Jonah De Forest
“If school days are the happiest days of your life, I’m hanging myself with my skip-rope tonight”-Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a letter to her high school boyfriend, 1945
Upon first viewing it in the first grade, I hated Grease. Even at that early age, the queasy misogyny that oozed from the T-Bird’s heavily lubricated pompadours was all too apparent. It seemed to go against all my liberal parents had taught me: bullying was celebrated, gender-roles were archly defined, sexism was practiced off-handedly, and the sacrifice of self was rewarded. I much preferred Hairspray (2008, based on John Water’s 1988 mainstream offering) the spiritual sequel to Grease in which anarchic freedom of self trumps all prejudice—including institutionalized racial segregation (it helped that the songs were infectious and the heroine was unapologetically self-possessed, plump and horny).
But Hairspray is set in the early 60s, when the rumblings of cultural and political change were disrupting the old guard of the past decade. Grease, however, is stuck in 1958, a few years before the notion of change was fathomable. Teenagers pulsated anxiously, chasing thrills before the reality of adult mundanity caught up to them (a real-time case study can be found in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause). More than a nostalgia piece, Grease is a brightly colored portrait of teenage discontentedness; adolescences unwittingly trapped in the world they inherited.
Released in 1978, Grease was an appropriate addition to the decade’s siege of content set in the 50s and early 60s. Movies like American Graffiti (1973) were box-office hits, while nostalgic TV shows like Happy Days (1974-1984) and Laverne and Shirley (1976-1983) ruled the small-screen. The 60s had been an era of tumult, from counter-cultural uprisings to the Vietnam War. It seems that after the turmoil of the past decade there was a yearning to return to the seemingly idyllic 50s. Grease may have been marketed as a nostalgia vehicle for a bygone age of innocence, but one is able to excavate cultural analysis on an era of repression upon further viewing (whether intentionally or otherwise).
In case you’ve recently debunked from a decades-long stint in a nuclear shelter, Grease (directed by Randal Kleiser and adapted from the 1971 Broadway hit) surrounds the forbidden love of good girl Sandy (Australian songbird supreme Olivia Newton-John) and greaser bad boy Danny (John Travolta, in all his 70s heartthrob glory). Sandy, having migrated from down under to the all-American Rydell High, is taken under the wing of wannabe-beautician Frenchy (Didi Cohn). Frenchy belongs to the cigarette-smoking, matching jacket-toting girl gang the Pink Ladies, led by the brazen Betty Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Rizzo is a vicious alpha who sees her female peers as competitors and men as her connection to power. Power is something that she, as a young woman in the 50s, is lacking in all aspects of society.
Her desire for autonomy is so potent that she is willing to demean herself in exchange for some adjacency to it. This is not to deny Rizzo her libido (as many teen movies have done to their seemingly lustless heroines) but the means of her sexual gains are not without their indignities. Her on-and-off again beau Keneckie (Jeff Conaway) cannot even remember her first name in the heat of car-sex passion and she acquiesces to a condomless consummation that almost gets her pregnant. In her pivotal 11 o’clock number “There Are Worse Things I Can Do” she sings:
There are worse things I could do
Then go with a boy or two
Even though the neighborhood thinks I’m trashy and no good
I suppose it could be true
But there are worse things I could do
Though Channing is old enough to have actually been an adolescent in the 50s, she delivers the song with an emotional intensity that excavates a truth even the songwriters (Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey) may have been unaware of. A tough girl from a working-class Italian family, Rizzo is far from the charmed debutante ball life more affluent girls were allotted. As such, she is painfully aware that her only options after high school outside of the usual blue collar trappings are homemaking or streetwalking (gal pal Frenchy’s dreams of being a career woman are dashed by a “teen angel”— played by crooner Frankie Avalon—who tells her to give up on her failed ambitions and return to high school). So why not do anything she can to “get [her] kicks while [she’s] still young” and not masquerade it as anything else but that nihilistic pursuit (unlike the reviled cheerleader Patty Simcox, who’s desperation manifests itself in different ways than Rizzo)? Before Betty Friedan‘s revolutionary feminist text The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963 there was no widespread notion that women could be dissatisfied with their predetermined place in society. All girls like Rizzo could do was act out.
The same type of tension surrounds the men in the film, the leather jacket wearing T-Birds who sing the memorable car-worship anthem “Greased Lighting.” In her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies (1974) film critic Molly Haskel writes:
It was as if the whole period of the fifties was a front, the topsoil that protected the seed of rebellion that was germinating below. The cultural disorientation had begun, but it had yet to be acknowledged
Such inklings of rebellion manifested themselves in the form of greasers; bad boys with bad attitudes who took after tough guy motorcyclists and rock n’ roll rebels. What they were rebelling against was hard to articulate outside of the usual forces that controlled them (school, parents); like the Rizzos of the world, greasers did not have much of a language for the unrest they felt. In part it was based in the fact that society was restricting, the freedom of the mid-60s had yet to uproot the defined rules of the previous generation.
The 50s were also defined by its strange depictions if sexuality. Society was at once perverse and celibate; buxom blonds like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield juxtaposed the ankle-length skirt prudishness of The Donna Reed Show. Sex was flaunted and shamed, leading to an influx in hyper-masculine posturing (in the film, bespectacled nerd Eugene is the victim of homophobic barbs). This pent-up sexuality and over-inflated notion of masculinity bred an air of violence that permeated all aspects of society.
This is exemplified in one of the most troubling scenes in Grease, when Danny assaults Sandy at a drive-in-movie. Danny kisses Sandy then gets on top her, which she verbally resists, eventually breaking free and leaving him stranded. He sings a sad-sack ballad, aptly titled “Sandy.” This act of sexual violence, followed by a song meant to make the audience sympathize with Danny, makes it hard to believe it was looked over at time (especially as this was the height of Gloria Steinem and the second wave feminist movement). If this scene demonstrates anything, it is how the gender-roles that took place in the 50s exacerbated such violence. This is not to say that sexual violence did not happen before the 50s, but, like an ever-forming boulder, it helped continue to shape the violent toxic masculinity that continues today.
When Sandy emerges at the end-of-the-year carnival to sing the penultimate duet “You’re the One That I Want”—her squeaky clean image traded for a cleavage-bearing bad girl look—is she succumbing to the sexual pressures of Danny and the others? Or is it more freeing to trade bobbysocks for a black bodysuit and finally have some agency over one’s sexuality? The latter is certainly less distressing, but one can never be sure of which narrative is being emphasized in a movie whose sexual politics are messy to say the least.
In the end, Sandy and Danny fly to the heavens in the tricked-out Greased Lightning, waving goodbye at their friends who are left land-bound, marveling at their great ascent. You cannot help but feel bad for their peers, stuck waiting on earthly premises for the unspoken promise of change.