Grease, Olivia Newton-john, John Travolta (Image: Rex/Shutterstock)

    In defence of Grease

    6 January 2021

    One of my relatively new but already beloved annual rituals brought fresh enjoyment this year – that of browsing the festive TV schedules and predicting not just where the biggest collision would occur between re-runs of nostalgic family favourites and contemporary sensibilities, but how heavy-footed the attempts by nervous broadcasters to tip-toe between the two would prove.

    Sure enough, I got to raise my Baileys with the introduction to a 2005 BBC documentary about the making of The Fairytale Of New York. This hour-long hero-gram to ‘one of the most remarkable songs in pop history’ was somewhat flattened on entry by the announcer reminding us this was a programme ‘made before recent controversies’. Perhaps a fresh documentary exploring the dilemma of outdated lyrics in popular music would have been more enlightening? Certainly less lily-livered.

    Then I got to choke on a green triangle after a fresh warning that the 1971 feature-length Dad’s Army might offend with ‘discriminatory language’. This could have been either down to the Nazi references or – reach for those garlic salts – calling French people ‘frogs’.

    Things got even more ridiculous this weekend with the Pink News’s report that viewers on social media had called for the cancellation of Grease – yes, the one you’re thinking of – on the grounds that it was variously ‘homophobic’, ‘slut-shaming’, ‘misogynistic’, ‘pro-bullying’ and ‘overly white’.

    Where to begin in an attempt to defend a light-hearted film made in 1978, set in 1958, about high school capers, cars and the tireless battle between teenage boys’ hormones and girls’ hearts?

    The accusations of homophobia presumably derive from the televised dance hall competition which didn’t permit same sex couples. The setting is 1950s California, where homosexuality wasn’t legal until 1976, the ink still drying on legislation when the film was released two years later. These critics could decide not to be offended, and celebrate instead the progress made, but where’s the fun in that?

    The college dance, Image: Rex/Shutterstock

    Even more baffling are the cries of misogyny circling around Sandy’s surrender to the patriarchy with her dramatic final vampish makeover that brings Danny to his knees. As in every fairytale from Cinderella to Miss Congeniality, her transformation is equally a metaphor for fresh confidence and self-determination, and let’s not forget super-slicked Danny has previously pledged to give up his leathers and become a cardiganned jock for her. Of course, this being 1950s America, the real joke is that Danny would have had his larks with vampish Sandy and then, no doubt, gone on to marry someone more similar to the hair-banded version. In real life, I mean, which this is not.

    Most depressing of all is the complaint of bullying, due to scenes including Rizzo’s mickey take of Sandra Dee because she’s ‘too pure to be Pink’. Sandy’s vulnerabilities are obvious, Rizzo’s more gradually revealed to us. What is this story without the initial chasm between them? Do we really need to spell out the beats of this narrative arc, of such a universal rite of passage of finding your own way through friendships and romance? In doing so we’d remove all the fun and magic of Grease in the process.

    Every character is sweet in parts, horrible in others and finding their way. Even angelic Sandy ditches sweet jock Tom for Danny, only to strand the latter at the drive-in. We know teenagers are fun but fickle. We’ve all been one.

    Clearly, Grease won’t be cancelled any time soon. The criticism amounts to not much more than Boxing Day boredom. The offence-seeking radars of the culture warriors are now set to such a low sensitivity that barely a film made before the last two years will pass across their antennae without the indignation buzzer going off.

    By adding titles like Grease to their list of complaints, they’re making themselves risible. To be offended by everything is as indiscriminating as being offended by nothing – of no value.

    Meanwhile, a world where Grease is cancelled, and somehow Grease 2 isn’t? The very thought gives me chills and, yes, they’re multiplying.