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45 Years Of Grease: The film remains relevant for its examination of misogyny

45 years on, Grease's cultural impact is still debated, but the conversation has extended beyond its flaws

45 Years Of Grease:  The film remains relevant for its examination of misogyny

Last Updated: 05.17 PM, Mar 12, 2024


In 1978, Randal Kleiser revived the Hollywood musical Grease. Musicals were going through a struggle in the sixties and seventies as their popularity sagged. Kleiser found the full backing of colourful, eccentric Paramount Pictures executive Allan Carr to hire ace Hollywood choreographers and a reputed cinematographer (Bill Butler) to create a repeat story about a boy and girl falling in love and then winning each other back. Over the years, Grease has been called out for being sexist, hyper-masculine and gender biased against women. 45 years on, its cultural impact is still debated, but the conversation has extended beyond dissing.  Grease is viewed by some as the first mainstream film to focus on girls’ explorations of sexuality and personal choice.

When it was released, critics panned the film, with one calling it ‘visual junk food’ while others found it sorely lacking in style and substance. But the American film audience lapped it up and Grease went on to become the highest-grossing musical of the 20th century. It also won an American Music Award for Best Pop/ Rock Album. Over time, it has influenced films like High School Musical, La La Land and American Pie. This summer blockbuster is not just about a good girl turning bad to woo a bad boy. It is about exploring sexuality as teenagers and the effect that raging hormones have on early relationships.


Grease took some work and manoeuvring to get made. It came to John Travolta, a bonafide dancing star, after American TV star Henry Winkler rejected it. He plays Danny, the bad boy with a heart of gold. While making this film, Saturday Night Fever (1977) was released, catapulting his popularity. Travolta was also dealing with personal tragedy as his lover, Diana Hyland, an actor, had died from cancer. With the male lead in place, Carr and Kleiser began hunting for its female lead, the attractive young girl Sandy. Not many fit the part. Others that did, dropped out because of the character Sandy’s choices. She begins as a good girl and turns into a ‘hot’, leather pants-wearing woman set on winning Danny over (the term used during auditions was ‘slut’). When Carr found Olivia Newton-John, a 29-year-old-country and pop singer from Australia, he asked her to audition for it. Although she was reluctant, she asked for a joint screen test with Travolta to make sure that she doesn’t look a lot older than her 23-year-old leading man. To maintain her Australian accent, the part was rewritten and dialogues with an Aussie fit were introduced.

Choosing to cast supporting actors threw up its challenges.  At one point, Carr had chosen an erotic movie star for a supporting male part, only to be vetoed by a frantic studio. An important female character in the film, Betty Rizzo, had popular American comedy star Lucille Ball’s daughter Lucie Arnaz interested. But her mother rejected the role as it was deemed too promiscuous and trouble-making. It went to Stockard Channing and became an iconic character over time. Rizzo, the fast-talking one, is first set on bullying the good-natured Sandy at school, then dropping in casually that she had had a relationship with Danny before. Rizzo has a pregnancy scare after a backseat fumble in a car with Kenecki, Danny’s mate. Her musical exposition in the song, ‘There are Worse Things that I Can Do’ is about defending her choices. In a traditional sense, Rizzo is a sexually promiscuous woman, the one bound to get in trouble. But in Grease, she is surprisingly self-assured with her choices. Her dialogues and decisions turn the concept of slut-shaming on its head. As the leader of the girl gang ‘Pink Ladies’ in the film, Rizzo sets the tone for girls seeking out pleasure and male company for their satisfaction, which was progressive though a little crude in implementation.


Having said that, Grease perpetuates cliches that don’t fit in with present times. For instance, when Frenchy drops out of high school to join beauty school, her hopes and aspirations make for the song, ‘Beauty School Dropout’. It is a limiting template for a woman’s future. There are references to steno school, sewing, and hairdressing. But no future professions that compete with men make it to its lyrics. Girls were meant to go girly jobs, which is self-limiting. Similarly, the song ‘Summer Nights’ is almost a teenage boy's fantasy discussion about dating girls. While the girls seem to seek tender love, the boys are all about physical intimacy with the controversial line ‘Did she put up a fight’, raising questions about date rape. Perhaps the film catered to a different era when men didn’t have to hide their lust fearing public scrutiny. In fact, Danny’s character has toxic elements, like the moment when he wants to take Sandy to bed when she mentions relocating to Australia. But he is also flawed and a klutz of sorts with women. Danny’s song, the iconic number ‘Greased Lightnin’ was actually meant for Keneckie, played byJeff Conway. While it is all about sleek leather, automobiles and male fashion, it is also a bit of a mockery of the superficiality of the boy gangs.

Above all else, Grease is an uncompromised take on finding one’s physical desire and exploring it without qualms in youth. So much so that when the Fox Network aired a Grease Live! Production on TV in 2016, it modified some lyrics like the term ‘Pussy Wagon’ becoming ‘Dream Wagon’ and the line ‘the chicks’ll cream’ becoming ‘the chicks’ll scream’ in ‘Greased Lightning’.  The film succeeded at a time when the environment was less censorious around art, including cinema. The girls in Grease seek pleasure, beauty and fun. While some of it must be filtered with a time-centric lens, this musical endures as a classic for its energy, catchy songs and tribute to young love.-

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