Why Dirty Dancing is Popular

Confession time. I really like Dirty Dancing. I know, I know, that undermines somewhat my hard-earned reputation as a red-blooded, beer-swilling, arse-scratching male of the species, but there's something about Dirty Dancing that puts me in touch with my feminine side. I don't start swooning or doing that heart-patting thing or anything - I'm not a woman, after all - but I like it a lot. I'm not alone of course. Dirty Dancing is an astonishing success story, not just in monetary terms but in the way people, and women in particular (for they are people too), took it to their hearts. So much so, it will forever held up as one of the definitive chick flicks. It is certainly more popular that any film about statutory rape should be, for let us not forget it is essentially a story about an adult man shagging a 15 year old girl.

But I digress. The question for today is 'Why is is so popular? If we wanted to be obvious, we could point to the fabulous rock 'n' roll soundtrack, which is so good it can even carry a couple of dodgy power ballads without floundering. We might also point to the tried and tested coming-of-age formula, which has enduring appeal, or Patrick Swayze's muscles. Or the fact that the whole thing is a good old underdog-comes-good story, complete with training montage, which always goes down well with audiences. Rocky 'n' Roll, if you like. But loads of films feature these things and don't garner the same devotion as Dirty Dancing. So what is the secret of its success? Here, for the first time, I reveal the true reason. Ready?

Here it is : Jennifer Grey, the female lead, is not very pretty. That's it! That's the secret! Now, don't get me wrong, she's not hideous or anything. If she was down the local disco, she wouldn't look out of place and there would certainly be one or two lads who would chance their arm after a pint or two. But, sadly, Hollywood actresses go to different discoes than the great unwashed masses, and Jennifer would have to queue like the rest of us plebs to get in. I have nothing against her and I'm sure she has a great personality and sure isn't that more important anyway. But she chose to work in an industry fixated with appearances, so best to face up to the bare facts.

"But Your Honour, she said she was 18!"
So, why would her looks make a difference to the film? Well, in short, Jennifer Grey looks like most of the women watching it ; average. And therein lies the subversive appeal of the film. Women are a shrewd and unforgiving species, all too aware that Mother Nature only doles out the real beauty to a very few. Some of these select few end up in the movies and get to play princesses and angels and heroines. But the real kick in the teeth for everyday women is that sometimes these beauties have to play 'ugly'. You know - the films where a beautiful actress plays a supposedly unpopular, overlooked wallflower. Or the ugly duckling storyline in which a blindingly gorgeous girl is 'uglified' by having glasses or braces, only to (gasp!) become a radiant goddess when she removes them. You can almost feel the blood boiling in females the world over as they scream at the films, knowing full well that girl would never be without a hot boyfriend, a flawless body, a well-paid job, a great life.

Dirty Dancing is different. In it, they find an average, believable looking girl. And from that simple casting, the rest of the film does not end up alienating its female audience, even as the otherwise cheesy plot plays out. Rather than viewing her as one of them, they view her as one of us. Cannily, the film surrounds her with better looking women; the other dancers, her sister, even her mother, firmly getting the viewers on her side. Thus, it allows a suspension of disbelief that few chick flicks do, whereby women (and particularly self-conscious teenage girls), can dream of getting the guy and having the time of their life, without the nagging feeling that they just aren't pretty enough. That's why Dirty Dancing appeals so much. A fact sadly missed by the makers of the sequel, Dirty Dancing; Havana Nights, which featured essentially the same storyline, but with a much prettier girl in the lead. It flopped miserably. People said it was because it was a sequel. But now you know better. It's also why certain chick flicks become massive hits; Muriel's Wedding, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Bridesmaids, for example, all have normal looking girls in the lead roles. Even allowing for the inbuilt audience, the Twilight saga has surely also profited from the casting of Kristen Stewart as Bella, rather than say, someone good-looking. Basically, the less pretty the girl(s), the bigger the appeal for a female audience. How else to explain the success of Sex & the City?

For futher evidence, we need only look at the career of Jennifer Grey, who never again got a role to match that of Baby, despite the success and publicity surrounding the film. Deep down, she knew why, and felt the pressure in Hollywood to change her looks. Hence her ill-advised nose-job in the 1990s, which changed her looks from average to rather odd, a transformation her career subsequently resembled, as she moved from big hits of the 80s to obscure TV movies.
Jennifer Grey before (left) and after (right) her nose job. Really!

Finally, why do I like it? I'm neither female nor a teenager. But I was once. A teenager, that is, not a female. At least, not during the week. Anyway, Dirty Dancing reminds me that once, like Baby, I too was an awkward, shy teenager who just wanted to be sexy, cool and a great dancer. Happily, all those things have now come true. Nobody puts me in the corner any more!

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