Baby Houseman Was My First Feminist Role Model

No, I'm not kidding. I totally learned how to be a feminist from DIRTY DANCING.

That was the summer of 1988 - when everybody called me Goose, and it didn't occur to me to mind. That was after President Kennedy was shot, after the Beatles came, when I couldn't wait to join the Holograms, and I thought I'd never find a guy as great as my dad.

I was seven years old the first time I saw Dirty Dancing. It meant something to me right away. Even as a seven-year-old I was boy crazy, and I was not immune to Patrick Swayze's charms. I've always loved to dance and absorbed every single movie and TV show I could find about dancing. None of this has changed.

But none of that's the reason I was so moved by Dirty Dancing the first time I saw it, either. No, that's due to one Ms. Frances Baby Houseman (Jennifer Grey). After seeing Dirty Dancing, I wanted to hot roll my hair like Baby. I wanted her peach dress and her silver heels. I wanted to dance like her. But most of all, I wanted to be like her. I still do.

When we first meet Baby, she's a recent high school graduate with big ideas and bigger ideals. She's going to Mount Holyoke, a Massachusetts liberal arts college for women, in the fall. She wants to join the Peace Corps. She's going to change the world.

I loved all of that about her, but what I loved best about Baby, what I love best, is how she changes over her summer at Kellerman's - a change that's set in motion after she meets Johnny Castle (Swayze). This may sound like the opposite of a typical feminist trajectory - young girl abandons her ideals after meeting a muscled dreamer - but Dirty Dancing is about the unexpected ways that we grow when we learn more about the world, when we allow ourselves to view people from other walks of life with acceptance and without judgment.

Johnny's the opposite of the guy Baby's dad (the inimitable Jerry Orbach) wants for her. He's not educated, and he's not looking forward to a perfect, WASPy future made just cutting edge enough by a bleeding heart. Johnny's just a guy - a dancer, a sweetheart. A stud. But he teaches her about passion, and more importantly helps her find a specific passion she didn't know she had in dance.

But Dirty Dancing isn't about what Johnny teaches Baby. It's about what Baby teaches Johnny. Early in the film Baby discovers that Johnny's dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) has been "knocked up by Robbie the creep." Penny has to get an abortion to keep her job at Kellerman's, and probably for other, personal reasons that are none of our business. Penny wants an abortion; she should get an abortion. Baby understands this, because Baby's amazing. She doesn't ask questions and offers zero judgment - she just borrows the money from her unknowing father and arranges to take over Penny's shift at the Sheldrake. She does this for someone she scarcely knows, for no other reason than she sees a problem that needs fixing, and she wants to help.

Of course, as a seven-year-old, I had no real idea what was happening in this storyline. I vaguely thought that being "knocked up" meant that Robbie the creep (Max Cantor) had hit Penny, and that's why she needed a doctor. But I knew enough then to admire the way Baby takes charge, surrounded by a group of people older and cooler than she - the way she sees someone who needs her help, and offers it without hesitation, asking nothing in return. She even gives Robbie the creep a crotch full of ice water for creating this situation and then bailing on it.

As an adult, I admire even more that Baby is willing to break the law (at least as an accessory) and risk disappointing her beloved father because she knows a woman who wants an abortion and should therefore get one. It's a pretty brave storyline for Dirty Dancing, one that we rarely see even today - Penny isn't sick, and she wasn't raped. She's just not ready to have a child, so she shouldn't be forced to have one. And once, unfortunately, the procedure is botched, Baby doesn't delay in running for her father so he can tend to Penny, despite the fact that this will earn his grave disapproval - and for an over-achieving Daddy's girl like Baby, nothing is worse than Daddy's disapproval. Trust me on this. She earns it again, and worse, when a jealous woman frames Johnny for a series of robberies and Baby gives him his alibi, in spite of the fact that this leaves her tacitly admitting to sleeping with him after promising her father that she'd never see him again.

Baby is fearless in other ways. Taking over Penny's shift at the Sheldrake means learning the mambo in a few days' time - and then performing on stage in front of an auditorium full of people. She's never danced a step before she takes on this endeavor, and it's worth noting that she only becomes determined to try after Johnny avers that there's no way he can teach her in such a short amount of time. "She can't even do the merengue! She cannot do it." With that, we see Baby's face turn steely, and the next scene has her stepping on Johnny's feet as he attempts to teach her the steps. Telling Baby she can't do something is the quickest way to ensure that she will. She makes it to the Sheldrake, and she does a fine job, a few goofy missteps aside. Of course, they had to save the big dance revelation for the end, when all of a sudden Baby has become the most graceful dancer we've ever seen, as she glides across the floor to a song that couldn't possibly have been recorded in 1963 because it belongs, purely and completely, to the '80s.

But even that isn't Baby's most fearless moment. The moment that I admire Baby most, the scene that I can quote from heart, is this. After Dr. Houseman saves Penny's life and gives Baby the lecture of hers, Baby heads to Johnny's cabin. Johnny tells Baby how much he appreciates what she did, and how amazed he is that she doesn't seem to be afraid of anything. And this teenage girl, faced with the mountain of manhood that is Patrick Swayze, tells him:

Me? I'm scared of everything! I'm scared of what I saw, I'm scared of what I did, of who I am. And most of all 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.

And then she asks him to dance. I could write a whole other post about how this scene, and Solomon Burke's "Cry to Me," gave me my first sexual stirrings, but that's not what today's post is about. No, today we're talking about Frances Baby Houseman, named after the first woman in the Cabinet, and how she was brave and honest. How she was willing to be vulnerable, and make a fool of herself, and disappoint her father and strip away her own perfect daughter trappings. Baby stands up for what she believes in, and for what she wants. She does this the only way any of us should do anything: unequivocally. Johnny loves this in her, and this shy, studly older man blooms under her warmth and strength. He calls her "a great partner who's not only a terrific dancer, but somebody who's taught me that there are people willing to stand up for other people no matter what it costs them. Somebody who's taught me about the kind of person I want to be." Me too, Johnny. Me too.

Maybe my real feminist hero is Eleanor Bergstein, who wrote Dirty Dancing as a glamorized version of her younger years, and who didn't shy away from topics like elective abortions and teenage female sexuality. I guess it is. But all of that's sort of nebulous to a seven-year-old girl who worshipped her dad and whom everyone called Goose. That girl learned how to be a feminist from a fictional character named Baby in an '80s dance movie, and I think she's the better for it.

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