Sexual agency is a person’s ability to make unrestricted choices about whether or not they wish to engage in infinite forms of sexual expression. In Dirty Dancing, Baby’s sexuality is defined by the choices she makes herself, not by the discernments of others, thus showing that Baby is an individual with her own desires and motivations. In her article “Dirty Dancing Is a Subversive Masterpiece and Here Are Four Reasons Why,” Lesley Kinzel points out that Baby’s father cannot envision Baby in such an adult way, and how this coming-of-age film is as much about how parents handle their children flourishing into adulthood as it is about Baby herself.
In the beginning of the film Dirty Dancing, Baby starts out as a father’s stereotypical ideal of what the perfect daughter is, meaning she comes across as well-mannered and fitting perfectly into the upper-classes’ ideal of what a blossoming young woman should be. Baby is portrayed as very much a daddy’s girl. However, we the viewers know that Baby is very opinionated and down to earth in her egalitarianism, making her undesirable by her own class’s definition. Kinzel does not mention this point, but I found it to be relevant. The point is that at the beginning of the film Baby is seen as someone incapable of being an individual and therefore could not possibly have any sexual agency.
Later in the film, once the plot unfolds, Baby, who wishes to help everybody, finds herself heroically volunteering to take Penny’s place as Johnny’s new dance partner when Penny needs to get a secret abortion. Due to this, Baby gets to spend time with Johnny whom she has been objectifying as an exotic object of desire. Baby is clearly fascinated by Johnny early on in the film when she first sees him dirty dancing, which Kinzel points out in the article. During their rehearsals Baby and Johnny bicker relentlessly while Baby is trying to learn the dance routine. Kinzel notes, “Johnny more or less holds Baby at arm’s length, unwilling to trust her not to screw him over, until the night of the performance.”
Throughout this portion of the film where Johnny is trying to teach Baby the dance routine, we the viewers start to notice physical manifestations of Baby’s sexual agency blooming. For instance, before Baby started spending time with Johnny, she wasn’t so worried about her appearance and seemed to be quite modest with her choice of apparel. However, after dancing with Johnny, Baby starts to do her makeup or at least making it more pronounced, in the sense that she is using it to make herself more sexually attractive. Not only that, but her attire begins to become more and more revealing, and she ends up becoming very comfortable being scantily clad around Johnny. This is yet another point that Kinzel did not explicitly discuss in her article that I would have found compelling.
After the dance performance happens, Johnny begins to see Baby as a sexually desirable woman whom he can perhaps trust. Kinzel mentions how far Baby goes to prove that she doesn’t think herself any better than anyone else, in contrast to the other privileged resort guests. We first get to see Johnny’s change of heart during their car ride back to the resort. During this scene, Johnny steals surreptitious glances in the rearview mirror of Baby changing clothes in the back seat, which illustrates his growing attraction to Baby, as Kinzel thoughtfully points out in her article. This is important because it’s a scene in the film that shows young girls that they can be sexually desirable to men by simply being themselves, even if that means you’re not conforming to society’s mainstream ideal of what beauty is. In Kinzel’s article she states, “This is actually one of the scenes that most fascinated me as a kid — I think because I was mesmerized at the way Johnny seemed to like her even though she wasn’t really trying to do anything special to make him like her.” This suggests that Baby can be something desirable without being overtly sexy, furthering Baby’s sexual agency in the film Dirty Dancing.
Later in the film comes the illegal abortion during which poor Penny is butchered, and Baby has to rush to her father for help. During this time, Baby’s father realizes that she has been spending her time with the resort’s dancers and that the money Baby borrowed from him was for Penny’s abortion. This betrayal angers him to no end. His baby girl has betrayed his trust and tarnished his image of the idyllic daughter he had placed so high up on a pedestal. Baby’s father is also convinced that Johnny must have fathered the unborn child and is now pursuing Baby. Because of this betrayal, Baby’s father forbids her from seeing the dancers again, thus attempting to undermine her individuality and ability to make decisions for herself.
Immediately after this, Baby walks straight to Johnny’s cabin, where, in Kinzel’s words, “she freaking seduces him.” This is important because it illustrates her ability to think for herself and her go-get-it-done attitude. She clearly goes to Johnny’s cabin intending to seduce him, and her weapon of choice is dirty dancing. This is mind-blowing like Kinzel states, because it is socially assumed that a female virgin does not initiate sexual intercourse. Kinzel states that, “EVERYBOBY KNEW that if you were a virgin then your task was to wait around for somebody more knowledgeable to come and deflower you – not roll up on the guy your dad just told you not to see and start sexy-dancing all on him until he takes off your shirt.” This is important because this scene in the film truly beats Baby’s sexual agency into you. No one can argue that she doesn’t deliberately defy her father and consciously makes the choice to seduce Johnny into having sexual intercourse with her. She knows very well what she wants (Johnny) and how she is going to get it (Johnny). In this scene he is the object of sexual desire, and we the viewers are seeing him as prey or something that can be possessed. This is interesting because in films men are typically the ones to initiate such interactions. Kinzel states, “Johnny is the one who is at first reluctant to pursue things in that direction.” This statement suggests reversed gender roles, thus emphasizing Baby’s sexual agency.
Baby and Johnny are considered summer lovers, continuously having romantic escapades that would make Mick Jagger jealous (and me). After Johnny divulges his attraction to Baby, things really heat up. Baby and Johnny continue sneaking around to see each other and dance for their pleasure. During this time, Baby teases Johnny. She mocks him using words that he once scolded her with during dance practices. This is a fun flirty scene in the film because it is clear that she doesn’t mean any of it. This is something I believe Kinzel should have mentioned in her article but fails to. I believe this scene to be relevant because it further emphasizes Baby’s control over her sexual agency.
However, society tries to squander Baby’s sexual agency and her individuality. When her father finds out about her and Johnny, he tries to put an end to it. This is best illustrated in the scene where Johnny says “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” and liberates her from society’s oppression of her individuality. Johnny leads Baby to the stage where they dirty dance in front of everyone for the first time, thus expressing Baby’s individuality and sexual agency. Baby finally preforms the lift, which in my opinion symbolically represents Baby taking full control of her life as an individual. In that moment, she transforms into the woman she always knew she was, accepting her sexual agency completely. Now the whole world can see it. I believe that this is something important that Kinzel should have mentioned in her article to further support her argument that “Dirty Dancing Gives the Sheltered 17-Year-Old All the Sexual Agency.” Overall, however, I believe Kinzel makes a convincing and persuasive argument.
Written for Dr. Carmen Nolte-Odhiambo’s ENG 196: Basic Composition Skills