It’s a Tuesday. A school day. And while I can’t smell anything right now, if I could, I would smell toast.
Mom snakes two dehydrated slices, a little burnt but edible, from the toaster, swipes butter across their tummies, carries both on a paper towel to my makeshift bed on the family couch, and pats me on the head.
Thank you, I say, and it sounds like I am swimming underwater. I won’t eat the heel slice of toast but will pick at it now until she leaves for work, when I can hide the evidence of what I didn’t eat—my concern for how much things cost around here, God damn it, as absent from my cares as I will be for school today.
Now she’s leaving for work. I hear her keys jingle, a sound that makes me perk up like a Pavlovian mutt. It is time! I’m so close to having the house to myself.
If I could breathe using my nose right now, I would smell her perfume, but currently these nostrils are clogged with tissues rolled up like special cigarettes and crammed in tight. I take one out and inspect its gooey goop. Green and yellow. Yesssss. I’m for sure, most definitely sick. I hand it her way. This is evidence I want her to see. Evidence that I’m totally not faking it this time and for sure need to stay home from school! She’s a good mom, my slimy tissue seeks to confirm, and she can absolutely trust her youngest daughter right now!
Gross, she says, leaving me to handle that business myself, but my point has been made. I can sit carefree on this couch all day now, riding out this head cold to the delightful sounds and shenanigans of Danny Zuko and the gang.
This has been my sick day ritual since second grade: Watching Grease on repeat. Five times in a day if possible. I. Loved. This. Movie.
I never really dug Sandy, Olivia Newton John’s character. She seemed so, I don’t know, helpless? (A rich judgement coming from a girl stranded on the couch, waiting for her mommy to come home so she can be spoonfed chocolate pudding.) Also, I was a self-aware kid who knew I had little chance of being a Sandy (blonde stunner, good egg) so her story line felt unrealistic to me. And I was also a selfish kid (so I didn’t give a shit about Sandy). Then there was Rizzo (Stockard Channing). Rizzo kind of scared me. She was so, I don’t know, dangerous?
But these two characters took the largest chunk of my attention the hundreds of times I watched the crooning and the dancing and the ram-a-lama-ding-dong. (Well, and also Kenickie, because Jeff Conway was fucking delicious before the pills ate him alive, spit him out, and left us with the shell.)
I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to describe during those sick days—or the sensibilities, really, to even deduce—why the dissonance between Rizzo and Sandy was so captivating to me. I suppose they both had cool jackets and sexy bad-boy boyfriends, things I would certainly give my cooties-clogged left nostril for. But my motivation for repeat-watching Grease whenever I was finally alone went a lot deeper than that. Of course it did.
Grease represented what life might be like on the other side of grade school. And while I couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into all that stuff, I was also intimidated by everything that awaited. Grease was a candy-coated, safe way to experience what might happen and all the different ways I could potentially handle it.
If we were to unspool this poodle skirt, we’d be left with two threads: A white one representing virginal Sandy, and a pink one representing rowdy Rizzo. I had two options, it seemed, and their solos gave me the biggest clues on how I might proceed. As I watched this movie alone, I was drawn to seeing how these characters talked to themselves when they were alone.
Sandy’s main solo is “Hopelessly Devoted to You,” which she sings while sighing in her nightgown (a white buttoned-to-the-neck nightgown!) by a kiddie pool in the middle of the night. She’s left the slumber party to brood over her broken heart. The song is basically all about how she’d do anything to be with Danny. She’s “out of her head” with grief over losing who she thought he was to her.
Yawn. I mean, I am 100% capable of that kind of embarrassingly desperate longing. I played “Hopelessly Devoted to You” on repeat after my boyfriend broke up with me sophomore year of high school—a swift and vicious dumping that came not long after I told him I wanted to give nary even a hand job, let alone a P-to-V interlude, until I was married.
Hahahahaha. Sucker. He should have waited. Because I turned out to be more of a Rizzo. Read: A big ol’ slut (at least by small-town standards… which means you bestow exactly one blow job).
Self-aware kid that I was, I think I intuitively knew I had a Rizzo blooming inside of me (and would have traded all the sick day pudding in the world to get a hickey from Kenickie) so I paid close attention to her solo, too.
In her song, “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” Rizzo is coming to terms with the fact that everyone thinks she’s “trashy and no good,” but fuck ‘em. It hurts her feelings, but she has a code of honor she’s nailing down as she sings her song. This code helps her determine how to hold her own when it comes to how she interacts with guys and how she wants to be a good woman while also staying true to herself.
The difference here (even though, I know, I know, they both fail a Bechdel Test and Grease is perhaps the whitest movie ever), is that Sandy’s solo is just about wanting love and Rizzo’s is about wanting to love herself, or at least understand who herself is.
In this, Rizzo is an icon to me! Baby’s first feminist! Her solo and, I think, performance were far superior to that of Sandy, but “Hopelessly Devoted to You” and gorgeous ONJ were much more popular (better get used to that, kiddo), and culturally, we were much more worried about protecting dear little Sandy’s heart and innocence than self-determined, self-definitive Rizzo (get used to that, too).
A year or so after this particular sick day, my high school would put on a production of Grease for its spring musical. I was still in middle school at the time so I couldn’t participate, but I could watch; however, most of the drama took place before opening night. Parents in my small town were angry that they were putting on such a scandalous show, one in which the leading lady gave up everything about herself to be with the guy. Quelle horreur! “What kind of lesson does that teach our girls?!” they foamed at the mouth.
What they failed to see was Rizzo there on the sidelines figuring it out for herself, and girls like me flying under the radar taking lessons from Rizzo. They also conveniently forgot that Danny, in that iconic last scene, was also willing to give up everything about himself to be with the girl. (But, I wager, everyone heading to the library to study fractions didn’t make for a very compelling ending. Not like a flying car and Olivia Newton John in leather sex pants.)
What was all that fuss about? In a word, sexism. Danny could try on different personalities in an effort to make love work, and that was OK. We didn’t need to worry about boys swapping in a leather jacket for a letterman’s sweater and back again, because they were, you know, just living life—a complex, multi-faceted gauntlet that all boys must experience. When girls did the same thing, though, a guidance counselor needed called and virginity and personhood and what-happened-to-my-little-girl needed fretted about.
Boys would be boys, after all.
Girls would be Rizzos.
In the end, my high school still put on the musical, but with rewrites of most of the songs—non-offensive, truly terrible, Magic-Jesus-approved rewrites. I think there was also some kind of kerfuffle over copyright of the songs from the movies, but that was only part of it.
The production was a bit like watching Queen without Freddy Mercury play Elton John songs. But I was glad for this, actually, because I didn’t like when other people sang the real Grease songs. I didn’t like when other kids really loved Grease either, for that matter. These characters, these songs, these scenes felt so personal to me. I cherished them the way I would an imaginary friend. YOU CAN’T PLAY IN MY HEAD TOO.
I’d like to blame that on being the aforementioned selfish kid, but I’ve had the same reaction as an adult when I’ve tired to watch this movie with other people. I tried watching it with my husband once but ended up getting angry at his indifference. By indifference, I mean he just thought it was fine and maybe kind of dumb? YOU ARE NOT GIVING AN ADEQUATE AMOUNT OF ATTENTION OR APPLAUSE TO THIS VERY MEANINGFUL SCENE AT THE SOCK HOP.
It’s always a unique experience when you watch a movie with another person. Whether you recognize you’re doing it or not, you hold yourself in communion with a movie differently when you watch it with others than you would if you were to watch it alone. And because I had watched Grease hundreds of times alone, with no one around to react to it differently than me, I had a very private understanding of the movie, one that had shifted and evolved by the very nature of being a growing kid, alone, studying each scene. Watching Grease with other people kind of ruined it.
Back at my sick bed, I’ve worn a comfy groove into the vomit beige couch. I rewind the noisy VHS and pop the movie back in, waiting for that long, loud horn that launches Frankie Valli into “Grease is the Word,” and sends me gearing up for the day’s round three of my Grease binge.
About halfway through the movie, I check the clock. I can probably get two more viewings in before Mom arrives home with my siblings, three kids who are kryptonite to my current remote control powers.
It’s now the slumber party scene. Sandy’s about to go cry outside and I will be sad for her and for something about her sadness that feels familiar, though I don’t know what yet. But first, the girls will crank out “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” which has lyrics that reveal my still firmly rooted flower of innocence. Rizzo, in her jealousy, is making fun of Sandy, and, while pretending to be her, mockingly sings, “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee! Lousy with virginity. Won’t go to bed ‘till I’m legally wed. I can’t! I’m Sandra Dee!”
“Oh no,” I think, shoving a tissue cigarette up my nose, genuinely perplexed by that line. “Sandy must be very, very tired.”