“Hey, kid. You want a ride home?”
Sandy wouldn’t usually have accepted, but she found herself nodding. Betty leaned over and opened the passenger-side door.
“Not afraid to be seen with me, are you?”
“Of course not.” She stepped in, pushing aside the books and sweaters on the passenger seat. The car lurched forward, and Sandy gripped the door.
“I live on Franklin. By Water Street.”
She heard Betty snort. She had turned right, away from Water Street and away from Rydell. Sandy’s palms began to sweat. She knew, immediately, that they were going to The Overlook. No one would be there, not yet, it was still too early.
They rode in silence up into the hills. As soon as they pulled over, Betty lit a cigarette. Sandy rolled down her window and leaned her head out.
“So did you mean it?” said Betty, after a few long drags.
“Did I mean what?”
“Don’t be dumb, kid.” Betty leaned out the window and flicked the end of her cigarette out over the hill, onto the city below. Sandy sat up and put her hands in her lap.
“You want me to help you?”
I don’t know why everyone loved Grease.
There must be people who never liked it, but I have never met them. Everyone I talk to repeats a familiar chorus: it was a sleepover staple, they watched it over and over until the tape wore out, sang songs from it for their camp karaoke nights. Even those who “hate musicals” seem to have fond memories of it. (And since when is it OK to dismiss an entire art form? Yeah, sure, musicals are “unrealistic”, but more so than Hell’s Kitchen being ‘a bad neighborhood’, anyone putting up with Sherlock for more than a minute, and Aaron Samuels getting into Northwestern?) Their affection for Grease did seem to fade as they grew older and started looking at it critically, noticing the subtle racism (“You’re going with a Korean?!”), the appalling and decidedly unsubtle sexual politics (“Tell me more, tell me more, did she put up a fight?”), and the uncomfortable implications of its parting message: change who you are, and you will be happy. They’re never sure what they loved about it in the first place.
I don’t know why they loved it. I only know why I loved it.
I was nine when I first saw Grease, and I had no idea why I hadn’t seen it sooner. Not only were musicals my favorite kind of movie, this was a musical about teenagers. Maybe it was all the grown-ups telling me I’d “grow out of” everything that caused me grief as a preteen (anxiety attacks, earaches, my potbelly — none of which I ever did grow out of) or seeing all the cool things my three teenage brothers got to do, but I wanted desperately to be a teenager. I wanted to believe Grease was an accurate portrayal of what it was to be a teen.
It wasn’t because I was boy-crazy: the boys were the least interesting part of Grease. Two years earlier I had met John Travolta at a party in Danny Devito’s backyard. He had treated me kindly, and I knew he was handsome, but he was also my father’s age. Watching him in Grease was like watching a video of my favorite uncle’s best friend. Kenickie, in all his sleazy, performative masculinity, didn’t do it for me, either, and the rest of T-Birds blended into each other. It was the girls.
I wanted to be them. They fought, they insulted and mocked each other, but they thought of each other first. There was a special place in my heart for each one of them: sweet schlemiel Frenchy, goofy Jan, flirty Marty… And Rizzo. My heart beat faster every time Rizzo was on screen. It wasn’t a crush, it was something else: she felt familiar to me. Cynical, impulsive, completely allergic to pity. She had all my bad qualities, but she wore them so well. I was never going to smoke and figured (wrongly) I wouldn’t have sex until I was married, but somewhere deep inside she and I were the same. I understood her, because she was me.
Then there was Sandy. Naive, timid Sandy. She was probably my least favorite, but with good reason: she was also me.
“I might be able to help,” said Sandy, carefully.
“And what do you want from me?” Betty said.
“Aw, c’mon. You gotta want something. Put in the good word with Zuko?”
Sandy winced. “No.”
“So nothing? You just take it to the grave?”
Sandy nodded. Betty rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself.”
It’s not that Sandy and Rizzo are more alike than they seem. They have no interests or values in common, and from the very start, they’re competitors. Maybe for Danny’s affections, maybe for Frenchy’s, maybe just for the thing all teenage girls secretly want: power. Rizzo all but dedicates the first few verses of “There are Worse Things I Could Do” to Sandy. She doesn’t tease boys, she doesn’t waste away time waiting for them. She’s facing the biggest life change possible, her friends and Kenickie are useless, and everyone is talking about her, but she’s still not as pathetic as Sandy. She’s not sentimental. She’s not weak. That is the worst thing she could be.
Sandy knows she’s sentimental. She knows she has weaknesses. In her first solo song, she sings that she’s “out of her head” over a fantasy. For all the talk of Sandy’s naivety, “Hopelessly Devoted to You” is a remarkably self-aware song. But it’s self-aware self-pity. There is nothing more grating to Rizzo than self-pity — especially over a boy. Rizzo may like fooling around with boys, but she doesn’t need them. The first time they meet, Sandy tells Rizzo she met a boy who was “sort of special.” Without a beat, Rizzo tells her “There ain’t no such thing.”
I wanted to be a Rizzo. Or, at least, I wanted everyone to see me as a Rizzo. At nine, I was already halfway there: I’d stopped wearing frilly dresses and started getting into fights with the boys at school. Months before I saw Grease, I had cut my hair short in an attempt to change the way people looked at me. They saw me as “that little girl from that movie,” forever young and girly. (Never once did I consider getting rid of my bangs.) I wanted people to think I didn’t care, and to be a little afraid of me. If everyone saw me as tough, I figured, maybe they wouldn’t think I was weak.
It had been a hard year for me. I had always been an anxious child, but my mother had recently died of breast cancer, and I had never felt more alone. Every day I worried about what would happen if my father died, and I was afraid to get in serious trouble because what if he stopped loving me? Fear restrained me: I lashed out, I talked back, but I never went too far. Boundaries were for testing, but not crossing. One day, I feared, I might have my very own “Worse Things” moment, where someone might see me for what I was: a Sandy.
Sandy is, by her own admission, “scared and unsure.” She counts down the days to Winter Vacation. She gets a nervous stomach-ache at a sleepover. She passes out at the sight of blood. She’s not a prude, she’s a neurotic. And for a neurotic, structure can be a balm. There’s comfort in doing what one’s told. When Sandy doesn’t want to pierce her ears, she says the same thing I did whenever I was too scared to take a risk: “My father wouldn’t like it.”
Both Rizzo and Sandy are afraid. They don’t like each other, they’re not like each other, but while they might not want to admit it, they understand each other. Anger and fear go together like rama-lama-lama and ka-ding-a da ding-a dong.
“So you got any ideas, whiz kid?”
“There are homes for –”
“ — I can’t do that,” Betty shook her head. “I’m not going away. I can’t.”
Sandy had to stop herself from asking why. She didn’t seem to have anyone or anything here she really cared about. Or maybe she just didn’t show it.
“There are families — ladies who can’t have…” She stopped. Betty was still shaking her head.
Sandy twisted her skirt, the way her mother reprimanded her for when she was a little girl. Stop that. You’ll get it wrinkled and it looks queer.
“There are doctors,” she said, finally.
Rydell High School exists in a strange world without seasons, where it’s always either about two in the afternoon or eight at night. Grease spans August to June in a little over an hour and a half. Rizzo has unprotected sex with Kenickie thirty minutes in, tells Marty she’s pregnant about an hour and twenty minutes in, and then announces it was a “false alarm” nearly half an hour later. In the Grease timeline, that’s another month.
The timing doesn’t add up. Teenage girls often have irregular periods for the first few years after menarche, but skipping one altogether at the age of eighteen is a big deal. It’s a big enough deal for her to mention it out loud to Marty. That wasn’t a false alarm. Either Rizzo had a very convenient miscarriage, or she had an abortion. It would not be easy for a teenage girl to get an abortion in 1959, but it wouldn’t be impossible. She would, however, need help.
There weren’t many people she could turn to. Marty told half the drive-in, Frenchy had her own future to consider, Jan was too busy worrying about her weight and fooling around with Putzie (side note: this is a different essay, but I am convinced Jan was the most sexually active Pink Lady) and for whatever reasons, Rizzo clearly doesn’t want Kenickie involved. The only one who’s sympathetic, the only one she genuinely thanks for caring, is Sandy.
As a teenager, I considered myself anti-abortion, but very pro-woman. If someone I knew wanted to have an abortion, and had asked me for help, would I have helped them? I think I would have. And unlike teen me, Sandy isn’t sanctimonious. Girls who object to sex on religious grounds tend to make their concerns known; their faith is important to them. Sandy doesn’t judge Rizzo for getting pregnant. She holds herself (and maybe Danny) to a high standard, not everyone else. She’s not Patty Simcox, hurting “out of spite or jealousy.” Sandy wants to have friends and she wants to be helpful.
It’s true that Sandy is no Baby Houseman. I can’t see a girl who faints at the sight of blood accompanying Rizzo to a clinic and driving her home after. I can, very easily, see Sandy referring her to a doctor or a Vera Drake type (just because you don’t personally experience a lot doesn’t mean you don’t hear about it), or even more likely, giving her the money she needs to find one on her own.
Opposites don’t always attract, but they often make a good team. Rizzo is smart, but acts before she thinks. Sandy is less clever, but more thoughtful. Rizzo won’t ever like Sandy. Sandy won’t ever like Rizzo. They won’t be friends, but they could be allies. Their impossibility as friends makes it even more likely: if the truth got out, who would believe it?
“Have you had appendicitis?”
“Yeah, it’s out.”
“Shit, I’ve had the Asiatic flu, I’ve had everything –”
“– Have you had the Chicken Pox?”
“You do now.”
“You can tell him you got your weeks wrong.”
A lot has been made of Sandy’s makeover. Is she betraying herself? Selling out? Will it be necessary to have to make another high school musical movie twenty-eight years later so kids will know it’s OK to be themselves? Or is it a good thing? Is Sandy claiming her own agency and sexuality? Is it symbolic of the upcoming paradigm shift, the restrictive Fifties giving way to the libertine Sixties? Or is it symbolic of the bourgeoisie co-opting the culture of the proletariat for its own uses?
To answer your question, I don’t know.
I do know that I never saw Sandy’s change as anything more than superficial. When I cut my hair at age nine, I thought it would embolden me. It didn’t. I was just as soft and scared as I had always been. So it is with Sandy: she changes the way she looks and dresses, but she still looks to Marty to make sure she’s smoking correctly. She has cast off one set of rules and expectations for another. She is what I was, a Sandy in Rizzo’s clothing.
“Do you want me to leave it in your car or your locker? Or…”
“Or you can stop by my house. I… If you give me your telephone number I can call you, and then…”
“–When your folks aren’t home — “
“–You can come by.”
“Alright then.” Betty flipped up the collar on her coat. “Let’s get you home before dark, kid.” She made a reach for her Lucky Strikes, but Sandy got them first.
“Could you maybe… show me how?”
Mara Wilson's debut book Where Am I Now? will be available through Viking/Penguin Books in Fall 2016. She writes at MaraWilsonWritesStuff.com, hosts her show What Are You Afraid Of? in New York City, and ruins childhoods all over the internet.