The surprising feminism of ‘Grease’

grease is feminist

I’m a mega Grease fan, so I couldn’t help but get a serious case of FOMO when the whole of the US got to enjoy Grease Live on Sunday night, and I was stuck at home watching it unfold on Twitter. So I did what any sensible person would do, and have therefore spent the last four days watching the entire performance through YouTube clips, watching the 1978 version on Netflix, and finally watching Grease Live again when it hit UK television. And I’ve noticed something kinda unexpected. Grease is almost…feminist?

Here’s how I always remembered it: a super-sexist, outdated portrayal of exaggerated gender differences, with a problematic moral about changing yourself entirely for a guy, but paired with some cracking show-tunes that are jazzy enough to make you forget you’re offended.

But this time round, that’s not what I saw at all. What I actually saw was: an exposé of super-sexist, outdated ideas of gender, overturned by strong, nuanced characters who smash through those stereotypes, paired with some cracking show-tunes that are jazzy enough to make you forget your own name.

grease is feministLet’s cut straight to the ending. Sweet little Sandra Dee sews herself into a leather jumpsuit and takes up a cancer-inducing habit all to look hot for some guy, right? I don’t think so. I think what we’re seeing is the sexual liberation of a girl who has always forced herself into society’s ideals of the perfect woman.

Not convinced? Right before her makeover she sings to herself, “There has to be something more…,” and admits that she has been “wholesome and pure [but] also scared and unsure.” And remember, at that point she already has the guy. This is something else she wants to do for herself. So she stands up, and bids “goodbye to Sandra Dee.” Not goodbye to Sandy. Goodbye to the image women in the 1950s were told to model themselves on.

grease is feministThe Grease Live remake drove this point home even further during the sleepover scene early on in the movie, by having Sandy look at herself in the mirror, wipe off her make-up, and firmly remind herself, “You’re no object of lust; you’re just plain Sandra Dee.” She doesn’t even use her own name; she is entirely shaping herself into the female ideal. Perhaps her later change of heart comes less from Danny and more from what Marty tells her: “We girls gotta be our own people.”

And then take a look at the slut-shaming of the other women in the film, including by Danny “Sloppy seconds ain’t my style” Zuko. In the sexist 1950s of this movie, expressing your sexuality will get you into the back of a guy’s car, but it won’t get you a long-lasting respectful relationship—and so it definitely wouldn’t be part of any game plan to win a guy’s heart. So the fact that Sandy lets go of the enforced standards of female purity, rocks a jumpsuit so hot I think it just got me pregnant, and is still allowed to drive off into the sunset with her dream guy just proves it for me: Grease is feminist.

grease is feminist

Now let’s look at the guys. There’s no way the movie isn’t taking the piss of lad culture (or the 50s version) with this lot. Right from the start of the movie, we see the real Danny Zuko—but the second he is back in high school, trying to get along in a deeply gendered society, he is pressured into repressing his emotional side. When dissing this movie as sexist, people tend to criticise him at this point for being a jerk—but what if the film is actually trying to point out oppression on both sides? Perhaps the most depressing part of the ending is that Sandy gets her liberation, and is supported by her friends in doing so, but Danny doesn’t.

So maybe Grease was actually fighting the patriarchy all this time—but of course, it’s not perfect. The main characters are shown to have fully-rounded personalities which juxtapose the gender roles they’re expected to fit, but the background characters aren’t given the same treatment. And funnily enough, one of the most problematic moments in the film for me is usually one of the most highly-praised from a feminist perspective: Rizzo’s song. I get it, because it’s amazing and Rizzo is awesome and should never be faulted—but essentially, “There Are Worse Things I Can Do” just swaps slut-shaming for virgin-shaming and tease-shaming. Meh, pretty much the feminist low point for me.

And I also wasn’t thrilled to see that the Grease Live producers’ idea of making it family-friendly included removing the line “The chicks’ll cream” but keeping “Did she put up a fight?”—because apparently rape is more digestible than female arousal. Though that’s an argument for a whole new post about rape culture and consent…

Do you agree that Grease is feminist? Or does it still make your blood boil?

  • A little exploitation and absurdity never hurt anyone – I’ve always put Grease in the progressive category, right along with Little Shop of Horrors and the tongue and cheek way it deals with sexuality and well, domestic abuse. They lampoon conventionality. And Rizzo puts it best – there are so many worse things she could do. I agree, and I think we should all join the Pink Ladies (and go watch cult classic Grease 2 – which also might be feminist, and at the very least, awesome).

    • I’ve still never seen Grease 2—I think it’s time to brave it and take the plunge! I do love Michelle Pfeiffer…

      • You must brace yourself for CAMP CAMP CAMP. But it is absurd, and fantastic.

  • This is a really interesting perspective – thanks for sharing! Grease has been one of my favourite movies for so long, but I have always struggled with some of the anti-feminist messages. It’s definitely throwing up some of the gender stereotypes for criticism, but some, like you say, are still firmly in place. We can’t expect perfection! I think it’s interesting that they gave the ‘no object of lust’ line to Sandy in the Live version – it changes the meaning so much from having Rizzo sing it to ‘mock’ her.

    • Yes, I was really interested by that! I thought a lot of the Grease Live changes were a little odd/unnecessary, but some of them definitely seemed to be coming at it from the same feminist perspective I noticed. So that was great!