“Define Frenzy” is a series essays published throughout Pride Month attempting to explore new queer readings or underseen queer films as a way to show the expansiveness of what queerness can be on screen. You can read previous essays here.
The only thing America might love more than portraits of conventional, immaculately dreamed life—suburbia, nuclear family, adolescence—are portraits that supposedly dismantle that squeaky-clean image. As to actual transgressiveness, it varies case by case, and historical context must be taken into account. Was American Beauty ever all that shocking? The Rocky Horror Picture Show was pretty outrageous in its time, at least. And maybe Grease was, too, at the end of the ’70s.
Though it’s unfair to compare the two films—one, about gender transgressing aliens whose primary weapon was sexual coercion and song; the other, about light gender-transgressing teens whose primary weapon was their own vulgarity—but Grease celebrates its anniversary, released exactly 40 years ago, today (three years after the 40th birthday of Rocky Horror), plus both were the subject of live made-for-TV remakes in 2016.
Granted, Rocky Horror, 40 years on, still kind of has something to say about how we perform our gender, but Grease to this day occupies a strange role in the culture in which it’s apparently iconic enough to warrant endless DVD and Blu-ray re-releases and theatrical re-runs. And yet, Grease has become no more or less outré than an episode of That ’70s Show.
If I think too hard about it over a pint of ice cream alone on a Tuesday night, Grease made me queer: dancing and singing and John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John playing characters that are supposed to be like 10 years their junior; Stockard Channing singing about being sexually liberal; silver and leather and pink. It’s a version of the ’50s made in the ’70s, sprinkled with ideas of what might be vulgar. In the midst of the New Hollywood wave, films could afford to be more risque, and Grease, I think, wanted to pawn itself off as edgy: of the culture, and appealing to young people with an air-quotes-revisionist version of the high school movie and the musical. It’s all such work to make these 20-somethings do effortless things like throw strawberry milkshakes at people or mope around a drive-in theatre. It’s all a bit camp.
Australian exchange student Sandy (Newton-John) has a summer fling with bad boy greaser Danny (Travolta), and when school begins again, Danny feels the need to save face, hurting Sandy in the process. Various high school hijinks and soap opera antics ensue, plot threads never really mattering much. The original stage show from 1971 by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey cared a little deeper about the, shall we say, politics of identity of the story, with a more explicit exploration of class and gender and race, but the movie, directed by Randal Kleiser, is ultimately a feel-good affair—or, to be more precise, a “feel kinda naughty, but not so naughty that it won’t get a PG rating, and then feel good again” affair. It’s like the retro pop-up McDonald’s of musicals.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Grease (unironically at that!) but it nonetheless reeks of “safe version of a risque thing,” where, even contextually, it has titles like The Last Picture Show and Bonnie and Clyde as pseudo-predecessors. Which means that its attempt to examine the ways in which people change themselves, or don’t, for people they love or with whom they want to have sex rings as both arduous and hollow. Slut-shaming gets a one-song moment in the spotlight. Bad boys, bullies and the toxicity of gender norms almost feel incidental, decorative. Still, I know that they mean it, all of it.
Grease is a very good example of a movie that may reveal just how campy “revisionist ‘quotidian’ life” is. Such films age like ice cream in a freezer—they’re not bad, exactly, but definitely weirder, its textures and nuances victim of freezer burn. The complexities of Grease have melted and blurred so that it can be mostly appreciated as an archaic piece of pop culture, the movie version of Steve Buscemi dressed in “teen” clothes saying, “How do you do, fellow kids?” But kind of queerer.
John Travolta has always played butch, his masc-ness occasionally seeping into overt exertion. He slicks his hair back and tries to position himself as a jock in an effort to win back the affections of Sandy. By the end of the film, he’s in black leather pants and a black V-neck, and yet his sex appeal presents itself as very, very determined. The same can be said for Newton-John, heartbroken, confused and pre-Xanadu. She’s cute and feminine and doesn’t quite know how to fit in. However outstanding a song “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is, the resonance of her struggle has waned because more attention was paid to her outfits than her storyline. She, too, ends up in leather by the end of the film, hair permed, a cigarette crushed beneath her heel.
Grease will always be scoffed at for its sexist and kind of hypocritical ending, that the girl does indeed change for the guy. Instead, I’ve always found that, even though such a message is indeed terrible to impart to young people, what’s missing from the conversation is that the car that Danny and his friends souped up during the filthy “Greased Lightning” flies. Into the air. If this does not reveal the kind of camp revisionism of the film, I don’t know what does.
There’s a lot of period detail in the movie—the TV cameras used at the dance, the diner, the drive-in—but not once before the car flies away does Grease reveal itself as a remotely magical realist piece. Instead, 40 years on, the car is like an oblivious reboot, enjoyably riding away, without any sense of awareness. Discovering transgression in the form of somewhat broached topics of sex, we mostly bask in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. But nostalgia is a little conventional, don’t you think?
Kyle Turner is a freelance writer and Paste contributor based in Brooklyn, New York. His work has also been featured in Brooklyn Magazine, The Village Voice, Slate and Little White Lies. He is relieved to know that he is not a golem.