The movie ‘Grease’ turns 40, and we’re conflicted

It’s time to reassess the lyrics, adult themes and lessons of this beloved movie musical
By Esther D. Kustanowitz  Published on 06/15/2018 at 10:00 AM EDT
Olivia Newton-John as Sandy and John Travolta as Danny in the 1978 film, 'Grease' Paramount Pictures

Grease, the movie based on the Broadway musical, turns 40 this month–many of us don’t remember a time when the movie’s songs, especially “You’re the One That I Want,” “Summer Nights” and “We Go Together”–weren’t permanently lodged in our brains. “We’ll always be together…”

What’s not to love about this feel-good musical about teen love and friendship with laugh-if-you-get-it-lines like, “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter”? And who doesn’t remember their own high school romance against all odds in which we’ve all asked ourselves that classical question, “Can a sexually inexperienced Australian and a greaser find love when their friends are from opposite cliques and each clique has its rules?” Universal, right?

Grease is alternately treacle, nostalgia, dramatic challenge and a happy ending. It’s infectious, and yet its lyrics and themes are grossly problematic. Looking back on this staple of American musical theater, here are five elements or themes of Grease that may make us uncomfortable.

Grease reinforces gender stereotypes. Boys are tough, the conquerors; girls are sensitive, a prize to be conquered. The difference in a boy’s boasting “we made out under the dock” with a hip swivel indicating sexual conquest and the girl’s pride in having stayed out until ten o’clock shows how vast the communication gap is between boys’ and girls’ narratives. Also, the dudes asking if Sandy “put up a fight” invokes the assumption that girls are expected to resist sexual advances, but that men are ultimately supposed to conquer them. While it’s not exactly rape culture, it’s not NOT rape culture. No means no, even if you accept a greaser’s ring and offer to go steady, you can still say no when he tries to make out with you. (Grease’s #MeToo award goes to…Sandy! And then is rescinded later when she decides the assault didn’t matter.) And the “like, does he have a car” line in “Summer Nights” also portrays (at least one of the) girls as concerned not with the quality of the connection between the two (ditto “how much dough did he spend?”), but what material assets the boy brings with him. The car is the ultimate status symbol, so much so that there’s a whole song fetishizing the car and the life it will provide once it’s refurbished. We do have to give a confused kudos to shop teacher Mrs. Murdock, who broke that glass ceiling, but who also helped build “Greased Lightning,” a vehicle representing sexual conquest. So…it’s even?

For girls, not having sex isn’t OK–you’ll be branded a virgin–but neither is having sex because you’ll be branded a slut. Sandy was ridiculed for her sexual and social naïveté, but Rizzo has her own song of lament, “There are worse things I could do, than go with a boy…or two…” and she even expresses a wish that people would understand that “I don’t steal and I don’t lie and I can feel, a fact I bet you never knew…but to cry in front of you, that’s the worst thing I could do.” Rizzo is the Samantha Jones of the group, determining that she can “get her kicks while I’m still young enough to get them.” Also, the first 80 times I watched this movie, I totally missed that Rizzo was grumpy because she thought Kenickie had gotten her pregnant. Jewish day school hadn’t exactly schooled me in high school pregnancy scares, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was pretty surprised to suddenly tune into what Rizzo’s storyline was really about. And now that I know, Rizzo’s response to Sandy’s claim that her summer love was special–“there ain’t no such thing”–strikes me as particularly sad.

Parents are of no help. Remember that time that Danny asked his parents for advice? Or when Sandy confided in her aunt that she was having trouble fitting in at school? Or when Rizzo went to the school counselor? If you don’t that’s because Grease positions teenagers in a parents-free zone. Teachers occasionally sort of stand in for authority figures, but are mostly there to herd the students to classes and activities. The only time we get a glimpse of someone’s home life is during the slumber party scene, but even then, the kids are left alone to smoke, pierce each others’ ears and shimmy down the drainpipe to take off with their boyfriends, with nary a parental peep.

Peer pressure is irresistible. Sandy realizes she must “start anew” to catch Danny’s eye, and she does so by trading in her virginal costume and attitude for pleather pants, an off-the-shoulder shirt and a giant perm. And yes, Danny also changes for her, earning a letterman’s sweater in track, and eliciting disappointment from the T-birds who, in shock, react with “Danny Zuko…a jock?” (In Grease world, athletes aren’t cool.) But the T-birds don’t need to worry…as soon as Danny sees Sandy in her spandex, both smoking and smokin’, and notices her shift in attitude (“Tell me about it, STUD…”), he strips off the sweater to reveal his black clothes and Danny Zuko swagger. So what’s the lesson? My high school used to show the ending as an example of teens succumbing to peer pressure. My mother used to use this ending as a proof text for why I should get a perm. I’m not sure either of those was the right lesson. Although I did get eventually get the perm (OK, a body wave), which, not shockingly, changed nothing in my life.

Dirty talk and innuendo is totally fine when you put it in a song. Sandy “getting friendly down in the sa-ha-hand” and Danny boasting “she was good, you know what I mean” were pivotal parts of “Summer Nights.” But, in fact, I had no idea what he meant. I thought it was a wistful, lovely song about teen romance, complete with one of the boys expressing his wish for companionship: “could she get me a friend?” I also didn’t understand that “Greased Lightning” is about a car, but it’s about the car as a vehicle to sex. “You know that ain’t sh*t when we’ll be gettin’ lots of tit,” which is kind of confusing, because “gettin’ lots of tit” isn’t really a saying, is it? And do they only want one tit, but a lot of that one particular tit? Also, in their fantasy, the car is “a real pussy wagon,” that “the chicks will cream” for. I never actually heard any of these lyrics until I was in college. I heard “the chicks will scream,” which is a slight, and PG-level improvement that tells you how in touch with sexual slang I wasn’t. In our time when a would-be President emerged from a wagon–ok, it was an Access Hollywood bus–talking about grabbing what the “Greased Lightning” boys were after, we don’t think twice about it. And even Hamilton has some explicit lyrics that children can now spit back without even understanding them. But back in the day this kind of language was pretty shocking.

Our nostalgia for Grease is real and can absolutely be celebrated. We just have to acknowledge that some of these songs are probably not for kids, and that T-Bird behavior isn’t to be emulated. And also, please don’t sing “Summer Nights” at karaoke–it’s way overdone.

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