I first saw Dirty Dancing when my sister and I went to Space Camp. The counselors needed something to occupy the dozens of pre-teens milling about the camp’s main room, restlessly waiting until our dorms were ready, so into the VCR went this movie I had heard about but never seen. Of course, it’s pretty hard to concentrate on dialogue when a bunch of sweaty, bored kids are yelling and talking and singing along, so the only part I really remember was when Johnny and Baby started making out and a camp counselor leapt to the TV and held a piece of paper over the screen. Naturally, that only served to ensure that all of us were now focused on the screen and very curious about what was behind that sheet of loose-leaf notebook paper.
But the most controversial aspect of the movie unspooled without interference: Penny’s abortion. Which, as Eleanor Bergstein, the film’s writer and co-producer, pointed out in an interview earlier this year with Gender Across Borders, was an integral plot point:
Right before we opened, we were told there would be a national sponsor, and we were very excited, because we thought that meant big time – and that meant a tube of acne cream on every poster. And I was horrified. And I couldn’t do anything about it. And then the sponsors found that there was an illegal abortion, and they were worried that there would be a backlash, or that the Catholic Church would protest, so they came to me and said, “We’ll give you money to go back into the editing room and take the illegal abortion out.” And I said, “Oh, I’d be so happy to, but as it happens, it’s so into the plot that if I took it out, there’s no reason for Baby to learn to dance. There’s no reason for her to dance with Johnny, to dance at the Sheldrake, to fall in love with him, to make love with him, so the whole plot falls apart, so I can’t do it.” And they said, “Oh jeez, too bad,” so the tube of acne cream disappeared, to my joy, and [the abortion] stayed in.”
A lot of movies revolve around unexpected pregnancy, or expected pregnancy – that’s pretty much a Hollywood staple. That Dirty Dancing turns not just around Penny’s unplanned pregnancy but around her decision to have an abortion is notable for a mainstream movie (even one that, like Dancing, was a surprise success).
Also notable? Penny’s support system. She is not ostracized by her friends, who band together to help her raise the money, take time off work without losing her job, and stand by her when she becomes horribly ill after the procedure. Baby’s physician father treats Penny with care and respect when she is sick and reassures her that she can still have children in the future; when he realizes that he unwittingly helped pay for Penny’s abortion, by lending Baby the money, his anger at his daughter is driven by the fact that he paid for something illegal, not that it was an abortion. Penny, Baby, Johnny, and the rest of their friends are shown as courageous and honorable, in direct contrast to the boy who got Penny pregnant and abandoned her.
In an interview with Jezebel, Bergstein said that she wanted to include the abortion storyline because she feared that Roe v. Wade would be overturned. Over twenty years after Dirty Dancing was released, Roe is still the law, but films that present abortion in such a nuanced and realistic manner are very much the exception.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.