Four Reasons Why Grease is a Feminist Musical
Feminism is the word.
I’m friends with a lot of theater nerds. Probably because I am one myself. So, whenever one of these live televised musicals is coming up, there’s inevitable discussion about it in my social media feeds. FOX’s Grease: Live is set to air on Sunday night, so there’s been a lot of chatter about it. What surprised me most in all that chatter is, whenever someone brought up how “sexist” the show is – talking about the fact that it’s “basically about a woman changing herself to get her man” – I found myself disagreeing. Like, vehemently.
Here are four reasons why I think Grease is actually a feminist musical:
1) Sandy doesn’t “change” for Danny. She becomes more true to herself.
There’s a reason why Rizzo calls Sandy “Sandra Dee.” At the time in which the musical is set, Sandra Dee was the poster girl for everything that adults wanted teenage girls to be and everything that many teens themselves were starting to reject. The on-screen image of Sandra Dee – a bubbly, virginal “good girl” – was far removed from reality. And yet, that was the version of teen girlhood that Hollywood and the establishment was selling at the time. In an awesome essay by Scott Miller over at New Line Theater called Inside Grease, he points out that:
Today, it may be hard to understand what Sandra Dee represented, but she was the poster girl for the big studios’ attempts to make teen movies, a genre which was up until that point the exclusive territory of small, low-budget producers like the ubiquitous Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors, Bucket of Blood, and others). But the studios’ teen flicks were inevitably artificial in the extreme, creating a freakish – and clueless – adult imitation of the teen world, a kind of cultural Frankenstein, that teens could see right through. To savvy teenagers, Sandra Dee was a teen sellout, and in a world where authenticity was the goal, there was nothing worse. She was a fake – in her life, in her acting style, and in her onscreen emotions. Teen audiences didn’t want that; they wanted High School Hellcats and Teenage Doll. But adults loved Sandra Dee; she reassured them that their teen was a “good girl.”
And many American girls took Sandra Dee as a role model – but not the real Sandra Dee, the cheery public character Sandra Dee, confusing her onscreen persona with her real life. Millions of Americans in postwar America were trying to live an American Dream that was pure fiction, particularly for the working class; and that fiction is symbolized by Sandra Dee, a fiction at the heart of Sandy’s arc in Grease.
In an era when parents were worried about “juvenile delinquency” and teenagers were coming into their own as a demographic separate from their parents, the facades started crumbling, and authenticity became something for which to strive (Listen up, hipsters! Teens in the 1950s were trying to be authentic long before you).
So, when Sandy says “goodbye to Sandra Dee,” it’s not for Danny. It’s for herself. The good girl image she was locked into by her family and her times was keeping her from being with someone she actually cared about. It was holding her back from something she wanted. By being true to herself and shaking off the shackles of the “good girl” persona, she was finally able to reach for some happiness of her own, rather than settling for the kind of happiness that would be prescribed for her.
2) Meanwhile, Danny throws off the shackles of Toxic Masculinity
“Summer Lovin'” is one of the most intriguing songs in Grease, because it’s pretty much a mission statement for the whole musical, while giving us a deep insight into the two leads. Here we get two opposite versions of the summer romance between Sandy and Danny. Sandy’s version, which is likely closer to the truth, is that they had a nice (chaste) time over the summer. Danny’s version, however, is pure innuendo-laden performance for the benefit of his horny T-Bird friends. What really happened is likely somewhere in the middle. They probably didn’t have sex, but they probably made out a lot and Sandy may have even let him cop some feels. That’s between them. They don’t need to “tell [anybody] more.”
The important thing to remember is this: Danny already liked Sandy before she “changed” at the end. She didn’t have to lure or convince him, he was already there. This is something that I think gets lost when people talk about this show. He was already attracted to Sandy as-is, and there was a mutual connection. Throughout the musical, his masculine performance for his friends is constantly undermined by his underlying sensitivity. He misses Sandy. He hates having to play this game for the benefit of his gang.
And when he responds positively to her at the end of the musical — yes, of course he thinks she looks hot. Because she does. But he’s also grateful that she’s not holding his stupidity against him. He’s grateful that she’s back and giving their relationship another chance. They go together like rama-lama-lama, ka-ding-a-ding-dong, and he wants to be with her forever like shoo-bop, sha-wadda-wadda oh, you get the idea.
Let’s remember, Danny tries to “change” for her first! He shows up in a letterman sweater one day. His friends think he’s ditching them, but he responds with “You can’t follow a leader all your lives.” Apparently, while they were out “swiping hubcaps,” he was lettering in track, and he wanted to show Sandy that there was more to him than his performance as a T-Bird.
Even more important? When she throws off the shackles of Sandra Dee, he doesn’t think less of her, which would’ve been the more likely reaction at that time (and quite possibly even today) from a guy who was originally attracted to a “good girl.” Thanks to that persistent Madonna/Whore Complex, too many men have no problem “having sex with sluts,” but when it comes time to settle down, have trouble reconciling “Sexual, Human Woman” with their ideas about “The Future Mother of Their Children.” Danny, however, appreciates Sandy’s complexity. He recognizes that Sandy 2.0 is still the Sandy he fell for – just evolved. Just as she doesn’t hold his masculine performance against him, he doesn’t hold her need to change against her.
3) All the T-Birds wrestle with masculine performance
What’s pretty revolutionary about Grease is that it shows sexism being attacked from both sides. The onus isn’t just on the female characters to assert themselves, there’s also responsibility placed on the male characters to examine themselves and the roles they play.
Kenickie is a guy who is actually in love with a supposed “bad girl.” His feelings for Rizzo never waver throughout the show, and even when he finds out she’s pregnant and she
totally lies tells him it’s not his, he’s disappointed and hurt, but he doesn’t give up on her. He sees Rizzo as a person, and doesn’t hold her reputation against her, nor does it ever seem plausible that he’d want to give her up for a “good girl” as society would likely teach him is the “right move.”
In a much smaller plot point, T-Bird Putzie and Pink Lady Jan get together in large part because Putzie sees past the superficial – although he relates this in a really clumsy way:
Putzie: You sure are a cheap date. Oh-I didn’t mean that the way it came out.
Jan: I understand.
Putzie: I always thought you were a very understanding person.
Jan: I am.
Putzie: And I also think there’s more to you than just fat.
Putzie: You’re welcome. You got a date for the dance-off?
Putzie: Wanna go?
If a hickie from Kenickie is like a Hallmark card, then a compliment from Putzie is like a MACK truck. Still, he means well. And Jan seems to be a short, sweet, and to-the-point kinda girl who doesn’t see the word “fat” as inherently insulting.
4) And how about them Pink Ladies, huh?
We always talk about wanting more nuanced female characters around here. What’s great about Grease is that a) it gives us five female characters, each of whom has her own story arc which doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with men, and if it does, there’s more to it than that, and b) each of these women is different enough that they can be flawed and it’s totally okay, because no one Pink Lady needs to be the Representative of All Womanhood. Even Jan, whose storyline is the slightest of the five, is completely unique in her dorkiness and unapologetic love of food that doesn’t hinder her from finding a date.
Marty is not a great person. She’s supposedly dating a marine who’s probably off fighting in Korea – but while he’s away, this cat totally plays, and she ends up having an affair with an older man – the DJ of the local rock radio station. In the stage version, she sings a song called “Freddy, My Love,” in which she extols not the marine she’s dating, but the fact that he sends her money to buy stuff. I ain’t sayin’ she’s a gold digger, but she ain’t messin’ with no broke…military personnel or radio personalities. However, Marty is also completely loyal to her girls, and is a supportive friend. She’s not perfect, but she has complete agency.
Frenchy has her own problems. Her biggest dream is to work in a beauty salon. Hating high school, she leaves to go to beauty school – but soon realizes she can’t handle it and drops out thanks to some wise advice from her Teen Angel. The fact that Frenchy’s storyline has zero to do with boys and everything to do with her chosen career path is pretty amazing.
And then there’s Rizzo. Oh, Rizzo – one of the clearest examples of a musical’s supporting female role being way more interesting than the lead (I’m looking at you too, Anita in West Side Story!). As we’ve established, Rizzo is one of the “bad girls” that parents were afraid of in the 1950s. Why? Because she…um…likes sex. And….um…she does what she wants. Now, she’s not perfect either. She can be really horrible to people, and she lies to her boyfriend several times. However, as we learn over the course of Grease (most poignantly through her song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”), she resents the hypocrisy of the society in which she lives, calling out the fact that her behavior is considered “depraved” when others (usually men and the “good girls” created for them) get away with doing things that are much worse. She questions why stifling your need for happiness is considered “more virtuous” than chasing what you want. And a big reason why she can be so mean is as a way to protect herself from the world – because the world doesn’t often treat independent women kindly, and Rizzo is actually really vulnerable.
And then there’s the issue of her pregnancy. In the film version of Grease, it’s not entirely clear how that story is resolved. There’s debate over whether or not the fact that she’s “no longer pregnant” at the end means that she miscarried, or that she had an abortion. She doesn’t say much about it, so a lot of it is left to the interpretation of the performance. She says it was a “false alarm,” but while Kenickie is over the moon about having dodged a bullet, Rizzo’s response is more measured, leading me to believe that it wasn’t quite as simple as that. The way in which she announces it to Kenickie leads me to believe that a choice was made – it doesn’t seem like the Whew! reaction of someone who’s dodged a bullet. It seems like a definitive declaration of fact from a young woman who was once pregnant, then decided not to be. Rizzo is a street-smart, sexually active girl who knows enough about birth control in the 1950s that she makes sure when she’s having all this sex, that her partners use condoms (although, sadly, mistakes happen when you’re using the cheap ones from the gas station). If anyone would know how and where to get an abortion, it would be her.
Regardless of the subtext, the fact is that in dealing with her pregnancy, Grease always leaves the way its handled up to her. Throughout every stage of it, she’s calling the shots about what to do. No one gives her advice, suggesting a plan of action. Kenickie is supportive and only leaves her side when she tells him it isn’t his, making it crystal clear that she doesn’t want this pregnancy doing anything to dictate their relationship – so much that she would rather risk ending the relationship than allow the pregnancy to force certain things between them.
Grease is, among other things, a critique of 1950s sexism, not an embodiment of it. There’s a big difference between depicting something, and endorsing it, and the sexism in Grease was necessary to depict in order to see what these teens are struggling against.
It was looking at the 1950s with 20-20 hindsight through a 1970s lens. Could it have been even more progressive? Sure. Why was it so white, for starters? (And way to fix that, Grease: Live on FOX!) And why is it that, in the script, Jan is constantly eating and referred to as fat, but whenever she’s cast, it’s always some average-sized actress who’s probably considered “fat” by industry standards, but who isn’t real-world fat. (FOX didn’t really go above and beyond on this one.)
Still, Grease is more feminist and progressive than I think most people give it credit for. So, if you’re gonna be watching Grease: Live Sunday night, keep this stuff in mind, and revel in the fact that you can enjoy this musical knowing that it was written, in part, to criticize oppressive gender roles, not uphold them.
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