Helen Cox is a UK author. She made her on-screen debut in The Krankies in 1990. Given the choice, her Mastermind topic would be Grease 2 and when someone asks her if she is a god she says 'yes.' Oh, you want to know about her books? Best click some of the links below.
That is a photo of me pressing myself against a promotional billboard for Grease 2: The Musical, AKA Cool Rider Live.
It’s, I presume, stuff like this that gets me invited onto national radio to talk about whether or not Grease is a feminist movie. That, and perhaps the fact my first novel is set in a 1950s diner.
Two weeks ago, I had the privilege of speaking on Woman’s Hour about the feminist credentials of Grease. It also gave me the opportunity to explain why Grease 2 is far better than the original film to the listeners at home.
If you want to find out how I got with that, you can listen again here.
I don’t mind telling you that being invited to speak on Woman’s Hour has been one of my life goals for a very long time. Checking it off as an achievement felt awesome.
I am known as a woman who has rather a lot to say for herself, and the incredible Woman’s Hour producers have a lot to pack into one show. What I’m saying is, though I could have merrily talked for a full hour about why Grease was lacking in feminist values, there simply wasn’t time for that in the schedule.
There is however infinite space (well, pretty much) on my blog. So, I thought I’d clue you up on one or two things I didn’t get the chance to say on air.
Before I pick Grease to bits in a bit more depth, I’d like to make it clear that none of the things I’m about to say affect the amount of pleasure people have had out of this film over the years, or will in years to come. As I mentioned on Woman’s Hour Grease is a film that looks and sounds spectacular. The songs are enduring and the actors made the roles very much their own.
So, this post is not an attempt to destroy your love for the film.
As an ex-film journalist however, I just love reading and analysing films. You’ll have to forgive me for wanting to spend my time debating the finer philosophical points of pictures like Megashark Vs Giant Octopus and Dirty Dancing 2. It’s just who I am.
Alright… back to Grease.
On top of the comments made in my Woman’s Hour interview, it’s important to note that Grease is a film that passes the Bechdel Test (more info on that here if you’ve never heard of it). Thanks, in part, to that oh so crucial debate between Rizzo and Jan about whether or not Twinkies and wine are a socially acceptable combination. Though a lot of the chatter between the female characters is about men, and their relationships with them, there are also conversations about how well the new school year is likely to go (and how long it’s going to last), Rizzo’s pregnancy scare and of course Sandy’s less-than-cool persona.
But the Bechdel test, while being a useful ‘at a glance’ measure is a pretty low bar to set in terms of gender equality at the movies. When it comes to Grease, I’d argue that its gender representation fails both men and women, and here’s why.
The expectations on both genders are made very plain in the opening song and dance number: ‘Summer Nights’.
According to the lyrics, women are to be interested in gentle strolls and drinking lemonade. The most transgressive, daredevil thing you might do as a woman is stay up till ten o clock. Men, on the other hand, are interested only in sexual activity and how far they can push the boundaries in this area.
Possibly the most alarming example of this gender split is when the lyrics ‘was it love at first sight?’ are rhymed with ‘did she put up a fight?’ Not only is there a worrying issue of consent here, when it comes to gender boundaries the message is blunt. Both sexes are limited in terms of the aspects of relationships they’re supposed to focus on. No romance for men. No casual sex for women.
In addition to sexual pressures, material expectations are also added into the mix. Your peers want to know if your spouse-to-be is a safe bet when it comes to his bank balance. ‘How much dough did he spend?’ / ‘Like does he have a car?’ People talk a great deal about Sandy’s transformation at the end of the film (and, trust me, I will get to that) but few note that the song ‘Greased Lightning’ also depicts the male members of the cast trying to satisfy social expectation on a material level.
The fact that Danny does attempt to change himself too is another often-ignored element of the plot. He seems to think that the key to impressing Sandy is athletic prowess, and why wouldn’t he? When young men are taught that being strong is so important, just as young women are taught that being thin is the highest pinnacle of beauty. Unfortunately for both Danny and Sandy, what they need is not a superficial makeover or a work-out but to acknowledge who they truly are and share that with the world without any shame. Neither of them accomplish this by the end of the movie.
Danny may rock up to the graduation celebrations in a letterman sweater (which seemingly isn’t his true identity either but is the identity he believes Sandy will be attracted to) but it is thrust off his back within three chords of ‘You’re the one that I want.’ Danny doesn’t have to change but will, we assume, continue playing the macho role for his friends. Sandy has aided him in his charade by kissing her good girl identity goodbye and becoming the epitome of What Men Are Told They Should Find Attractive. Nobody’s going to be giving Danny any heat for hanging around with the new Sandy. He’ll be able to keep up the facade that their relationship is mostly of a sexual nature.
On Woman’s Hour, the other guest speaker suggested that we could read Sandy’s transformation as a sexual liberation because she had shed the sexually limiting persona of ‘Sandra Dee’ (Sandra Dee was an actress from the fifties known for playing wholesome roles). The guest speaker argued further that the Sandra Dee character was who Sandy’s parents expected her to be and in the last scene she rebels against that.
In my response, I presented an argument that framed Sandy’s actions alongside those of other women in the film but there is another reason this argument does not satisfy me. I’m not given any indication throughout the film that Sandy is, unto herself, unhappy with the fact that she’s a bit of a Sandra Dee. An d I’m certainly not given any indication that it’s a role her parents are pressuring her to fulfill.
When we see Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta rolling around in the sands during those opening shots of the film, neither of them seem in conflict about who they are or whether they accept each other. They are carefree and are, one presumes, just being themselves. It is only when the couple brush up against social expectation, in this case, their friends at school, that the conflict begins. When it is made clear to Sandy that she shouldn’t be such a square and when Danny is discouraged from exploring his romantic feelings for Sandy.
If Sandy was rebelling, and not conforming to what society wanted of her, I’d have expected to see a scene that conveyed her dissatisfaction to me. Something along the lines of what John Waters did with Cry Baby (a film that is part Grease spoof) when Allison says to herself: ‘I’m so tired of being good.’ Otherwise, I’m not really buying this idea that Sandy is unhappy with who she is, only that she’s distressed that other people are unhappy with who she is.
On a closing note – I could go on forever but I have to draw a line somewhere – one of the saddest aspects of Sandy’s transformation, as far as I’m concerned, is not the heels or the lipstick, but the cigarette she’s smoking.
Earlier on in the picture, the Pink Ladies, who are supposed to be her friends, have a good laugh at Sandy when she chokes on a cigarette. Rizzo is particularly snide about it, pretending she forgot to warn Sandy about inhaling.
To me, that transformation at the end shows Sandy not only bowing to peer pressure from the men but also from the women in her life. People talk about the Pink Ladies showing sisterhood, but I don’t see a lot of evidence of that. Though Frenchie does try and ‘help’ Sandy later, even she ridicules Olsson’s cheer moves at the pep rally.
Both the guys and the gals have decided on a better version of Sandy and she, believing that social acceptance will make her happy in the long-term, gives in to what they want.
In my interview, I also talked a lot about Grease 2 and how it side-stepped some of these pitfalls. If you want to know more about my thoughts on the matter there is a whole chapter about Grease 2 in my book: True Love is Like the Loch Ness Monster (And other lessons I learnt from film).