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!



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.