Revisiting “Grease” after Forty Years

From the June 2018 Desktop News | Forty years ago, the musical-turned-movie Grease hit the big screen. It was 1978 and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, the stars of the show, were in their primes. Teens flocked to showings, and overnight it became a cult classic.

Still, the film was panned by social critics for being visual cotton candy that tried in its own way to undo the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and put women back in their place.

“Critics take the point that Sandy is still pure as pink at the end, even though she dresses in all black,” said Dr. Barbara Brickman, an assistant professor in New College.

Brickman, who studies popular culture and especially teenagers in television and film, recently published a book arguing that though Grease is certainly nostalgic for the ‘50s, its moral sentiment is more indicative of the ‘70s, a freer age in the wake of the sexual and social revolutions

The book, Grease: Gender, Nostalgia and Youth Consumption in the Blockbuster Era, was published as a part of the Routledge series Cinema and Youth Culture earlier this year.

“When people review Grease and say that it’s trying to return us to the ‘50s, I disagree,” Brickman said. “While you may have Sandy, you also have Rizzo.

“Rizzo is this girl who is working class. She’s in a gang. She’s unattached. She’s a teenager, and she has, as far as we know, slept with at least two maybe more of these guys that she knows. She has a pregnancy scare, but she’s not punished at all.”

According to Brickman, had Grease been made in the ‘50s rather than set in the ‘50s, Rizzo’s story would have been a morality tale. Brickman says the hypothetical film likely would have included a suicide, and the Rizzo character would have been shunted away to a summer place.

But in Grease, in 1978, Rizzo is not punished. The pregnancy doesn’t turn out. Instead, she sings a song that identifies the sexual double standard between men and women, and in the end she doesn’t appear to have any consequences.

“In the end, she’s dancing around in hot pants and there’s a kind of sympathy for her,” Brickman said. “And if we are sympathetic to Rizzo, that’s not a conservative look back on the ‘50s trying to put women back in their place.”

The modernized morality of Grease isn’t the only aspect of the film that Brickman argues is anachronistic to its setting. For instance, though the production was originally conceived as a way to highlight the doo-wop music of the 1950s, the producers and writers sporadically infused the film with disco and ‘70s ballads.

Sure, there are the classic songs “Summer Nights” and “Born to Hand Jive,” but the movie opens with Frankie Vallie singing the disco pop song “Grease,” and Olivia Newton John had songs written specifically for her like “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” to appeal to her then-current international following.

Brickman received two degrees in English before realizing she wanted to make a career out of studying film and television, though she says that she has had a life-long obsession with pop culture.

“My siblings used to call me the TV guide,” Brickman said. “I knew what was on every channel.”

Brickman finally decided to study pop culture full-time when she realized that, more than literature, film and television were the medium that Americans were using to communicate.

“For me, visual media—film and television—are the way in which our culture expresses itself in the 20th century,” Brickman said.  “It is the ascendant medium in the United States.”

And with sing-along showings of Grease happening around the country this summer, it is clear the 1978 film still has relevance today.