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'Dirty Dancing' and the Importance of Accessible Abortion

On Thursday, September 22, the Athena Cinema hosted a fundraiser showing the 1987 film, Dirty Dancing. The cost of each ticket ($10), along with anything else that was donated, all went toward the Abortion Fund of Ohio. The title of the movie is self-explanatory; however, there is much more to this classic romance film than what originally meets the eye. In fact, it addresses some rather controversial issues such as abortion and class privilege. This movie is more relevant than ever due to the recent overturn of the supreme court case, Roe v. Wade. Female-bodied people, like Penny, will once again be forced to seek out unsafe methods to terminate a pregnancy and spend a significant amount of money while doing it.

It’s the summer of 1963, and seventeen-year-old Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey) is vacationing with her family at Kellerman’s Mountain House in the Catskill Mountains of New York. It doesn’t take very long into her stay for her to get mixed up with some of the entertainment staff at Kellerman’s. The two most captivating members of the staff include dance instructors Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze) and former Rockette, Penny (Cynthia Rhodes). It is obvious that Baby is infatuated with dance instructor Johnny Castle as soon as she first lays eyes on him – and who could blame her? Have you seen Patrick Swayze? Come on.


Billy, another Kellerman’s employee and also Johnny’s cousin, takes her to the staff quarters, making her promise to keep it a secret. Walking into the room, Baby is stunned by the very intimate, inappropriate and irresistibly sexy dancing taking place. Soon after, Johnny and Penny make their grand entrance and Baby has her first chance to talk to Johnny with the infamous line, “I carried a watermelon."

At first, he seems frustrated that his cousin would risk bringing one of the guests to the staff quarters, but eventually, Johnny brings a hesitant Baby out to the dance floor. It is hilariously endearing how uncoordinated and awkward she originally is. As wonderful as that brief dance was, as soon as it was over it was unclear to Baby whether or not she would have the opportunity to be that close to Johnny again.


Later, when in the kitchen with Neil, the insufferable grandson of Max Kellerman who was attempting to court Baby, the pair accidentally stumbles upon Penny. Luckily, Baby is able to seamlessly escort Neil out before he is able to notice the dancer crying silently on the floor. She quickly finds Billy and Johnny and the three go to find Penny. Billy then lets Baby in on the secret that Penny is knocked up. Soon after, it is revealed that the Father is Robby (who happened to be seeing Baby’s sister, Lisa). Penny wanted an abortion, but she could not afford the $250 procedure (which would roughly be $2,420 today). Despite Robby having plenty of money that could have helped Penny, he refused, even when Baby brought it up to him herself.

Baby then decides to take matters into her own hands, asking her father to lend her the $250. After reassuring him that the person in trouble was not her and that it was not going toward anything illegal (Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973; up until that point, abortions were illegal), he gave her the money.


Baby’s privilege is displayed a few times throughout the movie, and she eventually comes to recognize it. Even though she clearly is grateful that her father can give her that kind of money on the fly, her easy access made Johnny uncomfortable, leading him to make a comment about “running to daddy." Originally, Penny declined the money because the only day the doctor could perform the abortion was the same day that she and Johnny were to perform the Mambo at another hotel. Jokingly, Johnny asks Baby if she would want to fill in. Much to his dismay, she says yes.

In the beginning, Johnny is obviously frustrated with Baby’s lack of coordination (she is as well) while teaching her how to Mambo. However, as she improves, it doesn’t take long for Johnny’s hard outer shell to crack, revealing a much more gentle and vulnerable man underneath. The sexual tension between the two continues to grow as the day of the performance approaches. Once the day finally arrives, Johnny and Baby dance well, with the exception of a few minor mistakes and the lack of the big lift.


However, the excitement from a successful performance is soon sobered once they returned to Kellerman’s. The person that did Penny’s abortion was not a real M.D., but a man with a dirty knife and a folding table. Profusely sweating and very ill from the botched abortion, Penny’s life is clearly in danger. In order to save her life, Baby gets her father, who is an actual doctor, to help.

Assuming that Johnny was the father, Dr. Houseman is very cold to him and forbids Baby from going around “those people” again. Clearly, Dr. Houseman, a rather wealthy man who could afford to bring his family to an all-inclusive resort for the summer, did not want his daughter getting mixed up with a man that teaches dance lessons, but that certainly does not stop her.


Nearly immediately, she sneaks out of her family's cabin to go to Johnny’s and apologize for the way that her father treated him. Then, she ultimately confesses her feelings for him which leads to them sleeping together. Their relationship progresses into something more intimate as they continue sneaking around to see each other. The stark contrast between Lisa, the older Houseman daughter seeing Harvard medical student Robby and Baby and Johnny is interesting. Dr. Houseman immediately takes Robby under his wing because he is a medical student without even realizing that he is objectively a bad person. He makes positive assumptions about Robby, but negative ones about Johnny, all due to their different class standings.


Despite all odds, the unlikely pair perform the last dance of the season together and it’s spectacular – the kind of final scene that makes you want to get up and dance along with them. Penny recovers and learns that she will still be able to have children. Dr. Houseman apologizes to Johnny for assuming that he was the one who got Penny into trouble. Baby and Johnny began to see eye to eye with each other about their differences. Baby recognized her inherent privilege to have such an inherently positive outlook toward the world, and Johnny came to appreciate her world views. Everyone had a happy ending.

Unfortunately, with the recent overturn of Roe v. Wade, some women will be forced to do what Penny did all the way back in 1963. Dirty Dancing is an instance that proves that abortions will continue to happen regardless of their legality. However, without the protection of legal abortions, women will be forced to go through unsafe procedures to terminate their pregnancy, putting their health and lives at risk.


The only way to ensure that women will not completely lose their bodily autonomy is to mobilize voters to elect pro-choice candidates. The online voter registration deadline is Tuesday, October 11. You can follow the link below if you need to register and/or update your voter registration in Ohio. If you haven’t seen Dirty Dancing yet, I highly recommend it, just like I highly recommend voting in the upcoming midterm elections.


Go to https://olvr.ohiosos.gov/ for more information.


-Maddie

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