Grease Is the Time, Is the Place, Is the Motion

Grease (1978)

Olivia Newton-John in Grease (1978) | Art by Dani Manning
illustration by Dani Manning

It’s got a groove, it’s got a meaning
Grease is the time, is the place, is the motion
Grease is the way we are feeling

— Frankie Valli, “Grease”

Huh, oh, what a time to be alive
Living in the future, blinging on my hotline

— Doja Cat, “Cyber Sex”

Danny Zuko is used to being the center of attention. The girls love him; the guys look up to him. As he stands among his peers at Frosty Palace after school one day, it doesn’t take much for Danny to notice every head around him suddenly swivel in the opposite direction. As it turns out, his ex, Sandy Olsson, has crashed the party.

Danny has been meaning to talk to Sandy for a while now—to apologize for his behavior earlier that week and promise to commit to their relationship. He knows he should be happy to see her, but finds himself flustered as Sandy makes her way towards him. This isn’t the Sandy he knows. Not only is she missing her signature frilly dress and pink neckerchief, there’s also an air of confidence about her that he’d never noticed before. 

Anyone who’s seen this movie knows what comes next. First, we’re introduced to the new Sandy: her bleached hair now shoulder-length and her slim figure accentuated by a tight-fitting, all-black ensemble. A heavy leather jacket hangs off of her shoulders, giving her a hard edge that takes him aback. Sandy walks past Danny, teasing him as she shows off her new plumage.​​ Stunned, he begins to follow her when she suddenly turns around to face him, bends down, and grabs the can of Pepsi from his weakened grip. She takes a sip and loudly exhales, then turns around and walks away, leaving Danny and his goons dumbfounded.

“Introducing Pepsi-Cola Soda Shop,” says rapper Doja Cat in her peppy voiceover. “A modern take on a classic.”

“Sandy?” Danny shouts after her, confused. 

“Tell me about it, stud,” Doja-as-Sandy grins, running her tongue across the top row of her pearly whites. 


The first time I watched Grease, I was young and couldn’t possibly understand how Sandy getting a perm and switching her wardrobe was a good thing. It was 2009 and I was 12. My knowledge of 1960s and ‘70s counterculture was limited, and I didn’t have any historical context as to why this movie appealed so much to my parents. When Danny and a leather-clad Sandy climbed into that flying convertible and the credits rolled, I was left dumbfounded. That’s it? I thought. Why would she change everything about herself for this douche? 

I wasn’t the only person who thought this in the noughties, with the film’s ending having garnered a somewhat notorious reputation in the decades since its release. In 2018, writer and essayist Susan Goldberg penned a short essay about her experience watching the movie with her son on its 40th anniversary, and realizing that it wasn’t how she remembered it. 

“The film revisited through my middle-aged eyes felt less like a nostalgic tribute to the pop culture of my youth than an extended, lighthearted romp through rape culture,” she wrote in a column for CBC, citing a string of misogynistic gags. These include Putzie sneaking under the bleachers to take a peek under his classmates’ skirts and television host Vince Fontaine attempting to roofie a teenage girl upon his visit to Rydell High. (It’s safe to say that neither instance is condoned, even if they’re played for comic effect.)

Then there’s the aforementioned Pepsi commercial, in which Doja Cat re-envisions the iconic “You’re the One That I Want” number for the 21st century, complete with her own cover of the song and a twist ending that sees Sandy ghosting Danny after manipulating him into giving up the soft drink. A modern take on a classic indeed—and a much-needed revamp, my younger self probably would have argued. 

Having re-evaluated Grease in the years since I saw it for the first time, my opinion on the ‘70s genre staple has changed quite a bit. It started when a friend invited me to a late-night singalong in college a few years ago. The infectious energy at our local arthouse theater may have had something to do with my sudden change of heart, but somewhere between “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” and “We Go Together,” the wheels in my head began to turn. Something about Sandy’s transformation felt personal to me this time around, though at the time I wasn’t sure why. I started to think about the age-old depiction vs. endorsement debate, and our tendency to oversimplify social critiques when they come from “less serious” genres of media. Could this movie actually be a whole lot smarter than we give it credit for? Long story short: yes. Allow me to make the case for Grease not as a dodgy product of its time, but as a countercultural artifact we could still learn a thing or two from.

Let’s teleport back to 1978, the year of Grease’s release. Picture it: the United States is undergoing a period of youth revolt against conformity. In 1969, Life magazine famously proclaims that “the counterculture has its sacraments in sex, drugs, and rock.” Nine years later, Paramount Pictures releases Grease, a teen romp featuring sex, drugs, and a catchy concoction of pop-rock/doo-wop hits, resulting in one of the best-selling movie soundtracks of all time. 

According to Vanity Fair, Grease was based on a theater production by Chicago playwrights Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, from whom producer Allan Carr bought the rights for $200,000. Although the original play revolved around a hard-edged depiction of urban city life and the end result turned out to be a silly rom-com set in suburban Pennsylvania, it’s important to remember that critical acclaim for this movie wasn’t much more universal upon its release than now, despite its financial success. 

“I didn’t see Grease onstage, but on the testimony of this strident, cluttered, uninvolving and unattractive movie, it is the ‘50s—maybe the last innocent decade allowed to us—played back through a grotesquely distorting ‘70s consciousness,” Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times is said to have written in his 1978 review. He also went on to call the film “anti-feminist, thanks to Olivia Newton-John’s conversion from “a shy and throughly decent sort in shirts and blouses, into a perfect replica of a cut-rate Soho whore.” It’s a scathing critique, to be sure, but quite different from the retrospective penned by Goldberg—who, it’s fair to imagine, wouldn’t agree with Champlin’s assessment of the ‘50s when considering the film’s messages “outdated” and “problematic.” Her critiques are valid, but it’s in part thanks to initial reactions like his that I think the movie is more progressive than modern audiences give it credit for. 

For one thing, Champlin was right about Grease’s deliberate distortion of the ‘50s—although I would argue that that’s precisely what makes it so good. Hot off the counterculture movement of the ‘60s and mid-‘70s, Grease presents a revisionist take on the period it takes place in, immersing itself in the era’s milkshake-diner aesthetic while waving a giant middle finger at the outdated, conservative virtues that restricted teens socially and sexually at the time. Rather than chasing the prim and proper energy of Hays Code-era Hollywood, the girls in Grease were naughty and the guys were vulgar. The jock with the Rock Hudson hair and physique was as tiresome as the valedictorian running for student council. You were cool if you smoked and wore leather. 

Clearly, there was an attempt to cash in on these nonconformist attitudes, and no one was better suited to helm this endeavor than Randal Kleiser, who’d previously directed John Travolta in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976) and later went on to make a slew of teen sex comedies throughout the ‘80s. Though he was no John Hughes, Grease and Kleiser’s follow-up, The Blue Lagoon (1980), were refreshing in that they were made explicitly with the target audience of young adults in mind. More specifically: young adults without their parents. 

Carr and Kleiser knew exactly what kind of movie they were making, as reflected in the creative conflicts they’re said to have encountered during the film’s production—especially with regards to the casting. For starters, Harry Reems of Deep Throat (1972) fame was in talks to star in a supporting role at one point. 

“It was the ‘70s, and at that time it was sort of anything goes,” Kleiser told Vanity Fair in 2016. “The sexual revolution was happening, and porn stars were becoming somewhat accepted in media. I didn’t think it would be a problem. But Paramount did.”

It’s also rumored that Elvis (himself a heartthrob with a history of public mischief) was almost hired to play Teen Angel, but he died before this dream came to fruition. Many big names were considered for the role of Sandy, including Carrie Fisher, Ann-Margret, and Marie Osmond, but Australian Grammy-winning country/pop artist Olivia Newton-John was ultimately cast after Osmond rejected the role, thinking Sandy’s turn as a greaser would ruin her own image.

It’s this same plot point that most people have a problem with—my younger self included. Before Sandy’s infamous entrance on the last day of school, Danny’s wearing a cardigan in place of his regular greaser jacket. He’s already made the commitment to fix something about himself ever since she left him, even if he’s too dense to realize exactly what it is she wants him to change. Upon seeing a leather-clad Sandy, he quickly takes the cardigan off before breaking into song. If you know the lyrics to “You’re the One That I Want,” you know that this is where Sandy demands that he clean up his act:

You better shape up, ‘cause I need a man
And my heart is set on you
You better shape up, you better understand

To my heart, I must be true
Nothing left, nothing left for me to do

It’s a brief plea, and considering how he treated her over the course of the film, she probably deserved to say more. But then the song’s second pre-chorus comes along and affirms what should already be common sense: fixing your act and committing yourself to someone is a big step that requires much more than performative gestures like changing one’s wardrobe:

I better shape up
‘Cause you need a man

I need a man
Who can keep me satisfied

I better shape up
If I’m gonna prove

You better prove
That my faith is justified

Are you sure?

Yes, I’m sure down deep inside

Danny’s admission of guilt and Sandy’s willingness to forgive him (provided that he fixes his act) are pretty self-explanatory. Keeping in mind how the film acknowledges that it’s superficial to alter your physical appearance for someone else, I think it’s unfair to suggest that Sandy’s transformation from prim and proper, sitcom-like teen to female greaser wasn’t of her own volition. More than Danny and his goons, the people who make fun of her prior to her makeover are her own squad (there’s literally an entire song-and-dance number about this). 

Obviously, Sandy shouldn’t change herself to fit in with her friends any more than she should change herself for her partner’s approval. But did the T-Birds and Pink Ladies really fit in with the rest of the students at Rydell High? Compared to the jock Sandy begins to date after breaking up with Danny, they certainly seem like outcasts. And why would she hang out with them if she wasn’t at least partially seeking the thrill of being bad? Maybe she was doing it for herself. 

It’s with this in mind that I’ve spent years defending Grease against accusations of misogyny, confused by its legacy as a “problematic” relic of the past. I think back to that late-night singalong screening and what made the ending work for me that time. Was it that I’d embraced my bisexuality by then, and could finally admit to myself that I was attracted to Olivia Newton-John in that all-black ensmble? Or did the scene just feel affirming to me as I sat there wearing an outfit that made me feel good about myself in the presence of a boy who liked me? Maybe it was a combination of both. Regardless, Grease made me feel this way because it made sexiness appear as something relatively attainable. Being sexy without changing the essence of who you are is as easy as changing your wardrobe and realizing your own self-worth. 

One of my favorite pieces of Grease trivia is the story of how actress Stockard Channing fought for the inclusion of the song “There Are Worse Things I Could Do,” which her character, Rizzo, sings during a pregnancy scare. According to the Vanity Fair feature, producer Allan Carr wanted to scrap the song because he “thought it was a downer” (Channing’s words). But as a woman, Channing was more likely aware of the significance that an unwanted pregnancy would have for Rizzo, and the double standards her character would face as opposed to the man who got her pregnant.

“That’s how you know what’s inside this little person,” she reportedly told Carr. “Otherwise she’s just all that surface stuff.”

I think back to the Rizzos from my own high school and wonder whether their families even allowed them a choice, whether they would have fared differently had they not recieved the ‘50s-style abstinence-only sex ed we were taught in health class. I also wonder if their children’s fathers are still in the picture. Rizzo is the kind of character whose guardedness always frustrated me. “Just tell him!” I’d shout at the TV when she began to avoid Kenickie during the pregnancy scare. But it’s hard to know what the right choice would be.

The Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade three months ago, outlawing abortion in 14 states (and counting). The domino effect of this has been catastrophic. People who’d already booked appointments for the procedure prior to the overturn were left scrambling as their appointments got canceled in states with trigger bans. Many are being denied miscarriage treatments, as these surgical procedures are identical to abortion and practitioners fear being accused of breaking the law. Nurses are reportedly struggling to get trained in states where abortion is legal amid limited training availability. 

People with uteruses aren’t the only ones whose bodily autonomy is being restricted, either. So far this year, over 250 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been filed across the country, with many of these challenging trans people’s access to things like healthcare and sports. A little over two months ago, Florida’s state government also announced that it wants to strip away Medicaid coverage of gender-affirming healthcare for approximately 9,000 trans people who rely on the health provider. If this happens, Florida will be the ninth state whose Medicaid plans explicitly deny trans people coverage. Other bills seek to limit discussions of not just LGBTQ+ topics but also general sex education in schools, depriving teens of essential health information they might not be learning at home. 

Paradoxically, sex positivity has become much more normalized in our popular culture. Many of the same qualities that made rock music an outlet for youth revolt throughout the latter half of the last century are now present in contemporary music, where pop and hip-hop dominate. The biggest song of 2020, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP,” became a source of ammunition in America’s culture war upon release, its ode to female pleasure lauded by critics and panned by socially conservative commentators. Even the less risqué girlies aren’t all that innocent anymore. Earlier this year, Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times praised the likes of Olivia Rodrigo and Gayle for their conspicuous use of F-bombs. 

“Curse words are nothing new in pop music,” he wrote. “What is new is who’s dropping the F-bombs: young female artists whose speech has historically been far more tightly policed than that of their freewheeling male counterparts.”

Doja Cat, whose Pepsi ad was referenced prior, is no different. In fact, I’d argue that she’s the perfect public figure for Pepsi’s Grease tribute, not just because of the colorful, maximalist aesthetic that characterizes much of her work, but also because of the frequent focus that womanhood and sexual liberation have on her lyrics.

I’ve thought about how I came to love Doja so much. Part of the appeal certainly lies in her technical skills as a rapper, her flows being particularly impressive to me as someone who isn’t very articulate in person. But there’s more to it. I’m reminded of August Brown’s review of Doja’s Hot Pink (2019) record for the Los Angeles Times, where he wrote that “the album sounds like how kids live now—endlessly referential, supremely confident in their sexual mores and yet laced with something like longing and a forced-on maturity.” Doja’s music feels authentic because its ethos is also reflected in her public persona, which is not just sexy but also funny, crass, and often vulnerable. I think that this rebelliousness, authenticity, and unapologetic sense of self are what speak to me and presumably millions of other fans around the world.

“I built my career off of my body and the way that my body looks, and making my fans feel confident in the way that their body looks,” she said during an Instagram livestream in which she blasted another internet personality for starting a rumor that she’d had cosmetic surgery done earlier this year.

Her body once again became the subject of public scrutiny when she shaved her head and eyebrows on Instagram Live last month, declaring it an issue of personal comfort—which some fans and the general public mistook as a cry for help. She took to the app again the next day to explain that it wasn’t:

“Maybe, to be fair, I’ve always kind of seemed like a thot, like I’ve always had my ass out and been, like, sexy and, like, I rap about sex and stuff like that,” she chuckles in a now-deleted video. “Some people don’t see [this look] as very sexual, but to me it is. Like I feel sexy, for sure…I can see that [other] angle of it—but I don’t care.”

As silly as it feels to say this about a celebrity who doesn’t know I exist, I think it’s radical for women and queer folks to defend their bodies and rebel against socially acceptable standards of beauty as oppressive structural forces take steps to claim every facet of our existence. I think this is also why the women of Grease feel inspiring to me today. As I embark on my own path towards individualism during adulthood, Sandy, Rizzo, and Doja have made me more fearless, more outgoing, and more carefree. Or at least they’ve made me conscious that I can be all these things, even if it’s challenging; even if, through present-day developments, we find ourselves harkening back to the past—back to when pregnancy rumors rippling throughout your high school cafeteria were one of the worst things that could happen. 

I can’t speak for the girls who became women during the 1970s, but I can imagine that this was what many teens felt seeing characters like Rizzo and the other Pink Ladies onscreen—as flawed, and crude, and as human as they were. I can also imagine that this is what Sandy feels at the end of the movie, having finally rejected the status quo. It’s certainly what the late, great Olivia Newton-John felt while filming Sandy’s reinvention scene:

“That was…something I was really worried about,” she told Vanity Fair in 2016. “But when it happened, it was just this amazing feeling. It was very freeing. Not just for Sandy, but for me as well. Because I was always the girl next door. And then I got into that trailer with those guys and they put me into that outfit and the hair and I walked out to show Randal, and the whole crew turned around. And the look on their faces!…I remember thinking, Oh my—I’ve been doing this all wrong.”