1987's Dirty Dancing was a pivotal story for me growing up. It's why I still bear romantic dreams of spontaneous choreographed dancing and why lip synching love songs to each other seems incredibly sexy. It defined "summer romance" for me. I've been looking forward to revisiting it for the Heroine Fix series, but wondered if I would find myself more drawn to Patrick Swayze's Johnny than Jennifer Grey's naive and awkward Baby.
I shouldn't have worried.
Baby is naive and awkward, which is appropriate for someone transitioning from childhood to adulthood. But she's also determined and brave, doing what's right even at great cost to herself and her pride. When we first meet her, she's been designated as the family's "Good Girl" and those around her seem to think nothing of giving her orders. She's rarely actually asked to do anything by her family and society friends. They assume that she'll comply, from getting luggage to helping with the magic show to doing set design for the end of season show.
But even from the beginning, she's not afraid to stand up for herself. She tells Neil, the resort owner's son, that she wants to study the economics of developing countries and join the Peace Corps, quite out of the ordinary for a young woman in 1963. When a staff member makes fun of her, she promptly gives him back his watermelon and begins to walk away. She dumps a pitcher of water on Robbie's crotch and threatens to have him fired when she discovers that he won't help Penny after getting her pregnant.
Her very awkwardness is endearing, as well as providing hope to all the other awkward young women out there. I've certainly had my share of "I carried a watermelon" moments in early courtship. Watching her begin to enjoy herself learning to dance with Johnny and then be humiliated when he walks off brought up a number of unpleasant memories of liking someone and not having them like me back. When she tries to be friendly to Penny and Johnny, only to have her different status thrown in her face, it reminded me of similar rejections when trying to make friends.
Baby doesn't give up, though. She's willing to step and and do whatever it takes to help Penny, from getting the money for Penny's abortion from her father to taking her place as Johnny's partner for the Sheldrake Hotel performance. Despite Johnny's snide comments and terse instruction, she works hard to learn the steps. When he accuses her of not taking it seriously, of just having fun, Baby lets him have it. "Yeah, this is fun. I'm trying to save your ass when I really want to drop you on it."
The blossoming romance between Johnny and Baby is wonderful. It's great to watch them go from snarking at each other to laughing at their mistakes. Johnny is genuinely shocked when Baby gets her father to treat Penny after the botched abortion. "The way he saved her, that was something." But to Baby, it was never in question. Penny needed help and Baby could provide it, even though she knew her father would be upset at learning that his money had paid for an abortion. She goes after Johnny, even though her father had forbidden her. Her heartfelt confession to Johnny that "I'm scared of what I saw, of what I did, who I am. But I'm most scared of never feeling this way again, the way I do with you right now."
Baby is the first one to declare her feelings, putting herself in a vulnerable position. She handles the awkwardness of their first meeting after being together with a surprising level of dignity. She asks Johnny if he's had many women and doesn't shy away from his answer. She encourages Johnny to stand up for himself with Neil. All of these show how brave she is and how unwilling she is to compromise her morals.
When Johnny is fired on suspicion of theft, Baby doesn't hesitate to admit that she slept with him. Her father withdraws on hearing, shunning her. Baby confronts him with a powerful speech: I'm sorry I lied to you. But you lied too. You said everyone was alike and deserves a fair shake. But you meant everyone like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world and make it better, but you meant becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying someone from Harvard. I'm not proud of myself but I'm in this family and you can't keep giving me the silent treatment. If you love me, you have to love all the things about me. I love you and I'm sorry I let you down. But you let me down too."
She challenges his expectations of her and the world and won't let him get away with pretending she doesn't exist or that what she's done is somehow so shameful that she deserves to vanish. She may not claim to be proud, but she isn't ashamed and she treasures her time with Johnny.
Technically Dirty Dancing isn't a romance. Baby and Johnny don't end up together before the credits roll. But I like to think that they reconnect after Baby finishes college, when she's a little wiser and he's gained a little more confidence. That's a story I'd like to see.