They were a smash hit and a box office flop, respectively. And the first single-handedly reignited America’s love affair with the movie musical. That’s right, dear readers…in an ITP first, we’re giving you a double feature: Grease and Grease 2, affectionately dubbed, The Grease-Off. Both films take place at the fictional Rydell High School and feature two groups of rebellious teens: the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies. Grease, released in 1978, follows the star-crossed love story of John Travolta as Danny, the leader of the T-Birds and Olivia Newton-John as Sandy, a virginal, bobby-sock wearing girl from Australia. Grease 2, released four years later, flips the script, and introduces us to rebellious Pink Lady Stephanie, played by Michelle Pfeiffer, as she is pursued by the very square Michael (Sandy’s cousin), played by Maxwell Caulfield.
So let’s pop our leather jacket collars, pull our ponytails tight and ask the tough questions. B, which Grease is kinder to the ladies?
B: S, it’s not even a contest. Grease 2 gives the Ladies, Pink and otherwise, a much better shake than its testosterone-led predecessor. From the “Did she put up a fight?” rape-y-ness of “Summer Lovin’” to the outlandish declaration that “chicks will cream for Greased Lightnin’“ to the absurdity of Danny singing a sad song after repeatedly trying to pressure Sandy into drive-in sex, Grease is some kind of doo-wop drenched proto-American Pie that expects us to label Sandy too pure and Rizzo too loose while pining for them to get with Zuco and Kinickie. Stockard Channing is an American treasure, but even she isn’t enough to keep the whole pretense of the picture from wearing as thin as Miss McGee’s patience with the antics at the dance.
Grease 2 isn’t without fault — I mean, the third reel is so far off the rails it’s on the next track — but it levels the playing field between the Birds and the Ladies. And that’s not to even mention the feminist hero that is Stephanie Zonone. To this very day, it is one of my dearest ambitions to be as cool as Steph. And I feel absolutely no shame in saying that I could probably recreate the choreography of “Cool Rider” without reference. I have a lot of theories and long-winded defenses of Grease 2, and I promise to share all of them in due course, but first, I want to hear your thoughts, S.
Are we in agreement so far? And more generally, where do you stand on these two pictures? I think I’ve already tipped my hand where that’s concerned.
S: While I have serious beef with the entire premise upon which the Rydellverse is built (I’ll come back to this), I do agree with you, B, that G2 is less problematic than its predecessor. Where I believe this is most evident is when pitting the films’ resident heartthrobs against each other.
- Danny: Embarrassed to be seen with Sandy because she’s not as “cool” as his friends. // Stephanie: Kisses who she wants, when she wants.
- Stephanie: Rails against the patriarchy, refusing to “belong” to the T-Birds. // Danny: Is the patriarchy, acting the part of sexual aggressor every chance he gets.
- Danny: Only truly accepts Sandy when she ditches her identity and makes herself into the “bad girl” she believes he wants. // Stephanie: While her love interest did become an expert-level motorcyclist just to win her heart, Steph is exhilarated to find that her “cool rider” is also her brainy tutor; in her words, giving her “two for the price of one.”
Grease 2 triumphs in this battle of the baes, but I’m not letting it off the hook. So, back to my beef.
In both films, the Pink Ladies belong (that’s right…belong) to the T-Birds. This is made appallingly clear in Grease 2 when Johnny tells Stephanie that her pink jacket is T-Bird property and that if she dares date a guy outside the group, she has to give it back. And the perks of joining this subjugated sisterhood? The ladies get to spend high school being treated not as the smart, strong, sensational women they are, but rather as sexual objects whose only purpose is to gratify the Toxic Masculinity-Birds (what I’ve now decided the “T” stands for). You’ll find me hanging with Patty Simcox and the rest of the “squares,” because that’s a hard “no” for me.
This brings up a question. Are the Pink Ladies victims of internalized misogyny? Both Grease and Grease 2 take place right before the feminist movement of the 1960’s, so it would be no surprise if they have bought in to their own oppression. But I do wonder, would any of the Pinks join up with Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan just a few years down the road? What say you, B?
B: I think Stephanie and Rizzo alone of the Pinks would do so (and early on) and that’s precisely why they stand apart from their friends (and everyone else).
Let’s begin with Rizzo. Our girl is completely unimpressed by Sandy’s reminiscences about her summer at the beach. Later, she shimmies down a drain pipe to get her kicks while she’s still young enough to get them, because dammit, Rizzo is an enlightened woman who refuses to obscure her sexuality. Then, during her pregnancy scare, she gives Kinickie an out, preferring to go it alone, and goes on to sing the best song in the picture.
“There Are Worse Things I Could Do” is nothing short of a rally cry against the expectations of the oppressed 50s.
“I could stay home every night/
Wait around for Mr.Right/
Take cold showers every day/
And throw my life away/
On a dream that won’t come true”
Get it, Riz.
Similarly, while all of Steph’s gal pals are constantly going on about the Birds and sex, she’s been there and done that. When Paulette asks Steph why she split with Johnny, the answer is simple: “Let’s just say I outgrew him over the summer.” At various points, she also posits that “There’s gotta be more to life than just making out,” and that perhaps she’s “tired of being somebody’s chick.” In short, Steph has no need for the Birds and the status they afford because she’s a self-actualized woman. She wants a man worthy of her, but more than that, she’s found the courage to be her own woman.
It must also be noted that Rizzo and Stephanie do all of this in tremendous style — every single look between them is on. fucking. point. That’s not why we’re here, but it had to be said.
Okay S, let’s hear your thoughts on the foundations of the Rydellverse.
S: I googled “Grease origins” and boy, did I make some discoveries. While most people know that Grease the movie was adapted from Grease the musical, what may come as a surprise is that the version of the musical that made it to the big screen is significantly toned down from its predecessor. Via Wikipedia, “In its original production in Chicago, Grease was a raunchy, raw, aggressive, vulgar show. Subsequent productions sanitized it and toned it down.”
While I have nothing against raunch in and of itself, what I do take umbrage with is raunch that victimizes the female gender — and oh boy, is the Rydellverse filled with this. I present the evidence:
- One of the T-Birds looking up a girl’s skirt on the bleachers.
- In the song, “Summer Lovin'”: “Did she put up a fight?”
- Vince Fontaine, a grown-ass adult man, hitting on an underage, high school girl.
- Kinickie flipping up a girl’s skirt to display her underwear during the dance.
In Grease 2:
- The T-Birds actively treating one of their teachers as a sex object.
- Louis faking nuclear war to trick Sharon into sleeping with him.
There are A LOT of problems with this behavior. But perhaps the biggest problem is that Principal McGee, the adult woman who should be looking out for the safety of her students, seems to condone the behavior…so much so that she refers to the primary instigators — the T-Birds — as “my boys.”
I think we can all agree that the Rydellverse — in both the Zuko and Zonone eras — is no friend to females. The fact that this musical is revived at high schools across the country on an ongoing basis troubles me greatly.
Anyway, now that we’ve proven that I’m fun to talk to at parties about lighthearted things like musicals, let’s get stray with some observations. Come at me, B.
B: Brace yourself, S, these observations are as erratic as Cha-Cha DiGregorio’s allegiances.
- Until I looked up how to spell Cha-Cha DiGregorio about 30 seconds ago, I would have sworn she says her last name is “Dingagorio.”
- Grease has a real thing about referring to cars as “wagons” — Danny delusionally proclaims Greased Lightnin’ a “pussy wagon” and Sandy later dismisses his drive-in wheels as a “sin wagon.”
- That drive-in is a den of hot goss and I would absolutely hang out there to hear it.
- I will never get tired of watching Rizzo toss a milkshake in Kinickie’s face with a fury that would make any one of the Real Housewives green with envy.
- Are we meant to assume Michael and Sandy are posh Australians? Because there’s no trace of the outback in those accents.
- Is Michael a Manic Pixie Dream Boy?
- There’s a fabulous episode of I Was There Too dedicated to Grease.
- There’s an even better episode of How Did This Get Made? dedicated to Grease 2 — praise be to June Diane Raphael for saying what all of the Stephanie devotees have long thought they were alone in thinking.
- How did I not know that Lorna Luft (Paulette) is Judy Garland’s daughter?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!
- Congrats to Christopher McDonald (Goose) for being the first to make an appearance in two ITP pictures. He’s also Darryl in Thelma & Louise.
S, give us your observations and then let’s see if we can tackle our cringe math without the board of education taking away our parole.
S: Get ready for some observations that are as all over the place as Frenchie’s hair color and career choices.
- Why are the Grease 2 kids so into bowling? They’re, like, REALLY into bowling.
- Standing ovation for baby Pamela Adlon!!!
- Fun fact I learned from Amazon while watching the movies on my phone: Grease 2 was supposed to be the second installment in a series of four movies and a TV series, but when it flopped, the plan was scrapped and Disney repurposed an unused script to make High School Musical. So, whatever you think of Grease 2, you have to give it at least a little respect for giving us the gift of Zac Efron.
- If Grease took place in 2018, Eugene would pwn the T-Birds. #nerdculture
- I can’t with this line in “Beauty School Dropout”: “But no customer would go to you unless she was a hooker.”
- Are the Scorpions seriously so bored that they can’t think of anything better to do than occasionally be menacing at their rival high school?
Now before these summer days drift too far away, let’s get into some cringe math. And I think it’s only fair to give each film a fair shake, so we’ll rate them separately.
Let’s start with Grease:
- +1 cringe for each T-Bird = 5 total cringes.
- +3 cringes for Danny’s complete and utter ignorance of the meaning of consent.
- +5 cringes because when creating a musical about teenage sexual politics, the writers chose to pen it entirely from the male gaze.
- -4 cringes for Rizzo’s brilliant musical take-down of slut-shaming.
That brings us to 9 cringes. Congratulations, Grease, on your nearly perfect score. 120 minutes of demeaning, maligning and objectifying women earned you this incredible honor. If you go the extra mile and normalize rape in the remake, maybe we’ll get you that 10 (Revenge of the Nerds takes a bow from the wings).
On to the sequel:
- +1 cringe for each T-Bird = 4 total cringes.
- +2 cringes because Johnny spends the majority of the film using Paulette to make Stephanie jealous.
- -2 cringes because it doesn’t work.
- +5 cringes for that bomb shelter scene.
- -3 cringes because Stephanie Zonone is the feminist hero the Grease franchise deserves.
Total: 6 cringes. While it would not come close to passing the Bechdel test and by no means escapes the problems that are sewn into the fabric of the Rydellverse, the introduction of a self-directed woman to the picture takes the cringe factor down a notch.
So with an average of 7.5 cringes, I pass it on to you, B. It’s time to scooooooore (these movies) tonight!
B: My dear S, you brought the proverbial hammer down on the heads of those dizzy T-Birds, and I loved every second of it. But before we let them scramble into that flying car and run away, I have a few more points to add to the equation.
- +4 cringes for the smarmy look on Vince Fontaine’s face when Marty explains her last name is maraschino, “like the cherry.”
- +2 cringes for Frenchie’s declaration to Sandy that “The only man a girl can depend on is her daddy.” Unsubscribe.
- +2 cringes for the animated hot dog that jumps into the bun behind Danny’s head while he’s singing at the drive-in.
- -3 cringes for the masterful flicker of annoyance that crosses Mrs. McGee’s face when she has to read this announcement: “If you can’t be an athlete, be an athletic supporter.”
- -2 cringes for the fact that the Pink Ladies don’t throw shade at Marty or question her motives for her many romantic penpals.
- -3 cringes for Rizzo as the sorely needed spark of female empowerment in this picture.
That keeps us firmly at 9 cringes, right where this chock full of 50s values musical belongs. And to reiterate, we’re coming for you Revenge of the Nerds.
- +3 cringes for the Sharon, Paulette and Rhonda screaming “virgin alert” at the preppy twins, we don’t condone slut shaming and we’re not here for square shaming either.
- -1 cringe for Patricia Birch, the choreographer from Grease being tapped to helm this picture.
- -1 cringe for Paulette’s rise to empowerment and her fine choice of moment to take a stand against Mr. Push Everyone Around Nogarelli.
- -2 cringes for the fact that Stephanie never turns against any other girl in the name of love nor to make herself cool (sorry, Riz). She just is cool.
If my math is correct, that brings us down to 5 cringes, and for the first time, we have a slight difference of opinion. Even as an unrepentant Grease 2 fan, I have my issues here, but that Stephanie mojo and the endgame that finds all of the Ladies approaching their romances on their own terms has me inclined to cut it a bit more slack and call it level with Pretty Woman.
Next time we’ll catch up with JoGoLev, Allison Janney, Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger (RIP) as we watch the beloved late 90s staple, 10 Things I Hate About You.