Penny Was & Is The Most Interesting Character In Dirty Dancing

Photo: Guy D’Alema/ABC.
I don't know what it is about women leads lately, but they all tend to be pretty annoying. Characters like Piper from Orange Is the New Black, Sam from Dear White People, Fiona on Shameless, and Hannah from Girls quickly became my least favorite characters on their respective shows. I often find myself clinging to the supporting women I find to be way more complex, cool, and interesting. I could never get enough of Joelle, Vee, or Shoshanna, because I had to spend too much time rolling my eyes at the leads they support. My feelings about ABC's remake of the Dirty Dancing film so many people fell in love with 30 years ago were no different.
I get it, Frances Houseman’s nickname is Baby. But I found Abigail Breslin’s Frances to be a little too innocent looking. Maybe it's just me, but there was always something behind the eyes of Jennifer Grey — who played Baby in the original film — that let us know she was capable of bumping and grinding with Patrick Swayze, who played Johnny. In the 1987 original, Baby grows into an more confident woman as the film progresses. Breslin never shakes her deer-in-headlights demeanor in the made-for-TV remake. She wouldn’t even show her midriff. Nor did she master her moves like Grey did.
Penny Rivera, on the other hand, played by Nicole Scherzinger — yes, from The Pussycat Dolls — is the woman I wish I could have followed around Kellerman’s resort. In both the original and the remake, Penny is Johnny’s sultry dance partner, exuding the sex appeal and confidence to which Baby aspires. Penny finds herself pregnant and decides to get an abortion — although god forbid ABC actually use the word abortion on television. An important update that the 2017 version made to Penny Johnson is that she is now Penny Rivera, to reflect Scherzinger’s identity as a woman of color.
But that’s not all Penny has going for her in the new movie. Because I was so underwhelmed with Baby, I had time to appreciate what a complex character Penny is. Her abortion story is the catalyst for Baby and Johnny’s romance. Her own platonic friendship with Johnny, despite the optics that their close dancing suggests, says a lot about the type of woman she might be. She seems sure of herself — which I found evidenced in her straight-faced attempt to sell Baby a hideous gray wig — and intentional about the relationships she chooses to build. She works hard and has the wits to keep Johnny’s attitude from sabotaging their work. Yet, her relationship with Robbie — the preppy rich kid who got her pregnant and bailed — reveals that she is also vulnerable to making certain mistakes.
Penny is the main character the 2017 reboot needed. I would have loved for this remake to forgo telling the story from the same perspective as the original and instead retell it through Penny’s eyes. I would have loved to see where she ended up in that cliché epilogue scene that sees Baby and Johnny reunite. Plus, she’s a way better dancer.

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