By Kerry Tinga
Grease is the word… it is the time, it is the place, it is the motion… and it is back in the news.
The outfit of Olivia Newton-John in the film’s final scene—a skin-tight leather look with a jet-black jacket that contrasted the knitted cardigans and conservatively long skirts she wore for most of the film—recently fetched over $400,000 at an auction. The proceeds are going to a cancer wellness and research center in Australia, the actress herself currently dealing with health issues relating to the disease.
I recall the scene, and the film, as if I had seen it yesterday. Innocent Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) meets Danny Zuko (John Travolta) on holiday, and they have a sweet summer relationship. When she finds herself enrolled at his school, she sees a completely different Danny, a T-Bird greaser who will say anything to look cool in front of the guys. Over the course of their senior school year, Sandy realizes she still loves him. During the school fair, she walks in wearing the iconic outfit to impress him.
Zuko, mouth agape, is stunned. She says, completely out of the character the film has been showing us for the past 100 or so minutes: “Tell me about it, stud.” Then after a few song and dances, they fly into the sky in a Ford Convertible called Greased Lightnin’, suggesting they live happily ever after shoo-bop sha wadda wadda yippity boom de boom (that would only make sense if you have seen the film).
There was a MAD Magazine parody comic of Grease published in the 1970s that sums up the issue most people have with the film, with a Sandy-esque character saying in a comic speech bubble, “I love him, and I’m going to change for him! That’s the moral in this movie! In order to get the guy you love… you have to be a slut! What a wonderful message for the youth of America!”
youth of America!” The black leather outfit may be more infamous than famous, taken by some contemporary viewers as a symbol for the Madonna (or, in the film, Sandra Dee)-whore dichotomy that pervades popular culture, informing and enforcing societal views of women, camouflaged with catchy earworm tunes, fun dance sequences, and shiny bomber jackets.
The problem of the Madonnawhore dichotomy is that it divides women into two-dimensional stereotypes that are framed in terms of “either, or” when women, and people in general, are much more complex, complicated, and internally contradictory in nature. Which brings me back to why I am even talking about this film in the first place, and the “slutty Sandy” outfit that sold for double its pre-auction estimate.
Grease, at first glance, offers a nostalgic celebration of “innocent” 1950s teen films like Beach Party and Gidget. Beneath its surface, I argue that it actually has hints of the complex teenage angst and anguish explored in more dramatic 1950s teen films like Rebel Without a Cause, starring the gone-too-soon James Dean.
There are a few 20th century musicals that feature more complex characters than Grease, even fewer that feature such complex high school teenagers (who are, arguably, the most complex people of all). Sandy and Danny, and all of their Pink Lady and T-Bird friends, are simultaneously proud of who they are as well as insecure about who they are. Since people are not two-dimensional stereotypes framed in terms of “either, or,” it is much harder to pinpoint who a person is.
The teenagers of Grease say and do things they think others want them to say and do, when those other are just as clueless (see the song “Summer Nights”). Then they say and do things that they think they themselves want them to say and do, more out of stubbornness than actual principle (see the song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do”).
The ending, where Sandy dresses in black tights like the T-Birds have been wearing the whole film, and Danny is in a letterman varsity jacket like what Sandy’s short time jock date in the middle of the film would wear, is the in-your-face acknowledgement that most teenagers do not have a clue who they are and what they are doing, and that is okay… to an extent.
There are fat- and slut-shaming teenagers, misogynistic comments by most of Danny’s friends, just to name a few problems at Rydell High and, let us face it, at every high school around the world.
The fact of the matter is that, sometimes, good people say bad things and make bad choices, but that does not necessarily mean they are bad people. This may especially be so with teenagers, who may regret things almost immediately, and then say nothing because of dumb pride. A lot of times people change, for better, for worse, figuring out who they are, contradicting what they once said.
Maybe Sandy discovers she likes sweating under leather tights that stick to her skin. Or maybe the next day she goes back to everything she wore before.
ore before. That single year of their adolescence we movie viewers got to see is but a drop in the lake that would be their lives (if they were real people). It may cause a ripple, but its effects go up against a million other factors going a million other ways.
If we are to judge a person by some dialogue and scenes out of context, it is like we are purposefully looking at a 3-D cube in two dimensions, and then getting annoyed when all we see is the square.
In defense of Sandy and Danny, and Grease, and many teenagers out there who say one thing and then mean another thing the next day, the moral is not that you need to dress like a slut to get the guy you like, but rama lama lama ka dinga da dinga dong (or, relax a bit and enjoy that none of us are perfect but, rather, works in constant progress).
The Kerry Diaries is a weekly youth column that discusses prevalent social issues and current events through a Generation Z perspective in the opinion of the author. Kerry Tinga is a feminist and a contributing writer for Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. She is based in Metro Manila and can be found teaching at Meridian International (MINT) College.