Ah, Grease—a film that has inspired millions of Halloween costumes and is probably the reason leather pants have not been totally obliterated yet. I was ashamed to admit to my theater geek friends that I had never actually watched this Hollywood classic; unsurprisingly, they proceeded to stare at me with shocked expressions. The curiosity overcame my vendetta against anything mainstream (can you say teen angst?), and I eventually sat myself down to see what all the hype was about. I was not, however, prepared for the hilariously sexist, culture-polluted outrage with which I was met. How this film has become such an iconic work is beyond me, and I could name just about a dozen things that make it worthy of my scolding.
The movie starts off with the two main characters of the film, John Travolta’s Danny Zuko and Olivia Newton John as Sandy Olsson, seeming deeply in love, or at least pretty into each other. The two have been splashing in the ocean all summer, and Sandy is overcome with sadness when she realizes that sooner or later she’ll have to return to Australia. At this point I thought ‘Oh, okay, we won’t be seeing much of her till later.’ Nope! School starts, and lo and behold Ms. Sandy Olsson stands in the flesh attending Rydell High on the first day of senior year. I was already off to a bad start when Sandy asks the attendance lady for a pencil to fill out her paperwork. Get it together, Sandra! I mean really, I lose my school supplies all the time, but not on the first day of school, sheesh.
Frenchy introduces Sandy to the Pinks (they’re like Spice Girls but ten times more exclusive) and their leader, Betty Rizzo, a.k.a. Rizzo, who is not fond of the angelic new girl. Stereotypes galore fill the screen as the girls discuss boy drama at lunch and gossip about other girls that are ten feet away (at least try to be secretive about it?). Sandy is coerced into spilling the hot herbs regarding her summer relationship; simultaneously, Danny is talking to his boy squad, the T-Birds (kind of like the OG Ghost Busters but far more misogynistic) about his ‘fling’ with some ‘chick.’ Danny will not shut up about how Sandy was all over his greasy (no pun intended) hair and bad boy vibes, while Sandy is singing about their magnetic love and all that sappy stuff. The memorable song “Summer Lovin’” plays now, and this is where I begin to see beyond the poodle skirts and fast cars.
Rydell’s has its first football game, and tensions are rising. Coach Calhoun gives a speech to rile up the players, and there may or may not have been some violent threats towards the Gladiators, the rival school. The Pinks take Sandy to go see Danny, knowing he will probably be a douche about their relationship. Let’s just say it is not a coincidence that Danny and douche start with the same letter. Sorry you never got the memo lil’ Dan, but commitment to a significant other is cool now! Sandy asks, “What happened to the Danny I met at the beach?!” Danny replies sarcastically, “I don’t know, maybe there’s two of us! Try the yellow pages.”
Really Danny, really? Clearly comebacks are not your greatest prowess—second-grade me could do better. Pathetic. It is at this point that Sandy realizes just how obnoxiously horrible boys can be.
At the Pinks’s sleepover, Frenchy wants to cheer up Sandy and hopes that piercing her ear will do the trick. (It doesn’t.) Sandy starts crying in the bathroom, and Rizzo decides to really live up to the mean girls’ mantra by singing an entire song making fun of the good-girl Australian. “Take your filthy paws off my silky draws!” Rizzo wails as she pretends to be Sandy. And though very catchy, *cough* Rizzo, consent is everything—
please don’t encourage rape culture. I applaud Rizzo, however, for not feeling as though she needs to change anything about her personality to impress Kenickie. Sandy, learn from Rizzo (in this scenario only)! Perhaps you can channel your lyrical genius through writing songs about intersectional feminism and the importance of woman lifting each other up? Also, how did all the girls manage to pull blonde wigs out of nowhere? Does Frenchy keep a collection of them? Hannah Montana is quaking.
Rizzo spontaneously climbs out of the bedroom and leaves to go hang out with the T-Birds so she can see Kenickie. In an attempt to get the other Birds to leave them alone, she asks, “What do you guys think this is, a gang bang?” Sunny disgustingly replies, “Ha, you wish.” No, Sunny! No girl wishes to be taken advantage of by a group of guys. Later, Sunny tells the T-Birds that girls are only good for one thing (smashing the patriarchy??). It was at this point that I established my least favorite character.
The film features just as many examples of slut-shaming as it does hair gel, but never is this more clear than when Rizzo discovers she may be pregnant. She finds herself singing alone in the quad (Planned Parenthood needs to get their support down there ASAP). The song “There are Worse Things I Could Do” speaks to the unpopular (at the time) idea that Rizzo’s value is not solely a measure of her mistakes. The audience is introduced to a new side of Rizzo that bares the struggle of being a female in the ‘50s or even today.
Perhaps the film’s most iconic scene is when Sandy prances into the fair for the first time after Frenchy gives her a promising makeover. Long gone are the frilly dresses and preppy cardigans as she steps into the scene covered in black leather from head to toe, slapping on a pair of heels with a hot cigarette lodged between two fingers. Danny, absolutely shocked at Sandy’s new vibe, doesn’t wait a second to swoon (no, literally, he drops to the floor and stays there for at least four seconds). Sandy attempts to play hard-to-get as if she didn’t just throw away her entire identity for him, and the two eventually sing a nauseatingly happy song together around the park and proceed to mend their relationship. Besides the fact that the song literally repeats the same lines over and over, why is no one talking about the fact that Sandy modified her entire appearance to get a boy’s attention? Their reconnection is based off of the fact that Danny couldn’t accept Sandy’s style, and therefore she changed her appearance to something that resonates with his desires. Scratch the idea of dressing up as Danny & Sandra with your boo next Halloween, because there is nothing cute about toxic relationships that expect women to be some sort of chameleon lovers that change as their men please. Oh, Sandra, and I thought the pencil was bad (*shakes head*).
Frenchy, though you were my favorite character, I was let down by your final endeavors in the film. Throughout the entire plot, I carried an “I Heart Frenchy” banner across my heart. I admired the way you stood up for Sandy and were always overflowing with kindness. You did your thing, needed no man to do it, and didn’t stop doing it even when Frankie Avalon told you you’d become nothing more than a “beauty school dropout.” However, as a genuine friend, you needed to drop the curler and let Sandy accept herself as she is. You didn’t do that, and for that I am disappointed.
Yes, the characters of a film do not reflect the opinions of the filmmakers or writers, but since by the end of the plot all the characters are painted as protagonists, it is clear that their words and actions are not carried with much weight. The school year ends and suddenly Rizzo and Sunny are the best of buds. “I’m totally okay with the fact that you think I will be unsuccessful in my career due to my gender!” Frenchy says to the T-Birds, or at least she might as well have. The flaws in Grease go beyond extreme political correctness. Quite frankly, I don’t find humor in the normalization of sexual misconduct and the acceptance of societal beauty standards. The idea of cliques is present in thousands of films, but this time it is different. Although we are used to seeing gender-segregated cliques, the presence of two polar genders within the same film creates room for great contrast. The Pinks constantly have a male figure that they must answer to, and are painted to be widely unconfident. They fuss about their dates to the dance, take part in pillow fights, and look down at the thought of working. Now, all things individually are not wrong, but when compared to the T-Birds, who spend their afternoons working on cars and getting into fights, there seems to be a reoccurring theme of clear gender roles. And while I am aware that this movie was made in 1978, the issue lies in the fact that the film continues to be widely accepted in mainstream pop culture, with hardly any discussion of its content.
Don’t get me wrong, we all have our guilty pleasure movies that we can’t help but watch, but they shouldn’t feel this guilty. I’ll admit, the songs are catchy and the skirts are adorable, but that’s pretty much it. This film will probably always be a classic, but I will forever be uneasy at the sight of future Travolta films.