A strange thing happened to me this week. I was taking a Buzzfeed quiz on Facebook, as I often do despite swearing that I would never take another because I know myself better than any internet quiz could possibly know me, and I was informed that if I were a character in the movie Dirty Dancing then I would be Lisa.
Lisa? I thought, aghast. I'm Lisa? Vain, shallow Lisa? I'm Lisa?
Adding insult to injury, the little writeup of Lisa that accompanied my results informed me that Lisa sometimes "makes poor decisions".
Hey, wait a minute... I thought, placing myself in Lisa's fashionable shoes. Lisa makes poor decisions? You got a lot of nerve, Buzzfeed quiz. Lisa's not the one dancing across the ballroom with a statutory rapist and part time gigolo. All Lisa did was try to land a husband with potential for future success. How did Lisa end up getting such a bad rap?
Then I remembered something that I learned earlier in the summer, when I watched Maleficent: Sometimes, you might think a character is one way, but it turns out that they're something completely different, and you just had a crappy narrator. For example, you might think someone is a plotting, powerful sorceress who revels in her evil ways and laughs in the face of goodness, but then you find out that she's actually just a completely reactive, somewhat traumatized assault survivor who feels really bad about everything, cries sometimes, and really likes being a nanny to her ex-boyfriend's kid, and you kind of feel bad for her. Was it possible that Lisa got a similar deal? Especially given that the movie is narrated by Lisa's sister, "Baby", rather than Lisa herself?
What might we learn if we watched "Dirty Dancing" from Lisa's point of view?
My family and I decided to find out.
Our story begins in the car, and our first glimpse of the Sisters Houseman telegraphs their roles immediately:
Lisa, on our left, is a shuddering mass of insecurity, battered by a lifetime of familial abuse in the form of lowered expectations. Lisa's family has made it clear to her that she has no purpose, no destiny other than to be pretty enough to marry a man. There's no college in Lisa's future, no goals to attain. Lisa, worn down and unable to fight back after years of psychological damage, is instead driven to pursue an increasingly unattainable standard of beauty. Why else would she be trying to comb her hair and maintain its style in a moving car with all of the windows open?
The first time Lisa speaks, it is an expression of agony as she realizes that she has, once again, failed:
Lisa has not packed her coral shoes. The armor of fashion that she wears to defend herself from a cruel world that belittles and dismisses her suddenly has a chink, a flaw, a shoe sized hole that someone can fling an arrow through. And who does the flinging? Her sneering, faux intellectual sister, Baby. Not only does she immediately belittle Lisa's existential crisis of identity, but she takes the first available opportunity to remind Lisa of her place in the family and the world that night at dinner, accompanied by the cruel laughter of her parents.
Dr. Houseman explains, "Max, our Baby's going to change the world."
Sensing the exclusion of the other Houseman daughter, Max attempts to pull her into the discussion. "And what are you going to do, missy?"
Before Lisa can express a hope, a dream, or even a thought, her smirking sister taunts, "Oh, Lisa's going to decorate it."
Baby talks a good game in public for most of the movie, telling stories of Peace Corps aspirations and ambitions toward social justice, but in private she's a monster whose scheming heart and conniving ways would give Lex Luthor pause. The Housemans haven't even been at the resort for an entire day when Baby commits her first transgression:
Followed immediately by theft.
You may have carried that watermelon, Baby, but who paid for it? Who paid for it?
Like a bee to the hive, Baby's black heart is drawn to a den of sin: lustful dancing, underage drinking, and rampant drug abuse and there, in the eye of the storm, she finds the terrible yin to her yang: Johnny Castle. Unlike Baby, who cloaks her depravity in sweater sets and sweetheart necklines, Johnny openly telegraphs his rebellious lawlessness through a selection of black outfits in this sea of resort colors, a sinister shadow driving the only black car in the Kellerman's parking lot. It's no more surprising that he later turns out to be a gigolo, statutory rapist, and suspected thief than it is that Baby loves him; her blackened soul would accept no less.
Despite Baby's constant duplicity and undermining ways, Lisa continues trying to befriend her sister, asking her to cover while Lisa takes an innocent walk on the golf course with Robby, the waiter. Baby absently agrees, Lisa's problems of no concern to her. Later, Baby witnesses Lisa's moral purity in spurning Robby's sexual advances on the golf course, and she flies into a dark rage. Barely an hour goes by before she's engaged in clandestine late night meetings, bankrolling an illegal medical procedure and endangering the life of a dance instructor that she perceives as a rival for Johnny's affections, and then masterminding a conspiracy to defraud the staff of the Sheldrake Hotel out of a salary contracted to someone else.
Not satisfied, she then ruins Lisa's only chance at love by threatening to have Robby, the waiter, fired if he doesn't stay away from Lisa.
She also physically assaults him in his workplace.
Baby may talk a good game about helping underprivileged people, but she certainly has no problem with class warfare, does she? It took her all of thirty seconds to remind Robby, the waiter, that she could have him fired, because he is an employee, and she is a privileged member of the resort's leisure class. Her word wouldn't be questioned, and they both know it, even before she drives that point home with a strategic icewater pour.
Eventually, as it was doomed to from the start, Baby's illicit house of cards collapses, pulled down by the mounting weight of her parade of lies. She steps over Penny's weeping, bleeding body, watches from the comfort of the porch as her lover beats and humiliates Robby, the waiter, informs on the elderly and infirm Schumakers to divert suspicion from herself and her lover the sex offender, and then somehow convinces her parents to forgive her of everything with a few slick dance moves.
Where does all of this leave Lisa?
Before the final curtain, we see Lisa clinging to a desperate moment in the spotlight, yearning, trying, striving just for a moment to be recognized.
Minutes later, Lisa is once again upstaged by her sister.
Baby may have had the time of her life, but all Lisa got was a ruined vacation.