I mentioned while reviewing The Devil’s Carnival, I thought that nothing could beat Grease for being one of the most sexist musicals ever. Now, despite The Devil’s Carnival taking Grease‘s place at number one, I still hate Grease with such a rage-filled passion that it is almost ridiculous.
This is a musical that almost always gets a pass because of its excellent soundtrack. All the dancing, singing, and pretty costumes distract you from the horrible, terrible, no good, very sexist plot! But it’s not just the main plot—every little side story or comment is sexist, too. And don’t give me the excuse that this musical was written during “a different time”. It was written in the 70s, well after the Women’s Liberation movement began; it should at least be a little better than the musicals written in the late 50s and early 60s. And the argument that Grease is accurately portraying the sexism of the 1950s is also not true. Grease portrays the 50s about as accurately as Disney portrays Chinese culture in Mulan. And even if you could prove to me that this portrayal is accurate, it still doesn’t change anything. Shows like Mad Men portray the sexism and racism of the generation they’re depicting, but they never glorify it or shy away from how terrible it is. Grease doesn’t do that.
Grease is a musical that looks nostalgically back on this time period along with its attitudes and way of life. Grease‘s message is very clearly, “wouldn’t it be great if the world was still like this.” A world where men utterly shame, control, and abuse women? No, thanks! Grease, your catchy songs don’t fool me! I see you for what you are!
Grease‘s main protagonist Sandy, who just started her senior year at Rydell High School, quickly makes friends with the Pink Ladies: Marty, Rizzo, Jan, and Frenchy. She tells the girls of her sweet romantic summer (“Summer Nights”) with a boy named Danny. He turns out to be Danny Zuko, a guy who goes to Rydell as well. However, when she meets Danny again, he is worried about looking “cool” in front of friends, so he acts like a complete jackass to her.
To be very fair, I don’t view Danny acting like a jackass as being sexist. Now, that’s not to say that the idea that guys can’t be emotional or caring isn’t sexist, because it is, but this is supposed to be about high school. Danny does react as a typical teenager would. He is excited to see Sandy. He really does love her (apparently), but he’s a teenager, so his first priority is how he looks in front of his friends. Later Danny seems to regret how he treats Sandy and spends most of the musical trying to win her back, but the two constantly break up and get back together again, because Danny is incapable of caring more about Sandy than his own popularity.
Danny abandons her at prom for another woman and to win a contest; most notably he tries to force sex on her at the drive in. Now, you could maybe argue that Danny is embarrassed that they haven’t had sex yet, so he tries to make it look like they are having sex, but everything about this scene implies that Danny was trying to push Sandy into sex. She literally has to push him off her and when she dares to deny him sex, he yells at her and breaks up with her. When Sandy storms off he yells at her to come back, because she is making him look bad in public.
The musical ends with Danny trying to straighten up his act. He realizes that Sandy is a much classier person than he is, and he just wants to be better in order to be with her. But alas, Sandy has decided that she wants to change for Danny, too. Sandy turns herself into his wildest fantasy. She walks up to Danny dressed in leather and smoking, acting as the bad, always sexually available girl that Danny always wanted. Danny immediately then abandons his idea of changing for the better to be with Sandy now that she has caved to all of his demands for what an ideal woman should be.
See ladies, if you want a boyfriend, just change everything about who you are and make yourself constantly sexually available. Thanks for that inspiring message, Grease!
But that is just the main plot. Every other little side plot and character screams sexism. Jan is overweight, so almost everything about her personality is centered around food, because this musical wouldn’t be complete without some weight shaming. Perhaps the worst thing about this musical, both in the main plot and the side ones, is the constant slut-shaming and virgin-shaming. I recently wrote about how ridiculous it is that, no matter what, women are shamed for their sex life, whether they are virgins or sexually active. Sandy is shamed and made fun of by Rizzo and the other girls for not having sex (“Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee”). Then Rizzo gets pregnant and it is portrayed as almost her just punishment for making fun of Sandy. Rizzo sings the song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” again keeping up the theme of virgin-shaming and slut-shaming. In the song, she argues it’s better to be the girl that has sex, than the one that flirts with and “teases” guys without giving them what they want.
But even beyond the Pink Ladies, two side characters, Patty Simcox and Cha-Cha, literally seem to embody this virgin-shaming and slut-shaming. Throughout the film Patty is seen being shamed for being a virgin and is almost constantly portrayed acting almost like a little girl. Patty in turn is seen shaming Rizzo when it’s rumored that she is pregnant.
Cha-Cha, is described as a girl “with the worst reputation,” and not even by people like Patty or Sandy who aren’t sexually active. Cha-Cha’s reputation is exposed by the other Pink Ladies, all of whom are sexually active, but see they see themselves as better than Cha-Cha for some reason. Perhaps because she has had sex with more than one man? Although it’s implied that Rizzo and Marty have done the same—so the fact that Cha-Cha is made fun of for being sexually active with multiple partners is absurd and hypocritical.
These sexist attitudes in the musical maybe wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t held up as a good thing, but Sandy’s transformation very clearly shows these sexist attitudes to be an “ideal” part of an “ideal” time. So please, stop making excuses for Grease just because you think “Grease Lightning” is an awesome song.