This week the 1970s classic Grease aired on Nine in prime time viewing in tribute to the very much beloved Olivia Newton-John, who tragically passed away earlier this week. But celebrating Grease again is a dangerous game.
Unfortunately, looking at Grease through a 2022 lens leaves plenty to be desired. The movie enforces stereotypes, makes rape jokes and trivialises consent. Watching it with fresh eyes feels less nostalgic and more concerning.
I understand our desire to revisit the film, considering Newton-John’s death. It was the film that made her a star. She played Sandy, and she gave a Mary-Sue character dimension and charm.
It was the biggest film of the year when it was released, and it’s still very much a cultural touchstone. Who doesn’t know the words to, You Are The One That I Want? (I bet you’re singing the, ooh ooh ooh’s in your head).
But sadly, besides the chemistry between high school sweethearts Newton-John and John Travolta as Sandy and Danny, the film sends some harrowing messages. Let’s break it down, shall we?
For instance, at the beginning of the iconic movie, Danny brags to his mates about meeting a hot Australian girl during summer break. His friends pester him for details of the relationship, including the line: “Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”
Basically, the guys were making light of the idea of Danny having to force Sandy into sex. As if it would be perfectly acceptable for a guy to push a woman into sex.
Then there’s the scene in the drive-in, Danny is desperately trying to make out with Sandy and make things right. She pushes him away several times and then eventually screams “no” while Danny pins her down and says: “Nobody’s watching!” Ick, right?
Seems more rapey than romantic. If a woman says no, a man shouldn’t touch or force her. He should respect her wishes and not try to talk her into it and a movie romanticising the opposite is grim.
If that wasn’t stressful enough, when Rizzo, a character in the film becomes pregnant and plans to get an abortion sings the song, There Are Worse Things I Could Do.
“There are worse things I could do, than go with a boy or two …. I could flirt with all the guys, smile at them and bat my eyes. Press against them when we dance, make them think they stand a chance, then refuse to see it through. That’s a thing I’d never do,” she sings.
She is suggesting that the worse thing a woman could be is a tease, which is not true. Women can say no and set boundaries whenever they want. Women have the right to flirt and make eyes, and we don’t need to sleep with a man.
Then there’s the overarching message; ultimately, good girl Sandy turns herself into a more vampy version of herself to earn Danny’s affections. So, the overall message is, change who you are to get the guy? Not very heartening.
I understand it’s a movie, it was made in the 1970s, and we weren’t having such loud and important conversations about consent, but re-watching it feels less like a trip down memory lane and more of a reminder that so much of our ageing pop culture references just reinforce rape culture.
I miss Olivia Newton-John, but I think there are better ways to remember her than watching Grease. Her entire body of work and her seemingly endless contributions to create a better world for everyone speaks volumes, particularly being an advocate for Breast Cancer Awareness.
I’d much rather stare at the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre to remember her than watch her character Sandy wade through misogyny through song and dance.
Mary Madigan is a freelance writer.