Once Upon the Time of My Life: Dirty Dancing as a Fairy Tale

As any of my housemates could happily inform you, I’ve been on a bit of a Dirty Dancing kick recently. At first, I was confused as to why, until I realized several things:

1) Dirty Dancing has an incredible soundtrack: Otis Redding, Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons, The Drifters, Patrick Swayze singing “She’s Like the Wind”. You can’t beat it.

2) Whoa I haven’t seen female gaze like this since Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. (Remember that one time I took a Cinema and Media Studies class and it totally qualified me to write about film?) Then again, there’s a lot of gazing in Ali. If you know of other good movies with prominent female gaze you should let me know, because I’m sure I’ve seen them and just wasn’t paying attention… but I’d like to watch more.

3) Hey! Dirty Dancing is totally a fairy tale.

Fairy tales have all sorts of definitions, but my definition is based primarily on Bruno Bettelheim’s fantastic book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. Fairy tales by my loose translation of Bettelheim are stories focusing on the generic hero, with no explicit moral (though often an implied morality), that operate by helping both the hero and indirectly the reader to develop. There are plenty of characteristics that might indicate the presence of a fairy tale: a simplistic plot line involving a series of tasks, magic, characters with hidden/mistaken identities, step-siblings and parents, and a conclusion with love or the attainment of wealth.

It doesn’t take much to see how I arrived at my conclusion, then. We’ve got Jennifer Grey introducing the film with the line “That was the summer of 1963, when everybody called me ‘Baby’ and it didn’t occur to me to mind.” In other words, “Once upon a time…” Not to mention the name “Baby”, a generic fill in similar to “The Miller’s Seventh Son” or “A Young Girl”.

Throughout the film Baby is challenged by a series of tasks: finding money to fund Penny’s abortion, learning the dance routine, and finally, providing Johnny with an alibi by admitting to her relationship with him to her father. Through these tasks she embarks on the process of all fairy tale heroes, distancing herself from her parents and creating her own identity.

There are also a host of common fairy tale characters in Dirty Dancing: we have Lisa as the ugly step-sister (Lisa really deserves her own post and might just get it if I’m not lazy); Penny as the fairy godmother (See Tamar Jeffers McDonald’s article “Bringing Up Baby: Generic Hybridity in Dirty Dancing); we’ve got Doc as the overly protective father (think the father in Donkeyskin); and, of course, there’s Johnny straight out of the beast as bridegroom cycle.

The beast as bridegroom cycle includes such stories as “Beauty and the Beast”, “Cupid and Psyche” and “The Frog Prince” (mostly, sort of, debatable). As you have probably guessed, in this cycle  the romantic lead initially appears unattractive if not downright terrifying but through the understanding and perseverance of the hero, the beast is transformed in the end to the appropriate partner. Sound familiar?

Of course, in Dirty Dancing you have a relationship where both characters influence each other and grow together mutually, which is really kind of beautiful.

So what’s the point? Why does it matter if some 80’s dance flick is a fairy tale or not?

I think it is fair to say that few people take Dirty Dancing very seriously; it is often dismissed as overly simplistic and cheesy. How is everything so easily resolved? Why do people express so much emotion? I suppose my point if I have one is to prove that the reason for the simplified ending is the same as in a fairy tale: the growth has already happened, the conclusion can be left to your imagination. Further, by keeping things simple the film continues to allow readers/viewers to fill in their own subconscious desires and needs throughout repeat viewings. Finally, as in most fairy tales, love, and here dancing as well, is a type of magic that helps bring about a positive conclusion.

Of course, if Dirty Dancing is a fairy tale, it is of the German variety. It ends not with “happily ever after” but with the knowledge that the end of summer is still upon them, that despite all Johnny and Baby’s growth and development, they are still due for a separation. In the traditional German ending, then, it is rather “if they are not dead yet, then they are still alive”.

What I’d like people to gain from reading this absurdly long post, is that despite, or rather because of, its simpleness and cheesiness, Dirty Dancing is a classic for a reason and bears more serious consideration. If taken in the context of a fairy tale, Dirty Dancing can be viewed as a story not only of growth for almost all the characters involved, but also as a growing movie for the viewer that changes and shifts as the viewer does.

If you’re still here at the end of this, good job! Here’s a picture of the best laughter you are ever likely to see. Image taken from http://www.moviefancentral.com/sgizzy316?page=21. I cite my sources. Daughter of a librarian for life.

P.S. Stay tuned for a comparison between Dirty Dancing and Frozen.

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