Thirty years after its debut on the big screen, Dirty Dancing is a pop culture classic that's adored by generations. The film is remembered for its oh-so-sexy dancing, the star-crossed summer romance between naïve Baby, played by Jennifer Grey, and hunky Johnny, played by Patrick Swayze, and, of course, its iconic soundtrack. Dirty Dancing is less known for its powerful political content—it highlights class and race relations, comments on the Vietnam War, and features a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion as the plot twist that brings Johnny and Baby together.
In honor of Dirty Dancing's anniversary, Broadly caught up with the film's screenwriter and co-producer, Eleanor Bergstein, by phone to discuss the film's political themes. Bergstein—who also wrote and produced a stage rendition of Dirty Dancing that's been selling out around the world since 2004—is currently hard at work on a new stage musical, and on a TV series based on her first novel about women, feminism, and politics in the 60s.
We talked about Dirty Dancing's abortion plotline and its reception, the activist potential of popular media, and much more.
BROADLY: Why did you choose to include an illegal abortion plotline in Dirty Dancing?
Eleanor Bergstein: When I made the movie in 1987, about 1963, I put in the illegal abortion and everyone said, "Why? There was Roe vs. Wade—what are you doing this for?" I said, "Well, I don't know that we will always have Roe vs. Wade," and I got a lot of pushback on that. Worse than that, there were also very young women then who didn't remember a time before Roe vs. Wade, so for them I was like Susan B. Anthony, saying, "Oh, just remember, remember, remember."
If you're putting in a political theme, you really better have it written into the story, because otherwise the day will come when they'll tell you to take it out. And if they can, it will go out.
I left the abortion in [Dirty Dancing] through a lot of pushback from everybody, and when it came time to shoot it, I made it very clear that we would leave in what is, for me, very purple language: references to dirty knives, a folding table, hearing Penny screaming in the hallway. I had a doctor on set to make sure [the description of the illegal abortion] was right. The reason I put that language in there was because I felt that—even with it being a coat hanger abortion—a whole generation of young people, and women especially… wouldn't understand what [the illegal abortion] was. So I put very, very graphic language in, and I worked very hard on shooting it to make sure it was shown realistically.
What kind of pushback did you get around including the abortion plot?
Shortly before the film came out, the studio thought it was the biggest piece of junk in the world, and that it was going to go right to video. There was no sense that it was going to be anything other than a crappy little video release. The people who made it loved it, but we had no support at all. And then we got a national sponsor. Then the national sponsor, who was some big food company, saw the whole film and saw that there was an illegal abortion in it, and [the sponsor] said to take the abortion out. The studio came to me and said, "Okay, Eleanor, we'll pay for you to go back into the editing room and take the abortion out." And I had always known this day would come—and that I could then say, "Honestly, I would be happy to, but if I take it out, the whole story collapses. There's no reason for Baby to help Penny, for her to dance or fall in love with Johnny. None of these things will happen without the abortion, so I simply can't do it even though I'd be so happy to do what you want." So we lost our national sponsor.
What I always say to people—since people are always complaining that they put serious moral themes in their movies that get taken out—is that if you're putting in a political theme, you really better have it written into the story, because otherwise the day will come when they'll tell you to take it out. And if they can, it will go out. If it's in the corner of the frame, it will always go out.
You mentioned that you had younger women in mind in particular while making Dirty Dancing. What did you hope younger women would learn about abortion from the film?
I hoped they would learn not to take it for granted. I hoped they would know what it was like before there was [legal] abortion. They didn't know, because if their mothers had had illegal abortions, they didn't tell them, and they'd never heard of it. They grew up as Planned Parenthood babies—when they were fourteen, they went and got pills from Planned Parenthood, so they really didn't know.
You can make a [serious] film, and only people who agree with you will see it. You can make a film about true love and wonderful music and pretty dancing and sexy people, and have in it a lovely girl who ends up with a dirty knife and a folding table screaming in the hallway, and maybe you understand it. So I was concerned to do it this way.
When you were making the film, were you concerned that Roe v. Wade might be overturned?
Yes, I was. I was, and everyone told me that I was crazy, but I was concerned. I knew that attitudes hadn't really changed that much, so I thought, It's great that it's here, but I'm not sure that all those attitudes have turned around in response to it. I'm always concerned about things like that, but look, here we are. I had a video going around which I made for the 2016 presidential campaign that said, "Everybody wonders what Baby and Johnny would be doing now. Baby would be out working her ass off for Hillary and I hope that you will be, too."
Real people have to have abortions even as they're dancing and falling in love.
How has reception of the abortion plot in the film changed over the past 30 years since its release?
Back then, people wanted to know if Baby and Johnny get together again. They talked about how sexy Patrick was. People talked about everything in the film, and to our joy it went on and on and on. I have a cousin who runs the Planned Parenthood down on Bleecker Street, and years ago she wrote me saying, "Eleanor, I just want to say that I just realized how many of my moral and political attitudes were shaped by seeing [films] when I was a little girl," and I thought, Oh, that's interesting.
Then Irin Carmon at Jezebel called me for an interview [in 2010], and her questions were about all the political themes of Dirty Dancing, and it surprised me. She said I should go online and look at the [comments], so I did and of course there were hundreds and hundreds of young women saying that they realized this movie was not a guilty pleasure, that so many of their moral and political attitudes came from it, so that was lovely. Then there was a cartoon in The New Yorker that had a man at a rally saying to a woman, "What is a coat hanger abortion?" And she says, "Haven't you seen Dirty Dancing?" That was a big, big sea change in everything.
Dirty Dancing was not only one of the first films that touched on abortion, but it's also the one film that has gone deepest into the complexities around abortion. That's so groundbreaking, especially considering you made it thirty years ago.
It makes me very happy that you say that, because honestly that's the only reason I made the damn film. There were plenty of films about love and romance, but if they tried to take those [political] things out, I wouldn't have knocked myself out to make it. There are six social classes in Dirty Dancing, there's the Vietnam War, and there's all the stuff about race relations, and those were the things that I cared about, but I felt that the only way to get people into theaters to see them was to have them instinctively move into the film's fabric of love and wonderful music and dancing. And that is real life. Real people have to have abortions even as they're dancing and falling in love. And real people have to go off to Vietnam or Iraq, and real people are in the streets in Black Lives Matter marches. You can't separate a cause from a story of people's romantic or sensual or happy lives.
What role do you think films, and in particular popular films, can play in political resistance?
I think they can change attitudes… I think popular movies and TV can give you a role model for moral, sensual, sexual, ethical behavior that makes you feel attached to the world. What I hoped for with Dirty Dancing was that it would attach [viewers] to the world in a way that brought honor to themselves and to the world. And I think everyone has a secret dancer inside them and such. I think it can and does encourage people to be their best selves, and to think that they can make a difference. And I think that's so important, which is why now I'm concerned with making political action a thing that people want to do. I go to these marches and I give speeches and such, but I think that popular culture will change things more. Or I hope so.