“No one puts baby in a corner.” – Johnny Castle, Dirty Dancing (1987).
I still can’t resist Dirty Dancing whenever it comes on TV. It’s got one of the best partially improvised scenes known to cinema (“Spaghetti arms! You’re invading my dance space”), and it’s one of those “chick flicks” that somehow endures, and yet, the Patrick Swayze line turned into an eternal punchline for a lot of reasons. Hell, even Swayze resisted uttering those words, and it’s easy to understand why that was the case. Frances Houseman (Jennifer Grey) was content to be known as “Baby” while planning for the Peace Corps, and Johnny (still Swayze’s most notorious role, though god only knows he tried to top himself with the Road House sex scene that Bill Murray loves and that sensual-pottery scene from Ghost) was an angst-filled, bumping-and-grinding machine, who looked about 30 years old (but was in his mid-20s).
Johnny ended up publicizing Baby’s real name to the audience during that final dance scene, but the vanquishing didn’t work in the annals of pop culture history. The line’s still silly as heck, although there’s plenty of out-of-context reflection to be had about the word “baby.” Dirty Dancing still framed its plot around Baby taking over as Johnny’s dance partner as a cover for Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) going to get an illegal abortion, so that she (obviously) wouldn’t have a baby. The year was 1963, a full decade before Roe v. Wade, and Penny was scared as hell (for good reason) about being pregnant, which would have likely cost her livelihood while the bio dad, Robbie, was schmoozing Mr. Houseman into offering up dollars for med school. He lost that money by the end of the picture, but only because he accidentally admitted to being a terrible person.
Here we are, now, in 2022, and as far as reproductive rights go, women in the U.S. are now back in the 1960s. Dudes like Robbie can continue to skate, and there’s every reason to believe that non-privileged women could end up, as Penny did, with a so-called doctor with a “dirty knife and a folding table” due to various red states essentially outlawing abortion and being given that green light last week by the Supreme Court. Months ago, Texas and Oklahoma made headlines by putting a bounty on anyone that helps a woman obtain an abortion, and GOP lawmakers in Missouri are now going the extra mile — by extending that bounty-hunting concept to stop women from going out of state to have abortions — to make sure those dirty knives (and coat hangers) exist.
That makes Dirty Dancing strangely relevant again, particularly because of a recently announced sequel that will star Jennifer Grey. On one hand, this could be a total trainwreck, as revived franchises often end up being. Let’s be real: this sequel probably won’t see a Cobra Kai brand of tweaking that will harness the new generation while also seamlessly integrating the stories of the O.G. characters. For one thing, Swayze and Jerry Orbach are no longer alive, and only Grey’s headlining this new story that takes place in the 1990s with her revisiting Kellerman’s resort, and another young woman will be in the coming-of-age role, which shall be layered with Baby’s own story. The 1990s part is what makes me most skeptical, but this can be remedied.
So can this sequel possibly be embraced, and actually work?
That’s a tough one. All I really know is that the time couldn’t be more right for a Dirty Dancing sequel if there has to be one. But heck, putting that story in the 1990s feels like a missed opportunity right now. According to Deadline, Lionsgate and director Jonathan Levine have been working on this project, but I am hereby suggesting that they switch plans and follow through in a different era. Because the Dirty Dancing setup really wouldn’t have been convincing without the abortion subplot. Seriously. Not only did this make room for Baby and Johnny to fall in love, but we also got to see Baby — who risked her own butt to get Penny some medical help, and being an example for Johnny on how to stand up for what he believes — show what kind of person she really was.
Not only that, but Penny’s plight did something even more poignant by positioning Johnny Castle as an ally (to his platonic female friend). That’s important, right now, more than anything else, and although Johnny is no more, perhaps the remake could somehow work this into the story. Ideally, the movie could also shift into current times, rather than the 1990s when the idea of Roe v Wade crumbling seemed preposterous. That was, ironically, a much more innocent time than the fraught times we live in today after Trump couldn’t even get his story straight on his own abortion stance but still installed the justices that put this overturning into motion. So I’m appealing to the sequel makers to do a revamp because you really can’t release a proper Dirty Dancing sequel in 2024 without mentioning the essential subplot of the original.
Would that be too, you know, political? That’s no obstacle. The original film contained gravely serious moments on that rough subject but ultimately churned out quite the charming movie. C’mon, “I carried a watermelon” is still one of the most adorably embarrassing things you’ll see onscreen, even amid all of the drama and genuine terror of what Penny went through when a woman’s right to chose an abortion wasn’t yet considered protected (under multiple Bill of Rights amendments relating to privacy) by the U.S. Constitution according to the Supreme Court. Since that protection’s now gone, it would be unfortunate for a sequel to ignore this moment in history without (at least) nodding toward the topic. One can’t really do adequately do that with a 1990s-set movie.
So, here’s what I’m suggesting to the Movie Powers That Be: make this a contemporary story, and include the ally-ship once demonstrated by Johnny because god only knows that women need allies in 2022 and beyond. While responding to the Supreme Court’s stunning decision, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez declared as much in better words than I’ve got: “Men, we need you right now. You can get through in rooms others can’t. Your power matters. Speak up. This is about us all.” And I’m not saying that Dirty Dancing can solve anything, but a sequel arriving in this climate cannot avoid the elephant in the room (given that the original heavily addressed it). I have a feeling that Baby would have wanted it addressed, so make it happen. Don’t put her in a corner!