Dirty Dancing and Frozen: What Have We Learned in 26 Years? Part 1 of 3

In my earlier post, I made the argument that 1) Dirty Dancing is a disguised fairy tale, and 2) it deserves more consideration than it has previously received. So how about a comparison with one of the most popular fairy tales turned film in recent years?

Here’s the story: two sisters are brought into conflict when the younger sister falls for a man she barely knows. The older sister, who has long craved her father’s approval, goes off and does something seemingly dangerous. In the end it is the younger sister’s bravery that saves the day and allows the audience to reject the mistaken faith in the patriarchy. All the action takes place during the summer in a remote and beautiful resort town.

I hope you can see what I’m getting at.

Of course, there are significant differences between Dirty Dancing and Frozen. Intended audience for example: teens vs. children. Companies involved for another: Vestron, a small independent film studio working mostly with producing Videos vs. Disney (if you’ve heard of them?). I’m not arguing that these differences don’t matter, but I think despite the outward appearance of dissimilarity there’s something to be learned from comparing these two movies.

Specifically we may learn the trajectory that representation of female characters and female desire has taken in cinema. We may also discover what “strategies” (if so vulgar a term can be used) might be considered for future film endeavors.

Supporting Female Characters and Female Desire

Let’s begin with a comparison of the main characters focusing both on their depictions and storylines.

In Frozen, the main character is Anna, a young girl (according to the Disney wiki… sigh.) who is daring, extroverted and optimistic. She is also very naive and is reminded of her naivete constantly throughout the film. It’s actually pretty exhausting to watch as at every turn she is told that she isn’t smart enough, isn’t strong enough, isn’t correct in her decision. This includes her initial wish to play (thus causing the repression of Elsa’s magic), her choice of husband, her decision to track down Elsa, her attempt to climb the cliff, her confrontation with her sister and then her attempt to save herself by kissing Hans. This isn’t saying that every decision she made was wrong. On the contrary many times her initiative was the only thing driving on the plot, and it is her impetuosity that in the end saved her sister, herself, and the entire kingdom.

What I’m bemoaning, though, are the responses by ever other character. Here are some quotes: “You can’t marry a man you just met.” (I’d also like to point out that 1) Disney has been applauded for overturning this convention which they previously perpetuated for some fifty years 2) love as magic is really a kind of integral part of fairy tales and shouldn’t in and of itself be condemned); “Anna, no. It’s too dangerous.”; “Stop talking”; “I don’t trust your judgment”. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Let’s compare this with Dirty Dancing. Again we’ve got a young girl, Baby, who is bold and daring. The first night she’s at the Kellerman’s she sneaks out to the staff quarters.

I can't not see this as a Citizen Kane reference.

I can’t not see this as a Citizen Kane reference.

Here’s a rundown of some of the major action Baby takes in the film: she obtains money to get Penny an abortion; she fills in for Penny in the mambo; she gets her father when the abortion goes wrong; she initiates a relationship with Johnny; she gives Johnny an alibi; she dances at the conclusion of the film (of course). Again, maybe these weren’t always the best choices, but they worked in the context of the film and more importantly…

BABY WAS SUPPORTED IN ALMOST ALL OF HER ACTIONS. She get’s the money and, yeah, Johnny is snotty about it, but he also points out that Penny should take it. Here’s only one of the many lines from Johnny showing his support for her choices: “I’ve never known anyone like you. You think you can make the world better. Somebody’s lost, you find them. Somebody’s bleeding–” “I go get my daddy…” “That took a lot of guts to go to him!” Look at that validation! It’s so wonderful to see characters supporting each other and a female character not being questioned at every turn.

Baby, in contrast with Anna, is supported both in the script and by the plot in general in her desire for Johnny and in her decisions and action. This, to me, is a much stronger storyline for female characters. It is true that in Dirty Dancing Baby’s father questions her actions, but that has to do with my second point of comparison between these two films.

BUT since this post is getting out of hand, you’ll have to wait for the second installation! Stay tuned for Frozen vs. Dirty Dancing on representing and overturning the patriarchy!