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The Deeper Meaning of Dirty Dancing, Explained

What makes Dirty Dancing so irresistible? As much as we keep coming back to Emile Ardolino’s 1987 film for the iconic romance, Patrick Swayze, and of course, the dancing, there’s a deeper meaning in Frances “Baby” Houseman’s character arc that explains why this story has struck a chord for so many viewers ever since its release. Frances’ progression from “Baby” to woman is a symbolic awakening into her femininity and sexuality—a coming-of-age expressed as coming into one’s own body. As Baby takes ownership of her desires and physicality, she achieves confidence, maturity, and purpose. Here’s our Take on Dirty Dancing’s timeless insights into the young female experience.

TRANSCRIPT

What makes Dirty Dancing so irresistible? As much as we keep coming back to Emile Ardolino’s 1987 film for the iconic romance, Patrick Swayze, and, of course, the dancing, there’s a deeper meaning in protagonist Baby’s character arc that explains why this story has struck a chord for so many viewers ever since its release. Frances’ progression from Baby to woman is a symbolic telling of the heterosexual young woman’s awakening into her femininity and sexuality. It’s a coming-of-age expressed as coming into one’s own body. As Baby takes ownership of her desires and physicality, she achieves confidence, maturity, and purpose.

Jennifer Gray: “My character really becomes a woman and becomes aware of her sensuality.”

Here’s our take on Dirty Dancing’s timeless insights into the young female experience.

The Woman as a Young Girl:

Frances Houseman’s childlike state at the beginning of Dirty Dancing is allegorized through her nickname: Baby. Her voiceover in the opening scene frames her as an innocent living in an innocent time.

Baby: “That was before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came…”

In the film’s opening scene, Baby also identifies herself as a girl with an Electra complex, the female equivalent of an Oedipus complex. Coined by psychoanalyst Carl Jung, the Electra complex posits that a girl’s initial love object is her father.

Baby: “And I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my dad.”

Baby shows obvious girlish affection for her dad, gushing about him and striving to impress him. In the first dance class, when Penny says, “When I say stop you’re gonna find the man of your dreams!” Baby is about to move toward her dad —and looks disappointed when Penny cuts in. In key moments when she confronts a problem, her first instinct is to go to her dad for help. One of her big moments of crisis in the film comes when, for the first time, her father disapproves of her.

Jake Houseman: “You’re not the person I thought you were, Baby. I’m not sure who you are.”

But while it’s hard for her to take her dad’s criticism, this separation from him is crucial to her growing up.

Baby: “I’m so sorry, Daddy. But you let me down too.”

According to Jung, to overcome the Electra complex, the heterosexual female must transfer her love to another, more suitable love object. And in Dirty Dancing, Baby outgrows her fixation on her dad by bonding with a new man — the hunky dance instructor at her Catskills resort, Johnny. Baby’s journey from virginal girl to confident woman takes place through dance, which is used in the film to symbolically express sexuality.

Cece: “Guys think that the way you dance is the way you have sex.” - New Girl S4 E1

At the beginning of the film, while Baby is well-developed in her intellect and ideals, she’s removed from her own body. Her lack of sexual experience is reflected in her inability to dance, as shown in her awkward early attempts to participate in a meringue class and her clumsy swaying with Neil, the grandson of Kellerman’s owner who’s presented as a socially desirable match for her.

Baby: “Maybe my parents are looking for me.”

Neil: “Baby, don’t worry. If they think you’re with me, they’ll be the happiest parents at Kellerman’s.”

Even actual children outshine her on the dance floor. But when Baby observes Johnny and Penny perform, she’s immediately struck by what it looks like to connect with and master one’s own body. When she later observes the staff members dirty dancing with each other, this represents her first exposure to adult sexuality. That night, Johnny gives her her first informal lesson and almost immediately unlocks a new looseness in her physicality. Over the course of the story, through Baby’s dance education with Johnny, she develops mature, sexual feelings for him and gains confidence in herself.

Johnny: “It’s a feeling, a heartbeat.”

Simultaneously, dance becomes a means of learning femininity — the art of projecting her womanly grace and power through her body.

Penny: “Oh come on ladies, God wouldn’t have given you maracas if he didn’t want you to shake em!”

Baby studies this by imitating Penny, a more mature female Baby looks up to. As Penny supports Baby’s dance education, standing behind her while Baby partners with Johnny, she symbolically transfers her womanly knowledge to Baby. When Baby successfully replaces Penny as Johnny’s partner in the mambo performance, this marks a key step in her learning to perform her womanhood through dance. In this process, Baby undergoes a physical transformation — changing her hair, starting to wear makeup, and gradually exposing more of her body.

Yet it’s crucial that her metamorphosis represents realizing herself and coming into her own powers and desires, rather than altering herself to please her partner. Her new appearance reflects a woman who is increasingly comfortable in her own skin. Later in the film, this change in Baby is contrasted with her sister Lisa’s continuing disconnect from her own body. While it’s announced from the start that Lisa is preoccupied with markers of traditional femininity, she doesn’t get this empowering physical education over the course of the summer.

Near the end, Lisa’s talent show practice and performance have a comic absurdity to them, stemming from how she remains cut off from her physicality. And while Baby’s self-assurance is answered with the love of a partner who gets and respects her, Lisa’s failure to know herself is reflected in her wanting to have sex for the first time with Robbie, an insincere Yale student who isn’t at all the respectable, nice guy she thinks he is.

Baby’s and Johnny’s dance relationship ultimately leads to actual sexual consummation, but it’s striking that Baby actively seduces Johnny more than the other way around. Contrary to common social anxieties about women losing their virginity and men taking women’s virtue by deflowering them, Baby seems to gain power after she’s had sex because she’s done so on her terms with a person she loves.

Soon after their sexual relationship begins, Johnny calls her by her real name reflecting the way that he respects her as a grown woman and, unlike everyone else, doesn’t see her as a baby. She even leads Johnny and playfully bosses him around when they dance, showing off her new dominance and empowerment.

Baby: “You’re invading my dance space. This is my dance space. That’s yours.”

Likely in part due to its being inspired by female screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein’s real experiences,

Eleanor Bergstein: “I was called Baby until I was 20.”

Dirty Dancing captures an authentic female perspective of the joys of first love. And although the film is directed by a man, the camera frequently exerts a female gaze, the shots visually expressing the pleasure Baby takes in Johnny’s body and her own, inviting the viewer to participate in her desire for and enjoyment of him. Thus one of the most appealing aspects of Baby’s transformation and sexual awakening in Dirty Dancing is that unlike in countless stories about young women these are presented as truly empowering. She learns to know and express herself through dance, and sex.

Although no literal marriage takes place in Dirty Dancing, the film’s iconic final scene serves as a metaphorical one. Johnny takes Baby from her father to publicly dance with her. Their friends and family look on and cheer with an enthusiasm more typical of a wedding crowd than of a talent show’s audience. Baby’s father gives his blessing when he apologizes to Johnny for misjudging him.

Jake Houseman: “When I’m wrong, I say I’m wrong.”

And while until now Baby’s Electra complex has implicitly put her in competition with her mother for possession of the father, in this final scene the mother-daughter relationship also enters a more positive phase. Baby’s mother stands up for her and expresses pride in her Baby’s growth.

Marjorie Houseman: “I think she gets this from me.”

Notably, Baby has carved out a distinctive life for herself through a partner who’s different from her dad a muscular dancer of a working-class Irish background instead of a slim, highly educated Jewish doctor. Still, in the most important ways, he is that guy as great as her dad she was searching forsomeone caring, with an intact moral compass, unlike pretty much every other man Baby interacts with in the film, and thus a worthy replacement of her father as a love object.

Given that Baby is still very young and this summer of love doesn’t guarantee an eternal commitment, we can also read the figurative marriage at the end as between Baby and her own awakened sexuality. When Baby, at last, pulls off the big lift she’s struggled with, this success marks the happy completion of her development into the woman she truly is.

Class Warfare on the Dance Floor:

Baby and Johnny’s dancing also allows them to cross an invisible but very real divide between them: class. The difference between the two sub-societies at Kellerman’s is represented through their dancing. The wealthy guests’ dancing comes across as silly, disjointed, and devoid of emotion, while the working-class staff use dirty dancing as a form of joyous self-expression and connection. In Baby’s eyes, this difference immediately sets the Kellermans’ staff above her and her circle, in the sense that they’re in possession of an important self-knowledge which she and her fellow guests lack. But the other guests, Kellermans’ management, and the students of prestigious universities who wait tables as a summer job look down on the entertainment staff as distinctly below them.

Even the phrase “dirty dancing” encapsulates how the staff’s dancing talents are viewed as something appealing, tempting, transgressive, but ultimately, low, wrong, not respectable. While the guests lust after Johnny and Penny, they also treat the staff as no more than sexual objects

Johnny: “They’re slippin’ their room keys in my hand two and three times a day—different women—”

Baby: “I understand, you were just using them, that’s all.”

Johnny: “No, they were using me.”

who are demeaned and discarded when no longer useful.

When Johnny shoots down a married female guest’s advances, she accuses him of stealing to try to get him fired, while Robbie leaves Penny out in the cold after getting her pregnant, making her feel she has no option but to seek a dangerous illegal abortion.

Robbie and Neil explicitly voice that they’re better than others because of their social status and wealth.

Neil: “And he said to her, ‘What does he have that I don’t have?’ And she said, ‘Two hotels.’”

Like in a number of ‘80s teen movies, the class entitlement in Dirty Dancing is so extreme it’s almost cartoonish. It’s also exclusively white in its focus (despite the fact that dirty dancing itself descends from African-American musical culture, there’s only one speaking black character in the entire film an always-smiling background employee). Still, there’s enduring truth in the depiction of how these rich snobs view people who have less as being less-than.

Robbie: “Some people count. Some people don’t.”

Robbie justifies his dismissing certain people as worthless by pointing to the writings of Ayn Rand, which champion individualism to an extreme that disdains prioritizing the welfare

of the collective.

Howard Roark: “Our country, the noblest country in the history of men, was based on the principle of individualism. It was a country where a man was free to seek his own happiness. … That is what the collectivists are now asking you to destroy.” - The Fountainhead (1949)

Neil talks down to everyone, despite being less experienced, less creative, and less knowledgeable than most of the people he gets to boss around (purely thanks to nepotism). While courting Baby, he condescends to her and feeds her cheesy lines. He also constantly repeats her nickname Baby as if he really relishes seeing her as one.

Ultimately, it’s entitled jerks like Robbie and Neil with their empty priorities and inability to appreciate what’s valuable in others who prove themselves to be inferior human beings. But what’s truly damaging about the elite’s constant assertions of their superiority is that

they work to make people like Penny and Johnny feel like they’re not enough.

Baby: “I’m sorry about the way my father treated you.”

While the older, more experienced Johnny may seem at first to be the more powerful of the two in this romance, as the story goes on it’s underlined that young Baby is in fact in a position of power over him, due to her class privilege.

Last month I’m eating jujubes to stay alive. This month, women are stuffing diamonds in my pockets. I’m balancing on s*** and as quick as that I can be down there again.

As much as Baby worships him, Johnny feels that he’s not good enough for Baby because of the low self-esteem that’s been drilled into him by this world.

Johnny: “The reason people treat me like I’m nothing is because I’m nothing.”

And while Johnny pretends not to care about the opinions of these rich people, he has a clear chip on his shoulder and privately longs for

Baby’s father to respect him.

Johnny: “I dreamt we were walking along and we met your father and he said ‘Come on’ and he put his arm around me just like he did with Robbie.”

This is why the key moment when Baby proves her true love for Johnny is when she publicly declares that she was with him, in front of her dad. This moment leads to Baby also directly challenging her father about the flaws in the classist worldview he’s implicitly passed down to her.

Baby: “You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who is like you.”

Ultimately the film underlines the simple but important lesson that we need to treat people with decency and respect wherever we fall on the class ladder, but even more so if we’re in a position of power over others who have less status.

As much as she matures, in another important sense, Baby remains an innocent throughout the film. This character’s childlike idealism is in fact her superpower.

Neil: “Are you going to major in English?”

Baby: “No. Economics of underdeveloped countries. I’m going into the Peace Corps.”

Her uncorrupted baby-like perspective allows her to challenge the hypocrisies and cruelties which others accept in her elitist society. So what makes Frances become a truly exceptional young woman is that, in her heart, she remains the same principled person she’s always been, while her newfound confidence allows her to become a more effective actor in the world executing her ideals to fight what’s wrong in her society.

And the happy ending of the film doesn’t lie just in Baby’s and Johnny’s love story, but also in the feeling of a class-free utopia they manage to usher in, as both guests and staff rush the dance floor, interacting together in a natural, egalitarian way. Lisa, too, shows signs of following in her sister’s footsteps. In addition to realizing that Robbie’s a jerk and appreciating how Baby has blossomed, she ends the movie dancing with Johnny’s cousin, starting to learn how to move organically in her own body.

Even more important than her physical and sexual education over the course of Dirty Dancing is Baby’s moral one. The dance instructions she (and we) learn from Johnny symbolize important values like independence and self-responsibility within partnership, faith, and trust, and courage. Like any good teacher, Johnny is toughbecause to find the best dancer we have within, we have to be pushed and challenged.

So after all these years, and however old we are, we can still grow up along with Francis by internalizing the wisdom in these Dirty Dancing lessons, in our bodies and our souls.

Baby: “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.”