When There’s Nothing: A Flashdance Review

Flashdance is a confusing film. It’s a film most famous today for it’s theme song. A film that at times seems like an excuse to play some pop videos between moments of (contrived) drama. A film whose camera regularly moves lazily along shots of a female bodies. A film that exudes the power of young woman to excel at … welding(‽) … dancing … and yet makes the very same young woman dependent on a man to kick start her dream. A film that is maddeningly fun and enjoyable despite all that.

The film starts strongly, a young woman cycles through the streets of the very much working class Pittsburgh (last seen sending boys off to Vietnam in The Deer Hunter) as some up-tempo 80s synth pop pumps. We may be poor, but we are happy is the message.

It’s the kind of city where a young, very definitely not white woman, can get off her bike and get to work on some welding at her local steel plant. It’s the kind of city where a few jump cuts later, the same woman can dance erotically at a very tasteful nightclub where the girls are pretty but never naked (unlike the sleazeball joint we come across later). It’s the kind of club where the young hunk who runs the steel mill hangs out, cause he likes a beautiful woman, but he very definitely wouldn’t to slum it with the hoodlums who just want naked flesh.

The boss is delighted to discover he employs the young woman, and who wouldn’t be pleased that Jennifer Beals is turning up in your place each day? However, she has principles, it’s not just that she won’t share a sandwich with him, she won’t date bosses – we all know how that’s going to work out.

The woman has ambitions. She watches ballet on TV, she goes to the local dance school to make an application, where the beautiful white girls and the receptionist all eye her up and down disdainfully. Is it her working clothes? Is it cause her skin isn’t white? It spooks our woman and she runs out. The establishment has won!

Luckily the friendly bit of the establishment, Mr Boss Man, comes and sees her again. He even rescues her when she’s being threatened outside the club by creepy guy from the sleazy strip club. But she still rejects his help and cycles home … and he follows her all the way, trailing her in his Porsche. If you’re the kind of person who thinks ‘Every Breath You Take’ is a love song, then this will seem to you to be a romantic gesture. In truth it seems to be just another example of how men harassing women until the only solution is to give in is presented as good in films.

Anyway, it works. She lets him in. In the sexiest moment in the movie, she takes off her bra under her over large sweatshirt. Some critics at the time said that Flashdance was ‘pornographic.’ This is one of those moments they were likely thinking off. We see nothing, but boy, the mind really makes you think.

All is going well with young woman and Mr Boss Man, they walk along train lines, slag heaps, cause they are in Pittsburgh, it’s gritty, working class, it rains there, and you don’t take a girl to the park.

What you should also not do is use your wealth and privilege to get your woman an audition at the dance school that she has previously run away from. This interference seriously messes with her. She is clearly scared of the change of life that a successful audition will bring, she’s also a sister and likes doing things for herself. After the death of a old woman who was a mentor to her, she relents and attends the audition.

Here we get the famous ‘flashdance’ sequence, a mix of modern dance and the then fairly new break dancing moves (she’d seen it performed in the street earlier). Everyone loves her, she’s a success, and rushes out to meet Mr Boss Man.

The film ends. We don’t know what happened next, but we guess they live happily ever after and she dances around the world.

It’s all good fun, but the film does raise (and not really solve) some major issues.

Why did everyone react to Beals’ character when she appears in the application room at the dance school. Seems like a clear bit of colour prejudice, yet the film never directly addresses her colour. We have a mixed-race actress play the leading romantic role in a film, who has her image spread across all the publicity material, and no-one mentions her background. I like to think this was the most powerful statement the film makes, that for once colour doesn’t matter….

But then we also have to address the fact that while there is only very brief nudity in the film (and not from the lead characters), this is a film that delights in the female body. While it turned later that Beals had a body double for much of the dance scenes, we are definitely encouraged to see and feel her sexuality. Scenes such as the first dance sequence with the water falling on her, the Maniac song sequence, or when she’s in the restaurant with little on under a suit jacker, linger on the idea that ‘this girl is hot.’

So a mixed-race woman gets to play the lead, but then is basically playing ‘sexy girl.’ Mmh.

But she’s sexy girl with principles. She doesn’t do lunch with the boss, until she does do lunch and a lot more. She hates that he uses his power to get her an audition, yet truth is he needs to use his white privilege or she wouldn’t get her foot in the door.

What is Flashdance then telling us about 1980s USA? I’m not sure even Flashdance even knows. Did they accidentally stumble upon a semi-liberating plot while accidentally making a casting statement? Yes, most likely that’s it. This film feels annoying and frustrating, it’s close to being something, then finally isn’t. It’s a feeling, but what?

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