Before We Knew Better: How the illegal abortion in “Dirty Dancing” started honest dialogue about reproductive rights

Come here, lover boy
Come here, lover boy
Image: Vestron/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here

In this mini-series, we return to movies and TV we’ve loved to see how they depict gender. Does it hold up in 2019? Warning: contains spoilers.

When did it come out? 1987

How does it hold up? Surprisingly well

Dirty Dancing  is, bar none, the ultimate summer-fling fantasy film. Starring Jennifer Grey as oh-so-innocent Baby and Patrick Swayze as smooth-hipped Johnny, it has spawned smash-hit songs, countless movie quotes, and disastrous wedding dance attempts.

Set in 1963 and released 25 years later, the film has endured in the hearts and left feet of would-be Babys. But let’s not forget what this movie was really about: abortion.

This was a progressive move for the late 1980s, and foreshadowed a future where we would be able to talk much more openly about abortion.

“Dirty Dancing” and a not-so-hidden abortion subplot

Baby’s well-off Jewish family is visiting a swanky summer resort in the Catskills. After seeing Johnny dirty dance with Penny (Cynthia Rhodes), one of the other instructors, at an after-hours staff party, she attempts to befriend the close-knit crew. Baby wants to eschew the family-friendly activities such as water aerobics, charades, and volleyball in favor of hanging out with the entertainment staff, who have a looser, freer attitude toward life than her strict parents’ conservative morals.

One evening, Baby discovers Penny crying in the kitchen, and finds out the dancer is pregnant. “Robbie the creep” (played by Max Cantor) is the father, she says, and she wants an abortion. An illegal abortion. (In 1963, all abortions were still against US law.) One of the counselors knows a doctor coming through a nearby town the following week who’s willing to do the procedure for $250. It’s Penny’s only shot.

With Penny unable to pay for the procedure on her meager wages and Robbie refusing to take responsibility (“I didn’t blow a summer hauling toasted bagels to bail out some little chick who probably balled every guy in the place”), Baby borrows money from her unwitting father (played by Jerry Orbach) to pay for it. But the operation means Penny will miss a big dance performance that was going to make her and Johnny a season’s worth of cash. Wanting to impress her new friends—especially Johnny—Baby agrees to learn the moves and take Penny’s place. The rest is cinematic sexual-tension history.

The film is set in the summer of 1963. Abortion wouldn’t become decriminalized in the US until a decade later, when the Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the Roe v. Wade case. A few states—including New York, where the film was set—would make abortion legal in 1970, a few years ahead of the Roe decision, but that was still seven years too late for Penny.

Penny’s abortion, like many in those days, doesn’t go as planned. Performed by a “doctor” who operated with a “dirty knife and a folding table,” the procedure leaves Penny heavily bleeding and yelping in pain.

After seeing how sick Penny is, Baby decides to ask her dad—who’s a doctor—for help a second time. Seeing as her parents have disapproved of the crowd she’s been hanging out with, this is a risky move. He runs to Penny’s bedside with his medical kit and is nothing short of professional. It’s only later that he blows up at Baby. His reaction, perhaps to some viewers’ surprise, focuses on his disappointment in his daughter—that Baby deceived him, stole money, and is hanging out with “those” people—not the abortion itself.

Let’s pause on that: In 1987, a movie father forwent the opportunity to make a moral statement on a woman’s right to choose. Instead, he accepted Penny’s decision without judgment. That was rare for the movies—and for most Americans—at the time. When the film debuted, fewer than 40% of Americans (pdf) thought abortion for any reason should be legal; that number had crept up to 58% by 2018. The accepting way in which abortion is treated in Dirty Dancing is a big risk for producers even by today’s standards.

So it’s probably not a surprise that the producers originally pushed to have the graphic scenes of the botched abortion taken out. In a 2017 interview, the film’s screenwriter, Eleanor Bergstein, describes to Broadly the opposition she faced in advocating for the inclusion of the entire abortion subplot.

“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.”

For Bergstein, including such grim details helped remind women watching in the ’80s how lucky they were to have an option for a legal abortion—and how quickly that right could one day be revoked. “When I made the movie in 1987, about 1963, I put in the illegal abortion and everyone said, ‘Why? There was Roe v. Wade―what are you doing this for?’” she said. “I said, ‘Well, I don’t know that we will always have Roe v. Wade.’”

Contemporary films about abortion

How many films have allowed their characters to openly talk about abortion in the decades since Dirty Dancing‘s release? Not many.

There are several films set in pre-Roe v. Wade times that depict abortion, often as traumatic and morally weighty experience for the practitioners performing them as well as the women at their center. The Cider House Rules (1999) revolves around a doctor who performs illegal abortions during WWII and his young apprentice, who at first refuses to participate in a practice he deems as immoral. Vera Drake (2004) follows the life of an illegal abortionist in 1950s England, who is even more revolutionary because she’s a woman performing medical procedures. The tragic end of Revolutionary Road (2008), which is set in the late 1940s, acts as an argument for legalizing abortion.

Films set in a post-Roe world deal with the subject in different ways. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) portrays an unwilling and unwanting father who ghosts his beau the day of her abortion when he can’t come up with his half of the bill, which she asked him to pay. Obvious Child (2014) is the opposite, with an incredibly supportive partner who protects his date’s right to choose, casually and lovingly eating ice cream on the couch with her after the operation. And in Nymphomaniac (2013), a woman makes the choice alone, performing an abortion herself using a coat hanger. (It’s also important to note that the director of that film has since been accused of sexual misconduct.) These films place less emphasis on the mother’s private and labored decision to end a pregnancy, and more on the relationship (or lack thereof) between the couple making the decision.

Quite a few modern films feature women who want to get an abortion, and then decide at the last moment to go through with the pregnancy. Juno (2007) is a good example. Outside an abortion clinic, a protestor convinces a pregnant teen (played by Ellen Page) to go through with her pregnancy and give the child up for adoption instead. It’s also memorable in Blue Valentine (2010), in which the protagonist, played by Michelle Williams, decides at the last hour to not go through with her abortion. She then gives birth and goes on to marry Ryan Gosling—how’s that for anti-abortion messaging?

Notice anything about this list? All of the mothers are white, despite the fact that, in the real world, women of color have abortions at five times the rate of white women. One film that recognizes this imbalance in public portrayal is 2010’s For Colored Girls, which focuses on how much harder it can be for minority women to access abortions.

As we can see, Dirty Dancing was pretty ahead of its time. Not only was it one of the earlier films to approach the topic of abortion for a mainstream audience, it did so in an almost modern, matter-of-fact manner: no beleaguered weighing of options, no blow-out fights with fathers, just a women’s right to choose. There are many other narrative devices the writers could have used to prevent Penny from being able to dance with Johnny—a sprained ankle, a family emergency—but they consciously chose to put the still-controversial issue front and center.

Where “Dirty Dancing” doesn’t hold up

The film isn’t without its faults, however.

First, Swayze’s Johnny comes off as a bit predatory. Baby is meant to be 17 in the film, and Johnny is supposed to be three years older. (For what it’s worth, Grey was 26 and Swayze was 34 when they were cast.) He is also in a position of power as her dance instructor, and she is his student.

More generally, women are treated pretty terribly throughout the film. The resort’s owner instructs the male waiters to flirt with the guests’ daughters—”even the dogs”—and characters like the scumbag Robbie are even more disparaging toward women, lying to them and forcing them into sexually compromising positions.

There is also a noticeable lack of people of color in the film. (Though, to be fair to the producers, that would have been par for the course in 1963 at a fancy summer resort in upstate New York, whose clientele was primarily Jewish.)

And Baby, true to her name, is infantilized. What if, in that famous final scene, she wanted to sit in the corner? Thanks, Johnny, but she is fully capable of making her own seating decisions.

Regardless of these missteps, Dirty Dancing portrayed the decision to terminate a pregnancy with a frankness that is unusual even by 2019’s standards; Penny is presented as a passionate dancer first, and an abortion-haver second. As more women, particularly women of color, get behind the camera, abortion in film might start to become just another element of a protagonist’s character, not their defining characteristic.

And female directors probably wouldn’t put Baby in a corner, either.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here