Yes, you heard that right. I said what I said. Have you ever rewatched a childhood favourite, only to suddenly pick up on the subliminal messages you were being fed that inadvertently shaped you into the person you are today? As a child of the eighties, some were not exactly subtle: The absolutely traumatising Watership Down, complete with its themes of environmental destruction, anti capitalism and a rebellion against the bunny version of Pinochet and his oppressive regime. The Neverending Story, The Princess Bride and The Wizard Of Oz, which, if you’re a Wicked fan, will give you the nod that Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West was really an anarcha-feminist animal rights activist with a hatred of spycops who was racially persecuted then victimised by a vicious dictator’s propaganda machine.
But I digress. Last night while stumbling across a familiar old film due to being laid up with a foot injury and a couple of glasses of wine for company, I realised that something had turned me into a dangerous subversive long before I ever read Goldman or listened to Conflict.
Dirty Dancing. Hear me out…
Right from the beginning we meet our plucky protagonist, Baby. A smart and idealistic young woman from an all American middle class family, who’s dream is to join the Peace Corps, naïve in the belief that she can make the world a better place by doing so. The year is 1963, and she and her family are arriving at Kellerman’s Mountain House to spend the summer there. All teenagers dress like mini clones of their parents and they love going out and taking fox trot classes together while drinking soda. The All American Dream.
But quite quickly we see another side to Kellerman’s and it’s complex social structures. It isn’t quite as simple as rich holiday makers vs poor staff. All the waiting staff appear to be Ivy League College students working for the summer and employed quite deliberately by Kellerman to romance the daughters while their approving parents spend more money in the bar, happy that their coming of age teenager is dating a future doctor or lawyer. Kellerman even tries to palm off his detestable nephew Neil onto a horrified Baby- an utterly condescending horrorbag who looks like a boujie 80’s cartoon Willo The Wisp, and openly brags that the only reason girls like him is money.
And it is at this point we meet the other side of the class divide- The Entertainment Staff, including Johnny Castle. Clearly a bit rougher from blue collar backgrounds they are explicitly instructed by Kellerman that they have different rules and are to give the rich young women of Kellerman’s nothing but dance lessons or there will be consequences. For what wealthy businessman would bring his family back to Kellerman’s next year if he learned his little princess was getting felt up by a beautiful, virile penniless artist behind the bins the whole time they were there?
Kellerman’s is a model village of capitalism. It despises poor people but relies on them for exploitation and profit, so it keeps them hidden behind the scenes and tells them they should be grateful to be a part of it. Hidden that is until Baby is introduced to them when she unwittingly engages in manual labour. Clutching the Watermelon of Proletariat Revolution, the door is kicked open to a world she has never seen before. Dirty, passionate and unashamedly real. Here they can be themselves, here they can scream and dance, away from social niceties. Here they are equal. Remember the film is set in 1963, but segregation wasn’t fully ended in the United States until 1964, yet in this loud, hazy room we see black, white and hispanic workers dancing raucously together.
Baby’s face say’s it all. She stands there completely out of her depth, not really knowing how to act. Of course she falls instantly in love with the wildling Johnny Castle, who absolutely screams anarchist as he fucks off the insults of the smarmy waiters in his entirely all black wardrobe.
He understands how this world works, and so does Penny, his childhood friend. Both have been exploited sexually, laboriously and emotionally by their wealthier and better resourced counterparts on the resort.
Penny is understandably suspicious of Baby and her motives, particularly when she tried to help her after discovering Penny is pregnant and struggling to access money to pay for a termination. Baby quite condescendingly tries to tell Penny it must be a mistake that Robbie-the father of the baby- is not going to help her and she decides take it upon herself to reason with him. But Robbie is not going to be told by a woman, not even one of his class. He is confounded that he is being asked to take responsibility and support Penny. Or, as he says “some people count, some people don’t” before he hands her a copy of The Fountainhead by Ayn Fucking Rand. And that’s it. That’s the point when Baby looks at him like she wants him dead and realises she will have to destroy her own kind.
Make no mistake, if Dirty Dancing was made in 2020, Robbie would be wearing a fucking Pepe badge with a Gadsden Flag telling black people he couldn’t be racist because he signed a petition to free Bill Cosby.
The way Robbie treats women and the way that Johnny treats women is worlds apart. Right from the beginning we witness what appears to be the aftermath of an attempted sexual assault on Lisa by Robbie. On the other side of the divide, Johnny treats Baby as an equal, refusing to infantilise her by using that demeaning moniker and asks her what her actual name is instead- Frances.
As well as class consciousness, class privilege is also a theme. Baby’s reluctance to tell her dad about her relationship after he has told her he doesn’t want her having anything more with “those people”. When Johnny has more of his artistic licence taken away for a more corporate and uniform approach from Neil, Baby cannot understand why he agreed to it and doesn’t just “fight it and tell them your ideas”. She’s always seen that work for her and the people around her, but as Johnny points out “You don’t know them like I do-they’re rich and they’re mean”. Because at this point there is no organisation in the workforce and if he tries to stand up to them, he will pushed even further into the poverty cycle.
He wins some smaller battles though, namely absolutely chinning budding date rapist Robbie for a suggestive remark towards Baby. I’ll be honest, I thought she’d be unbearably liberal and all “don’t sink to his level, violence is not the answer”, but she clearly gets off on it and has a taste for the riot porn now.
When Johnny is fired after his relationship with Baby is discovered, it looks like they are all just about to pack up, go home and accept defeat from The Man. But oh no. Johnny turns around. Its time to organise and bring the Kellerman’s down in their own kingdom. As what has to be the dullest and whitest end of season show plays out on the stage in the main hall, we see the quietly seething staff starting to gather and surround the oblivious guests, the tension tantamount to Bastille Day before it all kicked off.
Their excitement as Johnny strides back in is only equal to that of Baby’s who is now no longer afraid to follow her head and heart to join him. She’s basically Kropotkin with a perm, renouncing her riches to follow the cause.
Together with the rest of the dancers they then gyrate their way to the revolution, seizing the means of production and making it their own under the gaze of the crestfallen Max Kellerman who realises now its time to step aside and adapt or crumble.
And they all live subversively ever after.
Obviously I’m desperately praying you’re not sat there taking any of this seriously. Apart from what I said about Watership Down, I meant every word of that. This movie is astoundingly white, with I think exactly one none white character having even a tiny speaking part. The only bit that is even remotely plausible is Baby’s look of mortification after she blurts out “I carried a watermelon”, because hey, we’ve all been there.
And I’m not joking about organising in the workplace or unions either. Join one. Up the Wobblies. Before the Neil’s of this world force us all to give up Cuban soul dancing for the Pachanga.
Here’s some Idles for ya. Namely because it’s a cracking cover of a song from the soundtrack and also because I’m ridiculously excited that I’ll be seeing them in May.