40 years on, Grease is copping it — for all the wrong reasons
Friday - 15/06/2018 12:09
SEXIST, racist, regressive and downright offensive. Forty years since its release, musical favourite Grease has people up in arms.
AS I have told people a hundred thousand times, I have no time for hyperbole.
And yet recently I stumbled across what must surely be the most sexist, racist, regressive, reprehensible and downright offensive movie ever made.
It all began as I was dressing up as Danny Zuko for a morning TV re-enactment of the hit musical Grease, because that’s what real journalists do.
As part of my exhaustive research for this role, I had stayed up the previous night to watch the movie for the 57th time and came to a very shocking and sickening realisation.
Almost every scene, song, word and deed in the film would today result in a jail term, a law suit, a summary dismissal or, at the very least, a sternly worded change.org petition.
Even the very title itself would come under fire for implying that Italian-Americans, the working-class and/or teenagers were unclean and therefore inferior to the dominant white patriarchal paradigm. So that’s racism, classism and ageism ticked off and the movie hasn’t even started yet.
Then in opening scene with Danny and Sandy frolicking on the beach we already have an assault in which he throws sand at her not once but twice — both times despite her clear objection. It is also a clear violation of the council by-laws for beach users.
(In case you think I am joking, in Los Angeles where Grease was filmed it is genuinely against council laws to dig into a sand embankment or “disturb any rock”. It is also illegal to produce any “boisterous or unusual noise”, so it’s lucky that Sandy didn’t let Danny go all the way.)
Then when school goes back and the star-crossed couple meet again, Danny is dismissive of Sandy in an attempt to look cool in front of his friends, which is a clear act of micro-aggression.
In response, a confused and angry Sandy tells him he is not the Danny she used to know and she doesn’t like what he’s become. This is another micro-aggression known as “dead-naming”.
And all this comes after a lengthy power ballad in which Danny’s friends urge him to share details about their sexual encounters — which is basically pre-internet revenge porn — or get her to hook them up with her friends, which is basically unpaid prostitution. They even ask if she “put up a fight”, which is actually genuinely worrying.
Meanwhile Sandy’s friends want to know if he has a car, which suggests that at least the prostitution might be paid for in kind. More likely it is the corrosive social corruption of capitalist materialism.
As the movie progresses things get even less progressive. In science class, a male student puts a live mouse in a female student’s handbag, which is a unique combination of both sexual harassment and animal abuse. It’s a wonder there wasn’t a naked PETA protester in the hallway.
Meanwhile, Rizzo is teased about her sexual history, which is a textbook example of slut-shaming — a phenomenon which one American author spent 20 years studying. Interestingly, another US academic, whose name was also Rizzo, wrote a paper entitled: “Psychiatric and Cognitive Functioning in Adolescent Inpatients with Histories of Dating Violence Victimization”.
To complicate matters, Rizzo then virgin-shames Sandra Dee — and, most cruelly of all, does so entirely in song.
And need it be said that Olivia Newton-John’s breakout hit ballad Hopelessly Devoted To You is an obvious subjugation of the female psyche to the patriarchal hegemony.
Meanwhile the boys are frantically using their shop class to build a car solely for the purpose of making a woman climax, which is both sexist and inefficient. Although in their defence, this was some years before Sex and the City alerted men to the restorative powers of “the Rabbit”.
Of course when it comes to Greased Lightnin’, it is difficult to say precisely which part modern third-wave feminists would take most issue with but it’s fair to say that the phrase “It’s a real pussy wagon!” would probably be an early contender.
And let’s not get started on Beauty School Dropout, which is an entire ballad of mansplaining delivered to a girl called Frenchy, whose name is slang for either a kiss or a condom.
The movie’s climactic dance scene is supposedly all about the hand jive but in fact more suited to hand sanitiser. It is a frenzy of groping, girl-tossing and upskirting that would put most modern football teams to shame, culminating in a scene where the sleazy host clearly tries to use his dominant power position to coerce a vulnerable young woman into “trying out” for him.
Meanwhile the obvious homoerotic tensions between Danny and his best friend Kenickie would cause howls of red-faced fury among conservative Christian groups already beside themselves about Rizzo’s unplanned pregnancy. Thankfully, however, they both quickly suppress their feelings and pursue heterosexual relationships, which is obviously homophobic.
And at the very core of the motion picture, Sandy and Danny’s whole relationship is infused by sexual violence. Not only is there the sand-throwing incident but he tries to go the grope at a drive-in, which is technically sexual assault, and she slams the door on his erect penis, which is technically very painful.
Then, in the final scene of all comes the ultimate sociopolitical atrocity. Danny has just traded in his leather jacket to become a varsity jock — the perfect combination of class elitism and toxic masculinity — when Sandy reappears with a Camel cigarette, a camel toe and a sudden desire to horse around.
And so, with a wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boo — which is a cultural appropriation of the Italians, the Chinese and Little Richard — everybody lives happily ever after. The moral of the story is that all you have to do to solve life’s problems is take up smoking, dress like a hooker and put out.
So there you have it: The most sexist, racist, homophobic, homoerotic, slut-shaming, virgin-shaming, disempowering and discriminatory movie ever made. And in Australia it’s rated PG.
That, dear reader, is how easy it is to expel every last drop of creativity out of art by smashing it with an ideological meat mallet. And unfortunately that hammer is coming for us all.
Indeed, there are already countless indignant essays, articles and listicles on just how offensive, sexist and anti-feminist Grease is. The fact that the whole film is clearly a satire of that culture has, stunningly, escaped this cross-section of the commentariat.
Meanwhile, closer to home, the cranky circle jerk of indignation has now tied itself into a Gordian Knot.
This apex of intellectual idiocy was reached when the boutique literary quarterly Meanjin changed its title to “#MeToo” for a single edition, only to outrage a small number of activists who felt this was an insult to indigenous people because Meanjin was an Aboriginal word.
Yes, in an attempt to show how feminist it was, Meanjin found itself accused of being racist. Honestly, you just couldn’t make this up.
It is perhaps ironic that a literary journal should be the victim of poetic justice, but it is not entirely surprising. The torturous hand-wringing Meanjin applies to the world was perhaps inevitably destined to find its own neck.
I gave up reading it after I embraced liberal democracy but a cursory glance of its current features shows that nestled beneath the angst-ridden editorial apology is one piece entitled “My Jewish Atheist Journey” and another that begins: “That evening, as a bleak cold overtook Collingwood, we took refuge in an empty Thai restaurant. The stark emptiness inside made me indecisive over where to sit. I glanced at Jana to steer us to a table.”
Never in literary history have so many writers been so sorely in need of a drink.
There is arguably no worse crime than some sexual assaults, perhaps not even murder. Many rape survivors say they wish they had died or, indeed, felt that part of them had.
Moreover society regularly condones the taking of life in certain circumstances. Even the most civilised nation requires that its soldiers kill for their country. None requires that they rape for it.
And so let us say that this is the lowest act a human being can commit. It follows, therefore, that the next lowest is to publicly accuse an innocent human being of committing it.
And yet in the puritanical hysteria that has flowed from the noble origins of the #MeToo movement, careless commentators have wakeboarded on serious allegations of serial and institutional sexual assault and applied the same outrage to the most ambiguous and absurd situations.
This ranges from publicly outing people for awkward or dissatisfying sex to unwanted lunch invitations to the infamous claim that parents ought to ask their baby’s consent before changing their nappy. Just this week we learned of an Australian student at an American university whose life was destroyed by a campus investigation which assumed he was statistically likely to have sexually assaulted a woman he thought he had consensual sex with. For anyone less virginal than Sandra Dee this is deeply scary stuff.
In Ballard’s case it is obviously difficult, if not impossible, to have an opinion on what happened in a hotel room where only two people were present. However it is clear from even his accuser’s account that not once during the encounter did he actually say no and that the police found Ballard had no case to answer.
How then does he now stand publicly accused of the worst crime imaginable? How then is he now defined by having to deny he committed something the law never even suggested he did in the first place?
This is not poetic justice. It is the coalface of a disturbing ideological wave in which the most intimate and ambiguous encounters between people are public fodder for an extreme academic and political movement that too often assumes that all men are at best repressed violent predators and all those in positions of power are abusing those who aren’t.
Which brings us back to my movie review.
The boys in Grease aren’t really misogynist pigs. They’re confused adolescents terrified of humiliation and desperate not to lose their friends.
Did Sandy actually “put up a fight”? She never had to. Every time Danny tried it on she said no and he sorrowfully accepted disappointment. Then to save face he pretends to his friends that he went all the way. Any man who’s ever been a teenager has gone through this.
Even when she leaves him at the drive-in with a broken penis his greatest fear — obviously expressed in song — is that he looks like “a fool” and that he is helpless without her.
Meanwhile the supposedly “slut-shamed” Rizzo is the toughest and most interesting character in the whole show — and certainly the favourite of every girl I’ve known. She is proud, resilient and resourceful.
She even rejects her true love Kenickie because she is too proud and independent. And speaking of Kenickie, it’s worth noting that this ultimate stereotype of toxic masculinity attempts to sacrifice his whole way of life to stand by her and her unborn child, only to retreat hurt when she sneers that it wasn’t his “mistake”.
And Sandy might always have been virginal and pure, but let’s face it: She wasn’t much fun. In fact it’s not until the final scene that she develops a third dimension.
In short, Grease isn’t horribly sexist and offensive, it’s just that its characters say and do horrible, sexist and offensive things — a distinction that so many ideologues still fail to understand.
More importantly, they are also kind and cruel, passionate and passive-aggressive, loyal and fickle, happy and hurt. And, most important of all, they are desperate. Desperate to belong, desperate for acceptance. Desperate to love and be loved in return.
In short, they’re a lot like, well, people. And the problem with people is that they’re complex and contradictory creatures who rarely fit within one dogmatic ideology. That’s why every totalitarian who’s ever come to power has always had to kill so many of them.
And so the moral of the story isn’t really that you have to be a slut to be happy. It’s that maybe everyone just needs to loosen up.