Dirty Dancing, Fairy Tales, and Pregnancy

I’ve learned my lesson from Anne with an E (although I did enjoy parts of the series). I am not watching the remake of Dirty Dancing. However, a few interesting articles popped up that drew attention to Penny’s storyline in the film. Penny is the young dancer. She picks up gigs to earn a living. She is romanced by a scion of a wealthy family and imagines that he’ll marry her. He doesn’t. She is pregnant. She won’t be able to work. She has no money, no apparent support beyond her friends, and no access to safe abortion. Her plight drives the plot. Baby learns to dance because Penny can’t afford to lose her spot at the Sheldrake. Penny’s livelihood is that precarious.

Kaitlin Menza puts it thus in Harpers Bazaar:

Not only did the film portray a character choosing an abortion, but it got gruesome about the reality of such a procedure in 1963, when the film is set. That dirty knife wrecks the woman’s body, leaving her unable to work or even talk very much. She needs money, she needs a doctor, she needs someone to pick up her shifts at work so she won’t lose her job.

Who knows how many of us, watching Dirty Dancing in our teens, unconsciously became aware of such life-and-death consequences for women ‘in trouble.’

I’ve often compared Dirty Dancing to Disney’s The Little Mermaid. Both foreground the young female protagonist’s gaze. Both Ariel and Baby are their father’s favourites, self-actualised girls who want something more than society is currently offering them. They both encounter and gaze upon young men who are forbidden to them, entranced by the way their bodies move as they dance. They both lie to their fathers in order to pursue their desire and in both cases, they have to confront the consequences. However, in the case of Ariel, she pursues the kiss of true love in order to keep her legs and not become a polyp. In Dirty Dancing, the stakes are higher in many respects for Penny.

Yet, fairy tale has a long history of grappling with just those stakes. Ruth Bottigheimer’s piece in Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches (ed. Donald Haase, 2004), addresses how the playful sexuality of early female heroes in medieval literature disappeared from fairy tale:

Coincident with women’s loss of fertility control was the emergence of the new literary genre, fairy tales. As the genre developed toward its modern form, two notable changes occurred in their plots. Men became a danger to women, and newly disempowered women cowered in fear […] The dangers then men posed sexually were generalized into a fairy-tale world in which women suffered wicked abductors, relentless captors, long captivity, and increasing isolation. In short, the modern fairy-tale heroine was born. (50)

Many know that the forerunner to Sleeping Beauty, Basile’s Talia, is raped in her sleep and consequently gives birth to twins. Once she is awake, her agency is virtually removed. The king continues to visit, having a delightful time with her, and then Talia’s life is threatened by the king’s wife, before she is rescued and lives happily ever after. It is a strange tale, not least because Talia appears to fall in love with the married man who raped her. Yet, in her circumstances, she has few options and Basile’s storyteller even reflects that she is lucky. Indeed, the unlucky Talia who didn’t meekly accept the king into her life would doubtless die alone and hungry, along with her children.

Basile’s Petrosinella is the forerunner to Rapunzel and the tale is very much grounded in female fertility. Petrosinella’s mother is pregnant and has a craving for parsley, a herb which, incidentally, was and still is regarded as an ingredient for inducing abortion, placing a rather nuanced slant upon her cravings. The ogress, whose garden the father raids, makes them promise to give up the baby. The mother, however, does raise Petrosinella for some years, until she is irritated by the ogress’s constant reminders and tells Petrosinella that the next time the ogress reminds her of the promise, to tell  her to ‘take her.’ Petrosinella is whisked away and placed in a tower and from there, she encounters a passing prince. Basile tells us that their negotiations go well and they become lovers. What is intriguing is that the lovers escape when the ogress discovers their assignations, but there is no mention of Petrosinella becoming pregnant. The relationship appears consensual and the pair are unpunished. In later versions, the young woman becomes pregnant and she and her lover suffer misadventure before being reunited. There is an undercurrent in Basile’s tale of women taking control of their sexuality and its consequences. Children and pregnancy are not unquestionably desired nor wanted, sexual relations can be consensual, and a woman need not be punished for having sex outside of marriage.

Basile’s tales are a cross-section of attitudes to women’s sexuality and fertility and of the fears and dangers of sex and pregnancy for women. As Bottigheimer argues, social attitudes around sex gradually altered the stakes for fairy-tale’s heroines, giving them less agency in relation to matters of reproduction. Lheritier’s ‘The Discreet Princess’ features a father determined to safeguard the virginity of his daughters while he’s away. He doesn’t merely lock them up in a tower, he also gives them glass distaffs that will break if they have sex. Finette is the virtuous heroine while her sisters are lazy and talkative. When they yield to the seductions of a wicked prince and consequently give birth, Finette takes charge and takes the babies straight back to their father, giving him an apoplexy. At least the tale offers a thought to the father’s responsibility. Unfortunately, the sisters are nonetheless punished for their lack of virtue, as are most women in fairy tale who consent to sex outside of marriage.

Today, feminist revisions of fairy tale often focus upon agency, but very rarely tackle the issues of fertility and sex that are so fundamental to a woman’s ability to control her social and financial security. Once Upon A Time briefly tackles the stories of Emma and Cinderella as single mothers, but by and large, motherhood itself becomes a matter of aspiration in fairy tales even now. In Maleficent, for instance, the sleeping beauty is woken by a kiss from the woman who has learned to love her like a mother. Perhaps it is time that, like Dirty Dancing, fairy tales grapple more directly with the consequences of fertility for women.