What Patrick Swayze (z”l) did for Jewish women
I heard the news about Patrick Swayze's death when I logged on to Facebook last night and saw numerous status updates about dancing the merenge and not putting Baby in the corner. Swayze's death is not just sad (he was only 57); for Jewish girls of my generation, it's the end of era. I've written here already about the cultural meaning of Dirty Dancing, exploring the Jewish subtext of the film and Baby's imaginary trajectory after the film ends. But today I'm thinking about Swayze as Johnny and what it is that he offered young girls like me.
It wasn't just his amazing, glistening body in those tight tank tops and dance pants, or his sexy moves. It wasn't just his deep, longing voice in "She's Like the Wind," one of the great, cheesy love songs of the 1980s. No, he represented something more than just a Hollywood object of desire, tantalizingly out of reach. What made the character of Johnny so long-lasting in the fantasy life of Jewish women of a certain age is that the unattainable, sexy non-Jewish boy became (in the movie, at least, briefly) attainable. Baby's love for Johnny isn't unrequited. Johnny loves Baby back. He recognizes what's sexy about her, loves her despite -- or perhaps because of -- her Jewish nose and frizzy hair and tendency to blurt things out awkwardly. ("I carried a watermelon?!?")
Usually, movie love between Jewish women and sexy, non-Jewish men is unrequited. Take The Way We Were for example -- sure, Hubbell (Robert Redford) and Katie (Barbra Streisand) get married and even have a baby, but it's clear that Hubbell doesn't really love Katie the way she loves him. She can only be fully appreciated by a fellow Jewish activist-type -- whom we never see but are damn sure cannot compare to Robert Redford -- not the hot gentile.
But Johnny is different. Even though he and Baby can't ultimately be together, he really gets her. Not only does he like her and desire her, he is changed by her, and he acknowledges it publicly. Sure, he gets the big moment of agency in pulling Baby out of that corner, but she's the one who gets to fly in the lift. She saves him as much as, if not more than, he saves her. After all, he has the time of his life, and he owes it all to her!
The earnest, nerdy, frizzy-haired 14-year-old Jewish girl inside of me will be forever grateful to Patrick Swayze for making me feel like I could be graceful and sexy as I am, for giving me hope that someday someone might be turned on by my mind and my principles (and, well, maybe my body, too). Johnny lives on in our hearts, and may Patrick Swayze rest in peace.