40 years later, it’s no surprise that Grease is actually problematic as hell

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When it comes to virginity, it’s lose-lose for women

For Grease, every woman is either a Rizzo or a Sandy. Rizzo is a free-thinking, sexually active woman who, by the end of the film, has been demonized for “putting out” by having a pregnancy scare. Sandy is the antithesis of Rizzo. She’s a blonde-haired, mild-mannered virgin who is saving herself for someone she truly loves. Sandy is vilified for her position on virginity by all of those around her, but it’s Rizzo who sings a whole song mocking Sandy’s “purity” (“Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee”).

So, girls, we’re back to the Madonna-Whore Complex, but this time the backdrop is sexually-charged high school teens. Even within their allotted stereotypes, Sandy and Rizzo aren’t allowed to be confident in their decisions about their own bodies. When Rizzo sings the line “the neighborhood thinks I’m trashy and no good/ I suppose it could be true,” she concedes to others opinions of her. Similarly, Sandy’s life lesson involves her revoking her “good girl” status despite wanting to stay true to herself throughout the rest of the film.

According to Grease, women just can’t win. If you take control of your sexuality, you’re a slut and if you decline the advances of a man then you aren’t putting out, and that (apparently) it’s just not fair.

Fatphobia and body image

Jan (played by Jamie Donnelly) is the least well-known of the Pink Ladies. She doesn’t have a narrative arc, she gets fairly few lines and doesn’t contribute to the main plot in any major way… Except that she is supposed to epitomize the very idea of being ugly and fat. I know, I was confused too.

There’s a line toward the end of the film, said to Jan by Putzie (one of the T Birds), “I think there is more to you than just fat.” A nice sentiment, perhaps, but the film has gone out of its way to tell us the very opposite. Jan does nothing but eat.

This is not only a lazy stereotype (all fat people are constantly eating Twinkies, right?) but it’s also pretty harmful to insinuate that Jan is A) fat and B) eating is wrong. Neither of those things is true, but Grease would have us believe that they are.

This also ties in with Greases entire philosophy on body image. Frenchie gets picked on for her apparent bad looks in “Beauty School Drop Out” (“no customer would go to you unless she was a hooker”), and even Danny is made to believe that he would stand a better chance with Sandy if he comes off as more athletic.

Goodbye to Sandra-Dee

While all of the above are all points of deep concern for all the young girls and boys at Rydell High, it’s Greases last message that is perhaps the most troublesome. In the film’s last scene, Sandy arrives at the funfair dressed in a tight-fitting jumpsuit (Newton-John had to be sewn into it before shooting each day), smoking a cigarette. Danny falls at her feet, and the two of them end up driving off into the sky in a flying car to (we assume) live happily ever after.

What’s the message here, then? That if you change absolutely everything about yourself to please a man you spent a few weeks with over a summer holiday, you’ll be happy?

Considering the rest of Grease’s flaws, it’s hardly a surprising conclusion, but it’s one which is incredibly damaging for young women. To be deserving of love, you have to change who you are. That’s the lasting message of a film which captured the hearts of generations.

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Fortunately, we’ve now got our pick of intelligent, insightful and inspiring high-school movies (Ladybird, Mean Girls, Clueless, Edge of Seventeen, etc.), which acutely encourage individuality, self-confidence, and sexual liberation. So feel free to stash that Grease DVD at the very back of your shelf, or maybe (dare I say) the bin?