Friday, April 3, 2009

Escapism in the '80s

The cool escapism we saw in Saturday Night Fever with John Travolta is something that shows up a lot in movies and books about young men that feel down on their luck. I had never seen the movie before, but I felt like I had seen Travolta’s character many times before. Many of these other characters showed up in movies not long after Travolta hit it big as Tony Manero in 1977.

The first of these characters I’m referring to is Ponyboy Curtis from S.E. Hinton’s novel The Outsiders. The book came out in ’67, and it was adapted to film in 1983. The film was an early work for many famous actors: C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Emilio Estevez, and even Tom Cruise. Ponyboy (Howell) was the youngest of three brothers who were central members of a gang called “the Greasers.” Ponyboy seemed to live with his head in the clouds, not really fitting in, until he and his best friend Johnny accidentally kill a rival gang member and have to spend a week in hiding. After a long string of events that takes the lives of Johnny and another friend, Ponyboy’s world is shattered. That’s the point when he realizes he has to get out and find a better life. Like Travolta’s character, he knows he has to escape or else he’ll waste his life away on the poor side of town with the rest of his gang. He has no idea what he wants out of life, but he knows there has to be something other than the crime and the poverty. Much like Travolta’s escape into dancing, Ponyboy used books and writing as an escape from the world, hoping it would take him away from the misery his family lived with every day.

Much more similar to Travolta’s world, two other 80s movies had characters that were oddly analogous to Tony Manero. In 1984 Kevin Bacon introduced the world to Ren McCormack’s crazy dancing skills in Footloose. Ren’s family moves from the urban landscape of Chicago to a one-horse town out west where dancing is forbidden. The teen feels oppressed and controlled by the town’s crazy ordinances against his music and dance, and has to rebel. Much like Tony, he doesn’t fit in with the people around him unless he’s showing his stuff on the dance floor, so that’s what he does. For Ren dancing was an escape from the world, and it was the one thing that got him attention and respect.

The other 80s classic I’m thinking of, I’m sure you’ve already realized by now… Dirty Dancing. I don’t see how anyone could watch Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and not think of Johnny’s and Penny’s roles 10 years later. The two were dance instructors at a lodge in the Catskills, and for both of them it seemed to be their only option to escape their horrible pasts. They grew up on the streets more or less, and saw dancing as a way to get out and hopefully find a better life. They perfected their dance skills not just because they enjoyed it, but also because they knew they would never get out if they didn’t. Neither saw potential for themselves otherwise, so they used the one thing they knew they were good at to get off the streets and into a new crowd where they could be seen and respected for their talents. Their stories are all to similar to the problems Tony faced when he left the club every weekend— by the rest of the world’s standards they were all good for nothing, but when they started dancing the rest of the world stood by to watch.


  1. Oh, Swayze, Bacon, and Travolta...back when tough guys could dance. Great post, Hayley!

  2. So glad you brought up The Outsiders. It is almost an overrated story, but it is a perfect example for this subject.

    Why is dancing so often associated with escapism?

    Stay Gold!

  3. I love country music! haha, it really is about a slice of life and love. I think Country music has a spirit or playfulness to it that a lot of other genres lack. If I really want to laugh, I'll turn on a country song, not to laugh at it but to laugh with it. I totally agree with you that people really need to give country a chance. And really, a lot of the songs don't have too much of a twang today. I think F John is right in that it is cool to not like country. As Heyley said, she was made fun of for liking it.