He’s Like the Wind: Why We Still Get Swept Up by Dirty Dancing’s Johnny Castle
There are a number of reasons Dirty Dancing has been hailed as a “feminist masterpiece.” Most obviously, the film was written by a woman (Eleanor Bergstein) and centers on a strong-willed, sexually empowered female character (Frances “Baby” Houseman, played by Jennifer Grey). There’s also a subplot involving abortion that is (sadly) still pretty groundbreaking. Then there’s leading man Johnny Castle, a smooth-moving hunk with a heart of gold who sweeps Baby (and us!) off our feet, while also eschewing expectations of masculinity on screen.
At first glance, Patrick Swayze’s Johnny Castle appears to be a “man’s man”—you know, the kind of guy who would toss creativity and compassion aside for rationality and casual sex. After all, he rocks the traditional tough guy uniform (all black everything, including the lightly weathered leather jacket) and whips out one-liners like “You just put your pickle on everybody’s plate, college boy, and leave the hard stuff to me.” But beneath his dark sunglasses and firmly locked frame, Johnny is unlike many male characters in and outside of the world of Dirty Dancing. He’s incredibly sensitive, especially when it comes to the women in his life, and isn’t afraid to admit it.
Let’s be honest: Johnny Castle is not an entirely perfect cinematic specimen. He’s definitely moody in his initial interactions with Baby, alternating between sweet and charming (see: their first dance at the staff party), and cold and detached (see: when she offers to take over for his dancer partner, Penny, as she skips their weekly performance to get that aforementioned abortion). He also resorts to physical violence in an attempt to combat Kellerman’s true villain, purported “nice guy” (read: actual abusive asshole) Robbie. But Johnny is the first one to admit that some of these less-than-impressive actions are a result of insecurities, many of which were borne out of the pressure to adhere to the gender and class norms of 1963.
The more Baby and Johnny work on their performance, the more they open up to one another. While she shares that she’s named after “the first woman in the Cabinet,” he reveals that he feels pressured by his father to push his dance career aside for a more standard, labour-based job (you know, like a “real man” would). Oh, and while he’s got some really innovative ideas for how to change up the routine/s at Kellerman’s, he’s afraid to defend them to higher management (which is made up of, yes, a bunch of men) out of fear of losing his dream job and main source of income. He wishes he could be “brave” like Baby, who quite staunchly stands up for her beliefs as well as others’, but finds it incredibly challenging because his hopes and dreams contradict those of his peers.
In another intimate moment, Johnny divulges that a few women at Kellerman’s treat him like their part-time gigolo, slipping him a few bucks here and there to give them “some extra dance lessons” (if you know what I mean). In another movie, Johnny might boast about this, positioning these one-night stands as a sort of badge of virility. Instead, he admits his truth: he feels used by these women. He longs for a more meaningful, open connection, which he eventually gets from Baby (remember, it takes her a while to go public with their relationship, especially to her holier-than-thou Daddy).
Johnny says that because most of Kellerman’s guests “treat [him] like he’s nothing,” he feels he actually is “nothing.” But in actuality, he’s really quite something. Despite of his anxieties about his place in society, he remains great partner to both Baby and Penny. He repeatedly puts his career and reputation on the line in an attempt to shield these women from unfair judgment by other men and the patriarchy at large.
At the start of the film, Johnny is in full protective mode as he looks for ways to help Penny after Robbie gets her pregnant and refuses to pay for the abortion. He even lies to Dr. Houseman and says that he is “responsible” for her unborn child, knowing full well that if their boss found out the truth, Penny would be fired. (We can guess what would happen to Robbie … he’d keep his job and be asked back next summer!)
Later, when Johnny is framed for the repeated thefts at the resort, he refuses to give up his actual alibi, claiming that was alone in his room the night of the crimes when he was really with Baby. He does this to protect his newfound love from disappointing – you guessed it – her father. Tragically, his well-meaning gesture ends up backfiring on both of them. After Johnny is fired, having been deemed guilty by his boss, Baby reveals the true nature of their relationship. This upsets Dr. Houseman to the point that he refuses to talk to his daughter. (Real mature, Jake.)
In the final scene of the film, Johnny stands up for Baby one more time, pulling her out of that proverbial corner her father has placed her in and into the spotlight. In front of all of Kellerman’s staff and guests, he states that Baby – sorry, Frances – is a “great partner”, a “terrific dancer” and, best of all, “the kind of person [he] wants to be.” With this short, but sweet speech, Johnny lifts Baby up higher than he ever has before, making his feelings for her (and her own expectation-defying behaviour) public knowledge. He also lifts himself up as he suggests that people – yes, even men – can be both strong and sensitive simultaneously.
After he finishes speaking, Johnny and Baby launch into one of the most unforgettable dance sequences in history. Seeing the passion in their eyes and pep in their steps, the crowd quickly feels compelled to get up and dance, too. In this moment, they are all clearly having the time of their life, and it’s all thanks to a man who, with some help from a great woman, dared to be his true self.