I was ten years old when I first encountered Dirty Dancing, although it was not the film itself that I saw. Instead, I found out about its existence through one of its most ardent fans: Mia Thermopolis, the teenage protagonist of Meg Cabot’s addictive Princess Diaries series. “My favourite movie of all time is one I first saw on HBO when I was twelve,” Mia writes in a diary entry. “It has remained my favourite movie in spite of my friends’ and family’s efforts to introduce me to so-called finer examples of cinematic art”.
With the scorn of Mia’s friends and family firmly in mind, when I finally watched (and then frequently re-watched) Dirty Dancing several years later, it was in bouts of furtive shame. Marketed unabashedly as a romance, the film seemed too girlish for my teenage understanding of feminism, a secret favourite that I tried to laugh off as a guilty pleasure. Looking back now, it is astonishing that I could ever have thought it vacuous. It easily passes the Bechdel test. It centres female desire and sexuality without a shred of judgement. And, most importantly, its central narrative is catalysed by a woman’s need for an illegal abortion. The details are probably familiar to most: 17-year old Frances “Baby” Houseman (Jennifer Grey) visits a summer resort with her family in the 1960s, where she becomes attracted to the resort’s dance teacher Johnny, a perennially dreamy Patrick Swayze. When Johnny’s dance partner Penny (Cynthia Rhodes) accidentally becomes pregnant and wants a termination, Baby borrows money from her father for the procedure and steps up to fill Penny’s spot in an important dance performance. Romance, of course, ensues.
Dirty Dancing is by no means the first cinematic exploration of an abortion, or of a woman supporting and enabling another woman’s choice, but it is perhaps one of its most open portrayals in a mainstream cult classic. Since Dirty Dancing, and with the ongoing legalisation and normalisation of abortion in the United States, narratives surrounding the procedure have only increased. Obvious Child, directed by Gillian Robbespierre and starring comedian Jenny Slate, depicts a young woman who becomes pregnant after a one night stand and, knowing immediately that she isn’t ready for motherhood, elects to have a termination. Like Dirty Dancing, the film features a romance subplot and a light touch, yet unlike its predecessor, Obvious Child takes place in 2014 New York, where abortions are legal and theoretically accessible. More recently, Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always takes a much more understated yet gut-punchingly powerful approach, examining the minutiae of accessing an abortion in rural Pennsylvania through the story of teenage Autumn, who must fund her own travel to New York where she can terminate the pregnancy without her mother’s involvement.
The three films are all visually and tonally distinct, yet fundamentally similar in several ways. They all notably centre on straight, cisgender, white protagonists, they were all created after Roe vs. Wade legalised abortion in the United States (although Dirty Dancing is set a decade before) yet depict women navigating ongoing economic and cultural obstacles, and they all highlight female solidarity, with the pregnant woman’s experience of the abortion grounded in and supported by the platonic and familial female relationships in her life. These relationships are central to the films’ narratives and to the characters’ experiences, providing emotional, physical, and logistical support where the state fails to.
Dirty Dancing contains probably the more explicit condemnation of this healthcare system, given its 1960s setting where illegal abortions were the only option available. When Penny first reveals she is pregnant, no qualms are made about her wanting to have an abortion: no other option is discussed, and no one questions or moralises her decision. Instead, the conversation revolves around how to make this possible given the financial inaccessibility of the procedure. Baby eventually borrows money from her father, only to find out that cash is not the only barrier: Penny needs to be able to fulfil a dance obligation otherwise she and Johnny will lose their regular gig, which Baby offers to cover.
These moments are crucial to the film’s overall narrative and character development – Baby begins to lose her naivety and learns how to make a material difference, Penny and Baby start to build a caring relationship, and Johnny grows a grudging respect for this hitherto privileged girl – yet they also reveal the ways in which economics and reproductive healthcare are inextricably tied. Penny’s working class reality and lack of resources mean that she is structurally unable to access an abortion – Baby’s one-off cash offering can do nothing unless she can also offer her paid time away from her work. Robbie, the Harvard student father of the baby could easily help – Baby insisting “I know he has the money” – yet his refusal to bear responsibility reveals how the privileged and powerful effectively regulate marginalised people’s recourse to essential services to which they themselves have ready access. This lack of ready access for most then leads to very visceral consequences: Penny’s abortion doctor ends up being a hack with a “dirty knife and a table”, Penny’s friend saying he could “hear her screaming in the hallway”. At every turn, it is the inaccessible and illegal conditions of the procedure that cause material harm, rather than the procedure itself.
Despite being set after Roe vs Wade, both Obvious Child and Never Rarely Sometimes Always depict similar economic and structural obstacles, revealing how America’s reproductive healthcare system continues to limit women’s access to healthcare despite supposed progress. After realising that she is pregnant, the protagonist of Obvious Child, Donna (Jenny Slate), goes to a clinic to schedule an abortion. It is only after asking and finding out that the procedure will cost 500 dollars that she breaks down crying. “I’m sorry,” she says thickly through tears, “that’s…that’s like my whole rent, almost”, shaking her head when the doctor asks if she has insurance. In Never Rarely Sometimes Always, meanwhile, teenage Autumn (Sidney Flanigan) cannot access an abortion without her mother’s consent in her home state of Pennsylvania. In one harrowing scene, she researches how to bring about a miscarriage and stands in front of a mirror, striking her stomach with her fists as she cries. The bruises linger throughout the film, reminiscent of Penny’s similarly violent experience of a back alley procedure. Eventually, Autumn’s cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder) accompanies her to New York where they are told the abortion will take a few days, necessitating their finding money for a new coach ticket back home, the bulk of their cash having been spent on the procedure. Although the abortions themselves have become legal, the shots of Donna’s crumpled face and Autumn’s bruised stomach show that they are still in no way accessible.
Faced with such systemic neglect, these women find support instead through the women in their lives, women who attempt to neutralise the actively harmful infrastructures of the American healthcare system. It is Baby who both finds Penny the money and fills in for her work so that Penny can have the procedure done. When Penny becomes ill, Baby seeks out her doctor father and afterwards continues to check in on Penny’s recovery. She also provides emotional as well as material support: in the hours before Penny’s procedure, as they prepare Baby for her dance performance, Penny starts to cry, confessing “I’m scared. I’m so scared, Baby”. Baby responds by pulling her into her arms, reassuring her that she will be fine.
In Obvious Child, it is Donna’s best friend Nellie and mother Nancy who help to shoulder the emotional burden of Donna’s abortion. From sitting with Donna as she takes the pregnancy test to offering to accompany her to the procedure, Nellie is present at every stage. When an anxious Donna asks Nellie to “just take me through it snip-by-snip”, Nellie shares her own experience of terminating a pregnancy, providing Donna with both the emotional and educational care that she needs to face the procedure. Similarly, when Donna tells her mother she is pregnant, Nancy tells the story of her own illegal abortion, in which she sat in a waiting room filled with “12 other women, just sitting there in some kind of stupor”. This sharing of vulnerable experiences – each taking place in the intimate space of Donna and Nellie’s home or Donna’s mother’s bed – not only underlines the collective nature of this fraught experience, but also offers a model of care and interdependence that lies outside a healthcare system governed by patriarchal interests.
It is this model of care that Never Rarely Sometimes Always both champions and critiques the need for. As soon as Skylar, the only person Autumn tells about her pregnancy, learns of her situation, she wordlessly steals money from their workplace and books them tickets to New York, the absence of dialogue highlighting her instinctive understanding of and determination to tend to Autumn’s needs. Once in New York, Skylar quietly follows Autumn from clinic to clinic, putting herself through hunger and sleeplessness to make sure Autumn can attend and pay for her appointments. Her actions contrast vividly with the lack of support and care Autumn received from her local healthcare facilities, where her only option was to try and bring about the abortion unsafely herself.
Strikingly, the solidarity between Autumn and Skylar goes both ways. Needing money for their bus ticket back home, Skylar persuades a young man to buy them new tickets, allowing him to kiss her in return. Skylar may have consented to his advances, but it is clear she is unwilling, going through the motions out of financial need. As she stands caught between a pillar and his body, Autumn comes up behind them and, unseen, stretches out her hand and locks pinkies with Skylar, silently supporting her through her own physical trauma. It’s a moment that brings into heart wrenching relief both the pervasive harm that lack of safe abortion access can inflict, and the personal networks and gestures that work to mitigate its effects. As with Baby and Penny’s relationship in Dirty Dancing, and the support given to Donna by Nellie and Nancy in Obvious Child, the answer for Autumn and Skylar lies not in the system, but in other women. Perhaps, despite what Mia Thermpolis’ friends and family might think, that is one of the finer examples that cinematic art can offer.
by Anahit Behrooz
Anahit Behrooz (@anahitrooz) is an arts journalist based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in The List, The Skinny, One Room With a View and Culture Trip. She likes beautiful films about women, old bookshops, and Dan Levy’s eyebrows.