Happy Grease-iversary! Let’s talk about Betty “With Relish” Rizzo

I used to roll my eyes at all those people, guys mostly, who would get internet-upset about reboots of their favorite childhood movies. “Ghostbusters” is my best example, I guess. There was such online outrage that the movie was 1) being remade and 2) being remade with women as the central characters.

Oh, geeze, come on. Really? How can this totally made up story that isn’t even yours be that precious to you? Get over yourself.

For my part of the Ghostbusters version 2016 debate, I was mostly annoyed that the threesome of America’s funniest comedic actors (Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Melissa McCarthy) and Leslie Jones couldn’t get their own 100% original script (yeah, you see what I did there… I love LJ’s original work but she is #forsure not the acting level of those other three and you know it). Really? We gotta piggy back off this old movie in an attempt to make a feminist statement? Just give them their own original funny story. That’s more feminist.

The point is, regardless of my own stupid outrage, I was quick to dismiss any arguments that a movie shouldn’t be remade simply because the original serves as pop cultural linchpin of one generation’s childhood. Those arguments seemed outrageously selfish to me.

My opinion on that has changed.

The movies we watch and grow to love when we are children are sacred. I don’t mean that hyperbolically. I think the stories of our favorite childhood movies really do act as modern day religious myth, created to deepen our understanding of the world and tune our moral barometer by way of an incredible story. Storytelling one of humanity’s greatest evolutionary tools.

If you think of the Bible as one long story, it’s easy to see why our little baby brains might hook into movie stories and make them precious. (Here’s a thought: maybe if the Bible story got a modern day reboot, a lot more people would be interested in it. Despite my earlier frustration about an orig script, I’d be down for Jesus being a woman this time.)

To fuck with that could understandably make one annoyed enough to write about it on one’s blog. OK, angry internet guys, I guess I get it. That doesn’t excuse any thinly veiled misogyny on your end, but I can concede that it really does suck to have a beloved childhood story altered.

Here’s why: Somebody fucked with Grease.

Sure, the movie Grease was someone else fucking with the stage version of Grease, but I think we can all agree that’s 100% acceptable because Grease the movie, which came out in theaters 40 years ago today, June 16, 1978, is one of the greatest movies of all time.

It must have volunteered as tribute or something in 2016, when it became subject of an unthinkable live version that still hurts my heart. I’m so tied to the original movie that I will never enjoy a remake. Any remake. Especially not one starring the absolutely gorgeous, 21st century knockout Vanessa Hudgens as Betty Rizzo.

The whole point of Rizzo, what helped make her feistiness, her tough girl exterior, her jealous antics, so believable, was that she was sort of homely compared to the other girls (except maybe Jan, but Jan’s charm was that she didn’t give a shit about that kind of stuff). Rizzo could believably be a sneaky snake because she was so clearly jealous of the beautiful new girl Sandy. It’s just hard to believe someone who looks like Vanessa Hudgens could be jealous of anyone’s romantic life in her dumpy hometown high school.

But that’s not VH’s fault. I realize viewer standards are higher than ever. We expect superior stock actresses, excellently most bigly beautiful female specimens to play any make-believe female role, even ones where the character could use a long neck or freckled face or messy mouth or doughy build to really sell her role. At least that’s true for teen movies with a singalong element. It’s acceptable to cast a homely chick or make a hot chick turn herself homely for her art if a script has, say, Oscar potential.

As a kid, I watched Grease, apropos, religiously. I love that movie so much. And almost everyone who has ever watched it feels the exact same way. It’s the only movie I can quote all the way through, thanks to watching it 12 hours straight whenever I stayed home sick from school. What’s the appeal? It’s so bright, colorful, retro, well shot, well acted. The songs are fun, the dialogue’s funny, and the love stories are swoon-worthy for a girl of a certain age. The story moves fast; there’s no fat on that perfectly cooked steak and pink milkshake meal.

More specifically, Kenickie Murdoch was scratching me right where my growing interest in bad boys itched… and tickled… Yaknowwhatimean?

I loved the Pink Ladies, too! Every single one of them. I never got that into Sandy, though. Def too pure to be pink and thus too pure to be of interest to me. Or at least that’s what I say now. Back then, I think I recognized she was way out of my league and I would have a life story much more similar to the ladies in pink. Which, cool, I liked their outfits and personalities better anyway. Like Rizzo, I was totally jealous of girls like Sandy. I think I can love Rizzo so much now because I can finally admit what I understand about her. I know what aspects of her character resonate so deeply with mine and it’s not scary like it probably was as a kid. 

Plus, the Pink Ladies are, to me, the crown jewel of fictional female friend groups. There are so many that have been part of a basic white Millennial girl’s life: The Pink Ladies, The Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, TLC, Sisters/ Wearers of Traveling Pants, the crew from Now And Then, and, of course, Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha.

I guess men have groups of male characters they like too. Some of Justin’s favorite movies have this sort of multi-character friend dynamic: The Sandlot, Stand By Me, original Ghostbusters. His childhood movie watching showed him lone wolf characters he loves, too. They’re all, not surprisingly, men. Take Rocky, his absolute favorite fictional character, and a story of one man’s battle to overcome circumstance, class prejudice, and everything else a poor kid from Philly’s gotta face. It’s so lone wolf the movie title is just his first name! 

I don’t think there was a real Rocky equivalent for girls in my childhood. At least not that I remember. There wasn’t one single, strong female character that I used as a surrogate to imagine my own battles and strengths. Instead, my desire for that was broken down across these fictional female friend groups: each woman or girl representing a different part of myself that I could tap into when her power was needed. No one woman was all the things. Not until Beyonce became Just Beyonce, not Beyonce of Destiny’s Child.

I think that’s OK. I love that Millennial women are uniquely able to see other women’s strengths as something they can lean into, not something they need to be jealous of or develop in themselves to be adequately “female.” I think things are harder for modern men in that respect. Be Rocky strong. Be big man. Be lone wolf. Argh argh argh.

But, like always, there’s no real “winner” here. Women get penalized for having this community-oriented group mentality too. Teamwork has become expected of us. Studies show women who ask for raises are treated more negatively than men who do the same. Fighting for ourselves is still something we have to Rydell-High-cartwheel around in the workplace thanks to long standing sexism in our cultural-professional spheres. We tiptoe around our successes or workloads all the time.

Facebook powerhouse Sheryl Sandberg hates telling women this advice but knows she needs to if they’re ever going to get what they deserve: Women have to be more vocal about their achievements in the workplace if they want to get raises, BUT they need to be careful to frame those achievements in terms of the collective benefit of the organization, lest someone higher up think they’re asking for too much.

Or being, well, a selfish bitch.

Speaking of, this brings me back to Rizzo, baby’s first feminist.

Rizzo was bitchy, sure, but it was a cover, something we learn throughout the movie. Her solo reveals her dynamic sense of right and wrong, one that proves to the audience that, hey, maybe you’ve misunderstood the bad girl a little bit. She’s a loyal friend and eventually warms up to Sandy. She lets Kenicke off the fatherhood hook because she is smart enough to know deep down he’s not ready for that and she’s better off figuring this out alone. Lone shark. And by the end of the movie, lone shark redeemed.

She’s the only character in that whole movie given real depth. Rizzo can float in and out of being one of four parts Pink Lady and being just Rizzo. Whenever you see the other Pink Ladies not in the group or not with another Pink Lady–basically whenever you see them in a scene alone–their desperation or insecurity is palpable. Examples: Marty trying to get down on the old man at prom, Frenchy crying over her career calling angels for advice.

Rizzo though? When Rizzo’s away from the group, she’s taking control of her sexuality. She’s making things happen. She’s standing up to someone who hurt her (Danny), albeit it at the expense of another woman, but this was the ’50s after all. She’s taking the blows alone and still standing.

“Bite the weenie, Riz.”

“With relish.”

Rizzo is the most equivalent to Danny in the T-Birds because she’s the one most likely to have the confidence and love to strike out on her own.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve had enough time to lock down the superpowers of all the other Pink Ladies (Frenchy’s empathy, Jan’s sense of humor, Marty’s seductiveness), that as an adult woman, I lean into Rizzo the most, this evolving badass feisty woman unafraid to wear tight clothes and throw a finger to the haters and take another man to prom if the one she wanted to go with is dumb enough to go without her.

I still want Frenchy’s smoke blowing skills and easter egg colored hair. But Rizzo’s spirit is the one that I want.

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