero I needed. Baby tries to do the right thing over and over. Even when the right thing is the hard thing, she steps up, a trait she demonstrates consistently through Dirty Dancing.”

Chapters two and four of The Time of My Life are my favorites. The second chapter focuses on relationships between the characters and the nature of female characterization. Even though it’s the central relationship in the marketing for the film, the thing going on between Baby and Johnny has never really been the thing worth focusing on in the film. “Dirty Dancing is a love story, but it’s not just Baby and Johnny’s love story,” writes Warner. “There’s love between Baby and Penny, and between Baby and Lisa. It’s also Baby’s love story with herself. And Dirty Dancing is Eleanor Bergstein’s love story with dance, with her life, and with writing strong, nuanced, complicated women characters into being.”

My little sister and I watched Dirty Dancing dozens of times, finding the shifting sands of conflict and compassion between Baby and Lisa (Jane Brucker) to be the stuff of which our sibling bond was made. Sometimes, we genuinely hated each other’s values, but at the end of the day or when real trouble arose, there was often no trusted adult to lean on, so we leaned on each other.

And then there’s Cynthia Rhodes’ Penny. I’ll bet many women understand why Penny and Patrick Swayze’s Johnny never hooked up. Warner reminds us, “Dirty Dancing has so much to say about what makes a ‘good man,’ and over and over we see Johnny model all the ways in which he rejects and refuses toxic masculinity.” Sure, Penny is super hot, and she slays on the dance floor. Besides that, she’s a whole person who must make decisions, navigate feelings, and keep herself alive like people with less physical appeal and two left feet have to do.

Dirty Dancing‘s trajectory maps Baby’s personal growth, but without Penny’s tale of woe, there’s no story or film. Warner writes that the very savvy Bergstein “was so committed to depicting the reality of a pre-Roe v. Wade America, she made abortion integral to the whole plot of Dirty Dancing. If anybody tried to censor the film and cut the abortion, the whole reason for the movie would cease to exist.”

This is why Warner’s best writing in The Time of My Life is found in the fourth chapter. She simply and elegantly writes: “Dirty Dancing is the first time I ever saw an abortion depicted onscreen.” Yes! I asked two dozen people who graduated high school around the same time I did, and every last one of us is in the same boat as Warner. At age seven, or 11, or 15, each witnessed this film as Warner did: “When the abortion is botched and the woman almost dies—all because abortion is criminalized and not legally recognized as essential healthcare—the same group of people rally around the woman again to ensure she’s seen by a credible medical doctor and to care for her as she convalesces. Community care as feminist practice is one of Dirty Dancing’s enduring lessons and (unfortunately still) radical statements.”

It’s almost unthinkable that Americans are once again in the position of no easy, equitable access to safe and legal abortions. Yet, here we are—with Dirty Dancing playing on some cable channel somewhere every weekend. In my house, we seldom look for the film but never, ever turn it off if we stumble into it on the occasional Saturday afternoon. We still love to linger on it for the same reason we did as kids. “This was one of my earliest takeaways from Dirty Dancing: radical acts can happen anywhere,” writes Warner.“ Even in a summer romance dance musical movie whose plot is driven by one woman’s unwanted pregnancy and her quest for an abortion.”

The film’s message is truly inspiring, and apparently, there are an unfortunate number of politicians and judges in the United States who’ve forgotten a few of its fundamental points: “In the world of Dirty Dancing, young women have sexual agency. These are its two great, enduring gifts: the normalization of abortion as necessary, life-saving healthcare, and the normalization of women wanting and having sex.”

We are once again in a cultural moment when it is imperative to find some common ground in the public conversation about the lived experiences of women in general and abortion in particular. Bergstein wrote a beautiful script that became an iconic film, and it’s time for us to return to Dirty Dancing with Warner as one of our teachers. This film is rated PG-13, which means it is suitable for eighth graders to watch—and many of us watched it when we were much younger than that. The kids have probably seen it a few times already.

Warner provides a highly appropriate and accessible guide to discussing its core issues. To wit: “Kellerman’s [the mountain lake lodge in Dirty Dancing] aims to be picture perfect and family-friendly, but there’s rot underneath: class-based hierarchies; Ivy League waiters told to seduce young, rich women; racism, sexism, and so much more. But there’s also the potential to challenge the status quo and revolutionize the whole place. Kellerman’s represents both the ‘60s belief in the possibility of fundamental systemic change and the ‘50s and ‘80s impulses to pretend everything isn’t just fine, it’s great, actually.”

This is a well-balanced way to approach film as literature and as history. Warner’s Time of My Life is a quick, smooth read of 136 pages and five chapters. It’s an excellent resource for high school teachers and college professors of many stripes: film, dance, pop culture, gender studies, American postwar politics, and if you happen to teach a college course in reproductive justice, I can’t imagine why you would overlook this compact gem. I also plan to gift a handful of copies for my brunch crew. Warner’s book is a nice gift for people who enjoy Dirty Dancing and would like to delve deeper into the components of that love with a cute little book that fits in their back pocket.

Of course, The Time of My Life also has plenty to say about the music in Dirty Dancing, and these chapters offer a solid breather from the deep feminist cuts of my two favorite chapters. These parts are generally in more of a listicle or bullet-pointed style than those chapters. Warner writes, “Dirty Dancing’s song selection collapsed space and time, creating a kind of anachronistic jukebox hodgepodge that should have been hot nonsense but was instead somehow wildly enthralling and tonally perfect for millions of fans across generations.” She then proceeds carefully through each beloved track, highlighting connections to the plot, giving context of each one’s era, and so on.

Warner is not uncritical of some of the soundtrack choices, and many of her hot takes on these tracks are quite funny. She pulls no punches in her assessment of one of Dirty Dancing‘s few spin-offs: “I expected a love letter to the film, a victory lap, perhaps, by Bergstein, and her chance to make an even more subversive, feminist, political statement about equality, abortion, and class. What I actually saw was a production that threatens the very legacy of Dirty Dancing in its entirety. On the flip side, the stage production makes the film version of Dirty Dancing look like an absolute masterpiece for anybody who doubts its value.”

Many people consider Dirty Dancing an absolute masterpiece, and The Time of My Life’s revisit is the deeper dive into Ardolino’s film that we need. Andrea Warner is a down-to-earth, funny, and competent feminist arbiter of culture. What she has to say about Baby in Dirty Dancing is equally apt as a description of her own critical capacity to nail it in the here and now: “We were on the cusp of something momentous, we didn’t have time for subtlety. We needed to watch a young woman take control of her life and fucking nail it. We needed an icon.”

RATING 9 / 10