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The Lessons 'Footloose' Can Teach Us About Political Resistance

After a law banning dancing threatened a Valentine's Day event in Oklahoma—in 2017—we look to the goofy musical for answers.

by Sean Egan
Mar 7 2017, 3:35pm

A detail from a 1984 promotional poster for 'Footloose.'

In our Dancing vs. The State series, THUMP explores nightlife's complicated relationship to law enforcement, past and present.

Imagine, if you will, going through the trouble of organizing a town-wide dance. You've got the decorations, you've hired the DJ, you've sent out the invites, and, most importantly, you've secured your venue—a space right on Broadway, across the street from the local church. Now imagine, just days before the shindig, you were forced to cancel the event on account of an arcane law outlawing dancing within 500 feet of a house of worship.

No, this isn't just 1984's camp-tastic musical-drama, Footloose, in which Chicagoan transplant Ren (Kevin Bacon) fights the draconian anti-dancing laws of fictional flyover town Bomont—though the parallels between the two scenarios are striking. This is a real-life situation that the residents of Henryetta, Oklahoma were confronted with, when they were pressured to call off a Valentine's Day dance this February. Yes, February 2017.

It seems, in the last few months we've all been kicked into a bizarro version of America where, somehow, Footloose, that decades-old hunk of cinematic gouda, has become startlingly prescient—a phrase pop culture writers have been using with reckless abandon of late in reference to anything tangentially dystopian (Did you hear? Trump's just like Voldemort!). But again, I'm not just talking nebulous, big-picture prognostication—though any number of the Trump Administration's unconscionable governmental orders could serve as an analogue to Footloose's cartoonishly oppressive dancing ban. No, this is somehow still a very literal problem in Henryetta.

So now that life's imitating pop culture detritus, it makes perfect sense to take stock of Footloose, and see what lessons we can learn from it in the face of oppressive government regulations and political divide. After all, when Ren battles the conservative forces that be for his right to dance, he makes real progress. One superfluous montage at a time, the high schooler changes hearts and minds, setting the stage for legislative reform and a killer dance party—and couldn't we use a little of both right now?

1. Learn the culture of your ideological opponents.

A dancing-obsessed Kurt Vonnegut fan at the film's outset, Ren quickly immerses himself in some of the cornerstones of conservative life: he joins the wrestling team, loiters by train tracks, and takes an honest-to-god blue collar job at the local mill. He even becomes fluent in some core conservative languages, such as "punching," "the Bible," and "tractor fighting."

As in our world, the Bible warrants a more in-depth discussion (which we'll get to later), but punching is pretty straightforward in Footloose. In the film, Ren is called upon to physically confront the bully Chuck, whose favorite hobbies seem to be being homophobic and assaulting women. This obviously doesn't sit well with big-city liberal Ren, who's cajoled into opening a can of whoopass to convince him to stop being such a dick. Yes, Footloose asserts physical retaliation is an entirely legitimate response to both personal and ideological disagreements. Footloose, then, wouldn't give a second thought to something like, say, the punching of Richard Spencer—the petulant prince of white supremacists. And hey, maybe next time Footloose might hit some alt-right scum—let's say Milo Yiannopoulos, for argument's sake—with a sweet karate kick to the dome, as Ren ultimately does to Chuck. Yeah... If I know Footloose, that's exactly what it'd do—provided a perm-inducing cut from its soundtrack LP was needlessly blasting in the background.

"Tractor fighting" is the logical extension of "punching" in the Footloose universe. In a totally real scene (with a tenuous grasp on reality), Ren participates in a holy-shit-that's-dangerous game of chicken with industrial tractors to prove his mettle to Chuck, leaving one tractor wrecked and Chuck in a ravine. I don't have much to add on this subject, though I'll say not destroying thousands of dollars of agricultural equipment for kicks might help alleviate some of the economic stress rural America's currently facing.

2. Organize, go underground, and defy the laws.

Ren also surrounds himself with friends who similarly believe the town's boogie ban is bull. These include the rebellious preacher's daughter Ariel Moore, and open-minded dimwit Willard. The more Ren ingratiates himself in Bomont's culture (and humiliates Chuck), the larger the ranks of his pro-dance movement swells.

As with many government opposition movements, a lot of work and defiance happens in the shadows. Ren covertly teaches rhythmically challenged Willard how to dance (in montage form!), and his core crew makes a pilgrimage beyond state lines to a club. Repurposed spaces become crucial. In the movie's most memorably corny scene (a montage again, naturally), Ren busts a move at an abandoned factory, flipping and contorting midair on some proto-Cirque du Soleil shit. And, after briefly considering the mill, the teens eventually hold a dance in a location just outside of the jurisdiction of the police—a warehouse that, honestly, looks way nicer than most of the underground clubs I've been to in New York.

3. Understand the importance of religion.

Once this burgeoning, pro-dance movement gathers enough steam, it formally requests the dance ban be repealed in order to legally throw a senior prom. Problematically, the law's most vocal proponent is Rev. Shaw Moore (played by John Lithgow), a man of great influence worried about "spiritual corruption," who literally believes the souls of the town are his direct responsibility. Each week, he apoplectically preaches against the dangers of provocative media and dancing, and the pious adults of Bomont internalize this message. Ren quickly cops on that if you wanna get anywhere in this country, you gotta pay some lip service to the Christians. So, in front of a standing-room-only crowd, Ren delivers an impassioned, pandering speech at a town council meeting He cites Bible verses from the Psalms, 2 Samuel, and Ecclesiastes that unequivocally endorse dancing, imploring the council to reconsider the law.

In spite of his eloquent oration and Shaw's visible reconsideration, Ren's request is flatly denied. Like many real-life politicians, Bomont conservatives consider the Bible all-too-important until it isn't—at which point they pick and choose the parts they deem worthy of following. I mean, you can bet your ass you'll never see a Republican senator rocking a four-tassel cloak on the floor, and that's mentioned in the Old Testament twice as much as abortion.

4. Recognize cronyism.

Perhaps the bigger hurdle our intrepid heroes face, however, is good ol' fashioned political cronyism and party loyalty, which ensures that the conservatives won't break rank. Throughout the film, we see Shaw schmoozing with locals, even offering chocolate cake to senior citizens while stumping for his beliefs in an uncharacteristically non-musical montage. Behind closed doors, he complains about Ren by name to fellow town council members, positioning them in opposition, and scheming to squash his rebellious influence. As Ren's boss cockily (but accurately) tells him after the town council meeting, "Shaw Moore walked into that meeting with them votes already in his pockets. You didn't have a prayer."

That is to say, democracy won't work when politicians refuse to risk pissing off their friends, at the expense of betraying the public. And can you blame them? You wouldn't want to risk missing out on some homemade cake by showing interest in those you represent, would you?

5. Reach out to people like they're human beings

This is a lesson that sounds pretty obvious—though Footloose's anemic characterization of anyone not named "Ren" makes it harder to suss out. Shaw's wife, Vi (Dianne Wiest), for instance, is mostly defined by varying levels of disapproval of her husband's actions, while Ariel's sidekick Rusty (Sarah Jessica Parker) is mostly defined by, uh, being Sarah Jessica Parker.

The one exception is Rev. Shaw. John Lithgow delivers an excellent, if incongruously nuanced performance that seems copy/pasted from an exponentially better film. This proves to be Footloose's secret weapon; his three-dimensionality makes him more than a conservative strawman. He holds his beliefs earnestly and truly believes his work is imperative to his community's well-being. He's also grappling with tragedy—he points to a drinking and dancing excursion as the cause of his son's untimely death. It's a deep hurt that Ren, who uses dance to cope with his abandonment issues, recognizes in his foil. A real turning point is only reached when the two stop treating each other as one-dimensional symbols of an opposing ideology. Post-town council, they have a heart-to-heart conversation, which confoundingly occurs largely offscreen—probably to make time for more montages, because fuck you, this is Footloose. But the effects are immediate. In the aftermath, Shaw delivers a sermon imploring the townsfolk to trust the senior class and support their rogue warehouse prom.

Later, in a simple, disarmingly effective sequence near the conclusion, Shaw and Vi linger a short distance from the prom, embracing one another, rocking back and forth. The smile on Lithgow's face as Shaw realizes he's dancing says it all—people, even those that seem irreconcilably different from you, can change.

Ultimately, Footloose posits, progress starts small, on an individual level—from Ren adapting to his surroundings to Shaw softening his zeal. And these changes accrue to the point where they can alter people's beliefs and galvanize the creaky gears of government into making real progress. Indeed, on Feb. 22, after the story was picked up by the press, and sparked community opposition, Henryetta's anti-dancing law was brought before a town council meeting where it was quickly repealed for good. It's a small victory, sure—but it's the small victories that'll eventually add up to a better world.

Sean Egan is a New York-based writer and film critic. You can find him on Twitter.