An Interview with Eleanor Bergstein: On Dirty Dancing, Feminism and the Film Industry
I don’t remember how old I was when I watched Dirty Dancing for the first time. I do remember that I was introduced to the film at a young age, and by the time I was in middle school, I had memorized the soundtrack. At that point in my life, I wasn’t consciously thinking about Dirty Dancing in any deep way — I was captivated by the love story, the music and the dancing, and that was all I needed.
As I have grown older, and as I have re-watched Dirty Dancing countless times, my feelings on the film have changed dramatically. I still love it, but now I love it for its strong political and feminist messages. I appreciate the honest depiction of abortion (the film is set a decade prior to Roe v. Wade), the exploration of classism and the references to the civil rights movement. I appreciate the fact that Frances “Baby” Houseman is a strong, compelling female character who is true to herself, her beliefs and her desires. Truly feminist films are hard to find, and Dirty Dancing deserves praise from addressing feminist issues straight on, without fear or hesitation.
In honor of the recent release of Dirty Dancing: Limited Keepsake Edition on DVD and Blu-Ray, I had the opportunity to speak with Eleanor Bergstein, Dirty Dancing‘s screenwriter and co-producer. I quickly learned, during our conversation, that the social messages are key aspects of the film for Bergstein. While she certainly set out to make a dance movie, the political backdrop and feminist subject matter were equally strong parts of her vision. In the interview below, Bergstein discusses the political elements of Dirty Dancing‘s plot, the conditions for women working in film today, and Dirty Dancing‘s legacy in 21st century feminist circles.
On whether or not Dirty Dancing is autobiographical:
It is true insofar as anything any writer writes is based on their own life. I mean, I was called “Baby” ‘til I was 22, I went to the Catskills with my parents, I was dirty dancing from the time I was 10. I got dirty dancing trophies that would turn your hands green if you touched them.
There’s not a second in it that isn’t in some way part of my life and my history, but I’m in all the characters, as most writers are. Everything about it I hope is truthful, and a great deal of it came from particular elements of my life. But, you know, that’s different from saying I sat down to write my 17th summer.
On Dirty Dancing’s political backdrop:
I wanted to use that world, which was my parent’s world – what I would call “The Last Summer of Liberalism” – when the world had one foot in either camp, but it was about to change, as Max says at the end. The following summer, the summer of ’64, you couldn’t have told that story, because all that music was above ground then, and all the guests would have been doing that kind of rock band thing, so perhaps not as erotic as the dirty dancing, but it was just when one thing was going on in one place and another in another. As I said, two months later, John Kennedy was killed, and two months later, the Beatles came in., and a few months later, Radical Action started, so this was the last summer there could be an upstairs and a downstairs in that way.
I’m always very anxious to be in those moments just before transition. I was enormously interested in bringing back that time, both politically and socially in America, when everybody really believed that the world had been made safe by World War II, and the only thing left to do was to make it safe for everybody, so the large Jewish community gave lots and lots of money to SNCC and CORE and supported the Freedom Riders, and Martin Luther King made his speech that summer in 1963. Just when the Housemans are at Kellerman’s is the “I Have A Dream” speech in Washington.
On Dirty Dancing’s abortion subplot:
What I wanted was to have something like that in a mainstream movie, even though we didn’t think many people would see it. If you do a documentary on coat hanger abortions, the only people who see it will be those who agree with you anyway. If you put one in a wide-based musical with pretty clothes, and lots of romance, it may surprise people and make them think of things they didn’t think of before, so I tried very hard to very specifically with them in some things that you can’t take out, but it will make an audience who came to see something else, perhaps with some comprehension of something that they might not have comprehended.
Right before we opened, we were told there would be a national sponsor, and we were very excited, because we thought that meant big time – and that meant a tube of acne cream on every poster. And I was horrified. And I couldn’t do anything about it. And then the sponsors found that there was an illegal abortion, and they were worried that there would be a backlash, or that the Catholic Church would protest, so they came to me and said, “We’ll give you money to go back into the editing room and take the illegal abortion out.” And I said, “Oh, I’d be so happy to, but as it happens, it’s so into the plot that if I took it out, there’s no reason for Baby to learn to dance. There’s no reason for her to dance with Johnny, to dance at the Sheldrake, to fall in love with him, to make love with him, so the whole plot falls apart, so I can’t do it.” And they said, “Oh jeez, too bad,” so the tube of acne cream disappeared, to my joy, and [the abortion] stayed in.
I always thought if you were going to put any kind of message in, it has to be as carefully plotted in as that, because if it’s at all adjacent, it’s going to end up on the cutting room floor. So that was fine. Not many people talked about it, except that we got a very, very big feminist audience.
On the state of women in the film industry today:
Don’t make any mistake; it’s still very hard. What will happen is the entry level is easier. It’s easier to get in because you won’t necessarily have to go in on a low, low, low level. You’ll get a more high profile job faster. But as it goes on and on and on, you will see men around you who, if you’re no careful, are going to move way ahead, even though they’re not as good as you. So keep watching, because at the beginning, it doesn’t seem you have the problems that we had, but a lot doesn’t change. It gets easier in the early stages, but that’s, in a way, window dressing.
There are more women than there used to be, but if you look, if you look at it in terms of percentages, it’s still terribly low. I remember being invited to a Director’s Guild dinner, because I had directed a big screen movie, and they were very, very concerned that I come, and I didn’t know why they kept urging me to come, until I realized when I did come that if I didn’t come, there would be no women. Now there would be some women there. But I remember when I came, the gift at everybody’s plate was shaving lotion. And I said, “Hey guys, you made me come, and look at this.” And the next year they had a little cigar and whiskey bar, and now there are more women there, but what are there, ten, fifteen percent? I don’t know. This is a number that comes out of the air. But it’s certainly not commensurate with talent, or energy, or entitlement.
On discovering the feminist blogosphere:
Just in the last month or so, someone asked me for a quote, and people started sending me feminists blogs — which I hadn’t seen — which were really, really interesting. And I did an interview for Jezebel, who asked me only about the political and social themes inside [Dirty Dancing]. I’m so thrilled when that happens that I sort of don’t know what to do. And they got so many responses from women saying, “Thank you for making me understand that this was not a guilty pleasure, but something that is very important to me in my life.”
I’m slow to look at blogs, but I’ve been astounded by letters. And the other feminists thing – the name of it I forget – it was sent to me about a month ago where people were writing in about Dirty Dancing, and I think that may be about the time of Patrick [Swayze’s] death. And the women were so – there were men who wrote in, too – but they were so smart, and the agenda was so interesting, and so full of shared causes and things, that I thought, “Oh my God, it’s the future.” It was quite thrilling for me. I mean, not having to do with Dirty Dancing – that was gratifying – but just the idea that all these smart, smart women were leading the dialogue, even though men wrote in, too, all of them just seemed as if they were setting the agenda themselves. And that was terrific, and that certainly wasn’t true when I started out.