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.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.