It took me a long time before I was able to love Grease. It’s so confusingly gay — even for a musical — that it was difficult for me to understand as a child why it was supposed to be a good thing that Danny and Sandy eventually started touching one another. It took reaching adulthood before I was finally able to appreciate it on its own merits.
Grease is the movie you would get if you had three hours to explain the concept of camp and 30 seconds to explain the concept of heterosexuality to a race of aliens that can only reproduce homosexually. So there’s some mixed messages in it. The women are all roughed-up looking toughs in their 40s, all eyeliner and cigarettes and sun-damaged and wobbling in their wedges, ready to punch a guy in the face if he looks at them cock-eyed; the men are all greased-up dandies who don’t know what sex is. You could very easily recast Grease with drag queens as the Pink Ladies and drag kings as the T-birds (I’m thinking Ivan and the butch mechanics from season 1 of The L Word) without sacrificing anything. Gender Studies majors could keep the academy going for another twenty years on the strength of the Greased Lightning scene alone, which makes the “Playing With The Boys” volleyball sequence from Top Gun look like heterosexual pornography.
But it’s Frenchy and Rizzo that make up Grease‘s true, gay heart that lies beating somewhere under a few inches of pomade and leather. It doesn’t hurt that the design for Rizzo’s character was apparently “Remember the Beebo Brinker Chronicles? That.”
Rizzo is the platonic ideal of the 1950s butch — she’s mouthy and she’s a rebel but somewhere underneath it she’s all marshmallow. Give her the chance to be a gentleman, and she’ll take it. Her big number is basically The Ballad of The Stone Butch:
I don’t steal and I don’t lie / But I can feel and I can cry / A fact I bet you never knew / But to cry in front of you / That’s the worst thing I could do.
I mean, sure, she’s singing the song because she thinks she’s pregnant from a big old dollop of male sperm, but *waves hands about vaguely* it’s still stone cold stone butch. This is not a woman who sits around mooning over some wet-haired idiot who looks like Bobby from The Brady Bunch a few years out of puberty. Rizzo is a dyke, and I mean that in the absolutely most complimentary sense imaginable. The other girls carry purses. Rizzo tucks a pocketbook under her arm. The other girls ride on the side. Rizzo drives her own car. She doesn’t walk, she struts. She doesn’t chew gum, she pops it. She doesn’t sit down, she sprawls along the bench. She takes up space and she doesn’t apologize for it. You tell me it’s an accident her character has the same name as Dustin Hoffman’s male hustler in Midnight Cowboy. Go ahead. Tell me it’s a coincidence. I’ll wait.
While everyone else is in tweed and and cardigans and pink jackets, Rizzo’s the only girl who wears all black. She’s Pink Lady on the outside, T-bird on the inside. She’s at least 47 years old and I love her.
You look at this mise-en-scene and tell me I’m supposed to buy Rizzo and Kiniecke together.
Kiniecke’s leather jacket is off. Rizzo’s leather jacket is on. The two of them practically have the same haircut. Frenchy sits patiently in the corner, a pop of color waiting to come out from hiding under that scarf. That is not a picture of a girl with her boyfriend and a good pal sitting around at the end of dinner. That is the picture of a butch waiting for her beard to get the hint and scram so the real date can get underway.
And Frenchy! Loveable, dim, loyal Frenchy. She’s everything that is lovely about the femme, who on first blush looks cousin to the straight girl but is in fact her own coy, wonderful species. (“Femme is perpetually misunderstood and remains cloaked in silence and invisibility. Femme is a glitter-filled explosion of the gender binary.”) Lest we forget one of her first lines to Sandy:
Men are rats, listen to me, they’re fleas on rats, worse than that, they’re amoebas on fleas on rats. I mean, they’re too low for even the dogs to bite. The only man a girl can depend on is her daddy.
I MEAN. Oh, and the fights simmering just below the surface between the two of them — is there a more classic setup than the baby butch who feels initially confused and resentful by her femme’s relationship to straight girls? Frenchy takes a shine to Sandy right away and Rizzo can’t stand it. She even experiments with femme drag at the emotionally-fraught slumber party during “Look At Me”, as if to ask Frenchy You really like this? You really like girls like this? Fine. I can do it too.
It’s both a clumsy attempt to connect and a bit of a warning: Don’t go looking for someone else too far afield. I’ll follow you.
Also, Principal McGee and her assistant Blanche are totally doing it. This isn’t really related to the Rizzo-Frenchy relationship, but it’s important for me to point out that they are totally doing it. Principal McGee went to Smith, and they share an apartment together, and they are totally doing it.
Once Rizzo realizes that Frenchy’s not looking for a femme-on-femme escapade, she relaxes around Sandy considerably, content to mostly shake her head at her weird Australian antics. And her scenes with Frenchy are the most vibrant, touching, sweet, realistically sexually charged scenes in the entire movie, everyone else’s leather-clad hip-flinging notwithstanding. Riz is tender with Frenchy, even though she’s a little slow. She’s considerate, she’s relaxed, she laughs. There’s some hasty, messy making out with Kiniecke at the end of the movie once she reveals she’s not actually pregnant, but we all saw who she got on the Ferris wheel with, and it wasn’t a boy. She took the ride with Frenchy.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.