Sure, Let’s Talk About the Sexual Politics of ‘Grease’

Last night’s Grease: Live! broadcast, on Fox, wasn’t just the first of the recent “live-event musicals” I was able to endure for more than five minutes (I was out of town when The Wiz Live! aired on NBC, to be fair) — it was also an impressive feat of television. Julianne Hough and Aaron Tveit were milquetoast leads who nonetheless hoofed and sang acceptably, the supporting cast was satisfyingly hammy and delightful, but most of all, the direction brought a freshness that made Grease feel like the hokey Broadway concoction it actually is.

Still, the basic competence of the whole thing gave live-tweeters and bloggers starved for snark a chance to get into the meaty sexual politics of this fluffy musical extravaganza. One of the biggest tropes that emerged was criticism of Fox for changing a few lyrics to be more “family-friendly,” while shrugging off the dubious implications of others:

It’s an interesting juxtaposition, and probably indicative of some level of sexism, but I found myself less than outraged. The show was, after all, censored in the exact same way that it was when my day camp produced it circa 1994 (I played the principal, Vince Fontaine, and a chorus member who was part of a Pink Ladies crew that was something like 20 ladies deep). We sang about how the “chicks’ll scream” when they see the real “dragon wagon” while the maligned “put of up a fight” line was used in an attempt to mine as much humor as one could from ten-year-old actors.

I understand why the interpretation of “Did she put up a fight?” drew rape-culture concerns on the surface, but I remained unperturbed. I cannot for the life of me understand why the musical’s depiction of inexperienced, horny teenage boys in the 1950s pretending they understand sex is itself “rapey.” In fact, I think criticizing Grease for being cheesy and clownish seems more reasonable than going after its politics, which are coherent if not progressive.

I’m not going to argue that Grease is out-and-out feminist, as some have; in fact, in a slut-shaming world, it’s a rare and interesting example of prude-shaming, if anything. Sandra Dee morphs into to smokin’ hot Sandy, in what is unequivocally a happy ending. But nor do I think the musical’s book is particularly “problematic.” (In fact, the film’s actually troubling references to bullying poor Eugene and Vince Fontaine giving Marty an “aspirin in her drink” were wisely skipped over by last night’s production.) Instead, I think part of the problem with Grease is that it’s a musical about sex that so many of us were exposed to so early that we missed the innuendo, the subtle self-mockery of the script. Last night, Twitter was divided between people complaining about the musical’s sexual politics and acknowledging that they didn’t really “get” those politics until later viewings, or maybe even until last night.

Now, I had a lot of issues with the “change yourself for love” message of the film back in third grade, when it was the #1 video to pop in at sleepover parties. I saw Sandy’s transformation as nigh-tragic capitulation and Rizzo as a bully. But with each year of life my perspective altered. How different was Sandy piercing her ears and donning those ridiculous spandex pants and red mules from my own eventual bloodying the shower with red hair dye or a friend experimenting with dark lipstick? This is what teenagers do: try on personas, then try on clothes that match them. One by one, my friends went through these kinds of transformations, somewhere between ages 12 and 20 (shout-out to my fellow late bloomers). Some went posh, some went sexy, others went crunchy, or goth, or normcore.

That’s actually what’s happening in Grease, I realize when I watch it now, with more sympathy for post-transformation Sandy, for Rizzo, even for the odious-seeming Kenickie. After the live musical aired, I started close-reading the show, working backwards from Sandy and Danny’s dual costume change. Yes, he covers his leather with a letterman’s sweater before she shows up in her skintight black number. In fact, I realized the whole underlying theme of the musical (including its title, as my husband astutely noted, and many of its signature songs) is that of teenage coolness as greasepaint, performance, act, costume, even drag — something that’s particularly relevant to the ’50s, when James Dean-style coolness was invented in pop culture.

For instance: the scene in which the lovably dimwitted Danny tries to play sports, and is too busy throwing up his dukes to even compete on a basic level, is a deliberate mockery of the kind of affected, touchy masculinity that the T-Birds are always trying on. Yes, that’s “trying on,” not inhabiting, because even Danny, the bravest and most sexually experienced guy, constantly “breaks character” with Sandy, becoming sweet and romantic, and then deliberately toughens up his persona when he’s around his friends.

And those friends? “All the T-Birds wrestle with masculine performance,” writes Teresa Jusino at The Mary Sue. Indeed. Despite all their braggadocio about pussy wagons and “Did she put up a fight?” it’s pretty clear that most of them are virgins — even tough-talking Kenickie, whose condom breaks when he’s necking with Rizzo because it’s been sitting around since he bought it in seventh grade. They’re softies whose insistence on girls who put out is undercut by their devotion to individual girls.

Even Rizzo’s big number, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” serves as both a deepening of her character and a poignant fuck-you to slut-shaming. She thinks her choice to “go with a boy or two” is nothing compared to flirting, being hypocritical, or refusing to live life. She’s sensitive, she croons, and cries, with a little bit of Sandra Dee in her. But she then surprises viewers by saying that the worst thing she could do is cry in public and ruin her carefully constructed image. Like Rizzo, Kenickie, and Danny, all Sandy is doing in the final scene is adding a layer of character, of paint.

That’s why this somewhat tamer, cornier version of the show still worked, even if it couldn’t approach the John Travolta / Olivia Newton-John combination. The live audience, the evident theatricality, just added a layer of fakeness to a musical most people of my generation first experienced as a movie. Rather than treating coolness and sexual swagger as innate, Grease reveals it as a game-able factor that’s practically unrelated to actual experience. It’s not exactly a wholesome message, but it’s a realistic one about adolescence since the 1950s, and a perfect theme to be explored via the chipper, contrived musical form. As for whether Grease fully endorses that message, well, let’s leave the final word to the most cynical voice in the film (which was toned down by the crooning of Boyz II Men), Teen Angel:

Now your bangs are curled, your lashes whirled, but still the world is cruel
Wipe off that angel face and go back to high school!