Patrick Swayze, who died Monday at the age of 57, was many things—an actor, a heartthrob—but, as embodied by his character in Dirty Dancing, he was also something else: a sheygets par excellence. As the perfect distillation of goyish masculinity, Swayze’s character could dance and throw a punch! He rode a motorcycle! He was built like a brick house! Best of all, of course, he infuriated Daddy. Have movies ever offered the Jewish girl a more delicious slice of forbidden fruit?
But whither the hot sheygets today? (His sister, the bubbly blonde shiksa, is doing fine.) Dirty Dancing was set in the summer of 1963, and it seems that the assimilationist ’50s and ’60s were the sheygets’s heyday. Does this character have a place in today’s hyphenated America? Or is the role Swayze played in Dirty Dancing—the tantalizing, non-Hebraic Other—now a thing of the past?
I believe it is. The plot of Dirty Dancing—driven by Swayze’s Johnny Castle, the noble, working-class goy who is more authentic than the med-school-bound, proto-Yuppie, entitled Jewish boys of the Catskills—is drenched in the fear of intermarriage and wariness of class difference; for better or worse, those aren’t major concerns of young Jewish filmgoers. (Indeed, I use the word sheygets in this piece only to illustrate that the character of Johnny Castle is as much a relic of a bygone time as the phonograph records the characters bump and grind to—the word, once in wide use among Jews, is now rightfully seen as a slur: it literally means bug, unclean thing. Once, most Jews knew this. Today, not so much.)
We live in a world in which Jews are far less marginalized than they were in the heyday of bungalow communities. What’s true in life is true in film: where’s the bright line between Jewish and non-Jewish male leads in American moviemaking today? Romantic comedies are now ruled by the Apatow crew: Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Adam Sandler, Jonah Hill, Steve Carell, Paul Rudd. Jewish men are leads, not nebbishy sidekicks—and not only in romantic comedies. These days they even come in the buff, chest-baring, ass-kicking flavors (Inglourious Basterds, Munich, Defiance) that were once the province of the Swayzes.
Furthermore, what’s changed is not just how we view ethnicity but also how we define masculinity. Today’s male leads—Jewish and not—are generally wispier, more diffident than Swayze ever was: Shia LeBoeuf, Michael Cera, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Hugh Dancy, Johnny Depp, John Krasinski, James Franco, Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal. Which ones are Jews? It doesn’t matter. They don’t read as Jewish or goyish. All convey sweetness and a little awkwardness; they don’t exude testosterone the way Johnny Castle did. A lead like Swayze, who could convincingly beat up a bad guy and do the mambo, is a rare thing. Who can do this now? (Two words. Hugh Jackman.)
The biggest difference between then and now: our current irony-saturated moment. Swayze—and Johnny Castle—exuded sincerity. Even in the most ridiculous roles—such as, say, a bank-robbing, Buddhist surfer—Swayze conveyed seriousness. (The guy clearly had a sense of humor—he mocked his own persona by playing a wannabe-Chippendales-dancer in a Saturday Night Live skit; a drag queen in To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar; and a mullet-wearing bouncer in the bloodily homoerotic Road House, but his acting was generally wink-free.) Today, Johnny Castle’s earnestness (conveyed in lines like “the reason people treat me like I’m nothin’ is because I’m nothin’!”) is cringe-inducing. Today’s actors are arch, edgy. Swayze was anything but.
The world has expanded enough that Harold and Kumar, a Korean and an Indian, can be male leads in a mainstream film. They’re not white, they’re not Jewish, and they’re not shgotsim. They’re slackers, everything Johnny Castle wasn’t. They’re on a perpetual quest to get baked; Johnny would no sooner pick up a joint than a volume of Mishnah. Johnny takes his job as a summer resort dance director seriously. But such irony-free gravity and yearning are only acceptable today if you’re an overly moussed vampire in a movie aimed at teenagers. Dirty Dancing was a movie for everyone.
Speaking of yearning: an utterly unscientific Facebook poll found that most of us Jewish girls who came of age in the ’80s and ’90s and loved Dirty Dancing didn’t have crushes on Patrick Swayze. (Many of our moms, however, did. Maybe because the world they grew up in was a lot more like the world portrayed in the movie.) My generation loved Dirty Dancing without mooning over Johnny; our love was grounded in our identification with Baby, the character played so brilliantly by Jennifer Grey. (“I carried a watermelon.”) We empathized with her awkwardness, her big Jewish nose (RIP), her idealism, her crush on a seemingly unattainable guy.
It’s clear to me that Baby and Johnny don’t end up together. She’s going to go to Mount Holyoke and then the Peace Corps; he’s going to keep dancing in the Catskills. After that one summer of passion, she’ll wind up marrying a Jew. But most people don’t see it that way. The climactic “I had the time of my life” scene —admittedly one of the most awesome dance sequences on celluloid—has become a widely copied wedding dance around the world. Among British people! Chilean people! Brazilian people! New Jersey people!
As we struggle with questions of Jewish continuity and how far we want acculturation to go, it’s worth reflecting on that final dance: Baby overcomes her fear and lets Johnny “do the lift”—and suddenly the room is filled with Jews and non-Jews, rich people and working class people, everyone boogying together. Is that what we want? The disappearance of a slur word for a non-Jew is a good thing. But is the disappearance of all difference good, too?
Marjorie Ingall is a contributing editor to Tablet and a co-author of the just-released Hungry: A Young Model’s Story of Appetite, Ambition, and the Ultimate Embrace of Curves.