Retro Grade School: Grease Live and Transgression

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I don’t know what, exactly, my mother was thinking showing me Grease when I was three or four. Next to Bringing Up Baby, it was the single film that I watched the most, playing on a loop for most of my childhood. I know the film as well as well as Jan knows the toothbrush jingle. And that other people have connections to Grease not dissimilar to mine is indicative of the cultural influence the film had, and perhaps of how not-actually transgressive it is. Is it that my/our parents just sort of looked past its discussions of sex and peer pressure in favor of its catchy songs? Or is it because, by the ‘90s, it had nothing interesting to say about the very subject matter it wanted to be “radical” about?

That Grease would be transformed into a live television musical event would send up flags for some people: it’s a film firmly rooted in the past, weird, messy gender politics and all. It’s a film about how those power dynamics manifest themselves, and, not unlike other teen high school comedies like Clueless, Mean Girls, and Heathers, about how malleable we are at that age. But while the aforementioned films have a satirical bent, Grease is relatively straightforward, and perhaps that’s the “issue”.

The rhetoric surrounding identity politics has rapidly evolved and changed even in the years since Mean Girls was released in 2004, and Grease Live’s answer to that was to… not change that much. Part of Grease’s appeal is, perhaps, in its way of being a kind of nostalgic fantasy from the 1970s about the 1950s, but with an “edge”: sex, sex, bad boys, mean girls, hyper masculinity, gangs, slut shaming, femininity, and sex. It doesn’t exactly push boundaries in the conventional sense like other musicals and other films, but it undercuts the perception of the ‘50s being clean cut and prim and dirties it up. Its songs say everything about that supposed edge and, if one is to be generous, complexities: “Summer Lovin’” is about two people’s different account of a fling, “Greased Lighting” is about having sex in a car, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” is about making fun of “prissy virgins”, “There Are Worse Things I Could So” is about slut shaming, and on and on. For all of its interesting aspects, you could not really call the musical “self-aware”, as it’s not unlike Porky’s set in the ‘50s. And it’s that lack of self-awareness that is Grease Live’s biggest flaw.

Through its technical glory and impressive production design, Grease Live still feels like it’s in the past in spite of the attempts to update it. Lame jokes prophesizing Netflix and Dancing with the Stars, a very talented inclusive cast ranging from Vanessa Hudgens, Keke Palmer, and Jordan Williams, and the omission of change of certain lyrics doesn’t actually make it feel more contemporary than it would have without these elements (perhaps excepting the cast, what could be argued an integral element). Though “pussy wagon” was changed to “sin wagon” (or “dragon wagon”?), the song is still having sex in a car. “Did she put up a fight?” is still a line in “Summer Lovin’” that alludes to date rape, “Sandy” is still a song about Danny Zuko whining about his reputation and not respecting Sandy’s consent, and the T Birds and Pink Ladies are still cliques whose influence on our main characters is paramount.

But do the actions of any of the characters in Grease Live, “problematic” or otherwise, really qualify as transgressive anymore? An aspect of the contemporary shift of cultural is not only the presence of sex, but the rhetorical attitude. Things aren’t as shocking, and, maybe it’s my naïveté, but hopefully we’re headed to a discourse where human sexuality is a positive experience. But Grease Live doesn’t really reflect the knowledge that any changes or shifts have been made, that the sexual politics are, while emblematic of a particular dated mindset, “accurate”. (Even upon its release, Grease as musical and film is kind of weird: both were released in the midst of second wave feminism and the film was release a year after Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will.)

Our preoccupation with the work’s supposed daring qualities are rather extensive: numerous productions of the stage musical, a 2006 reality game series that would precede the 2007 Broadway revival, and a themed episode of Glee. There must be something about the words “conventionality belongs to yesterday” that resonates, but it seems to be tame, romanticized idea of the unconventional and of the transgressive that may not actually fit anymore. 

Talking about Grease’s various issues isn’t, and I don’t think should, be merely reducing it to the material being “problematic”, but rather a reflection of what kinds of things the material represents and what place it has in our contemporary cultural atmosphere. And while there’s a funny enthusiasm about the Grease Live cast which is appreciated, there’s also a weird cognitive dissonance to it. It’s hard to ignore how much our understanding of sex and sexuality has changed since the original film was released or the time it allegedly depicts has come and gone, and there’s this odd impression that the desire is to sweep those things under the rug. It’s not that Grease, in any of its iterations should be shamed, exactly, or finger wagged, but to be cavalier about the issues it wants to be supposedly transgressive about is a little jarring, an attitude that says “we just want to have fun with it”. But I think part of being transgressive isn’t just pushing boundaries for its own sake. I think transgression requires a confrontation or a reconciliation of the very limits that exist and the steps one is taking over them, an acknowledgment of the reality the text exists in and the artificial world it’s creating. It’s about teens navigating their identities, but the world isn’t limited to Rydell High.

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