Theatre Thursdays: Grease is the Word (and the Word is Sexism)

grease-01I 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!

Grease_Stockard-Channing_Summer-Nights-Lying-Down-Black-Outfit.bmp1But 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.

9 thoughts on “Theatre Thursdays: Grease is the Word (and the Word is Sexism)

  1. My school is doing Grease for our annual eighth-grade play, and I simply could not agree more with you on these points. I never really paid any attention to the (pathetic excuse of a) plot at all, until being forced to stomach it about eight billion times.
    Even my best friend–who has a reputation of being rather ditzy–pointed out the sheer ridiculousness of the musical in general. (Ironically, the people who gossip about her couldn’t care less.)

  2. Thank you! I just saw this movie the other night and it sickened me even more than usual. I always hated the ending, but I really noticed the car scene and it was horrible! Ha ha! Date rape! Those wacky fifties kids! At least Sandy learned from Rizzo that a cock tease is the worst thing you can be, so she better start putting out.

    All this just so couples can sing bad karaoke versions of “Summer Loving.”

  3. While you do make some very good points, I have some thoughts to share on “Grease”…more about the 1978 movie than the play itself.

    I know that on the surface, it seems to romanticize the less than ideal aspects of the 50’s…sexism, racism and all that jazz. But it also shows a nostalgia for what was good about the 50’s, too…excellent music, groovy fashion, and it is essentially a coming of age story. It’s about friendship and falling in love and independence and the sadness of growing up and leaving youth behind.

    About the slut-shaming and virgin-shaming…this still continues in today’s society. When we look at it in the context of “Grease”, it is clear that there is a double standard when it comes to male/female sexuality. I would say it is a case of art reflecting the reality of life. Danny is a sexually frustrated young man. He wants to be intimate with Sandy, but tries to restrain himself because she is a “good” girl. Yet he has no problem calling Rizzo a loose girl and having sexy time with Cha-Cha, who is known as much for her moves in the backseat of a car as well as her moves on the dance floor.

    And Sandy is conflicted as well…on the one hand, she desires Danny as much as he wants her. But her wholesome “pure” upbringing prevents her from acting freely on these desires. This is the idea of a play set in the 50’s but actually written in the 70’s, to show that women had come a long way by then but there was still plenty of work to be done in achieving equality.

    Also, you might want to consider that Sandy is very different from the other Pink Ladies besides her virginity. She has a Polish-sounding last name in the original play (Dumbrowski) but in the movie, it is changed to Olsen, which is pretty Waspy. Unlike the Pink Ladies, she has blond hair, blue eyes, and has a very “innocent” sort of beauty. The Pink Ladies are mostly dark brunettes and they are all working-class girls who would have been considered “ethnic” back then…this was tied closely to a girl’s values, or at least that is what some people in the 50’s believed. Rizzo and Marty are both Italian-American, Jan is Irish-American, Frenchy is most likely Jewish. Cha-Cha is also Italian (Annette Charles, the actress who played her, was really named Annette Cardona. She was Italian-American but changed her name for showbiz). There was a time when Irish and Italian people were not considered white in America. Notice how in the first half of the movie, Sandy’s hair is straight and smooth. When she transforms into a sultry vixen, her hair is teased into fluffy curls…this symbolizes her liberation from sexual restraint. She also has pierced ears by then and is wearing red lipstick…these are things that many old-fashioned white Americans frowned upon in the 50’s.

    It was considered “improper” for a young girl/woman to have pierced ears at that time because it was something that only ethnic minorities and lower class people did. So in a way, Sandy is exploring issues of class and sexuality by the end of the movie. She is rejecting a certain set of values in exchange for another.

  4. Some more thoughts…sorry for the long comment, but I love talking about musicals! Lol.

    I don’t necessarily think that Patty is shamed for being a virgin. I believe the other girls don’t like her because of how smug, phony, and arrogant she is. And when I watched the movie again, she tends to throw herself at Danny a lot…maybe she is one of the “everything but sex” types. Necking, heavy petting, but no intercourse because only “loose” girls went that far, according to the social norms of that time. Like Sandy, she is an upper-middle class Wasp but unlike Sandy, she isn’t a nice person.

    There is one shining moment of sisterhood in the film where Sandy offers emotional support to Rizzo during her pregnancy scare. Despite their differences, they can develop mutual respect and maybe even be friends. But Patty Simcox would never reach out to a girl like Rizzo…she prefers to look down on girls from the wrong side of the tracks. Rizzo is a bit mean to Sandy at first, but I think it’s more about the class privilege that Sandy seems to have than who Sandy actually is as a person. I think that deep down, she likes Sandy and thinks of her as a sweet, inexperienced kid. It’s just that Rizzo is rough around the edges and she doesn’t trust the “new girl” at first. But she hides her sensitive nature behind a facade of toughness so people can’t hurt her.

    I agree with you, though, that the Pink Ladies aren’t very nice to Cha-Cha. But again, it seems to be more about her unpleasant personality than her reputation. She is even more sleazy than Rizzo and she dates Craterface, the leader of the Scorpions, the rival gang. Annette Cardona
    (who played Cha-Cha) died not too long ago, which was really sad, because she was a great dancer. Jeff Conaway died recently too (he played Kenickie). And the guy who played Craterface (Dennis something?) died in the early 90’s from AIDS.

    I don’t really like the song “Grease Lightning” all that much, although it is a catchy tune. I like the title song by Frankie Valli because it has a few lines about being true to yourself and realizing your potential in life, which was as important for kids in the 50’s as it is today. And “You Better Shape Up” is a real woman-power anthem, in my opinion! Sandy is telling him that he needs to be mature if he wants to be with her. “Beauty School Dropout” is also a fun song, but it also speaks to Frenchy’s anxiety about what she should do after high school is over. “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” reveals Rizzo’s inner sadness and fear about possibly being pregnant at 17, and her defiance against the hypocrisy of sexual double standards. “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is an iconic song, because it shows the angst of being a lovesick teenager. And the song at the end “We Go Together” is sweet, silly and sad all at once because the kids (with the exception of Sandy, who only came to Rydell at the start of the year) have grown up together and now with graduation from high school, they must go their separate ways and have adult responsibilities.

    Please give “Grease” another chance! 🙂

  5. Umm… this is set in the 1950’s. Get over it. Really like really? That’s how it was and again really? They were making fun of the time period. Chill.

    • @Grease Lover- Well golly, you sure shattered OP’s argument by… totally ignoring every point she made about how inaccurate it really was to the fifties and was made in a time period where they COULD have called out this crap.

      Nice name, btw, you don’t sound totally biased at all, haha!

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