The Art of Over-Interpretation: Grease

Why do people go to fancy shmancy liberal arts schools? So they can read too much into things. Like this:

Yesterday (after we realized that there were no new/decent shows to watch on Hulu) my parents and I decided to watch Grease on Netflix. You know when you are really familiar with a classic movie because you’ve seen remakes and references everywhere, but you realize that you’ve never actually watched it? While I’ve seen this movie before, it was too long ago for me to have picked up on anything besides the songs (but I really know the songs) so this was, in a sense, my first real exposure.

My reaction:

Me: Well that made High School Musical seem low-key and subtle. But I didn’t remember it being so dark and satirical. I thought the social commentary was interesting. 

Mom: The what?

Me: It takes the typical, romanticized notion of the 50s as a “simpler, more innocent” time in our country’s history and turns it on it’s head, showing a darker, grittier, almost socially dystopian* world alongside the nostalgic imagery.

There’s sexuality which is not only overtly expressed and reckless beyond expectations of “innocence” or respectability, but also grossly violent on the male end. Double standards for male and female sexual expression (slut versus stud) are blown up and clearly juxtaposed. Relationships based on mutual disrespect and power struggles are seen as normal. The ridiculous amount of conformity seems to make everybody into a fairly awful person. And it says something the most seemingly healthy/cute/romantic relationship occurs in the first five minutes when the couple is removed from society–lets not forget that Sandy didn’t “have” to change to be with Danny until their social environment and expectations ruined everything. And those dance moves. They clearly can’t be serious about those dance moves.

(Now maybe audiences were supposed to see all of that stuff as normal/okay (gag), but it all just seemed so exaggerated and contrasting with typical idealized depictions that I was sure someone was trying to make a point.)

It’s saying that the past, despite the cutsy soda shops and sock hops, isn’t this perfect, sunshiny place that most retro films/shows liked to imagine it as, and aiming to return to the past isn’t really a way to fix contemporary problems.

On the other hand, they have school dances where people actually dance, which is pretty awesome.

Mom: No, I think it was just supposed to be fun.

Me: So they actually meant all of that earnestly?

Mom: Yeah.

Me: Oh. Well then it’s just pretty dumb.

What about the dance moves? Did people ever dance like that un-ironically?

Mom: Yeah.

Googling didn’t provide much in the way of support for my social commentary theories either**.

Come on people, is anyone with me? No? I’m just making stuff up again?

Yes, I know my contemporary perspective is different than that of the intended audience. But really, how can you listen to this and then this (Rizzo’s two main songs) and not think that someone was deliberately trying to make a really obvious display of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy for female sexuality, how it hurts women/girls on either side of the divide, and how the same women who help perpetuate these standards can also suffer from them.

No? We’re just supposed to overlook that?

Oh. Well at least the songs are catchy. 

*Slightly stronger word than I meant, but you get the point. Also, yes, I did just use the word “dystopian” to talk about Grease. You’re allowed to laugh.

**Another interesting fact I learned while Googling is that this movie was originally rated PG. Now, there was no PG13 rating at the time, so it was either that or R, but still, imagine these lyrics in a a PG movie today. It’s funny, people think of shows like Glee as being pretty racy, but when they do Grease covers, they have to tone down the explicit content a lot. What were we saying about a simpler past and recent moral decay?

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Over-Interpretation: Grease

  1. Solid review of “Grease”, nice job. See the stage show, it is different and acknowledges what you identified in the movie. It seems that only actor/dancer types see the real “Grease”, everyone else just thinks it’s sweet. Many Broadway musicals were not conceived as fluff: South Pacific, Oklahoma, West Side Story, Showboat, Carousel, etc., they all have a social message. As a follow-on, check out the movie “Saturday Night Fever”, same basic plot and story set in the 1970’s; even includes John Travolta.

    Like

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