Although we probably do not like to admit it, the majority of people were pretty impressionable in High School, at an age when many of us were firmly trying to establish ourselves. Reflecting back on my time at an all-males prep. school, it is easy to see how conditioned I was into several cultural norms. Not that I did not think for myself, but when I saw or heard an advertisement, trailer, or conversation about romantic films, typically I gave them no thought whatsoever. While I am still not a huge fan of the genre, I can appreciate why individuals enjoy the emotional roller coaster present in these fantasies. But more often than not, they are just that—fantasies. I tend not to like Romantic Comedies, Divine Romances, Romantic Tragedies, or any other genre that is centered on an idealistic yet impossible or at least highly impractical love story. If I did or said 1/10 of the things that the heroes do in Romances, I would get slapped—or at least would come across as super creepy. This is why the ability to identify with a character in the specific context is so crucial. As Carl Plantinga explains in his essay, “when we assent to the narrative of a film and become ‘absorbed’ or ‘immersed’, we accept an emotional role. We entertain the fiction in our imagination…yet we have a consistent background awareness of its artificiality” (Plantinga 152). This is why I chose to watch Dirty Dancing.
The film is centered on Fances Houseman (AKA “Baby”), and the summer her family spends at a mountain resort. She discovers the underground clubs where Johnny (Schwayze), the resort dance instructor, leads the staff in dirty dancing. She soon discovers that Johnny’s dance partner, Penny, is pregnant by Robbie, her sister’s unfaithful boyfriend. Trying to help, Baby speaks to her dad (a physician) in confidence and asks for the money necessary for an abortion and gives it to Penny. Frances and Johnny practice and perform at another resort and dance well although she is too nervous to complete the climactic lift at the end of their routine. While the abortion goes horribly wrong, leaving Penny is agonizing pain and eventually forced to be seen by Baby’s father who helps the young dancer despite his fury and disappointment in Baby for deceiving him, it leads to Johnny and Baby growing closer. Johnny is accused of stealing a guest’s wallet and, due to his lack of an alibi, is likely to be found guilty. In an act of defiance, pride, and passion, Frances announces that she can prove his innocence as she was with him at the time. Although Patrick Schwayze is fired (I mean he did sleep with and romanticize a seventeen-year-old resort guest), he is so taken aback by Baby’s selflessness that they become even more in love. This all boils down to the final resort dance of the summer, in which the couple is reunited, Johnny fires one of Hollywood’s most famous lines, “…nobody puts Baby in the corner!”, and the two lovebirds dance their hearts out (to Time of My Life incidentally) and finish with the climactic lift they were unable to do before.
I thought it was interesting to read Plantinga’s deconstruction of ‘sentimentality’, or a “false or unearned sentiment” as well as Mary Midgeley’s opinion that it “…misrepresent[s] the world to indulge our feelings”. While I used to hate on romances for this very reason, after watching Casablanca and speaking about it with friends who are big fans of the genre, I propose a slight editorial to that stance. I cannot bring myself to agree with the idea that sentimentality in films is a “howling self-deception” that leads to a “distortion of the world” (Plantinga 155). Rather, I see it as a fantasy film in which one views a love story that, while impractical, is so ideologically beautiful that they wish to engage themselves both in the fiction of the movie, and of the reality that (even if only sliiiightly) there is a chance that something similar will happen to them someday. As Plantinga states, emotion is a process. And for this viewer, emotion can be a confusing and difficult idea to understand. Nonetheless, movies can enduce and elicit sentimentality for the purpose of critiquing it, (Plantinga 156), realizing it, or just putting it out there for the viewer to enjoy. Just as screen violence is guaranteed to generate affect, so too does emotion and sentimentality, especially that of love and affection.
I thought the following quotation from Mindy Kaling ends this post nicely:
“I feel almost embarrassed revealing this, because the genre has been so degraded in the past twenty years that saying you like romantic comedies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity. But that has not stopped me from enjoying them. I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world.”