It’s sort of weird to write an encomium to a dude, isn’t it, on a feminist website? And yet I cried today when I heard about Patrick Swayze – and I am not a crier – and I wanted to say something to you.
I make a habit in this space (and others) of picking apart pop culture for political message, of critiquing hidden messages and strange implications. But even I have some sacred texts, and one of them was Dirty Dancing, believe it or not. Oh, I know. How insipid. How mundane. But like, I suspect, a good number of you, this was the go-to sleepover movie. I must have rented it twenty times or more. I actually watched it a couple of months ago after a particularly bad day. And you know, I suppose if I wanted to analyze what it said about gender and class I certainly could. But there are some experiences worth preserving in their pre-cerebral form.
Patrick Swayze was, I like to say, the first man I really knew as a body. I don’t mean that in the sense of objectification, per se, though there was always that too. But I really mean that, being a bookish, awkward, gangly child, with parents who were never noted for their athleticism, it took me a long time to fully, viscerally, recognize the physicality of the world. I still have trouble with it sometimes – I am an excessively verbal person, to the point of preferring myself in print to the version that walks around the real world. But the first time I watched that movie, watched his sinews saw and ripple over his bones while he showed Jennifer Grey How It’s Done – I am pretty sure that was the first time I understood that being physically present in the world could be as much of a gift as watching it go by and writing it all down in your head. And that it was an induction for a girl as introverted and classically un”pretty” as Jennifer Grey? Together with adolescent hormones that was poetry, my friends.
You may (and probably should) laugh. I still don’t know how anyone watches that last sequence without their hair standing on end, without catching their breath. Schmaltz or no schmaltz, people in that moment are living a kind of physical joy that does not, in my personal opinion, get enough cred these days. I’m often called a cynic, but I think I’m really sentimental, albeit with a frequently broken heart. I wonder if any child of today, media-savvy and street-smart as they seem, can enjoy things in the way I once enjoyed Swayze’s dancing. I know that the adult me, encountering that movie for the first time today, probably would not be able. There’s a part of me that’s crying for that, I guess, as much as there is one for a person I’d never met and don’t really know that much about, in the end. This has been a rough summer for my childhood.