Hello Crispy guys, gals, and nonbinary pals. The 1950's are often portrayed as the best time to be alive in America. Sprawling suburbs, new forms of entertainment, fast cars, etc. This is particularly epitomized in the 1978 classic musical, Grease, starring Olivia Newton John and John Travolta. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name, the film tells the story of two teenagers in love amidst the powderkeg of social change in the late 1950's. Now, I'll admit that when I watched it as a teenager, I thought it was a fun, cheesy musical comedy with catchy songs. But viewing it as an adult...holy fuck is it problematic. I won't go into the plot in depth, as the film is readily available. But there are a lot of issues with the plot that need addressing. Disclaimer: spoilers and poodle skirts are forthcoming. There will also be discussion of song lyrics that reference sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
Let's start with the most obvious issue - this movie didn't age well. It portrays a romanticized version of 1950's high school life where everything is perfect. It completely ignores the social changes going on outside of Rydell High School, including the brewing Civil Rights Movement, conflicts with the USSR, and the rise of countercultures such as beatniks. I realize this is meant to be a comedy, but as a modern viewer, it feels extremely white-washed. The problem with idealized history is that it's only idealized for certain groups of people (i.e. white Americans). Now, let's talk about the casting. This movie takes place in a high school, but all of the cast is clearly in their late 20's to early 30's. To me, this just makes all the inappropriate innuendos in the song lyrics (which I'll get to in a moment) all that more creepy. I will give them some props for casting actors who can sing, but that's really the only positive thing I can say about the cast.
On a surface level, the songs are catchy and fun...if you don't pay attention to the lyrics. But, as stated above, I'm an adult viewing this. Maybe it's just my inner film school snob, but I pay attention to detail. There are two songs in particular that I find particularly noteworthy. The first is Summer Lovin', in which Danny and Sandy discuss their summer romance with the T-Birds and Pink Ladies, two rebellious cliques at Rydell High School. On a surface level, it's cutesy and fun. But it becomes obvious that the T-Birds and Pink Ladies don't appreciate their vanilla approach to romance. The lyrics get particularly cringey when Danny details making out under the dock at the beach, to which one of his friends asks "did she put up a fight?" This is a clear reference to nonconsensual sexual contact, and I think it's disgusting that it's made light of in such a manner. Danny and the other T-Birds make no effort to call out this behavior.
The second song I'd like to discuss is Greased Lightning , in which cars are used as a metaphor for the sexualization of women. Personally, the entire number is nauseating, as it refers to women as objects. But more than this, it presents this attitude towards women as not only acceptable, but ideal. Not only are none of the male characters called out for this behavior, but it's actually encouraged. I realize that this movie was made during a different time, but that still doesn't make it okay.
I'd like to take a moment to talk about the character of Rizzo, played by Stockard Channing. Rizzo is the queen bee of the Pink Ladies, and she's proud of her "bad girl" status. She clearly doesn't care about the questionable choices she makes until she has to potentially face consequences. Particularly, an underage pregnancy. One thing I noticed about her is that it takes her an entire school year to figure out she isn't pregnant. Perhaps it's bad editing/continuity. Perhaps its just an overlooked plot hole. But my money's on it being an unintentional illustration of the lack of comprehensive sex ed in America. Even today, there are lots of Rizzo's in the world who don't understand biology. Now, I'll admit, this entire review is looking at the film through a "woke" lens. But the older the film gets, the harder it is to ignore the troubling aspects of it. When I first saw it as a tweenager (and I honestly can't believe my parents let me watch it), I didn't quite understand the undertones and subtext. To me, it was just a cheesy romp about sock hops and young love. But as a millenial in her 30's with more life experience, it's impossible to ignore the grossness of it. Overall I give this 1/5 Crispy Chicken Wings. I love musicals as much as the next girl, but I find myself unable to suspend my disbelief. Besides, it's not as though we still don't romanticize the 50's. I mean we still have milkshakes and racism.
Stay Crispy. Reba *Make sure to tune into The Crispy Soul Podcast, where we go more into depth on this topic, available on all major streaming apps.