Life Moves Pretty Fast
Abortions Happen and That’s Just Fine
Few movies have been as underrated and misunderstood as 1987’s Dirty Dancing. I first saw it when I was ten and I’m afraid that far from appreciating that I was bearing witness to one of the great feminist films of all time, I was so excited to be watching a movie that had the word dirty in the title that I spent the whole film waiting for it to finish so I could call my friend Lauren to brag about this achievement.
“Well, I just saw Can’t Buy Me Love, twice,” said Lauren balefully, referring to the Patrick Dempsey teen romcom, “and two viewings of Can’t Buy Me Love is worth one Dirty Dancing.”
Out of politeness, I agreed, but we both knew that was totally not true (Can’t Buy Me Love doesn’t have a single sex scene so, like, come on). But just to make sure, I then watched Dirty Dancing two more times in a row so that Lauren would definitely not be able to catch up with my coolness. And just to prove how cool I was, I then called Lauren again to tell her that, too.
Adult critics and audiences at the time were just as blind as
ten-year-old me when it came to seeing the feminism in Dirty Dancing (although presumably most of them didn’t immediately brag to their frenemies about having just seen the movie). Partly this comes down to sexism. Partly it’s a reflection of how times have changed in the past thirty years. And mainly it’s because the film’s writer, Eleanor Bergstein, rightly thought the best way to deliver a social message was “
to present it in a pleasurable way so that the moral lessons would sneak up on people.” But for a long time I was so distracted by the pleasure—specifically, the soundtrack, the sex, the Swayze—that the moral lessons didn’t sneak up at all. For years I didn’t realize I was watching one of the great feminist tracts of the 1980s, easily up there with Susan Faludi’s feminist study of the eighties, Backlash. But then, Faludi’s book doesn’t come with a half-naked Patrick Swayze, so it is easier to recognize it as a contribution to the fight against misogyny.
By the mid-eighties, both Flashdance and Footloose had been released and studios were desperate for another teen movie that featured dancing and came with a great commercial soundtrack. But one movie they definitely did not want was Dirty Dancing.
“I cannot be clear enough about this: everybody thought Dirty Dancing was just a piece of teenage junk,” says the charmingly chatty Bergstein. “Nobody wanted to make it. Nobody. I would send out the script to studios along with a tape of the soundtrack that I’d made to go with it, that was just recordings of my old forty-fives from the 1960s, and executives would call me and say, ‘Oh yeah, Eleanor, we’re not going to make the movie, but could you send me another cassette? I wore out the last one.’ But not even that convinced them of the movie’s potential.”
MGM briefly took on the script at the encouragement of several female executives (the men there all hated it), but then dropped it. Not a single other studio would consider it. Eventually a small
independent production company looked at it, saw it as an easy quick buck, and offered to make it for $4 million, about a fifth of the average cost of a movie at the time. Bergstein and her producer, Linda Gottlieb, accepted.
Bergstein had already had one screenplay produced, the undeservedly forgotten 1980 film It’s My Turn, in which Jill Clayburgh plays a mathematics professor who has an affair with an athlete, played by Michael Douglas. The inspiration for that came from Bergstein’s observations of female mathematics students at Princeton, where her husband was a professor, and the condescension they had to endure from men, including accusations that their boyfriends did all their work for them (“It made me so mad!” she wails, still just as infuriated today as she was three decades ago). During the making of that film, Bergstein included a dance sequence inspired by the kind of dancing she used to do with her friends when growing up in Brooklyn, but it was ultimately cut. This was fortunate for two reasons: one, just the thought of Michael Douglas Dirty Dancing is faintly traumatizing; and, two, this then made her determined to write a movie that foregrounded the dancing. After a few years, she wrote the story of a young woman known as Baby (Jennifer Grey) who goes to a holiday camp in the Catskills with her parents and sister in the summer of 1963 and falls in love with the dance instructor, Johnny (Patrick Swayze).
After having endured so much studio skepticism about the film, Bergstein has become pretty hardened to critics misunderstanding and dismissing her film. Proving author William Goldman’s adage that no one knows anything in the film business, one producer said before the film was released that it was so bad they should just burn the negatives and collect the insurance money, and, hundreds of millions of dollars later, Bergstein laughs at the memory. But there are two comments she frequently hears that drive her crazy: “I hate it
when people describe Baby as an Ugly Duckling, because Jennifer [Grey]’s beautiful, obviously. I also can’t stand it when people describe it as a Cinderella story, because all Cinderella ever did was sit on her rump!”
Baby definitely does a lot more with her rump than just sit on it. When the film opens she is reading a book about economic development because she’s going to major in the economics of underdeveloped countries—not English literature, she impatiently corrects a condescending suitor—and join the Peace Corps. “Our Baby’s going to save the world!” her proud father, Dr. Houseman (the delightfully eyebrowed Jerry Orbach), boasts to the folk at Kellerman’s, the (not very subtly Jewish) holiday camp. (Dirty Dancing is easily the most Jewish eighties teen film, which is probably another reason it is so close to my own Jewish heart. As Bergstein says, “You just have to know how to spot the clues.”I
But until she can save the world, Baby sets about saving everyone she meets. Grey is perfect as a naïve and idealistic but likable teenager, one who is determined to help the poor and downtrodden, and yet has no concept of what life is like for anyone who is anything other than JewishII
and middle class (another probable reason why I found it so easy to relate to this film so much). She is repulsed by
the disdainful manner with which the holiday camp’s bosses treat the (Catholic) working-class entertainment staff, and she is horrified when she realizes her father is just as big a snob. When she learns that the dance instructor Penny (Cynthia RhodesIII
) is pregnant with the waiter Robbie’s (Max CantorIV
) baby, she tells Robbie to pay for Penny’s abortion. When he refuses, she gets the money herself. When Johnny needs someone to stand in for Penny for the dance routine, Baby offers herself. When Penny’s abortion is botched, she gets her father to step in.
Baby doesn’t understand the lower-middle-class world in which Johnny and Penny live, a world in which one can easily lose one’s dreams in a snap, but she doesn’t judge. Baby is a great film heroine. As Johnny says, Baby looks at the world and thinks she can make it better, and at first he finds this irritating and dismisses her as a “Little Miss Fix-It.” But it’s also what makes him fall for her: when she messes up the dance and misses the lift, she improvises and they get away with it. “That is when Johnny falls in love with her,” says Bergstein. “Because he sees how she always wants to make it better, and she shows him that she can.”
She is just as determined when it comes to getting what she wants in her own life, and what she wants in Dirty Dancing is to have sex with Johnny, and the film is very, very clear about that. It’s
no surprise that at MGM none of the men liked the script, or that it was ultimately produced by a woman, because Dirty Dancing is very much a film about female sexuality. In particular, the physicality of female sexuality, and all the excitement and messiness that entails. It’s Baby who makes all the moves on Johnny when she turns up at his cabin at night and then, as he stands stock-still in helpless befuddlement, takes the lead again by asking him to dance. As they dance, her hands pour over his half-naked body, taking real pleasure in his skin, and the camera zooms in on her hand sliding down to feel his butt. The whole film is told from Baby’s point of view, which is why there are so many adoring shots of Johnny with his top off and barely any similarly lustful ones of her. There are occasional close-up shots of her pelvis in what is one of the greatest 1980s montage scenes of all, when Johnny is teaching her how to dance while “Hungry Eyes” plays on the soundtrack, but these feel more like a visual nudge about Baby’s sexual excitement than the film panting over Grey’s slim hips. Instead, it’s the man who is objectified by the camera and the woman who gets turned on, in a manner not seen again until Brad Pitt frolicked with a hair dryer for Geena Davis in 1991’s Thelma & Louise, and hardly seen at all now.V
“The whole film is told through the female gaze, if I can use that jargon, because I wanted to make a movie about what it’s like, as a young woman, moving into the physical world, which means the sexual world,” says Bergstein. “So you get those shots of Jennifer
looking up with her big eyes and then about a hundred shots of Patrick. I remember when we were in the editing suite and people were saying, ‘Why do you have all those shots of Patrick?’ I’d say, ‘It’s because that’s what she sees.’ The film is through the female gaze and most movies are not.”
Johnny is no cipher—and no one other than Swayze, the son of a cowboy and ballet dancer, could have captured Johnny’s feminized masculinity—but other eighties teen films such as Pretty in Pink and Say Anything at least offered male characters whom young straight male audiences might empathize with. Johnny, however, is a character for the girls. Dirty Dancing is wholly a film for female audiences, and, lo, male critics gave it terrible reviews. Roger Ebert dismissed it as “relentlessly predictable” and Time magazine’s Richard Schickel was similarly dismissive. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael, on the other hand, wrote that the film left her “giggling happily.” The Philadelphia Inquirer’s film critic Carrie Rickey wrote decades later: “[The New York Times’ then film critic]
Vincent Canby agreed with me that, as with Desperately Seeking Susan, the critical resistance to Dirty Dancing might have been because it was a female-centered story.” It is nothing new for a women’s movie—or book, or TV show—to be dismissed by male film critics as frothy nothingness.VI
What is more striking is that so many aspects of the film that seem extraordinary now were so overlooked at the time.
Not only does Baby want sex with Johnny, but she loves having sex with Johnny, and the film emphasizes this with the not exactly subtle analogy the film draws between dancing and sex. Her face shines with happiness on the mornings after, her dancing improving
as she gains in sexual confidence. Baby’s rejection of her father for the sexy staff at Kellerman’s Hotel is as symbolic as that of Rose’s abandonment of her wealthy life for the Irish-jigging working classes in 1997’s Titanic. (The poor: there to provide a buttoned-up wealthy girl’s sexual awakening. And such good dancers, too!) It’s only by losing her virginity that Baby sees the fallibility of her parents and sheds her Baby-ness to become Frances, and the film applauds this. (As did audiences: Baby and Johnny’s sex scenes were the formative erotic experience for an entire generation; there is still a large part of me that believes I haven’t actually had sex yet because none of my sexual encounters has started by lip-synching “Love Is Strange,” although God knows not through lack of trying on my part.)
“Baby risks everything for integrity and love, and she doesn’t pay the price,” says Bergstein. “Most movies make girls pay the price.”
Girls in eighties teen movies love sex, and suffer few consequences for it. In the now deservedly little-seen Valley Girl (only worth seeing, really, for Nicolas Cage’s waistcoat and to hear Modern English’s “I Melt with You” on the soundtrack), the teenage girls discuss sex lustfully with one another. In Mystic Pizza, Jojo (Lili Taylor) sneaks into bathrooms every spare minute with her fiancé (Vincent D’Onofrio) and they end up happily married, while Daisy (Julia Roberts) seduces her wealthy boyfriend and the two apparently end up contentedly, if improbably, together. (Of the Mystic Pizza trio, only Kat—Annabeth Gish—has a bad sexual experience in that she realizes afterward that her lover will never leave his wife. But this plot twist strikes me as more of a comment on the man specifically rather than on sex in general, as Kat seems far more upset by the former than the latter.) In Say Anything, Diane (Ione Skye) seems completely unbothered after losing her virginity to Lloyd (John Cusack) in his car. Lloyd, by contrast, is utterly shattered by
the encounter and can pull himself together only by listening to a Peter Gabriel ballad, poor boy.VII
This fairly basic truism—teenage girls enjoy sex—is a lesson gleaned far more rarely from films today. Today a girl in a teen film who has sex—or even just wants to have sex—risks being ravaged by her boyfriend and eaten from within by a vampire baby (Bella in Twilight). At the very least, a girl who has sex is certainly emotionally damaged (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and will be universally shamed (Easy A). Good, smart, sane girls don’t have sex, or at least are extremely reluctant to do so and submit only under sufferance because the boys want it so badly (Dionne in Clueless, Vicky in American Pie). It’s a weird harking back to one of the biggest teen films of the seventies, Halloween, in which any teenage girl who has sex is promptly dispatched by a dungaree-wearing psycho. Now, instead, they are destroyed from within. A teen film today can show teens having sex—as long as it’s in a raunchy comedy and the sex is presented as extreme or slapstick, such as 1999’s American Pie, 2007’s Superbad, 2012’s Project X, or 2013’s The To Do List and, from Britain, 2011’s The Inbetweeners Movie, and is pretty much invariably from the boy’s point of view. What you don’t see anymore are
tender depictions of teen sexuality, or realistic ones.VIII
Instead, teen sex comes with warnings or in the nervily ironic coating of raunch.
You can have a movie with a wild party and lots of sexual comedy, but you can’t have a movie in which a fifteen-year-old girl is teaching her friends about sex,” says Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s director, Amy Heckerling. “Like in Borat, you can have naked men with their dicks swinging around for ten minutes as long as they’re not sexual. But you don’t see any more young people realistically exploring their sexuality together.”
Film producer and director Jon Avnet agrees that one of the biggest differences between today’s teen films and those of the eighties is the depiction of sexuality, and, as the producer of Risky Business, one of the sexiest and most influentialIX
eighties teen films, he should know.
The subway scene in Risky Business between Rebecca [De Mornay] and Tom [Cruise] is really pretty hot, and I don’t think you could have something that hot in a teen film now. Sex as a form of intimacy is tantamount to death in teen films today,” he says. Instead, he suggests, sex in teen films is now either nonexistent or “like something out of Porky’s.”
One woman in Dirty Dancing very nearly does get punished for having sex: Penny, who almost dies after undergoing an illegal abortion. I’m not sure what I thought was going on with Penny when I was a kid; maybe I thought she was having her appendix taken out, maybe I was so baffled by it that I simply ignored it. But
when I came back to the film as a teenager, expecting to spend a happy ninety minutes wallowing in sexy dance sequences, familiar one-liners (“I carried a watermelon”), and Jennifer Grey’s magnificent original nose (since tragically mutilated), it was something of a shock to realize that what Dirty Dancing is really about, at its heart, is the importance of legal abortion. The film is astonishingly open about the brutality of illegal abortions. Penny, we are told, went to “some butcher” who had “a folding table and a dirty knife.” This was, we are repeatedly told, “illegal,” which is why she can’t go to a doctor when it goes wrong and she nearly bleeds to death.
“When I wrote the film, abortion—like feminism—was one of those issues that people thought just wasn’t relevant anymore. A lot of young women thought those battles were won, and talking about it was tiresome,” says Bergstein. “But I thought Roe versus Wade was precarious, and that’s why I put in all that purple language about the ‘dirty knife’ and everything. The film is set in 1963 but came out in 1987 and I wanted young women seeing the film to understand that it wasn’t just that she went to Planned Parenthood and it went wrong.”
No one—not the studio, not the critics—complained at the time that the movie’s entire plot is put into motion by an illegal abortion: “They didn’t even notice that it was there,” says Bergstein. “The studio thought the script was stupid and bad for so many reasons they scarcely noticed that. Certainly no one suggested that it might be controversial. They thought it was just a stupid teenage dance movie.” The first objection raised came from an acne cream company who wanted to sponsor the film—and get their tube of cream on every poster—but they backed away when they saw the film. The studio suggested that the film be reshot but Bergstein pointed out that the abortion is integral to the movie, as it’s how Johnny and Baby meet and, most interestingly, prompts
them into having sex for the first time, and so the studio backed down.
“I knew that if I put in a social message it had to be carefully plotted in. A lot of movies have social messages but they end up on the cutting room floor. It’s true that not many people talked about the abortion plot when it came out, but it meant that I was getting the message to people who wouldn’t go see a documentary about abortions, and we were also getting big feminist audiences,” says Bergstein.
Just as eighties teen movies didn’t shy away from showing how much teenage girls like sex, nor did they avoid discussing one possible result of the activity: getting an abortion. In 1980’s Fame, wealthy Hilary (Antonia Franceschi) has an abortion after accidentally becoming pregnant (after sleeping with a black student, incidentally, something else that no one comments on). The only one who raises a question about her decision is the nurse, who asks which credit card she is going to use to pay for the operation. In 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who, at fifteen, is underage, loses her virginity and becomes pregnant after a hurried encounter with nineteen-year-old Damone (Robert Romanus). He then fails to help her pay for the abortion and doesn’t even turn up to give her the promised lift to the clinic so she has to turn to her dopey brother (Judge Reinhold). The film never judges her, nor does it turn into some terrible morality tale about what happens to loose girls. The only person who is damned by the movie is the feckless Damone for failing to help her. In fact, Stacy ends up completely fine, utterly unaffected by her abortion and dating Rat (Brian Backer), the boy she should have been with all along and who appears similarly untroubled by Stacy’s abortion.
“The studio had no problem at all with a fifteen-year-old female character having an abortion. The whole thing was realistic:
teenagers were having sex [off-screen], some teenagers were having abortions, and the film reflected that,” says Heckerling. “When [Damone] doesn’t give her the check for the abortion, we’re saying that these kids aren’t ready for kids. He can’t even get a check, how’s he going to be a father?”
As in Fast Times, the woman in need of the abortion in Dirty Dancing is not criticized by the film, only the idiot who got her pregnant and then refuses to help. But Dirty Dancing is far more vehement in its criticism of feckless men than Fast Times, possibly because, unlike Fast Times, it was written by a woman. “Some people count and some people don’t,” sneers the evil impregnator and Ayn Rand fan Robbie, who then heartlessly accuses Penny of sleeping around.
Perhaps the most extraordinary on-screen discussion about abortion comes in Fatal Attraction, the ultimate example of the eighties backlash against feminism that Faludi writes about. Yet despite the film’s hilarious scaremongering about the risks of feminism, it is strangely, even crazedly, if not strictly speaking pro-choice then certainly pro-abortion. When Alex (Glenn Close) tells Dan (Michael Douglas) that she is pregnant after their affair, he—the good guy—desperately wants her to have an abortion but she—the bad woman—refuses, and this, the film suggests, is proof of his responsible nature and her selfish one. As this is Fatal Attraction, and an Adrian Lyne film, there are, inevitably, misogynistic impulses underpinning the film’s pro-choice message: namely, that it is unfair that women hold the control when it comes to abortion (I know: ha ha ha) and that the most important thing is that Dan preserves the sanctity of the nuclear family he has at home by making his mistress have an abortion. Still, it’s quite something now to see a movie in which a man is good for demanding a woman have an abortion and a woman is bad for refusing to have it.
Obviously, this being the Reaganite 1980s, not all films were
jumping up and down and cheering “Yay! Abortion!” Going back to Backlash, Faludi details at length the movies that came out in that decade that she feels were explicitly anti-choice, some of which are singled out fairly (Woody Allen’s Another Woman, in which a woman realizes, too late, that her biggest mistake in life was having an abortion), some less so (Ron Howard’s sparkling comedy Parenthood, in which an eighteen-year-old, to my mind, credibly decides to have a baby with her deadbeat boyfriend because she is gooey in love). But these predictable voices against abortion make the contemporary movies that endorsed it look all the more extraordinary.
“It’s not like movies hadn’t talked about abortion before Fast Times,” says Heckerling. “You can look back to that Steve McQueen film [1963’s Love with the Proper Stranger] which is all about him trying to find money for an abortion. Fast Times was born out of [the film’s screenwriter] Cameron Crowe’s investigations into modern high schools, and this is what high schools were like. Women were having abortions and the movies then talked about this.”
Women still have abortions, but you wouldn’t know it from today’s mainstream movies, teen or otherwise. Even smart films that are forced to confront the issue dodge it awkwardly. In 2007’s Knocked Up, which focuses on a couple who conceive after an awkward one-night stand, the only two people who mention the word—her mother, his roommate—are derided as heartless. Whereas Fame’s Hilary has an abortion to pursue her dreams as a ballet dancer, twenty-two-year-old Alison in Knocked Up recoils in disgust at the thought of putting her burgeoning career ahead of an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. In the 2007 film Juno, the eponymous teenager is dissuaded from having an abortion after an anti-choice protester tells her that her baby will have fingernails, and she then goes into a clinic that appears to have been dreamed up by the Westboro Baptist Church’s press office. In 2012’s Bachelorette, a character reveals that
she had an abortion as a teenager and this, the film intimates, is why she’s such a promiscuous druggy mess as an adult.
What makes the movie industry’s increasing conservatism especially bizarre is that roughly the same percentage of Americans support the legalization of abortion as did in the 1980s. In fact, today’s audiences actively like seeing honest depictions of abortion on-screen, in the very few movies that show them.
The 2014 indie film Obvious Child, about a woman who decides to get an abortion, was released in only 202 theaters in the United States, and yet it made a very impressive $25,772 per theater in its opening weekend. By contrast, the unpleasantly misogynistic 2014 comedy The Other Woman, in which the female characters are two-dimensional jealous, sexualized harpies, was released in more than 3,000 theaters and made only $7,727 per theater in its opening weekend. So much for audiences not liking complex female themes.
Teen abortion rates in the United States are at a historic low, having declined by 64 percent between 1990 and 2010 thanks to the commendable work by sex education workers who have so effectively taught young people about the importance of contraception. Therefore why movies should be so fearful of discussing them seems bizarre. Whereas in the eighties there were movies that were both pro- and anti-choice, Hollywood speaks with one voice on the issue today.
The entertainment industry has elected to silence the discussion on abortion,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “It’s an issue fraught with moral and ethical challenges and Hollywood has been almost silent on it for the past twenty years. It has been the one controversial subject matter that has not only not progressed, but has totally retreated from popular culture. If you’d watch TV or films in this country, you’d never guess that abortion is such a big issue.”
I used to say, oh maybe Dirty Dancing was ahead of its time and that’s why I had to talk about abortion in this covert way. But if you look what’s happened since, that’s not really true. I would have thought all these movies like Juno and Knocked Up and Waitress would take its place, but in those movies the girls don’t have the abortion: at the last minute they take what looks to be the moral choice and they don’t do it, and they end up with the guy all happy. So it’s presented now as a moral decision not to have the abortion and you have a cute little baby and it’s fine. I don’t know, maybe that’s what you can get financed from studios these days.
When I ask Judd Apatow why there was no discussion of abortion in Knocked Up, he replies that there was, originally, but it ended up on the cutting floor. “
Anyway, I’m as pro-choice as you can get, but the movie would have been ten minutes long if she’d had an abortion.”
Diablo Cody, the writer of Juno, is even more dismissive of objections to the depiction of abortion in her movie: “
Any feminist out there who doesn’t support me gets a big boo because you’ve got one person out there who is advocating for women in Hollywood and you’re going to slag that person? If you’re a feminist, you should be up my butt.”
But Juno’s star, the very thoughtful and engaged Ellen Page, is a little more open to the issue, and less concerned with anyone being in her butt. At first she uses Apatow’s argument, saying that if Juno “had the abortion it would be a short movie,” which is a fair point, but it does provoke the response that the screenwriters should either have written a less improbable scenario in which that particular woman would keep the baby, or they should have been more deft at dealing with the woman’s reason for not having the abortion. Page’s
voice rises a little when she adds, “And at least we say the word abortion,” suggesting she knows that’s a pretty weak argument.
But the problem isn’t that Juno had the baby, I say. It is that she decides not to have the abortion because of something a pro-life protester said.
“Ohhhh, I see, that’s a good point,” Page says, sitting back in her chair.
So how does she feel about the film in light of that perspective?
“Well, I feel like we—” she begins gamely, before giving up. “No, that’s a good point. But it’s funny, I never thought that she responds to the protester but of course you’re right.”
It would initially seem to make no sense that eighties teen films were so relaxed about sex, especially compared to teen films today. In 1980s America, AIDS was ravaging the country, the anti-abortion movement was emerging, and Republicans were in the White House. If there was ever a time when pop culture might have tried to scare teenage girls off sex, then the eighties was surely it. Yet instead, eighties teen movies generally make sex look, well, great, even (gasp) for women, while teen movies today make sex look absolutely terrifying, especially for women.
It would be easy to see this shift as a reflection of the rise of the Christian right and growing conservatism of America, but there is another way of looking at it. Yes, girls in eighties movies joyfully jump into the sack with everyone from Patrick Swayze to Andrew McCarthy, but this looks less cheering when one considers that, off-screen, teenage pregnancy rates were, for the first time in decades, rocketing in the United States.
The Los Angeles Times described the eighties as a “greenhouse” for teenage pregnancies due to a combination of the fraying of unions, leading to many teenagers’ parents losing their jobs, budget cuts on after-school programs, and rising school dropout rates. Worse, the Reagan administration cut budgets
for abortions, health clinics, sex education, and birth control programs. While rates of teen sex were just as high in Europe, rates of teen pregnancy in England were half as high as they were in America because, as the Los Angeles Times put it, “contraception is far more common [there],” by which they mean it was easier for teenagers to have access to free contraception thanks to the National Health Service and health clinics. By 1989, one out of every ten American girls was pregnant before her twentieth birthday.
So one could argue that teenagers in today’s U.S. teen films aren’t more scared of sex than they were in the 1980s; they’re just being more responsible about it.
This attitude shift is reflected in their off-screen behavior: from 1991 to 2000 the number of teenage pregnancies fell by 50 percent across the United States, across all demographics. But despite the strenuous efforts of the Christian right and Republican Party, while American teenagers are having sex slightly later than they were in 1988, they are not, in the vast main, abstinent (all politicians would be very depressed if they knew how little what they say affects teenagers’ behavior). Instead, increased use of contraception accounts for as much as 86 percent of the decline in teenage pregnancies since 1990.
The rise in condom use also means that boys and men are taking more responsibility when having sex. So one could even look at a film such as Twilight and see—beneath the scaremongering and weirdness about sex—a sliver of modern relevance in that Edward, in his own vampiric way, tries to be responsible with Bella and protect her from his death juice (or something).
This argument works less well, though, if one looks at the wider culture alongside the facts as well as at the specifics of the films. For a start, and most obviously, if teenagers are, as the figures strongly suggest, leading more responsible sex lives, then it makes no sense for movies to be so hysterical about the subject, either suggesting that
all teens are having orgies or telling teenagers that sex will kill them. Fine, films shouldn’t show teenagers having sex in every car on every street corner because, first, the gear stick digging into one’s back is a major turnoff, but also because that’s not how teenagers live today, and they never did. But teenagers also don’t live lives in which if they have sex they are then emotionally damaged, publicly shamed, and turned into zombies.
American movies have become much more conservative since they were in the 1980s, and this is partly because of the international market,” says film producer Lynda Obst. Profits from China, for example, have grown by more than 400 percent in the past half decade. This then affects what studios feel they can and can’t show on-screen, and one issue they are especially conscious of showing to the increasingly important foreign markets is teenagers having sex and abortions.
But the morality of American movies isn’t just being determined by the morals of other countries: it also comes from within.
“Teen movies are much more conservative today than they were in the eighties because we’ve gone backwards domestically in terms of cultural attitudes, and studios have reacted to that,” says Obst. “Pressure groups from the right have become much stronger over the past few decades, and this very much affects studios.”
We’re like lobsters in a tank and don’t notice how the temperature has been changing over the decades because we’re in the pot. Hollywood has followed America in its move to the right and we’re a much more conservative country now than we were then,” says the editor of Variety, Steven Gaydos.
This growing conservatism has been very much reflected in America’s attitudes toward teen sex: as part of the 1996 federal welfare reform legislation, Congress authorized $50 million annually to fund abstinence-only education.
By 2008, the U.S. government
had spent more than $1.5 billion on abstinence-only sex education, and federal guidance forbade any discussion of contraception except to emphasize its failure rates.
Between 2006 and 2008 one in four teenagers in America received abstinence-only sex education with no instruction about birth control; in 1988 only 8 percent had done so.
The Obama administration and Congress have since eliminated two abstinence-only sex education programs yet thirty-seven states still require sex education that includes abstinence. Twenty-six of those stress that abstinence is the best method, even though states that teach abstinence-only sex education, such as Mississippi, notoriously have the highest rate of teenage pregnancies. As of 2011, more than half of all women of reproductive age in the United States lived in a state hostile to abortion rights, an increase of 31 percent in just one decade.
The big teen films today are characterized by brutal and graphic violence in a way they never were in the eighties. In Twilight, the killings are depicted as romantic proof of Edward and Bella’s love for one another as they (Edward, usually) knock off their enemies. In The Hunger Games teenagers kill each other to win a reality TV show. Sex, however, is anathema to these movies: in Twilight it is seen as dangerous, and in The Hunger Games it is an awkward inconvenience. Murder, though, is absolutely fine.
One big problem is the [U.S.] motion picture ratings system: it is much harder these days on sex than violence and so if you don’t want to get an R rating, which would kill the film, but to still attract the kids, you put in violence but leave out the sex. The ratings board is much harder on teen sex than violence and everyone knows it,” said one producer who works in teen films.
It’s true, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is easier on violence than it used to be for one big reason: computer-generated imagery (CGI). “We are seeing different kinds
of violence with the rise of CGI and parents feel their children are able to filter what’s real and what’s not,” says the MPAA’s Joan Graves. As to whether it has become stricter about sex over the past thirty years, and especially teen sex, that, she says, is slightly trickier to say: “There has never been a round table discussion saying, ‘Okay, we’ll change this, we’ll change that.’ These changes happen over decades. But the ratings system is built to change. It’s reflecting current standards rather than standards from twenty years ago. A movie that was made thirty years ago might well have a different rating today.” In Britain, if a film has an 18 rating, no one under eighteen can see it, but in America, a film with an R rating can be seen by a child as long as they are accompanied by an adult. This then puts the onus on American parents to decide whether or not their child should see the film, and so the MPAA sees its role as equipping parents with the information to make that decision.
Thus, the U.S. ratings system is built to “reflect the standards of American parents,” as Graves puts it, and if that sounds somewhat fluid, then it is. There is no strict rubric about what is and isn’t allowed, only a sense of what “American parents” will tolerate. But Graves is very clear that the ratings board does not offer instructions to filmmakers about what they can and can’t film—that’s the studio’s job. All it’s there to do is “reflect [American] society,” and in its angst about teen sex and relaxed attitude toward violence, in a country where three people are killed every hour by guns and abstinence is still part of many schools’ curriculum, one can easily argue that it succeeds at that.
• • •
When there was talk at the beginning of the twenty-first century of remaking Dirty Dancing, Bergstein wondered how the studios would deal with the abortion plot in the film, especially as she owns the rights to the script. After all, when Fame was remade in 2009
the abortion plot was simply dropped, which also happened when the 1966 film Alfie was pointlessly remade starring Jude Law and Sienna Miller. In the end, it became a moot issue because—perhaps unsurprisingly—the remake never happened.
Instead, Bergstein turned the play into an international stage musical megahit and oomphed up the abortion plot, emphasizing the risks Baby’s father, Dr. Houseman, took by helping Penny, endangering both his medical license and his freedom. People, Bergstein says, need to remember what it was like before, and what it could all too easily be like again:
My feeling has always been that people who are anti-abortion are anti-sex and anti-pleasure for young women, and that’s why I wanted to make a movie about both. That’s why Baby and Johnny’s first love scene comes after they’ve seen Penny nearly drowning in her own blood as a result of sex, and the song on the record player is [Solomon Burke’s] “Cry to Me.” It’s not an idealized romantic scene, it’s a scene about loneliness and terror and sex. But I wanted to say if you plunge into the physical world and if you do it with honor and without fear, you will attach yourself to a moral world.
More than that, Dirty Dancing taught my generation of women, and continues to teach generations of younger women, about their moral compass. We came for the sex, but we have stayed because it shows us something even more real and scary. It teaches us something about ourselves and the world. And, as Baby learns, only the best kind of sex can do that. I
. The very obviously Jewish Wendy (Mare Winningham) in St. Elmo’s Fire gets to experience this fantasy, too, when she rejects the nerdy Jewish boy her father picks out for her and loses her virginity instead to Billy (Rob Lowe), which is surely the ultimate fantasy for all eighties girls, Jewish and non. However, seeing as Billy treats Wendy horrendously, and the film suggests he sees this as little more than an intriguing pity shag, I maintain that, in the world of Jewish women’s sex fantasies, Baby and Johnny > Wendy and Billy. II
. Winona Ryder was originally considered for the role, and she would have been good at conveying Baby’s nerviness—and Jewishness—but it would have been much harder to accept her as a wide-eyed sixties teenager. Ryder, even back in the eighties, has always been just that bit too ironic and cool. Grey, on the other hand, was all wide-eyed sweetness. III
. Rather thrillingly, in real life Rhodes was married to eighties pop star Richard Marx. Hard to get more eighties than that. IV
. Max Cantor had probably the creepiest post-eighties teen movie career of anyone, and that really is saying something. After a privileged New York upbringing and a very brief acting career he became an investigative journalist. He came across a story about a cannibalistic cult in downtown New York and, in order to gain their trust and get the story, he started taking drugs. He soon became addicted and was eventually found dead. Some alleged he was killed by the cannibal, Daniel Rakowitz, but others said he simply overdosed. Whatever the truth, it’s hard not to think poor old Robbie should have stuck with Ayn Rand and stayed away from the cannibals. V
. One of the reasons—perhaps, in fact, the main reason—the 50 Shades of Cliché franchise was so successful was that it very specifically told the story from Anastasia’s point of view. The big difference between 50 Shades and Dirty Dancing, though, besides the fact that Johnny Castle is a friendly bit of beefcake and Christian Grey is a menacing stalker, is that Anastasia, in distinct contrast to Baby, completely bends herself to Christian’s will. James’s follow-up, Grey, which is written entirely from Christian’s point of view because not enough erotica is told from the male gaze, of course, confirmed that Grey is somehow simultaneously a tedious and repulsive character. VI
. Sex and the City, starring Jennifer Grey look-alike Sarah Jessica Parker, would suffer a similar fate two decades later, even though, in its heyday, it was at least as smart and sharp as any critically lauded male TV drama. VII
. Boys, too, enjoy their sexual maturity in eighties teen films. In Risky Business, Joel (Tom Cruise) enjoys aerobic if somewhat improbable sex with Lana (Rebecca De Mornay) when he loses his virginity. In Teen Wolf, as the film’s title emphasizes, the old trope about werewolfishness as a symbol for male puberty is employed to its most delightfully ridiculous extent, and in a far sillier way than it was in 1957’s I Was a Teenage Werewolf. It is almost certainly the best movie ever made about male puberty; what Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret is to girls, Teen Wolf should be to boys. When Scott (Michael J. Fox) changes into a wolf, he becomes irresistible to girls in high school, and he enjoys sex with them with a howl. Similarly, the teen vampires in the presciently emo The Lost Boys take enormous pleasure in their vampirism. Compared to both these films, the vampire and the werewolf in Twilight make sexuality and maturation look a lot less fun. VIII
. When I was complaining about this to a friend a year or so ago, she recommended the Shailene Woodley oeuvre to me, specifically The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars. As depictions of teen sex go, they’re not bad. But they also, respectively, celebrate Manic Pixie Dream Girls and fetishize illness, and thus fail my realism test. IX
. John Hughes’s teen films were clearly and heavily influenced by Risky Business, minus the plot about prostitutes (thank God).