Learn from Grease
Warning: This article contains spoilers!
There are differences between Grease, the movie, and Grease, the stage musical. This article is about the movie, although the points made her are valid for both.
Grease has been called "..the most sexist, racist, homophobic, homoerotic, slut-shaming, virgin-shaming, dis-empowering and discriminatory movie ever made." It is good to remember that this story, whether it be the movie, stage production or the TV live action revival, is both a parody and a satire. As such it is the perfect vehicle (ha!) to show how it was, and what we have learned and are still learning. Even the creators have, through numerous script revisions and song lyric re-writes, acknowledged that the original material is too raw, politically incorrect and downright offensive for today's society.
But, like all theatre, Grease holds up a mirror for us to examine our history, our lives, our preconceptions and use what we learn to do better going forward.
It was my mother who first introduced me to Grease. Reluctantly sitting down in front of what I considered then to be an “ancient” film (in actual fact only a decade older than myself), I quickly realised the error in my ways and…fell in love with John Travolta.
But what Grease actually left me with, rather than a juvenile appreciation for men in high-waisted trousers (sorry, but Dirty Dancing, anyone?), were invaluable lessons on how to nail life that I might otherwise have had to actually learn myself.
And, sure, if we really wanted to be critical, we’d say that Grease is a film steeped in patriarchal values, about a young woman who finds herself cruelly rejected and mocked by the guy with whom she had a summer fling, only to be told by her girlfriends that it’s because she’s frigid and boring. So she changes herself entirely, takes up smoking and drinking, sprays on some leggings and lands the lad, in between various episodes of catcalling, slut-shaming and bullying.
But if we look beyond those obvious pitfalls, there’s a lot that is positive about Grease, and in the end all these awful storylines are dismissed and replaced with legit life lessons.
1. Toxic masculinity is not where it’s at
This high school musical is riddled with toxic masculinity. Danny has to pretend he’s never met Sandy before when she tries to say hello to him in front of his fellow T-Birds ["Burger Palace Boys" in the musical] so that he doesn’t look like a right wimp who might actually have feelings. Most of the boys treat women like conquests and there are some seriously dangerous rape-culture lyrics like: “Tell me more, tell me more / Did she put up a fight?” The boys are also unable to show affection for one another, as evidenced by the scene in which Kenickie and Danny have “a moment” and hug, and the rest of the lads look on disapprovingly, causing the chaps to style it out with masculine coughs and hair combing. And of course, locker-room banter is rife, as the boys share (mostly false) sex stories in order to feel like total legends.
But, all of this is thrown into question over the course of the [show] when the central characters learn that toxic masculinity is just holding them back, and Danny realises he loves Sandy despite her ankle-length skirt and prim hair. Just as Sandy changes her appearance for Danny, so he changes his for her, donning a Letterman jacket and laughing off the shock of the T-Birds ["Burger Palace Boys" in the musical] as he is reborn as a stand-up guy. By the end, everybody is hugging, singing, and (somehow miraculously) flying, having shaken off the shackles of lad banter once and for all.
2. Slut shaming is not cool
When Rizzo believes she has accidentally fallen pregnant, she walks back into school a social pariah: the cruel kids in school laugh, whisper and turn their backs on her.
But instead of allowing the slut shaming to penetrate her thick skin, Rizzo sings about how enjoying a healthy sex life is nothing to be ashamed about and how societal double-standards are pitted against women and how she has no plans to be a passive 1950s housewife: “I could stay home every night / Wait around for Mr Right.”
“There are worse things I could do” is the ultimate clapback to slut shaming. Rizzo refuses to be ashamed of who she is and her song allows her to hold her head up high and not let bullies see they’ve gotten to her: “I don’t steal and I don’t lie / But I can feel and I can cry / A fact I’ll bet you never knew / But to cry in front of you / That’s the worst thing I could do.”
Rizzo’s character, by far the most interesting and liberated in [Grease], allows women to be complex and vulnerable whilst still being strong enough to take control of their own lives and turn their backs on the men – and people – who make them feel otherwise.
3. Education, education, education
While most of us saw Frenchie’s pink hair as an iconic beauty moment in film to be eternally copied (or was that just me?), it was, in fact, a mistake.
Dropping out of her classes to attend beauty school, Frenchie soon learns that the big bad world just isn’t as easy as just sitting in class staring vacantly at a blackboard (it was the Seventies!) When sitting at a diner one evening, her guardian angel sings to her to: “Wipe off that angel face and go back to high school”. He is creepy, but he makes a valid point.
While most of us usually fast-forward through this number, the message of the importance of education and of realistic dreams and expectations sure does shine through. Thank you, Frankie Avalon.
4. Fashion is powerful
Has anyone else spent most of their life since seeing Grease yearning for a Pink Ladies’ jacket?
Grease really demonstrates the power of uniformity in creating a shared identification, which is the same as any fashion subculture, really. Mess with one and you mess with them all.
The musical also displays how fashion visually signifies who you are, and how you can use it to completely rebrand yourself. So we might think that when Sandy got a perm and donned shiny leggings and possibly the best off-shoulder top of all time, that she became a sheep following the pseudo-liberated herb, when actually what she did was adopt fashion to release her inner feminine power. As they say (somewhere, surely?) never underestimate a woman in spandex.
5. No means no
Damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Any girls watching Grease are clouded by the Madonna/ whore dichotomy, and have learned that they really can’t win in the eyes of misogynists when it comes to whether or not to have sex, how much sex to have or who to have sex with. What they will learn, though, is that it’s ok not to do it if you don’t want to.
When Danny wants to heat things up on the beach with Sandy in the film’s opening scene, she turns him down, despite his persistence. When they’re in his car together at the drive-in, after he asks her to wear his ring, he comes on way too strong – and she throws the ring back at him before a dramatic storm out, leaving him “stranded at the drive-in, branded a fool”. She stuck to her guns - and he got the message. Only a fool doesn’t take no for an answer.
6. Female friendship triumphs over all
Although Grease almost certainly doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, it did put a strong focus on female friendship, which can’t be overlooked.
Sandy is welcomed into the Pink Ladies by Frenchie, and although Rizzo and the others aren’t entirely forthcoming at first (ok so, they’re ultimate mean girls), they know to respect Frenchie’s wishes.
Everyone in the group is different - with fierce Rizzo, adorable Frenchie and monogamy-challenged Marty – and that’s ok. At the end of the day they accept Sandy for who she is and apologise for any potential fall outs.
Plus, as mentioned, the great bomber jackets.