Grease Is Feminist, Actually

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Grease Is Feminist, Actually

High heels, leather pants, leather jacket, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth and a new hairdo—that is the sight that beholds Danny (John Travolta) when his summer fling Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) arrives at the end of the year carnival ahead of Grease’s penultimate song, “You’re the One That I Want.” She’s confident, she’s pushy, she’s a Pink Lady through-and-through on the surface, in a seemingly 180-degree shift from her personality throughout the rest of the film. An oft-forgotten detail, though, is that Danny is different, too. His own outfit consists of a letterman sweater that he earned from doing track throughout the year, as he tells his fellow T-Birds. Another forgotten detail is that Sandy, despite the aesthetic change, is not all that different on the inside. In fact, these important details are forgotten so often that it’s led to the most willful misunderstanding of a film’s ending I have ever seen: The assertion that Grease is anti-feminist. 

In the wake of Paramount+’s new series, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies, the claim has been making the rounds once again. Entertainment Weekly began its review of Pink Ladies by calling the film’s ending “decidedly unfeminist,” another regurgitation of the idea that, since Sandy changes herself “for Danny,” the film believes the only way for a woman to win the heart of a man is to become a new person. But that is simply not what happens in the film, and is rather a complete misinterpretation of Grease’s message. 

Let’s rewind: Grease begins with the very end of Danny and Sandy’s summer of love, backdropped by a beautiful ocean and a setting sun, as they say their goodbyes to each other. Flashforward to a few weeks later, and the two of them run into each other once again, this time at Rydell High, where Danny is very different from the sweet man Sandy spent her summer with. This Danny is blasé, caring nothing for Sandy’s feelings and trying to impress his T-Bird friends with a cruel coldness. However, as he sees the hurt he inflicts on Sandy, he decides to change, much sooner than Sandy ever did. In fact, Danny spends a significant portion of the film doing just that—making an effort to change. 

Upon seeing Sandy’s reaction to the quarterback’s kind advances, Danny decides to take up a sport of his own both to impress the girl he has been mistreating and to apply some kind of discipline to his own rebellious and sometimes cruel personality.

“The first thing we have to do is, you have to change,” Coach tells Danny ahead of the mid-movie tryout montage. “Well, I know, that’s why I’m here, you know, to change,” is Danny’s earnest reply, only for Coach to come back with: “No, I mean your clothes.”

Danny puts in effort to become a better person for Sandy, but ultimately becomes a better person for himself; by the end of the film, it’s clear that Danny’s stint in track taught him about the value of a team and of discipline, two things he doesn’t take for granted while driving at Thunder Road. Sandy is slightly different by the end of the film, but Danny is even more so, and his concerted effort to change is emblematic of Grease’s examination of an era filled with insecurity and conformity. The boxes and constraints of ‘50s society were infinitely limiting, but breaking out of them is incredibly freeing.

In addition to being undercut by Danny’s arc within the film, the crux of the earlier argument—that Sandy’s difference in attitude and appearance at the end of Grease is to simply “get the guy”—falls apart upon even a slight critical eye gleaned at the rest of the film and Sandy’s place within it. Throughout the movie, Sandy is insecure, always concerned about what others think of her. Her good girl persona isn’t simply a reflection of who she is, but rather a projection of who she wants to be for others. Though, once she sees how happy and free the Pink Ladies are, living outside of the bounds of perfect ‘50s housewife manners and poodle skirt politeness, she realizes that she can experience that as well. 

In the reprise of Grease’s meanest song, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” which takes place after the film’s drag-race climax, Sandy laments that insecurity and fear, singing: “Look at me, there has to be something more than what they see. Wholesome and pure, oh, so scared and unsure.” 

Sandy looks across Thunder Road and sees the Pink Ladies and the T-Birds celebrating their victory, completely unburdened by expectation and insecurity, and makes a decision. She decides in that moment to change for herself, so that she is no longer this scared, insecure girl, and aims to become a confident young woman instead. “Getting” Danny is just the icing on the cake. After all, it’s not like her original personality is totally gone. Sure, she approaches Danny and says the now-iconic line “Tell me about it, stud,” but a few moments later, she dorkily looks to Marty for help on how to put out her cigarette. She’s still as giggly and lovable as she was before, only now, she’s not concerned with what the rest of her classmates think as she sings the film’s most iconic song with her beau. 

Even outside of the ending, Grease engages with womanhood in the ‘50s in a way that remains admirable to this day, especially with Stockard Channing’s Rizzo. Her only solo song in the film, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” tells the story of a young woman who simply enjoys sex, and is now paying the ultimate price for it—not by being potentially pregnant, but by becoming a social pariah. This number takes a swing at the prudish and puritanical ideas of the era, and gives a real, beating heart to a character that could have simply been the epitome of an outcast bad-girl in any other film’s hands. Through Rizzo’s song, and her storyline at large, the film’s ending and Sandy’s choice is elevated. We see through Rizzo what ‘50s-era expectations can do to a woman, and Sandy’s decision to break outside of those molds at the end of the film make her decision even more weighted with the added context of what it might cost our heroine to simply be herself. 

Danny, Sandy and Rizzo’s storylines throughout the film encapsulate Grease’s broader message, establishing that the ‘50s was a time of great insecurity worsened by the puritanical nature of the era, and these characters were each able to break out of it. Danny was able to put aside his counter-culture attitude and allow himself to try something new and enjoy it. Sandy was able to set aside her need to be what those around her expected her to be, becoming a much better version of herself than when she started. Rizzo was able to express just how strict those expectations were, elevating both her and Sandy’s stories at the same time. In each instance, Grease critiques the era, and, more importantly, doesn’t idealize it. Grease’s ending is not unfeminist, and the persistence of that interpretation does a disservice to the actual content of both the film and the musical it hailed from. With Grease reentering the cultural conversation through its new prequel, it’s time we retire this bad-faith interpretation, and instead recognize the ending for what it is: An iconic musical moment and a strikingly feminist commentary.  

Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Indiana. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert

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