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November 18, 2020

I’ve Had the Time of My Life

Brooke had never seen an abortion in a movie before, and it was surprising, because Dirty Dancing was over thirty years old. So it should have been a throwback, but it was something very new: the character who wants an abortion. There is no other alternative, it doesn’t even make her sad, and she doesn’t change her mind at the last minute, or have a miscarriage as a convenient trick to avoid being an agent in her own destiny. She isn’t even sorry… [And] it seemed symbolic that no one had to live in shame. You could be a fallen woman, and then get up on a stage and dance. This was a huge revelation for Brooke, who had never even considered the possibility, the number of ways a script could go.” —Waiting for a Star to Fall

I introduced my children to Dirty Dancing this summer, and decided that maybe modern parents overthink things too much.

There had been a brief period after the movie’s 1987 release when I’d been forbidden to see Dirty Dancing, though this was mostly a theoretical forbidding since we didn’t have VCR to watch it on. But in the next couple of years, I somehow managed to see it anyway, most likely at a sleepover. I don’t remember my impression of the movie at all, except that the title itself was pretty suggestive, which is why the movie had been judged as unsuitable for my audience, I supposed. And really, it was the soundtrack that loomed largest in my life, my first introduction to the Ronettes, You Don’t Own Me, and Eric Carmen, plus Patrick Swayze actually singing. (Is there anything that man couldn’t do? I am on the record as declaring his autobiography as excellent.) There was also a second soundtrack to Dirty Dancing, with the “Do You Love Me ?” and the Kellerman’s Anthem, but I never had that one.

And now: the million dollar question. How old were you when you realized that Penny was having an abortion? What Billy was talking about regarding the guy with a rusty knife and folding table? What it meant that Penny was knocked up by Robbie the Creep?

The other million dollar question: Why were all the parents totally okay with their nine year old daughters watching this movie over and over again? And could they have known what a gift this movie was to those girls, once we’d worked out the puzzle of what all these different pieces were about—or were they just too busy sitting around worrying about Michael Dukakis and the end of the Cold War?

A movie where a girl has sex and doesn’t die. Where another girl has an abortion and doesn’t die, and is even going to go on to have children if she wants to. Where the woman who has an abortion is treated by a medical authority with kindness and care. Where a girl who has been bonking Patrick Swayze and everybody knows it has absolutely no compunction about dancing with him at the end of her holiday to a mega-smash hit by Jennifer Warnes and some guy who used to be in the Righteous Brothers?

(Later on, the Righteous Brothers would be a big deal when Patrick Swayze was in Ghost, and it makes me wonder if Swayze ever felt he was haunted by the Righteous Brothers?)

Dirty Dancing is on my mind right now because Clementine Ford celebrated the movie in one of her Instagram Deep Dives this weekend (SO GOOD!) and THAT sent to me to the Dirty Dancing episode of the podcast Why Are Dads?, by Sarah Marshall (who’s also co-host of You’re Wrong About, a podcast that isn’t about Dirty Dancing, but lately has had some TOP NOTCH Princess Diana content…)

And because the movie features prominently in my new novel, Waiting for a Star to Fall, and is a point upon which the entire plot turns. If Brooke hadn’t watched Dirty Dancing that afternoon with her roommate Lauren, her life (and the ending of the book) would have gone in a wholly different direction.

Which is why I showed it to my kids in July. Deciding not to think too much about whether or not it was “appropriate.” They’re seven and eleven and talk about abortion around the dinner table more often than other kids their age, because I’m their mother, so I knew the Penny story-line wouldn’t come out of left-field. We’d rented a cottage for a week with nobody else around and only a DVD player for diversions, so I blew the dust off my Dirty Dancing DVD and packed it along with Mary Poppins and The Incredibles.

I wanted them to see it. This iconic summer film, uncanny scenes about a family of four stuck in a cabin while it rains (“Remind me not to get married at Niagara Falls.” “So, you’re go to Acapulco. It will be fine.”) The Schumachers (Sidney and Sylvia?), and the stolen wallets, and the soundtrack, of course, and the romance, and the class dynamics, and the dancing, and the log, and the lake, and lifts. The lifts!

And yes, to know the murderous legacy of illegal abortion, and one of the many ways that abortion becomes part of a person’s life, and how it doesn’t always have to be the point on which the entire plot turns—except that if not for the abortion, Baby wouldn’t have had to dance with Johnny at the Sheldrake, so yes, it’s irrevocably woven into the script, but it’s not everything, is what I mean. A piece of a larger narrative, always.

I want these to be the things my daughters take for granted, just like I did.

3 thoughts on “I’ve Had the Time of My Life”

  1. Joan Frances Clare says:

    You are some writer Kerry Clare – love this.
    Actually had “The time of my Life” reading it.

  2. My parents were both social workers who worked with teens. My mom is a huge movie buff, and so I saw SO MANY movies, especially movies with teens. Sexuality was always fine in our house; it was the violence that was looked open with distaste. I watched this when it came out, but never absorbed the abortion storyline until years later. But I also probably saw The Breakfast Club when I was 10-12, and never figured out they were smoking weed until years later.

    1. Kerry says:

      It’s so funny the things kids don’t pick up on. This is why worrying too much about appropriate vs inappropriate is probably not a great use of parents’ time.

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