movienotes: footloose and flashdance

This weekend, Hanna and I had a 1980s dance (movie) party with friends A'Llyn, Nathan, and their 1-year-old sprog who -- if his living room moves were any indication -- is going to grow up to be the next generation's Ren McCormack. We watched Footloose (1984), which has stood up surprisingly well, and Flashdance (1983), which has very much not -- although maybe I shouldn't talk since I never saw it in the actual 1980s and this was my first viewing. But those in the audience who had seen it as children confirmed that from an adult perspective it was even creepier than they remembered!

A few observations about first Footloose and then Flashdance. Spoilers below, fairly obviously, if you care.

Footloose I first saw at some point in my pre-adolescent period. The two things I remembered most vividly were John Lithgow's performance as the small-town pastor (whom child-me loved to hate) and the scene where Lori Singer, playing the preacher's daughter, climbs between her friend's car and her boyfriend's truck while they're driving down a two-lane highway. It's a scene meant to impress upon us that Ariel (Singer) is a thrill-seeking teenager, but mostly just terrifies me every time I have to watch it! Still, as I said above Footloose still has charm and, think time around, I was struck by a few things I hadn't noticed, or experienced differently, as a child.

  • John Lithgow's pastor, Rev. Moore is less fire-and-brimstone than he is sad as a character. In fact, we took to referring to him as "sad John Lithgow" every time he showed up in a scene. The film-makers couldn't seem to decide whether they wanted to make him a petty tyrant or a fearful father ... and ended up trying to go for both with only middling success.
  • Kevin Bacon's Ren is, like, the most polite Big City Rebel ever. Seriously. He wears a suit and tie to school on his first day, and when he decides to enlist the high school seniors to defy the town prohibition against dancing he ... wears the suit and tie to a town council meeting and reads a speech in defense of their case. He refuses to smoke pot, even when a local bad boy foists a joint on him, and chills with his little cousins. 
  • Domestic and intimate partner violence get a look-in, although not much of a mention. On the one hand, we have John Lithgow's character smacking his daughter across the cheek for talking back to him (probably part of what cemented him in my childhood head as an Evil Character). On the other, we have Ariel's truck-driving boyfriend who beats her up when she breaks up with him. She takes a pipe out of the back of his truck and smashes his windshield and headlights. He gives her a bloody nose and a black eye. The situation is clearly being set up as the negative contrast to Ariel's eventual relationship with Ren, but it's also treated like a weird side-point that's never substantively addressed.
  • The teenagers get a surprising amount of support from the surrounding adults -- for a town where supposedly dancing is Of The Evil. Ren's mother is fired from her job at one point because her son is causing trouble, and the relatives they're staying with get momentarily judgy. But, like, the mill owner Ren works for after school offers his building for the dance, and Mrs. Moore sticks up for her daughter and the other students at a couple of key points. 
  • Reverand Moore draws the line a burning books from the library, which is sweet but also makes his prohibition against dancing as a sin nonsensical. He's set up at the beginning of the film as the Big Baddie, only to emerge toward the end as one of the primary advocates for the teens. It's disconcerting.
  • And Ren McCormack has more chemistry with his new BFF, Willard, than he ever has with Ariel. The scenes where Ren is teaching Willard to dance have more spark in them than any other scene in the film, frankly, and I'm started to find that there is no fan fiction fleshing this romance out on AO3. Fan writers, you've let me down!

So overall, Footloose is dated and cheesy -- but aged surprisingly well.

The same can most decidedly not be said for Flashdance, which sadly starts out with the promising fact that its female lead, Jennifer Beals plays a welder named Alex Owens who -- in addition to holding down a solid, skilled (and I'd bet unionized) working-class job -- dreams of successfully applying to the Pittsburgh Conservatory of Dance. Even the fact that Alex moonlights as an "exotic dancer" (but OMG not a stripper!!) wouldn't on the face of it be enough to kill the film -- this could have been one of your predictable "triumph over obstacles"-cum-marriage-plot movies, wherein the girl wins the guy and the chance to study ballet at the school of her dreams.



  • There's this small problem with the love interest being her boss at the building site where she's working. And, like, a major stalker with the world's creepiest vibe ever. Starting with the fact that he approaches her at work the day after having seen her dance at the dive bar where she works. So, you know, his interest in her as a person has this double creeptastic factor of "I've seen you dance practically naked and I thought that was hot, wanna date?" blended with, "I'm your boss and I've just disclosed to you, on the job where I'm supervising you, that I showed up to watch you dance practically naked and I thought that was hot and want to date you."
  • Ms. Owens (yay feminism!) tells him quite firmly no, she doesn't date the boss. So he follows her home from the site at night in his car, while she's riding her bike, and propositions her again. When she insists she doesn't date the boss he fires her so they can do on a date together the following night.
  • Although she blows him off, she apparently thinks better of it 'cause the following night they're on a date!
  • And on that "first date" there's this truly excitingly horrible you-can't-look-away-from-it scene wherein Alex takes Mr. Manager back to her (loft porn!) apartment for pizza and walks back into the living area in a black negligee and grey warm-up sweater (see DVD cover photo) and proceeds to take her bra off from under her sweatshirt. Our entire audience sort of couldn't believe it was happening. Not that slutting it up for your partner isn't fun sometimes, but this was a first date with a stalker boss and the whole thing felt way too close to a professional strip tease. (Needless to say, they proceed to have sex.)
  • Long story short, she continues to perform sexually for him (and I'm framing it like this deliberately -- all of their private interludes are echoes of her on-stage performances) and lo and behold he has connections at the Conservatory. So he makes a few calls and she gets an audition!
  • Although Alex protests, nominally, over the wheeling and dealing, in the end she goes to the audition anyway and presumably wins a spot in the Conservatory. We never actually get to find out, since the closing shots are of her making out with her sugar daddy.
I think what was so frustratingly, jaw-droppingly bad about Flashdance was that with a few tweaks it could have been a charming, though obviously cliched, romantic comedy. Make the love interest someone other than her boss. Make him someone who didn't proposition her after seeing her perform. Make it clearer what dancing means to her, and dis-entangle the patronage from the romantic relationship. Could her boss at the construction site see her perform and, oh, incidentally, know someone who knows someone ... without sex being used as such overt currency? So it was like two degrees away from being a movie that was meh but not actually cringe-inducing, and ended up just being bad. No cookies, people. No cookies.

Next time around, I think we're gonna go with Alien and Terminator.


  1. Anna,

    I haven't seen "Flashdance", obviously, but it's interesting that you react so strongly against it. Because there are a lot of us who wouldn't find most of what you say disturbing or 'cringe inducing'.

    Patronage being tied up in romantic relationships (i.e. a woman rising in her social/economic status through a romantic relationship with a higher status partner) is a very, very common thing throughout history and even today. In fact, some of us would see it as deeply rooted in our biology: women generally want to date/marry higher status partners. Sex is, yes, a currency that women often use to achieve higher social status. I don't see anything unhealthy or unnatural about that: it's the most natural thing there is. I think a lot of men would love to be a sort of 'patron' to the girls they date, and help them achieve higher status than they would have otherwise.

    I think ideally bosses and the people who report to them don't date, but I don't see anything especially problematic about dating an exotic dancer that you met at a club. I don't go to strip clubs personally, for moral reasons, but I have a friend who'se been to plenty and frequently dated strippers in the past. I think a lot of us have a fantasy of dating a stripper and 'rescuing' her from that career (which, again, goes back to the whole patronage thing).

    So the short description you give sounds sweet and touching to me: it's interesting that our reactions were so different.

    1. You are certainly welcome to interpret the film differently than I do. I'm sure every person who watches a film sees it from a slightly different perspective.