I love John Waters.
As a director, I appreciate his aesthetic far more than any other director I could name off the top of my head. As a person, I find his sense of humor resonates with my own, and honestly I haven’t watched a single one of his films that I haven’t enjoyed or seen a cameo of his that I haven’t smiled at. However, I am not a fan of Grease. “Whoa Rin,” you may be saying right now. “Chill out with the non sequiturs, you’re not even a hundred words into this thing.” Hear me out.
Now, I’m not the only person on this blog who harbors a special kind of loathing for this musical—the kind of loathing that only comes after loving something for so long, then realizing how problematic it is and not being able to ignore said problematic things. I’m sure most of us have been there. Grease’s sexism is inexcusable and, though Rizzo is still my girl, the worst thing I could do would be to write off these problems simply because of a catchy tune. Yet in cutting this musical out of my life, where am I going to get my fill of light-hearted 50’s style Americana? Enter John Waters with his musical Cry-Baby.
Over the past couple of years I’ve discovered that more people have experienced this film—and it really is something you have to “experience”—than I originally thought, but for those who haven’t seen Johnny Depp in his greatest role ever, let me summarize. Cry-Baby focuses on two teens in love during the 50’s: Allison, a straight-laced “square”, and Wade (aka Cry-Baby), a delinquent and leader of small group of delinquents that call themselves “drapes”. Though Allison is popular and is everything a model girl in the 50’s should be, she can’t help but feel trapped in her social position. She longs for the freedom that the drapes have and finally gets to experience it once Cry-Baby invites her to a party at one of the local hang-outs for the drapes. Once there, Allison is readily accepted into their gang and is made to feel right at home, despite her ties to the squares, who seem to fear (in the case of Allison’s grandmother) or hate (in the case of Allison’s ex-boyfriend) everything the drapes do. Unfortunately, Allison’s ex is the jealous type and decides the best course of action is to start a riot during the drapes’ get together. The result of this is Allison and all the drapes being put on trial, Allison being released because the judge has a crush on her grandmother, and Cry-Baby being sentenced to the electric chair.
Due to a scandal caused by a girl with a one-sided crush on Cry-Baby, Allison believes that the king of the drapes doesn’t actually love her. Feeling abandoned and helpless, Allison unhappily returns to being a square and puts up with her ex’s attempts to get back with her. Her unhappiness doesn’t last long, though, as her friends in the drapes come to her side and ask her to help them spring Cry-Baby from jail. Agreeing to do so, they convince the judge that Cry-Baby wasn’t guilty for the riot and in one of the strangest finales ever, the drapes beat the squares in a game of chicken. And they all lived happily ever after.
The parallels between Grease and Cry-Baby practically write themselves. You have a (really white) love story set in 50’s America between two kids from different social groups. Cars. Singing. Why, the only thing missing between them is the gross amounts of sexism!
Let’s compare Grease’s Sandy to Cry-Baby’s Allison. I don’t think I’m going to break anyone’s heart by saying that Sandy’s agency is basically taken from her the entire movie. Even her relationship is built off of a lie. When she meets Danny, he presents a totally different image of himself than when she meets him again; however, she’s still expected to like him after finding out what an asshole he is. It’s not necessarily unbelievable or bad that she does still try to hold onto her romantic feelings for him—the power of a teenage crush can’t be denied—but the problem is that she’s never given a choice of not being in love with Danny. He can do whatever he wants because in the end he’s the only person at this school that she knows, his friends are her friends, and they automatically shun anyone else who could possibly try to take Sandy in as a friend. (See: Patty Simcox.)
Over on Allison’s side, everything about this relationship is in her control from the very beginning. She decides to flirt with Cry-Baby. Though he invites her to the party, it’s her decision entirely to go. Furthermore, the drapes never attempt to cut Allison off from her square friends, even though they clearly don’t hold each other in high esteem. In the end, Allison makes the choice entirely on her own to become more of a drape—or as Cry-Baby calls her, a “scrape” (square+drape)—and is supported in her decisions by the people who actually love her as opposed to being forced into the change, like Sandy was, at the risk of losing everything she loved.
Additionally, Cry-Baby takes an interesting look at promiscuity, especially within the drapes. Before I get into that, though, I want to bring up a small detail. As expected, the squares are all presented as virginal and pure. Yet, at the very beginning before Allison heads off with Cry-Baby, the audience is privy to a scene where we can see the inner thoughts of both Allison and her then-boyfriend. Allison is having a typical fantasy of smooching the boy she has a crush on while her boyfriend is fantasizing about Allison in a wedding gown. While this might not seem odd at first, Allison’s thoughts show a very active and willing Cry-Baby while the boyfriend’s thoughts of Allison are completely stiff and lifeless—she is essentially a mannequin in a wedding dress. Even though it’s such a small thing, it presents the image of Allison’s romantic/sexual desires as being something normal and enjoyable while also showing that forcing someone into a standard of purity is unnatural and, frankly, really creepy. But, enough about him, let’s get to the drapes.
Two of the main seven or so drapes—the ones directly associated with Cry-Baby—are female characters who are not chastised or punished for their sexual liberation. Pepper, Cry-Baby’s sister, has two children with another one on the way. Though she’s still in high school, she’s shown as being an extremely caring mother who, while not financially well off, is willing to do anything to protect her kids. She’s even still dating and very much openly in love with the children’s father and never once is she looked down upon for being what Grease may have called “loose”. Another girl, Wanda, is the most provocative looking lady in the entire movie, and she’s completely aware of this. However, not once is she shown doing anything more than kissing someone, nor is she condemned for the way she dresses (in tight clothing) even by her square parents. I think that while it’s important to have strong women who wear whatever they want and totally own their sexuality, it’s also very important to have characters who are read as sexy, but do not engage in sex—whether it be through subtext or openly. The worth of female characters shouldn’t be determined by how promiscuous they are, and Cry-Baby manages to show that perfectly by having all types of women serve equal importance. In Grease, the girls who run the school seem as if they’re only allowed to do so because of the boys who want in their pants.
Cry-Baby is by no means a perfect movie, but if you’ve been looking for a musical to replace Grease from your repertoire, I highly recommend you give this film a watch-through. Although it’s much wackier and more obviously kitschy than Grease, it also gives its lady characters a lot more respect and a lot more support. That’s more than a fair trade-off.