Cultural change is a bit like plate tectonics theory.
If you'll think back to your last earth science class, you might (or might not) recall that plate tectonics is the idea that the continents are gradually in motion, propelled slowly but inexorably by magma boiling up in the seams between continental plates. These plates are mostly unseen beneath thousands of feet of seawater. Still, even if we can't see or feel it, the theory says, the continents are indeed slowly drifting. To know how far they've shifted, you need a marker of some sort, a way to measure the amount of drift that's actually occurred.
I think that theory can be applied to the way our culture shifts over time as well. Cultural change is a similarly gradual thing—a little slippage here, a little sliding there—as our collective values are influenced by a variety of factors. Forty years ago, for example, you wouldn't have thought anything of throwing three kids in the back of a station wagon with snacks and sleeping bags for a long road trip. Now, you'd at least be labeled a bad parent … if not a criminally negligent one.
Cultural change, then, is almost indiscernible on a daily or even yearly basis (though these days, admittedly, the pace of technological change is breathtaking indeed). But if we occasionally look back, we may find a marker of some sort in the past, something that helps us see clearly how far we've really come.
One of those markers is, oddly enough, a movie about dancing. And by comparing it to a current TV show about dancing, we'll learn quite a lot about the observable phenomenon of cultural drift.
It was 1987. Mullets and stone-washed jeans were fashion requirements. Bill Cosby's sweet family battled it out with Roseanne's crass one on TV. Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, U2, the Beastie Boys, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson duked it out at the top of the album charts. And the Patrick Swayze/Jennifer Grey movie Dirty Dancing arrived in theaters. It wasn't the biggest film of the year (it finished 11th overall, raking in $63.8 million, about $125 million or so in 2010 dollars) but it resonated culturally.
It was about a 17-year-old girl named Baby who falls for her hunky, often shirtless and significantly older dance instructor, Johnny Castle, as her family vacations for the summer at a posh Catskill resort. Not that I knew that then. Because I didn't see it—even though I turned 17 that year. Why? The word on the street among my peers (who whispered approvingly) and among my friends' parents (who certainly didn't approve) was that Dirty Dancing was smoldering. Scandalous. Naughty. Definitely off limits for teens whose parents were even remotely engaged in shaping their children's decisions when it came to problematic cultural influences.
I didn't see Dirty Dancing until years later, and I watched it again before writing this article. So 23 years after the fact I can say with confidence that the film mostly lives up to—or I should say down to—its early buzz. Grey and Swayze's increasingly sensual dance scenes (and there are about a half-dozen of them) throw off incendiary, sexual sparks. Their "dirty dancing" at times seems little more than foreplay as they grind hips and move in a way that suggests only one thing. So it comes as no surprise that the pair eventually ends up in bed together—even as the film romanticizes their unwise, inappropriate and, in some states, illegal sexual relationship. Dirty indeed.
Fast-forward to last week. One of the most popular shows on television today is Dancing With the Stars. Now in its 11th season in the U.S. (with two seasons airing per year), Stars regularly attracts millions of viewers who tune in to watch famous athletes, actors, musicians, talk-show hosts, comedians and reality TV stars battle it out on the dance floor. Each star is paired with a professional dancer with whom he or she performs a variety of dances, from the Cha-Cha to the mamba to the rumba to the Viennese waltz to the exotic-sounding paso doble.
You don't have to watch the show very long to understand its multifaceted appeal. Old stars (76-year-old Florence Henderson is dancing this season) square off against young ones (teenager Bristol Palin and Kyle Massey). Current media fixtures (The Hills' Audrina Patridge and Jersey Shore's The Situation) face those whose fame and fortune peaked decades ago (David Hasselhoff and Michael Bolton). Toss in some well-known athletes (retired NFL star Kurt Warner and retired NBA star Rick Fox) and, in theory, there's someone for everyone to root for. Drama is never in short supply as these celebrities work to master complicated new dances week in and week out.
And this season, Jennifer Grey herself is among the contestants.
The result is something like The Lawrence Welk show on steroids. Like that old-school dance show, Stars occasionally offers old-fashioned moments of elegance, class and grace. And then there are other moments—lots of them—that resoundingly echo the values of the moment. As brash, crass and trashy as a burlesque show, Dancing With the Stars frequently amps up the sex appeal. So much so that many of the dances are every bit as sensual and sexually suggestive as anything Grey and Swayze did in Dirty Dancing. Sultry moves are augmented by outfits that are equally as skimpy, too, unabashedly parading what often feels like limitless legs and thighs, cleavage and midriff.
As if to mirror her '80s movie, Jennifer Grey and her partner, Derek Hough, recently performed a dance in which she played the role of an older teacher seducing a young student. And after the performance, judge Bruno Tonioli gushed, "You are the sexy mistress of Cougar Town's academy of samba," before going on and on about the students who would be lining up to take classes from her. Advocate for abstinence Bristol Palin, meanwhile, tore off an overcoat to reveal a skimpy dress underneath, then did a seductive dance with her partner. And Florence Henderson taunted The Situation by lifting her shirt to reveal her bra during practice. "At my age," she tells partner Corky Ballas, "you can still be hot and sexy, and you can still shake it up!"
Here's the point: Dirty Dancing was dirty in 1987. Dancing With the Stars hardly stirs a ripple in 2010. Most viewers never even give the stars' barely there costumes and their slinky, sultry dance moves a second thought. Why should they? They see as much flesh while watching football when the camera pans across a line of cheerleaders or when a Victoria's Secret commercial comes on between plays. As for the show's innuendo, isn't it tamer than most of what we hear in any given episode of Two and Half Men or Family Guy?
Watching the show with my wife a season or two ago, I remember us coming across a particularly steamy segment—it might have been one of Pamela Anderson's or Nicole Scherzinger's sizzling performances. "I just can't watch this," I told her. The sheer amount of flesh on display, combined with the sensual nature of the routines, were images I just didn't want in my head.
And it was then that I first thought about Dancing With the Star's similarities with Dirty Dancing.
How are the dances I'm watching right now any different from the moves Johnny Castle put on Baby back in 1987?
They're not. They haven't changed much. But we have. Back in 1987, dirty dancing was still seen as something titillating and forbidden. I didn't go see Dirty Dancing because it was, well, dirty. Now, the same moves and the same sensual attitudes are primetime family viewing two nights a week.
Such is the nature of cultural drift. It happens slowly, imperceptibly. But make no mistake, it is happening. The markers don't lie.