This is kind of a silly post? But I read something on tumblr about the movie Grease and it was something it seems like I've heard in different forms for a while, and it made me want to spit some things out about that movie. And why shouldn't I write random meta about a movie from 1978 really? So...

The thing on Tumblr was someone saying they hated that movie because it's about "giving up your individuality to conform to the norm because who you are isn’t *good enough* to attract the attention of someone who wants to sleep with you."

Yeah, no. No, it's not about that at all. Grease is primarily about teenaged life (of a certain sort) in 1950s America. If you take out the 1950s attitudes you've changed the story and made it a bit incoherent.

Mostly, it's about sex. Seriously. Look at the songs in Grease. If you think about the most memorable songs in the show, none have to do with individuality and conformity, and almost all of them have to do with conflicting sexual desires and rules in the 1950s:

Summer Lovin' - A boy and girl recount their summer affair to their same-sex friends, highlighting the ways the two conversations differ. (Girls: Like does he have a car? How much dough did he spend? Was it love at first sight? Boys: Did you get very far (sexually)? Can she give me her friend (for sex)? Did she put up a fight (when you tried to have sex with her)?)

Look at Me I'm Sandra Dee -- Girls sing about how Good Girls are supposed to have no vices and be a virgin.

Greased Lightnin' -- Boys sing about how to get girls to have sex with them because they have an attractive...car.

There Are Worse Things I Could Do -- Rizzo shows her defiance by suggesting that being alone or a tease could be worse than getting pregnant as an unwed teen. (Society says no, there really aren't worse things you could do Rizzo, you're a fallen woman.)

The idea of Sandy as an individual is a little complicated, too, because Sandy is a good girl. In the movie she's from Australia because she's Olivia Newton-John, but I believe in the play she's a transfer from the Catholic school. She would never think of Danny as "someone who wants to sleep with her" because if they're in love, Danny's not supposed to want to sleep with her. Sandy herself would never try to get the attention of someone who wants to sleep with her, because girls don't want that. Sandy isn't a girl who just isn't ready to have sex or doesn't want to have it with Danny for whatever reason. She's a girl who thinks sex is dirty. I'm assuming that quote must be referring to Sandy and not Danny, btw, since a large part of Danny's campaign to get and keep Sandy involves showing that he does not want to have sex with him, period. (At least until they are married.)

In making herself over Sandy is not conforming to the norm, she's doing the opposite. Today we might see a guy in a leather jacket as simply "cool" but in the 50s that was more code for juvenile delinquent and rebel. It's the Pink Ladies and T-birds who thumb their nose (somewhat) at the rules of society. When Sandy dresses and acts more like them, she's stepping outside what she's been taught a girl should be and presenting herself as a girl interested in sex like the Pink Ladies--iow, a bad girl. Danny is conforming to the norm by lettering in track, but that's supposed to code as less sex, not more.

For instance, at the drive-in in the movie, Danny gives Sandy a ring that means they're going steady. He hopes that now that they have a socially-approved relationship, there will be more sexual activity. Sandy, otoh, believes this means Danny "really respects her"--iow, now she knows that he will *not* try to have sex with her, because you don't have sex with girls you respect. Danny's face falls (comically) as he sees that Good Boys just never get any. He tries to feel her up, Sandy is horrified and climbs out of the car, slamming him in the balls with the car door and labelling the vehicle a "sin wagon."

It's not that Sandy just doesn't want to have sex with Danny. As a good girl she does not want sex at all, at least outside of marriage. I think it's hard to really get into that mindset if you're born post-sexual revolution. For instance, I saw Grease earlier this year and realized that I'd been completely misunderstanding a really obvious scene early on in this same way.

It's in the beginning when Danny and Sandy are on the beach and saying good-bye. Danny kisses her passionately. Sandy pushes him away, telling him "Don't spoil it." He says "It's not spoiling it, Sandy, it's only making it better." Since the first time I saw this movie--which was when I was 9 years old or so--that moment always confused me a little. I assumed that her line about "spoiling it" had to mean that by kissing her passionately Danny was going to make her miss him more and keep them from parting calmly. His line to her made little sense in response, but I figured he was telling her it would give them a happy memory to take away, thus making the parting better.

Seeing it again I thought--good lord, how did I miss what was going on there? She's saying "don't spoil it" because sex spoils the romance. He's making the loving moment dirty by sticking his tongue in her mouth. His line, which finally made sense, was telling her that sex doesn't spoil a romantic relationship between two people sexually attracted to each other, it makes it better. Even at 9, and even understanding the theme of Good Girls Don't, Sandy's attitude was still so foreign I couldn't make sense of it, because I was not raised being taught that good girls did not enjoy sex. But really the movie couldn't be more blatant about the dynamics of this relationship. Sandy expects Danny to treat her with "respect" by not trying anything funny. The "delinquent" T-birds, meanwhile, reject any notions of romance and talk about women as only sex objects--which is why Danny acts like an ass to Sandy when she gushes over him when they reunite in front of his friends. The Pink Ladies are also rebellious and as women they are far more vulnerable. Because when the T-birds are openly sexual they're seen as boys not curbing their baser impulses. Good girls should not have impulses like that to curb.

When the two both try to be a little more like the other, they're not exactly doing the same thing. Danny, by lettering in track, is conforming to society at large by joining in a supervised school activity and earning an approved reward. Sandy doesn't change until the end of the show when she shows up in clothes that code as sexually provocative and sings a song ("All Choked Up" in the play and "You're the One That I Want" in the movie) that promises sexual satisfaction. Sandy's real makeover isn't that she's dressing in the clothes of a different clique but that she's now not only accepting Danny's sexual desires but returning them.

It's not that I can't see where people get the messages about Sandy changing herself, but they're more like a collection of moments that ignore the sexually repressive 1950s context and replace it with 21st century attitudes that don't yet exist. (It's like the meta equivalent of Olivia Newton-John's Candies in that last scene.) The 1950s in the US has become practically synonymous with "conformity"--so much so that it led to the 1960s and then the society we have now where being an individual is assumed to be a good thing. There's not a lot of eps of Leave it to Beaver on the dangers of conformity. And there's none about sex.
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mirabella: (Default)

From: [personal profile] mirabella


Yeeaaah, but. I mean, I see where you're coming from; but I remember watching this movie with my cousins back in the late 70s or early 80s and we were still pissed off at the ending. Even in context there's no real way to interpret it that doesn't end at the same bottom line: here's a girl who completely changes her appearance, her personality, and her moral values because the person she was wasn't good enough for the guy she liked. Even if you posit that Sandy truly was a latex-wearing, Aquanet-abusing free spirit at heart the whole time, you can't really get away from the fact that the reason she did an about-face is because a guy wouldn't accept her at face value. The fact that the '50s were sexually repressed doesn't make that any more palatable. Hell, I remember my conservative Depression-era grandmother giving that ending the side-eye.

There are more ways to conform than to social norms - witness Goth kids or hipsters, who all manage to be unique and nonconformist in exactly the same way. Conforming to someone else's expectations is still conforming. Sandy just ditched her own moral and behavioral code for Danny's and that of his peer group. I don't think it's possible to separate codes of sexual behavior from social or peer-group norms; if a movie is about sexual behavior, it's sort of by necessity about norms regulating sexual behavior, whichever group's norms you might be talking about. In this case, the question even as you've posited it boils down to "What group's norms will you conform to?" Sandy made that choice based on what she thought would get Danny back, and pretty much nothing else.

That's distasteful, and it really is about conforming - in this case, conforming to whatever group norms that you think will get the guy you like. If Danny had been Amish, Sandy would have donned a white cap and plain clothes and repressed her sexuality for life. The fact that in the '50s it was perfectly normal - and, indeed, the social norm - for women to be chameleons whose coloring was determined by whatever male background they were standing against isn't ever going to make that ending more palatable to modern eyes, and I'd rather see young women speaking out against it than nodding along with it, even if I think they're being slightly inaccurate when they do.
mirabella: (Water)

From: [personal profile] mirabella


(You couldn't even find that outfit she shows up in at the end in the 50s!)

I think any decade you would not find that outfit in has at least one thing to be said for it.

I guess I just feel like tout comprendre, ce n'est pas tout pardonner, you know? You can be informed about the larger context and still not think it's okay, even though within that context there's really no other way it could have ended. I would personally have been a lot happier with the ending if Sandy had undergone this complete transformation and then told Danny to go jump in the lake, but that's not an ending that would be appropriate or realistic. It would be like Leonidas failing to kick the Persian ambassador down the well in 300.

But the original post was saying that Grease is about conforming and giving up what makes you stand out in order to get the guy, and you said no, it's not about that, it's about teenage culture and attitudes about sex in the 1950s. I just don't think knowing the context changes the underlying very conservative social message, which I think is exactly that the way to get a man is to conform to his expectations and which is very much a foundational assumption of that time and culture. I know the context, and I'm still wildly annoyed by the ending, not because Olivia Newton-John is doing something I don't approve of but because witnessing this celebration of social attitudes that were incredibly damaging at the time and continue to be damaging today sets my teeth on edge.

So, I don't know. I hear your point, but I don't think it means that the original poster was wrong, because you can be aware of the context and still be pissed off by the things she was pissed off by, for the reasons she was pissed off by them. I don't see any conflict at all between a movie being about teen culture and sexual attitudes in the 1950s and a movie being about a woman changing herself to suit a man, because that was part of the sexual attitudes in the 50s. One's a broader road than the other, but they can both take you to the same place, which is "Ugh, DNW that ending."
jlh: Jan from Grease, smiling (Charming Jan)

From: [personal profile] jlh


I'd rather see young women speaking out against it than nodding along with it, even if I think they're being slightly inaccurate when they do.

I have to admit that I'd love an atmosphere—on DW, on tumblr, on feminist blogs, wherever this conversation is happening—where those aren't our only two choices, where it isn't about right and wrong and who we can ostracize for doing it wrong, but rather: what's going on, what are we thinking about it, what else might be happening? I'd like to have spaces where the highest social currency isn't "allow me to snark about how horrible this thing is", where that isn't the thing that will get you the most likes/comments/reblogs/retweets/etc. At this point, you really can't say, "but I think there's an interesting thing about Grease" or even "hey let's discuss Rizzo or Frenchie" because you'll be drowned out by, well, young women speaking out against Sandy, because that way—well, to perhaps put too fine a point on it, that way they can conform to the Right Way to Think About Grease.

I mean, I don't even like this movie very much and I feel beaten down by this conversation. I can't imagine if I actually really liked the film.

(However I do like Jan, sort of a lot! Also Rizzo! But you know, talking about Jan or Rizzo gets you shouted at about Sandy.)
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