Baby's Day Out
Frances "Baby" Houseman is the type of girl everyone wishes they could be: intelligent, compassionate, and able to read in the backseat without getting carsick. Although her nickname might lead you to think she likes to suck on a pacifier and be carried around, Baby's no Ariana Grande.
Baby plans to attend Mount Holyoke College and major in Economics of Underdeveloped Countries, after which she's joining the Peace Corps. We first see her in the family car reading Plight of the Peasant. What were you doing in the car when you were seventeen?
Meeting Jake Houseman, Baby's doctor father, you can see where she gets her smarts and social conscience. When Baby and her dad overhear the older Houseman sister lamenting the fact that she didn't bring the right shoes with her on vacation, they react the same:
JAKE: This is not a tragedy. A tragedy is three men trapped in a mine or police dogs used in Birmingham.
BABY: Monks burning themselves in protest.
Lisa seems like the boy-crazy, fashion-obsessed airhead; Baby's the sensible, intellectual sister. This is one of the reasons she and her dad are so close; they're a lot alike—no time for petty, ridiculous stuff. Baby tells us she thought back then that she'd never find a guy as good as her dad. Of course, that's easy to say when you haven't met Patrick Swayze yet.
Despite her forward-thinking plans, Baby is, in many ways, an innocent. She's daddy's little girl, she's focused on academics instead of romance, and she's a virgin.
That's all about to change on this memorable summer vacation.
Baby's innocence is the focus of the first act of the film, and it's best summed up by this iconic line.
BABY: I carried a watermelon.
This is Baby's response when she's first introduced to the handsome hustling hunk Johnny Castle. Baby is definitely out of her element here. It's the first time she's seen a group of people dance the way Johnny and his fellow dancers do. We've all been there— slightly uncomfortable but also intrigued—and what comes out of Baby's mouth is ridiculous. She realizes it right after she says it, too, which shows us that she generally isn't awkward. She's just in a new situation, and it takes some time to adapt.
Baby, You're the One
At first, that watermelon is like Sisyphus' stone for Baby. No matter how hard she tries to fit in with Johnny's crowd, they push her back. Baby helps Penny by getting her the money for the abortion, but even then, Penny isn't super grateful.
PENNY: Go back to your playpen, Baby.
Johnny also ridicules Baby for running to her father. What he doesn't realize, and what Baby never tells him, is that Baby went to Robbie (Penny's baby daddy) for the money first. Only when he didn't pay up did Baby borrow the money from her father as a last resort. It's proof of how much her father trusts her that he hands her the money without asking for an explanation. She must have earned that trust; clearly, he thinks she's a sensible and smart person who wouldn't run out and buy 100 pair of shoes like her sis. And it showed determination to try and wring the cash out of the scumbag Robbie.
She gets the opportunity to show Johnny these same qualities when she agrees to stand in for Penny at the dance. Baby's the perfect student, passionate and a fast learner. She shows her willingness to follow his instruction, which wins both Johnny and Penny over. Maybe they were the ones afraid of change, not her.
It's critical that Baby take the first step (pun intended) because she comes from a higher social class than Johnny and Penny. None of Baby's peers would do what Baby's doing; they'd think it was beneath them. That's the main reason Penny and Johnny initially resist Baby; they don't want to be condescended to. But Baby mambos right over the class lines dividing them, and she unites them through dance.
Baby's Got Your Back
When Johnny realizes that Baby's father isn't ever going to trust him, he goes off on a tear about how worthless he is and how's got nothing going for him and the only reason he's not a total failure is that older women use him as their boy toy. Baby tries to buck up his confidence:
JOHNNY: People treat me like I'm nothing because I am nothing.
BABY: No, you're not. You're everything!
Johnny assumes that someone like Baby has none of these self-doubts. She begs to differ:
BABY: Me?! I'm scared of everything! I'm scared of what I saw, I'm scared of what I did, of who I am. And most of all, I'm scared of walking out of this room and never feeling the rest of my whole life the way I feel when I'm with you.
At this moment, a little role reversal takes place. Baby initiates the first night of sex with Johnny, and from then on out, Baby is "Baby" in name only. She's now a woman, not because she had sex, but because she's the one taking the initiative.
We see them him in a humorous dance scene where Baby leads Johnny, barking all his earlier directions back at him. They do it in a playful manner, and Johnny enjoys it. He may be a leading man, but he knows when to let Baby take the lead, too.
Papa Don't Preach
As much as Baby respects and adores her daddy, she lets him have it for falsely accusing Johnny just because he's from a different social crowd. Plus, he can't seem to wrap his mind around the fact that his daughter is romantically—never mind sexually—involved with this guy. He raised her to be open-minded and liberal, and now look how he's behaving.
BABY: I'm sorry I lied to you. But you lied too. You told me everyone was alike and deserved a fair break. But you meant everyone who is like you. You told me you wanted me to change the world, make it better. But you meant by becoming a lawyer or an economist and marrying somebody from Harvard. […] There are a lot of things about me that aren't what you thought. But if you love me, you have to love all those things about me. And I love you. And I'm sorry I let you down. I'm so sorry, Daddy. But you let me down, too.
This is Baby's real coming of age. It's not having sex (that's not a sign of adulthood) or learning to dance. It's that these were her decisions, a break from her parents and their traditional values and a step towards independence.
After the conversation with his daughter, Dad sits down and cries. It's totally a "Sunrise, Sunset" moment. Baby's not a baby anymore.
In 2010, screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein gave an interview where she discussed how surprised she was to find out how much women had identified with Baby's newfound strength and determination to stand up for herself and define herself on her own terms.
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" (source)
So watching Baby and Johnny fall in love and do those sultry moves isn't a guilty pleasure. It's practically extra credit for our Gender Studies class.
Hmm…now where did we leave that old DVD?