I can measure the development of my feminism by the reactions I’ve had over time to Sandy’s transformation at the end of Grease. That’s all this post is about and it’s plenty.
Here's the relevant scene although you really need to see the whole movie to understand the significance of the moment. And my oh my if you haven’t seen Grease. And lucky for you it’s on Netflix.
OMG that thumbnail.
Since Olivia Newton John died I’ve had two tribute screenings of Grease. These are just the latest in a life-long series of viewings. I figure I’ve seen it at least fifty times and have never not enjoyed it. Each time I find something new to ponder and/or adore. One bit that always goes POW POW POW for me, and indeed everyone, is the end-of-movie transformation where Sandy moves from full-buttercup-skirted, pink-cheeked good egg to tight-black-trousered, red-lipped hoyden.
It is the pop culture moment that launched a thousand Women’s Studies 101 essays. In the movie Grease, is the character of Sandy Olsson oppressed or empowered by her metamorphosis? Discuss.
I am being trite but it’s actually a great and powerful question. It’s one against which I can trace my own feminist journey, the answer waxing and waning as I live and learn.
I've had five key Transforming-Sandy Feminism phases and here they are:
The first time I saw Grease was on the telly, probably at Christmas. It was a TV holiday staple for much of my childhood. There was no home video, no streaming and you had to wait a year between viewings. This made it a proper event (cue old lady nostalgia).
How it worked was about three weeks out from the screening, an ad for Grease would appear on the telly with ‘Channel 2 - Christmas Eve – 8.30pm’ (or whatever) plastered along the bottom and you’d start to get excited. Then two weeks out when The Listener arrived you’d circle ‘Grease’ in the TV listings, as you did with all the shows you were going to watch and then get more excited. Then ON THE DAY, because it was Christmas, you got to stay up later than usual and had two biscuits with your Milo instead of one and bought your pillow out to the lounge to be comfy and it was so exciting and actually truly amazing.
Circling your shows in the Listener. Everyone had a different colour and some pretentious wankers used highlighter.
Sandy’s transformation was one the most exciting and actually truly amazing bits of the whole experience. And even though I saw it on a small screen, Sandy was not small. She was monumental.
I have a memory of the whole thing. It was like the television dissolved and I sat tiny and crossed-legged at her actual feet, looking up. My head didn’t even reach the top of her red shoes. They were epic and her legs stretched skyward above them, bigger at the bottom and smaller at the top as is proper intimidatory optics. They were all shimmering and black. I couldn’t see Sandy’s face because it was in shadow because it was BLOCKING THE SUN. There was just a dazzling golden sunbeam halo. She was a real-life goddess and in that moment I worshipped her.
This first Sandy feminism was uncomplicated. My girl cells recognised, respected, and were drawn to the power of an amazing woman. I felt wonderment, awe and a love that was pure and true.
Throughout my teens my feminism was of the ‘Girls can do anything’ type (in fact I had the poster on my bedroom wall and it was a STATEMENT). This was Mary Wollstonecraft-style social liberalism, all about women gaining access to the things they traditionally didn’t have access to like political power (Margaret Thatcher), garages (Charlene from Neighbours), sex (Madonna) and untraditional, different definitions of ‘woman’.
Just like pineapple lumps and capital gains tax, this poster is a kiwi classic.
I was mostly interested in this last thing and was drawn particularly to a brash, confident, amazing-outfit-wearing, slightly-confusing-to-my-father, arty, public kind of lady. Cyndi Lauper was the ultimate untouchable epic amazing queen of this and because of her I wore six different earrings at a time and fluorescent socks.
Transformed Sandy fit this archetype just fine. She looked outrageous and bossed Danny around in front of everyone. She gave no fucks (except with Danny. Heh) and was part of my imaginary girl gang; me, her, Cyndi, Molly Ringwald, Barbara Kendall, and the Guerrilla Girls. Together we could rule the world!
(Yes social liberalism was (is) a problematic, systemically biased, White ideology and I wish I could say I was down with intersectionalism when I was fourteen. But I wasn’t and it would be wrong to pretend).
My third Grease feminist reckoning was the ‘Sandy changes herself for Danny’ classic.
I came upon it when I was in my early twenties. By that time I’d become more thoughtful and explicit about feminism. I was grappling with notions of power and patriarchy and got my first tattoo. Heady days. The exact moment of realisation I don’t remember. Maybe someone made a zine about it? Or I went to a lecture? Or I just came to it myself? I dunno, it was all very zeitgeisty.
Just in case you weren’t a Slater Kinney-listening, body-politics comic-making riot girl in the mid-nineties and don’t know the theory, it’s basically this: In the final scene of Grease Sandy debuts a hot sexy look, thus succumbing to social pressure and sacrificing her authentic self to be the woman of Danny’s dreams. He accepts it as his right and they sing about how much they now want each other and the whole thing is just a really shit message to women.
The nineties were when I started making my comic Nice Gravy. It was all about this fierce tough annoying often violent girl and at the time she was everything.
I no longer subscribe to this reading but I did for ages and it was legit. The Sandy sacrifice idea helped me learn lots of valuable stuff, like patriarchy is insidious and manifests in romance as well as blatant oppression; that it’s valuable to interrogate the things you love; and that stories have multiple meanings and correspondingly so do responses.
Realising this third thing was a big meta-relief because it allowed me to rage against the injustice of Sandy’s sacrifice yet continue to be a Grease fan. I could think about the movie as ‘text’ and be all staunch sisterhood. Then I could think of it as ‘story’ and be all dreamy romantic.
(This text/story thing is a tried and true have and eat your postmodern cake strategy and legitimizes many of my dodgy opinions. It rules. Let’s move on).
Sometime in my thirties my life got more complicated and I got more thoughtful and stomping along staunch feminist boundaries no longer cut it. Noticing, nuance, and navigation took over, affecting my approach to everything including Sandy and Grease.
For the first time I began to really consider pre-transformation Sandy. I shamefully realised I’d never given her any credit AT ALL. I had assumed Danny and his pals had all the power and Sandy was at their mercy. Because patriarchy. Gah! In fighting patriarchy I’d inadvertently reinforced it. I hadn’t recognised that yes, society plays a big part in shaping us but we do also have agency and fuck life and movies are complicated.
So I asked myself, ‘why did original-Sandy choose to change? Just to score Danny? Or for other reasons?’ And IT WAS FOR OTHER REASONS. There are (at least) four of them and here they are (I did go full nerd on this. At the time I was a newly anointed policy analyst and really into flexing my critical thinking chops):
1. Near the end of Grease when Sandy sits at Thunder Row watching Danny and Crater Face “racing for pinks”, the Sandra Dee Reprise plays. Its lyrics are Sandy’s thoughts and they are explicit about her desire for change. Here's part of the first verse,
Look at me, there has to be
Something more than what they see
It’s classic soul-searching - Is there 'more' to me? She’s asking herself about herself - what and where are her unexplored, complicated, scary, less respectable, potentially glorious bits? And how might she grab these and share them with the world? And it is the world she wants to share them with, not just Danny. We know this because of the word 'they'. She doesn’t sing ‘what he sees’ nut ‘what they see’ - the T-Birds, the Pink Ladies, the Scorpions (rival gang!) and everyone at Rydell High. All of them. It’s about her being everywhere, not just on Danny’s arm. In fact in the Sandra Dee Reprise Danny is not mentioned once.
Sandy's legitimate existential crisis.
Sandy's also figured out the experiences she’s had through the movie have made her different and her inside and outside no longer match. She wants to change this,
Sandy, you must start anew
Don't you know what you must do?
Hold your head high
Take a deep breath and sigh
Goodbye to Sandra Dee
To me these words are the antithesis of submission. They are honest, courageous, and resolute. Change is hard and lots of people never acknowledge the need to do it but Sandy does. She vows to sort her shit out and it is splendid.
2. Danny’s already into her. I could not find one single part in Grease where Danny Zuko demands, states, or intimates his love for Sandy rests on a cleavage and slinky-trouser make-over. In fact the movie’s full of moments where he demonstrates the opposite.
At the beach it is original Sandy Danny falls in love with. He turns jock to try and win her and when he does he happily takes her and her cardigans to the Frosty Palace Malt Shop, the Rydell High National Dance-off and a drive-in movie. Sure he has many thoughtless dork moments but there’s never any doubt that Danny loves Sandy. They have a connection and it’s quite lovely.
(Danny does go crackers when transformed Sandy turns up but so do I and so does everyone because she’s hands-down objectively smoking hot).
3. Danny makes his own sacrifice. While Sandy’s transformation is internal and complex, the Danny-becomes-jock one isn’t. Its only reason is to win her. Sandy does not change for Danny but Danny willingly, totally changes for Sandy
He’s up-front about it too. When he turns up to the end-of-school carnival in a letterman sweater and his leather-clad T-Bird mates hassle him about becoming a jock, he shrugs and says,
“Oh come on guys, you know you mean a lot to me. It’s just Sandy does too and I’m gonna do anything I can to get her”.
4. Meta-Sandy. Through the whole You’re the One That I Want scene Sandy is self-aware. It’s especially obvious in that bit where she’s not sure what to do with her cigarette and looks to her Pink Lady pals for help. In this moment original Sandy is watching new Sandy, i.e. she’s watching herself and is fully aware that she’s transforming. It’s a lovely small fake-‘til-you-make moment. She’s cheeky in the whole scene too with sparkly eyes and a knowing little grin.
So in summary, phase 4 was a more thoughtful, analytical and pro-original Sandy kind of feminism. About it I have said more than enough.
Sandy fan art. By me.
This is my current phase. It’s based on my recent Olivia Newton John tribute screenings and is very much still in development. I have noticed though that my interest is less in Sandy’s actual transformation and more in its broader context; and that I’m thinking in terms of 'gender' rather than ‘feminism’. Otherwise it’s all a tangled mess of fascinating unexplored contradictory things I have no hope right now of eloquently explaining .
Here are some:
Goodbye Sandy. You have been and always will be an excellent feminist yardstick.
I love the weird flying car ending and i don't care what you say.