Grease is the word. Its first iteration was as a stage musical, conceived by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, first appearing on stage in Chicago in 1971, and then on Broadway in 1972. With book, music, and lyrics by Jacobs and Warren, the two tackled teenage life in its raunchy, dirty, often distressing reality. It’s not totally unlike West Side Story, but with a footing grounded more in the environment and culture of the teens, focusing on Danny Zucko (John Travolta) and Sandy Olsson’s (Olivia Newton-John) turbulent relationship. Most of the songs were written for the original stage production, though, in the 1978 film directed by Randal Kleiser, some contemporary songs can be heard (like “Blue Moon” and “Hound Dog”). In “Summer Nights”, “You’re the One I That I Want”, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”, “Greased Lightning”, and “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” the film reveals its muddy, complicated gender dynamics. What Jacobs and Warren did, that seems to have been forgotten since its controversial debut, is examine the various toxic elements of high school life, with the kind of morals that feel as if they’ve never gone away.
The Songs, the Scenes, and the Analysis
Upon returning from summer vacation, the first thing that Danny and Sandy are obligated to do with their friends is talk about what they did, or, depending on whom you ask, whom they did. The bro and cliquey mentality of high school teenagers and their views on sex and dating are distilled into one song, representing two radically different ideas on what love and sex are and what it means. With Danny, as a member of the T-Birds, he puffs up his chest and relays his summer love with Sandy as more of a “friends with benefits” affair. Sandy retells the situation more accurately, though she romanticizes it considerably. She does this both because she’s naïve and because she’s an outsider (she’s from Australia), and given the latter status, there is a duality to her position: she technically has no need to show off to the Pink Ladies, but she romanticizes it because she wants, or needs, friends.
In a way, the two are their own worst perpetuators of gender essentialism: Danny’s hyper masculine, hyper misogynist version denies his emotional involvement, lest any emotionality cause him to be ostracized from the T-Birds; Sandy’s romanticization appeals to the Pink Ladies’ proclivities towards glamorous, storybook romances (though Stockard Channing’s Rizzo refuses to bite). The two’s friends group eggs them on, forcing out these ideas in their stories, with one of Danny’s friends asking if “she put up a fight” and one of Sandy’s asking “Was it love at first sight?” At the end of the song, as the two stare out wistfully into the sky, the honesty of their feelings is hinted at in the final falsetto note.
“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”
Sandy is invited to her first slumber party, and the Pink Ladies’ start to realize that Sandy is, by their standards, a prude. Sandy doesn’t “drink, or smoke” or even “rat [her] hair” and, predicting as if they have some kind of radar, she is a virgin. Since the Pink Ladies are an established clique, presumably with considerable power in the hallways of Rydell High, the thing they do in reaction to this is make fun of her when she’s out of earshot. The song, which makes reference to good girl actress Sandra Dee, seems to epitomize two ideas: women are expected to be both the “Madonna and the Whore” and the idea of internalized misogyny. Sandy technically poses, at this time, no threat to anyone in the group, regardless of the fact that, by now, everyone knows she dated Danny over the summer. But, nonetheless, she’s different from the rest of them, well acquainted with what kind of booze they like, how to get their guys, and how to be cool. While it’s certainly interesting to see a kind of agency in Rizzo’s character, it’s a shame to see that kind of power used against another woman, threat or no threat.
On another level, the Pink Ladies implicitly have a reputation for sleeping around. It isn’t said explicitly in the film (save for Rizzo’s case), but they’re well known enough so that their jaded worldliness, their sly use of language and innuendo, and their snark implies that these women are comfortable with utilizing their sexuality. While it’s not seen in as negative of a light as most other depictions, there’s nonetheless a tone of disdain when the Pink Ladies are mentioned in the film by other characters. And yet, Sandy is not nearly revered for her supposed purity. She’s looked upon with equal disdain. In the end, if you’re a woman, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
One of the strangest aspects of Grease is its drag racing subplot, which seems to barely matter at all when one thinks about it. It’s ironic that the subplot should have so little bearing on the film since one of the film’s most iconic tracks is “Greased Lightning”. Perhaps it is this way because it speaks less directly about drag racing and more about masculinity in general. The car that Danny and his boys fix up is an avatar, an extension of themselves to improve upon as they improve on themselves. But the primary goal of this is about making one seem as tough, powerful, and sexually appealing as possible. “Greased Lightning” is about making oneself become an icon of sexuality and sexual conquests. Its primary ideas, whatever car jargon it includes, is about the adjustment of the surface, a tangential modification for the purpose of sex. “The chicks will cream”, “You know that ain’t no shit, you’ll be getting’ lots of tit”, “You know that I ain’t braggin’, she’s a real p****y wagon”. Maybe as a whole, the track also is a metaphor for the thrill of the chase? The shininess of the car cuts to what their drag racer actually looks like: a dump. Regardless, its sentiments certainly allude to the boys’ understanding of manliness and its relationship to women and sexuality. Their ideals of sex and relationship are shallow, shiny surface pleasures that are, in reality, gross, ancient, decrepit.
“There Are Worse Things I Could Do”
We return to the paradox of the Madonna and the Whore, where Rizzo, during a pregnancy scare, contemplates her status in the school after that rumor gets around school. There’s a sense of empowerment in the song, as she discards what people are saying about her, making the song work as a piece of commentary on societal views toward women and sexuality. Rizzo is a character that prides herself on her acerbic nature, especially prickly when she meets Sandy. It takes a lot to get under Rizzo’s skin, so implicitly being called “slut” doesn’t bother her. However, as one considers the lyrics, she’s as guilty of slut shaming as the rest of her peers:
“I could flirt with all the guys,
Smile at them and bat my eyes.
Press against them when we dance,
Make them think they stand a chance,
Then refuse to see it through.
That’s a thing I’d never do.”
The song is kind of fascinating precisely because of its mixed messages, at once seemingly feminist and yet conceding to the same kind of slut shaming that Rizzo herself is undergoing.
“You’re the One That I Want”
The song itself is fine, but it’s the scene that’s intriguing. It’s directly preceded by a reprise of “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” by Sandy herself, wherein she questions her place amongst the group, unsure of who she is, what she wants, and who she wants. What occurs next is to me the film’s biggest failing: Sandy buys into exactly what Danny wants her to be, or what she thinks Danny wants her to be. She comes into the carnival wearing a black, skintight outfit, her hair frizzy and ratted, holding a smoldering cigarette between her cherry red lips. “Sandy?!” Danny exclaims. She retorts, “Tell me about it, stud.” On the one hand, it’s interesting to see such an innocent character make such a flip in presentation. That struggle in the film never entirely existed, the plight primarily being reduced to Sandy mooning over Danny, Danny being a jerk, Sandy dating someone else briefly, etc. The question of how she presents herself as a woman briefly appears at the party at Rizzo’s, but with little depth. The big question here is whether Sandy is doing this because she really wants to or if she’s conceding to the image of what Danny wants her to be.
Peer pressure is one of the film’s biggest themes, but here it’s not illustrated to any satisfaction. Perhaps the biggest issue is that, while she could very well be empowered by her new look, there’s an overtly performative nature to this that’s sexualized by the male gaze. Her first appearance on screen has the camera pan up her body to her face, careful to illustrate her “newly defined” curves. Unsure of what to do with her cigarette, she looks to one of her friends, who tells her what to do, which makes the role she’s playing more obvious and less genuine. But then again, I’m no authority. It’s an odd scene and an odder conclusion, hard to define as “win win”, since Danny’s taking to the books doesn’t manifest through his “new” personality.
It’s easy to forget how smutty Grease can be, and even easier to forget that it’s a cross examination of high school culture. The film never really takes a stand on what its gender dynamics actually say. They’re muddy and messy and inconsistent, but this might just be an accurate reflection of how they are in real life. It ends up being an intriguing, odd, vulgar, and aggressive observance, despite its heightened musical qualities. At the very least, watching the film is still electrifying.