February 17, 2006 | When I was a kid the movie "Grease" with John Travolta and Olivia Newton John arrived like a thunderbolt. The film, based on the musical, infused a nostalgic look back at the 1950s with a post-sexual liberation era mentality. Sparks flew as these two eras were struck together like matches, and a whole world of playful song lyrics, ponytails, 1950s outfits, big cars, drive-in , and slumber parties among teenage girls flashed across the screen.

I distinctly remember my father’s frown each time I mentioned "Grease." While my father had been a passionate civil rights activist in the 1960s, he always questioned certain aspects of the women’s movement, and where it intersected with the sexual liberation movement. He favored equal pay for equal work and honored the idea of women’s ambitions in the work force, but he was skeptical about the experimental lifestyle that many of his contemporaries were trying to adopt. My parents often joked by reciting the phrase, “Open marriage, open divorce,” making fun of the idea that a marriage could endure such openness. When I brought home my elementary school's sex education book, and my parents saw that under “sexual preferences” the book listed “prostitution” and “ ,” they set up an appointment with the principal of the school.

My father’s frown didn't stop me from memorizing "Summer Lovin’," "Hopelessly Devoted To You," "I've Got Chills They're Multiplyin" and singing them around our apartment. As I grew older, perhaps when my high school performed the play, I began to understand the wisdom in my father's frown.

As readers here probably know, the story of Grease is about a girl and boy who meet one romantic summer and believe that they have fallen in love. The girl arrives unexpectedly as a student in the boy's school in September, and they are both shocked. She is taken aback by his cold and crass behavior, and he by the realization that he would lose his friends and his macho identity if he dates her as he had that summer, showing her love and respect without approaching her sexually. The tension in the film grows out of the inevitable choices that must be made: either the boy will have to give up his entire social community or she must--to put it bluntly-- with him. We all know what happens.

In some ways, the script is a brilliant commentary on the culture of sexual peer pressure among teenagers, but in the end, it fails as far as commentary goes. The script ends up actually celebrating this pressure--it is with great jubilation that viewers of the film and the characters in it experience Sandy's transformation into a girl that gives in to a pressure that becomes unbearable. At the pinnacle moment, after Sandy’s metamorphosis from innocence into sexual dynamo, the couple frolics and flirts, dancing and singing, through a kind of goofy danger house at their school's graduation party while singing one of the most dazzling songs in the movie. And afterwards, the whole school celebrates their sexual freedom on the football field singing and doing a wonderful dance routine to the clever, “We Go Together,” which ends,

We're for each other like
A wop ba-ba lu-mop and wop bam boom
Just like my brother is
Sha na na na na na yip-pit-y dip de boom
Chang chang chang-it-ty chang shoo-bop
We'll always be together
Wha oooh yeah!
We'll always, be together
We'll always be together
We'll always be together
A wop ba-ba lu-mop a wop bam boom!

The joy of the couple's "liberation" is highlighted when the moody and broken Rizzo (played with real depth by the Stockard Channing) tells Kinickie that she got her period, and they rejoice, no longer having to worry. (Rizzo has been suffering throughout the film because of her fear of pregnancy with Kinickie’s baby while famously teasing Sandy for being "lousy with virginity.")

If, at its best, Grease celebrates sexual experience at a young age, at its worst, it's a film that also acknowledges the normalcy of forced sex among teenagers, even making it sound jolly. Consider the lyrics from "Summer Lovin'" where the girls ask, singing with yearning to Sandy, "Tell me more, tell me more, was it love at first sight?" And the boys sing, questioning Danny, "Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?"

The last line quoted above is only one of the many lyrics that reflect the script's focus on the dark mindset of teenage boys, while having fun with it. The song, "Greased Lightning," is a brilliant rendition of how boys can talk about cars and girls, fusing the two together in a violent machine-lust-fest. Take a look at how this is done in these selected lyrics below:

"...With a four-speed on the floor, they'll be waitin' at the door

You know that ain't s--t when we'll be gettin' lots of tit in greased lightnin'...

...You are supreme, the chicks'll cream for greased lightnin'...


...With new pistons, plugs, and shocks, I can get off my rocks

You know that I ain't braggin', she's a real p---y wagon - greased lightnin'"

So I was not surprised when I read a front page piece in Saturday's New York Times, which reports that a school in Fulton, Missouri cancelled its production of "Grease." I read the piece with an intuitive understanding for the school’s discomfort but also with concern.. . .

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Eve Grubin’s first book of poems, Morning Prayer (Sheep Meadow Press), appeared in December of 2005. Her poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, The New Republic, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. She holds degrees from Smith College, Sarah Lawrence College, and Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. Currently she works as the Programs Director at the Poetry Society of America and teaches poetry at The New School University.




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