People watching the movie Grease
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Seeing Grease With My Son Opened My Eyes To How Problematic It Is

Oct 8, 2018

Grease was the first movie I saw in the theatre without my parents. My mother fretted about whether to let me go with the second-grade classmate who had invited me. Ultimately, though, she gave her permission — but only after rounding up my brother and one of his third-grade buddies to join us. Safety in numbers, I guess.

In short, 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.

Back then, I wasn’t particularly worried about safety. I was enthralled by the songs, the pretty girls and the good-looking boys in their matching jackets, their apparent lack of parents, the slumber parties.

I fell hard for Grease in grade two, and carried a torch for the film for decades afterwards. I played the LP on repeat on my parents’ stereo. I knew, and still know, all the words to all the songs. The opening chords of Summer Nights activate some visceral, well-worn groove in my brain, one that signals childhood, one that makes me smile every time.

So when, in celebration of its 40th anniversary this year, Grease appeared in a limited run on the silver screen, I rounded up my 10-year-old son, plus a few friends and their kids, to go see it. Yes, I knew by now that the film’s messages are outdated and slightly problematic. But the movie, I reasoned, was a product of its time, and the problematic moments could serve as gateways to productive discussions about being true to yourself and gender roles and safer sex. It was only a movie. A movie I hadn’t seen in years.


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I’d forgotten a lot, as it turned out. Like the moment in the film’s first scenes when Putzie, one of the T-Birds, lies on his back in the bleachers in order to look up the poodle skirts of a couple of unwitting classmates. My fellow mom-friend and I looked at each other and grimaced. “Ew,” I whispered.

“But right now, for just this moment,” I continued, “we will suspend all judgment.” I leaned back into my seat as Summer Nights — the song of my youth — began.

But, you know? It's awfully hard, in 2018, to groove to lyrics like “Did she put up a fight?” Not at all loosely translated, what Kenickie is actually asking is, “Did she have sex with you willingly, or did you have to rape her?”

For these pseudo-1950s high-school boys, it’s an entirely legitimate question. The fact that it’s still, today, an entirely legitimate question for vast swaths of not only high-school boys, but their university-age and so-called grown-up counterparts — for, say, CEOs and Hollywood producers and, oh, the leader of the free world — is, well, choose your adjective: sickening, depressing, painful, exhausting.

I didn’t take my kid to Grease so that we could later have earnest discussions about rape culture and racism and safer sex.

It continues. Slimy TV host Vince Fontaine tries to roofie Marty. Craterface offers to pay Kenickie a quarter for Rizzo. A drunk Sonny manhandles Sandy off the dance floor. There are the disparaging references to hookers, the not-so-subtle homophobia, the philosophical discussions among the T-Birds about how, given that “Girls are only good for one thing,” what ought to be done with them for the other 23 hours and 45 minutes of the day? I counted three people of colour in the entire movie, which well may have been an accurate representation of a segregated American high school in the '50s, but still rankled.

In short, 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.

It’s not worth pondering whether my mom should’ve let me see Grease without adult supervision, let alone see the movie at all. She did, making a considered parental decision with the information she had at the time, which is the best any of us can do.

It is worth pondering, though, whether 40 years later, I should have taken my 10-year-old to see it. Certainly, the movie afforded us a couple of teaching moments. “Look,” I said on the car ride home, turning around to the back seat to face him, “if you’re ever going to have sex with someone and the condom breaks, you have to stop.”

“I know,” he said, mildly.

“And the way that men talk about women in that movie—”

“I know,” he said again, with only slightly more ennui. “It’s sexist.”


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It’s not so much that I regret exposing my child to the vulgarity of Grease. I’m not interested in censoring his cultural experiences. I need my children to know that the world was and still is highly imperfect, and to be enraged enough by those imperfections to be moved to action.

But here’s the thing: I didn’t take my kid to Grease so that we could later have earnest discussions about rape culture and racism and safer sex. I took him to Grease because I have harboured a lifelong love for the movie and I wanted to share that love with him.

It's awfully hard, in 2018, to groove to lyrics like 'Did she put up a fight?'

(For the record, he didn’t love it. His best friend summed it up best as we walked out of the theatre: “It was boring and inappropriate and if high school is really like that I’m going to freak out.”)

What I do regret is that I let my nostalgia override my values. I regret that I was willing to suspend judgment because I wanted to enjoy the culture of my youth, untarnished by my grown-up moral standards. I had more information than my mom, and the benefit of hindsight. In my defence, I hadn’t remembered accurately the levels of misogyny and the sheer number of #MeToo moments in the film, but, you know? I’ve known all of the words to Summer Nights for four decades now, and I was still willing to overlook them for the sake of a good time.

Parents for generations have imposed their own nostalgia on their kids and been slightly too invested in whether they enjoy it. That way, generally, lies disappointment, but not outright harm. What’s potentially harmful is the imposition of a nostalgia that reinforces values at stark odds with the basic rights, dignity and safety of all human beings.

I’m not sure what my nine-year-old brother might have protected me from at that suburban movie theater in 1978. In any case, back then, we all emerged  more or less unscathed from the experience — if just a little more indoctrinated into a world of misogyny that, 40 years later, too many of us are still struggling to inhabit.

Article Author Susan Goldberg
Susan Goldberg

Read more from Susan here.

Susan Goldberg is a freelance writer, essayist, editor and blogger. Her articles and essays have been featured in, among others, Ms., the Globe and Mail, Today’s Parent, Advisor’s Edge, Corporate Knights and Stealing Time magazines, as well as in several anthologies, a variety of parenting and lifestyle websites, and on the CBC. She is co-editor of the award-winning anthology And Baby Makes More: Known Donors, Queer Parents, and Our Unexpected Families. Susan is one of approximately 30 Jews in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where she lives with her sons and a changing cast of cats. Read more at susanlgoldberg.com.

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