Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Babies in the Corner

The mad popularity of Dirty Dancing explains Ronald Reagan’s ideological victory and the ongoing crisis of American politics

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine. Original photos Lionsgate Films and Luke Frazza/AFP/Getty Images.)
The Arbiter

I had hoped to die having never watched Dirty Dancing. When the film originally came out, in 1987, I was 11, and there was little room in my world—a mess of dungeons, dragons, and video games—for its sweaty celebration of carnality and the Catskills. Growing up, I became aware, usually through the enthusiasm of assorted girlfriends, of the film’s iconic status for women of my generation. By the time I turned 16, I’d heard that no one puts baby in the corner about one thousand times, had caught enough snippets of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey gazing meaningfully into each other’s eyes to paste together the silly little story at the core of the film’s plot, and had grown confident that nothing about this movie merited the required expenditure of my time and dignity.

I thought I was through with Dirty Dancing; but Dirty Dancing, it turned out, wasn’t through with me.

While it takes a special kind of dullard to revisit a decades-old movie in search of ideological transgressions, the ongoing popularity of Dirty Dancing suggests that somewhere amid the sterling soundtrack and maudlin performances lurks a lesson that appeals to us more and more with time. And that lesson, alas, is this: The ’60s are over, and the bad guys won.

Last week, I finally watched the movie. I watched patiently as one dancing montage bled into another. I watched as lines like “I’m scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I’m with you” were delivered without the wink of self-awareness that might have saved them from their steely inanity. And when the credits finally rolled, I read each line, curious to see if the film’s true muse, Ronald Reagan, might be acknowledged for his implicit contribution.

He wasn’t, of course. He should’ve been. It’s hard to imagine a more befitting cinematic tribute to the Reagan presidency than Dirty Dancing. Having spent so much of his political career struggling to deflate the various democratic movements of the 1960s of their energy and might, the Gipper would’ve been thrilled with a film, set in 1963, in which a wealthy middle-manager boasts of running down to “freedom ride” in Alabama on his time off before imperiously denigrating his working-class white staff. He would’ve cooed upon hearing the paragon of said staff, Swayze’s Johnny Castle, describe with abject horror the fate that awaited him were he to lose his job as a dance instructor—a life as a member of the house painters’ union, an organization that just happened to be strongly involved in advocating for the Civil Rights Act that would pass the following year. And at the sight of a young woman who plans on joining the Peace Corps but is happy to be called Baby, is subservient to her father, and is happy to be led by her man, on the dance floor and off, Reagan might have declared with delight that it was morning in America yet again.

Call it Reagan’s Revenge: More than Reagonomics or Operation Urgent Fury, more than the disastrous War on Drugs or the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court, Reagan’s real legacy was the creation of a powerful conservative mythology that still defies resistance. Put coarsely, it claims that the 1960s and 1970s have been bad and dispiriting times and have created many problems for normal Americans; that progressives who suggest that these problems are complex and require complex solutions are missing the point; and that only a traditional, individualistic, and optimistic worldview can offer balm for the nation’s aching soul.

He put it best in a 1964 speech he made on behalf of Barry Goldwater, a speech that marked him as a political figure of national prominence and catapulted him, two years later, to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento. “They say we offer simple answers to complex problems,” he thundered. “Well, perhaps there is a simple answer—not an easy answer—but simple: if you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our heart is morally right.”

Jennifer Grey’s Baby Houseman couldn’t have put it better herself. She, like the 40th president, favors clear dichotomies—Robbie the Yale-educated waiter is bad, Johnny the hard-working dancer is good—and values her heart above all else. And like Reagan she believes that if you see something, you better say something to someone in power and expect him to do something about it. Reagan’s favorite problem-solving mode was swift, deliberate, and often erroneous action, like firing 11,345 air traffic controllers who struck for better conditions. Baby, too, turns to her authority figure—her father, played by the splendid Jerry Orbach—to solve every problem she faces. Her motto may very well be “when in doubt, call daddy.” Reagan’s governing philosophy was very much the same.

That all might have been fine had Dirty Dancing not taken the morally heinous step of dressing up its message in progressive clothing. The throngs of young women who see a role model in Baby admire, no doubt, her apparent poise—named after Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve in the U.S. Cabinet, Baby is the kind of teenager who wants to study the economics of developing nations and take on philanthropic work in impoverished countries, yet who is unafraid to toss her ambitions away at the first sight of a sweaty torso. She is presented in clear contrast to her sister Lisa, who is equally enthused about boys but shares none of Baby’s intellectual pretenses. The thinking girl watching the movie, then, is encouraged to believe, like Baby, in the saddening lie that one can eat her beefcake and have him, too.

I know several real-life Baby Housemans—men and women who bloomed into adulthood in the summer before Kennedy was shot—and so many of them are remarkable for replacing the tidy script of their own well-being with a more audacious story of country and community at large. They organized. They started movements. They demanded freedoms. They paid the price. They had to wait for no one else to shout out that they were not the sort of people who were fond of being put in corners. Baby is nothing like them. She is the paragon of passivity, and yet her many fans hail her as an emblem of independent-minded femininity in full flower.

If our parents, then, were Baby Boomers, we, the generation who grew up with Dirty Dancing, are merely Babys. We love talking pure and brave, but when it comes down to politics, we follow Reagan’s credo and look up to some immaculate figure to help us out. When that figure fails to deliver change we can believe in, we’re devastated; Jerry Orbach would never have failed us like this.

If the Occupy Wall Street movement is indeed an indication of a collective awakening, I can only hope that it will bring with it a cultural shift as well, one that views Dirty Dancing with disgust, or, better yet, not at all.

Print Email

All I can say is “wow!” As in “wow” are you mixed up. As a Boomer parent of two in their twenties and 35 when “Dirty Dancing” arrived on the scene growing up as a liberal in Newton MA (Barney Frank’s current district)becoming a Reagan Democrat in the early 80′s I lived through all Liel discusses.

Lots to rebut, but I’ll make two quick comments in refuting the above through personal experience. One, Liberals (progressives) have won the legal social/traditional values battles but have never won the hearts of the citizenry through those judicial decisions. Because the decisions were morally wrong. The minority forcing the majority’s acquiescence to them always causes a backlash. Two, people solve their own problems and not government.

My advice to Liel would be to grow up, deal with life’s realities instead of forcing societal compliance to your utopian philosophy and you’ll be far happier.

Liel is a troubled mind, and lost soul trapped in an overweight body that reflects his self-hatred. There is no air trafickers’ strike that can save this one.

Bill Pearlman says:

On the other hand. It could just be a movie.

Joe Ynot says:

The only reasons this article probably isn’t satire is that it is too emotionally coarse, intellectually unsophisticated, and historically ignorant.

The so much silliness in this piece that delineating would take an lengthy article in a psychological journal, but the overall irony of this piece is in its simple-minded condemnation of the simple-mindedness of others.

“Dirty Dancing” is a romantic fairy tale that has been told hundreds of ways in hundreds of variations. Almost every woman I know loves it, and almost every man I know is more or less indifferent to it. A good fairy tale resonates with a deeper truth, in this case the conflicts, courage, and romance women face as they grow into adulthood. Men have their own fairy tales–”Rocky” much?–and that’s all they are.

Okay, maybe I fell for it. Please, this article is a joke, right? If the author is serious, my pity for her is boundless.

Joe Ynot says:

Beginning of paragraph 2: “The so much silliness in this piece that delineating would take an…” should be “There is so much silliness in this piece that delineating it would take a…” but you already knew that.

Joe Ynot says:

Since there isn’t a man in the world who cares about “Dirty Dancing,” I just assumed that the author was a woman. Just realized the author is a man.

Brother, you’re so far from your turf, you don’t even understand the language, let alone the customs, traditions, motivations, or even the biology of what you’re seeing on the screen.

You need to seek out a therapist and find out the emotional ramifications of which your preoccupation with “Dirty Dancing” is a symptom. It won’t be pretty, but you’ll come out of it a better man, if for no other reason that you won’t humiliate yourself publicly by doing things such as writing long, inadvertently psychologically revealing articles about your obsession with “Dirty Dancing.”

I’ll rise to the bait. The OPENING LINES of the movie are “That was the summer of 1963 – when everybody called me Baby, and it didn’t occur to me to mind.” The whole POINT of the movie is that Baby grows up, embraces being Frances, and STOPS turning to Daddy “to solve every problem she faces.” The movie is beloved of smart girls because we KNOW it’s about having your cake and eating it too — Baby gets actualized AND gets a hot goy in one perfect summer, then goes on to (we hope) change the world in an old-fashioned, idealistic, Camelot-not-Reaganomics way. Johnny is the catalyst, the one person in the movie who asks her, “What’s your real name, Baby?” She replies, embarrassed, “Frances. For the first woman in the Cabinet.” (That would be Frances Perkins, champion of the New Deal and labor rights activist who fought for workplace safety, the very opposite of Reagany laissez-faire deregulation.) Johnny replies, “Frances. That’s a real grown up name.” The moral of the story: STRAIGHT BOYS SHOULD NOT WRITE ABOUT DIRTY DANCING.

No wonder this “analysis” of Ronald Reagan makes no sense. Its writer was five years old when Reagan took office.

Penny's Choice says:

Was the Photoshop really necessary?

Anyhoo, we’re the same age & yes, I DID love this movie. I’ve seen it several time since and was compelled to download the Ronettes. Yeah, it’s cheesy as hell…but just a movie.

C’mon now.

marcia greene says:

I do NOT see your correlation between Pres. R and dirty dancing at all. He did what needed to done at the time.

Hello, Tablet, anyone there? says:

So is Tablet just keeping Liel on for the page hits by providing the voyeuristic pleasure of watching someone intellectually embarrass themselves over and over and over?

Tipper says:

Wait a second. Are’t the progressives the one who turn to Daddy (aka the government) to solve their problems?

Joe makes several great points. One being my wife has seen this movie at least 10 times. I saw it once never interested to see it again. However, I must have seen “The Sting” from back in the early 70′s at least 6 times. Rocky 3-4 times.

Tipper is correct, liberals aren’t self-reliant.

Marcia–dead on correct.

Not sure what Marjorie’s point is. A teen growing up to be a woman doesn’t automatically make her the head of “NOW.”

Richard says:

Protagonist and ultimate arbiter are two different things. That Baby wasn’t yet empowered to enact the social justice she advocated does not reinforce the white male patriarchal paradigm any more than the black culture that brings the kids together subverts it.
If anything, a strident need to dredge subtext out of a movie that’s really just a benign elegy for the Borscht Belt aids and abets the “Reagan Revolution” as much as any lame 80s movie does.

Phyllis Miller says:

This has been a favorite film for me for a long time. I feel as though you missed the point. Dirty Dancing is about empowering women and we all know that there are few films which do that.

Reagan, shmaegan – the dancing and Patrick Swayze were really hot!

VHJM van Neerven says:

Great!
I am a baby boomer and very happy to read one from the generation after us writing our language. Our social and political stance was not in vain, then.
I shared a link to this article on my Facebook page with the comment: “Liel Leibovitz at his best!”

Thank you so much, Mr. Leibovitz.

Anyone else having trouble accessing messages? Can write them, but can’t see them

Peter W says:

I don’t know who’s a bigger moron: Leibovitz for writing this dreck, or me for spending a few minutes reading it.

What Liel the left-winger doesnt get is economics, try getting a dictionary to understand what the word means. It’s the study of human beings in a market place. If you want to be mad about being out of work (aka POed 20 something’s ala Occupy). Be mad at Obama and Washington, it’s the application of keynesian economics to this economy, there’s an eppifany, the real reason why Obumer can’t create ‘jobs’. Reagan simply applied ‘simplicity’ to the economy to solve problems, it’s about human behavior not giving money to unions to support your re-election. If you actually studied history you’d know what a failure FDR was and by 37 the economy was worse in fact economic growth shrunk, it collapse more than 1929-30, as opposed to Reagan, if the Glass-Steagall act was not reppealed in the 90s we’d have a relativity stable economy right now, thank you Barney Frank!m along with Govt spending.

Rather than sitting on their dead try getting a book and studding economics to understand why your out of work, nobody owes you anything. NO ONE!

Being a 20 something I call it the failed generation. Failure to wake up, shut up and make something of themselves! Being self-employed I have no sympathy for my peers, you make your own life, don’t expect the Govt or me to do it or give it to you, THAT is what Reagan taught.

As for the movie Liel was looking for a platform to address Occupy WS, a bad translation, try studying the Austrian School of Economics, you might learn something. I look forward to your article on a comparison contrast and how it would effect the economy and what the Tea Party really wants.

While my memory of Dirty Dancing is simply a movie that I saw with an old girlfriend that had jewish venues and themes, I think Liel is taking the plot a little off track.
The unfortunate fact that Reagan’s legacy has become a current day nightmare due to revisionist historians doesn’t mean his damage extends quite a deep as the author implys.

On balance, the good Reagan did far outweighed the bad. Defeating the USSR, tax cuts leading to economic/jobs vitality, and restoring national pride is pretty good for presidential accomplishments.

This is what you get when you take LSD at the movies. You think you’re a cultural critic.

Your first mistake was calling yourself special:

“it takes a special kind of dullard to revisit a decades-old movie in search of ideological transgressions”

You’re just a dullard.

This was a light-weight chick-flick.
Not an attack on the 60s.

Real life was an attack on the kind of 60s you imagine: an abstract set of values.

You think real 60s girls didn’t like boys or dancing?

You think there’s a special political message going on when a dancer doesn’t want to be a painter?

I know: you needed a few bucks so you wrote about a movie with Jewish characters. A job well done.

Hahaha. SWEET!

2000

Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Babies in the Corner

The mad popularity of Dirty Dancing explains Ronald Reagan’s ideological victory and the ongoing crisis of American politics

More on Tablet:

The Palestinians Are To Blame for the Failed Peace Talks—But Not for the Reason You Think

By Lee Smith — Abbas is facing an internal challenge to his leadership, and that—not Israeli housing plans—is why he’s bailing on Kerry