Dirty Dancing (1987) is a feature-length thirst trap with arms, legs, and a heart. Frances “Baby” Houseman’s self-discovery in the Catskills remains relevant because of its class-defying, steamy romance, its killer soundtrack, its daring depiction of an illegal abortion, and its electrifying dance sequences. But it’s also a rite-of-passage coming of age story for American Jewish women that’s already been passed l’dor v’dor — from generation to generation — in the 33 years it’s been around. My first viewing of Dirty Dancing was as sacred in my home as my Bat Mitzvah, and one look at its beautiful, bushy-haired, big-nosed leading lady tells you why.
It’s difficult even today to find a big Hollywood story about Jewish girls, written by Jewish girls, where the Jewish girls “look Jewish” in the normative white, Ashkenazi sense. There are even fewer onscreen stories about Sephardim, Mizrahim, and Jewish women of color, though the 1986 film Every Time We Say Goodbye with Tom Hanks and Cristina Marsillach is a criminally underrated depiction of Sephardim and the Sephardic Ladino language. When Jewish women appear on the screen, we are usually the unsexy alternative to some Jewish man’s “shiksa goddess,” or the hypersexual subject of some gentile man’s rebellion. We’re also usually not the main character, and our Judaism is usually played for jokes more than it’s given cultural or religious significance.
In delicious contrast, Dirty Dancing is the unique 1980s adolescent fantasy written by Jewish girls, for Jewish girls. Without the talented and persistent writing/producing team of Eleanor Bergstein and Linda Gottlieb, this movie might never have been made, or it might have been made worse. The Dirty Dancing episode of “The Movies That Made Us” on Netflix shows just how many people turned down the chance to work on this little movie that could, and how important it was to Bergstein and Gottlieb to maintain creative control and keep the story close to home. They were not going to compromise on portraying something real.
Let’s see if this sounds familiar: Eleanor Bergstein was a competitive dancer and the daughter of a Jewish doctor. She and her family spent their summers in the Catskills, where she danced while her parents took part in more official resort activities. Dirty Dancing is not an autobiography, but it is her story. She knew how it needed to look, how it needed to sound; the “Movies That Made Us” episode tells of an unrelenting Bergstein who refused to release the film unless she was able to secure the rights to all of the songs she felt were necessary to the narrative, and thank God she got them, because that soundtrack went multi-platinum.
She also knew how to create a universal, relatable fantasy through her specific perspective. That started with casting Jennifer Grey, who’d never really played the romantic lead before being cast in Dirty Dancing as THE romantic lead. Grey, the daughter of Broadway legend Joel Grey, had little professional dance experience when she accepted the role, which made the sequences where Baby learns from Johnny that much more real (that sequence where Baby keeps laughing as Johnny tries to run his hand down her side? All real, all bloopers, all made Patrick Swayze super angry). She plays the strong-willed, smart, and talented Baby to perfection; she also “looks Jewish” in the way that’s often made unsexy onscreen.
Baby is beautiful, though. As she gets more confident, she gets even more beautiful. Nothing meaningfully changes about the way she looks from beginning to end, except maybe her hair gets a little bigger. There’s no makeover sequence. There’s even a part where Baby’s sister Lisa offers to do her makeup and make her “look pretty” before conceding that Baby looks prettiest “her way.” The film does not apologize for framing Baby’s self-assurance as attractive, and her Ashkenazi Jewishness is an asset to her beauty rather than something to be flat-ironed or rhinoplasty away.
She also gets the guy — and what a guy to get in himbo king Johnny Castle, played by genuine modern Renaissance man Patrick Swayze. If Jewish male-centric coming-of-age stories covet and pursue the shiksa goddess, Johnny Castle is the equivalent goyishe god, the walking, talking, hip-swinging picture of conventional male beauty. Dirty Dancing’s fantasy is not just of a man of this caliber — a man who is not only beautiful but good, sensitive, kind, and hardworking. It’s also a validation that, if this man could really exist, he could fall in love with someone like you. Who has your attitude. Who has your hair and your nose.
People talk a lot of smack about Dirty Dancing, which is unfortunately most famous for its dumbest line and cheesiest song. But there’s a reason we’re still watching it. There’s a reason it was the first movie to sell one million copies on home video. Every single day, Dirty Dancing teaches adolescent girls that they don’t need to compromise on who they are to exude beauty, confidence, and strength.