For a romantic film about dancing at a resort in the catskills, Dirty Dancing tackled some surprisingly serious subjects. In fact, the entire plot hinged on one of the characters getting an abortion. Characters choosing to terminate their pregnancies is something that's only just becoming normalized on television and in movies, and there's still a long way to come in terms of representation. That's why it was so surprising for a movie that was set in the early 1960s (and originally filmed in the late '80s) to tackle the subject. But was it a new addition in the ABC remake, intended to modernize the story, or was it from the original film? Did Penny get an abortion in Dirty Dancing?
As most of you undoubtedly know already, Penny's abortion was a plot in the 1987 film, though in the original, the word "abortion" was never uttered. In fact, Penny never even explicitly used the word "pregnant," either. Instead the characters talked around the issue the way real people might have in 1963: they said that Penny was "in trouble" or "knocked up" and various people promised her they'd "take care of it." It was the kind of thing that may not have dawned on you watching the film as a kid, but becomes clear as you get older. Though the 2017 remake stayed faithful to the plot point, it also didn't do much more when it came to exploring the topic.
Similarly, the word abortion didn't come up in the reboot, though Penny did tell Baby that she was pregnant, leaving no room for doubt when it came to the procedure she underwent later on. But also much like the original, Penny wasn't demonized for her decision to terminate her pregnancy. Though the procedure itself was dangerous and painful, that reflected the times: abortion was still illegal and could be immensely dangerous to obtain. But Penny is able to recover with the help of Baby's dad. Dirty Dancing wasn't punishing Penny for choosing to have an abortion, but quietly advocating for the availability of safe options.
The plot of the film was essentially set into motion by Penny's abortion (Baby only started dancing with Johnny to cover for Penny the night her abortion was scheduled), which was something screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein did on purpose so it would be too difficult to cut the storyline. However, that didn't stop people from trying. One of the sponsors for the film, a company that produced acne cream, wanted the illegal abortion removed, but Bergstein insisted on keeping it in. Because the plotline was too enmeshed in the main story to take out, Bergstein succeeded in keeping it in the film.
For many people who grew up loving the film, Dirty Dancing might have been their first experience seeing an abortion on screen. And it was a film that prioritized Penny's desires, happiness, and safety. She ended the movie smiling and dancing, and it was clear that she would be just fine. For a film that often gets written off for its campier aspects, it was truly forward-thinking in many ways. It's only unfortunate that 30 years later, that kind of thinking is still remarkable.